Israel, day 2

(Jerusalem) I am here on a political study tour; our main business is a large number of meetings with experts and representatives of various sectors of Israeli and Palestinian society. I won’t try to narrate the whole trip but will touch on selected themes.

An Arab Christian Israeli Justice who can’t sing “Hatikvah”

One of the people whom we met today was Justice Salim Joubran of the Israeli Supreme Court, who (among his many other distinctions) is the only Arab member of the court. He has been criticized in some quarters for standing but not singing along with the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” whose words include: “As long as in the heart, within / A Jewish soul still yearns, / And … an eye still gazes toward Zion; /Our hope is not yet lost …/ To be a free people in our land.”

Earlier in the same day, we had visited the national Holocaust museum and memorial, Yad Vashem, where “Hatikvah” plays the following central role. Near the entrance, one sees footage of a group of Jewish children in Eastern Europe in the year 1930, singing that song. One then passes through a powerful chronological exhibition about the Shoah, in which all of those children were murdered. At the end of the exhibition, the light that has been visible in the distance turns out to be a view of Jerusalem itself, and “Hatikvah” is heard. The implications are left unstated, and any specific formulation would prove controversial even among Israelis, but it seems implied that the children’s hope was redeemed by the formation of the State of Israel. Or perhaps Israel is the redemption of their hopes.

But of course, their hope is not Justice Joubran’s, nor could it be. Twenty percent of the citizen population are not Jews. Mr. Joubran’s presence on the Israeli Supreme Court helps confer legitimacy on the Israeli justice system, especially because he is a passionate defender of that system. He insisted to us that Jews and Arabs not only live together in Israel, they enjoy living together.

Here are three ways of thinking about this:

  1. Jews were killed in Europe because there was no Jewish state to protect them. The state of Israel is and must be Jewish. That can be true if a few Muslims and Christians hold public office (which has been the case since 1948), but “Hatikvah” must express the national creed. An Arab Israeli official should at least stand in respect for the song (as Justice Joubran does), and perhaps a clear majority of voters and officials should always actually endorse its words.
  2. The Jews were killed because they were Jews. Who are Jews?–the people who hold the “hope of two thousand years”: a Jewish state in Zion. Thus Israel was a spiritual, redemptive response to the Holocaust. This is a different premise from #1 but it leads to a similar conclusion.
  3. Jews were killed in Europe because the institutions and norms that protect human rights failed. Liberal democratic states (and citizens committed to preserve those states) are needed to prevent human rights abuses. Israel is an answer to the Holocaust if and only if it is a liberal democratic state that treats all its citizens equally without respect to creed and ethnicity, where the leaders represent the population, and where everyone has unfettered freedom of conscience.

In what sense is Jerusalem an old city?

Today, I stepped into the space where Jesus is said to have been buried and then walked close to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. Those are old places. Everyone insists that Jerusalem is old, and that is true in some respects. Everywhere you look, important events happened (or are believed to have happened) long ago. Also, anywhere you dig, you’re going to find layer upon layer of human settlement.

But most of the actual buildings are new. The city expanded about seven-fold in the 1900s, necessitating much new construction. Almost all of the Christian churches and monasteries–very prominent features on the cityscape–were built after 1870 (which would make them relatively new in Boston). Even in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, founded by St. Helen in the 4th century, the walls are much newer and most of the furnishings and decorations were added after 1850.

This is because the city has been relentlessly flattened. I am reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem; A Portrait. I’m only up to the beginning of the Common Era, and already Jerusalem has been raised to the ground at least eight times. That process has never stopped; for example, the Jordanians raised the Jewish quarter of the Old City in 1948, and Israelis still knock down old buildings today. The result is a comparative lack of major old buildings compared to other Mediterranean cities that were capitals centuries ago.

The fact that the city has been flattened so many times is not by itself unusual. My guidebook says that the relatively little known town of Beit She’an sits on top of 18 previous cities, each ruined or abandoned. And the same could be said of many other places in Europe and Asia. But there is a difference. In Jerusalem, people care very deeply about the buildings that are gone. This started in the Babylonian captivity, when the Jews made a central metaphor of their lost city and destroyed Temple. That was really the beginning of Judaism. Their metaphor had at least four important features: the place was endowed with enormous significance, a destroyed structure was treated as supremely holy, its destruction was understood as punishment for sin, and the fact that another people now owned the place was viewed as sacrilege. That set the pattern for how Jews and the other Abrahamic faiths have always viewed this city.

In short, in Jerusalem, it’s not the physical structures that are old. It’s the ghosts of the former buildings that make the city ancient.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.