Monday, February 17, 2014

Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

At 544 pages, Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore looked a little daunting. It was. I’m proud to say I finished it, but it was a long hard slug. I think the unfamiliarity with the history and names between the Biblical time and modern time bogged me down.

That being said, I definitely learned a lot about the history of the city of Jerusalem. 

Montefiore begins the story in the beginning. He begins with Joshua’s conquering of Canaan and march towards Jerusalem. However, he states early on that while he doesn’t find the Bible reliable as a source, it’s pretty much all we have. (He uses the two “contradictory” creation stories found in Genesis as one proof of this assertion. Strike one against him in my book. My bias is showing!). Yet he follows Biblical history and moves quickly into King David’s capture of Jerusalem. “After an extraordinary career that united the Israelites in cast Jerusalem as God’s city, David died, having ordered Solomon to build the Temple on Mount Moriah.” From this history the Jews have claimed Jerusalem as their heritage ever since.

Shortly after Solomon’s death, the kingdom of Israel split into Israel and Judah. The two tribes of Judah retained Jerusalem as their capital. The ten tribes of the northern Israel were conquered by the Assyrians and lost to history. The Kingdom of Judah remained, forming the basis of modern Jewish history. Later this southern kingdom was likewise conquered, but by the Babylonians who destroyed Solomon’s Temple. It was these exile conditions that turned the Jews into a distinct people. “Away from Judah, the Judaens were becoming Jews.” When the Persians conquered Babylon, Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and their homeland. Nehemiah led the rebuilding efforts and successfully defended Jerusalem against neighboring warlords. 

Soon Persia was crushed and Israel found itself under a new empire. Alexander the Great conquered the known world, but dying young, left the region of Israel in the hands of his general Ptolemy. “Jerusalem remained a semi-independent statelet within Ptolemy’s empire... She was not just a political entity but God’s own city ruled by the high priest.” But caught between the Ptolemy dynasty and that of the more northern Seleucid kingdom, Israel would be constantly under attack. Enter a Macedonian challenger, bent on reclaiming the whole of Alexander’s Empire, Antiochus the Great.  His son, Antiochus Epiphanes, would conquer Jerusalem and commit the infamous Abomination of Desolation, desecrating the Temple built by Nehemiah. The Maccabeans scored the famous victory celebrated by Hanukkah, but their power was short-lived.

Another empire, the Roman empire, soon entered the picture and ruled over Israel. They set up a lackey figure, Herod, as a puppet governor. The family of this half-breed Jew would continue to reign for generations. The cunning family knew how to pull the levers of power and ingratiated itself into with whoever was currently heading Rome. 

Into this cauldron of power struggles Jesus is born. Looking at the magnificent temple, rebuilt and remodeled by Herod, Jesus proclaimed, “And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the  desolation thereof is nigh... Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.” Jesus foresaw a cataclysmic future for Jerusalem in which the temple was destroyed and the city was in the hands of the Gentiles for some period of time. Yet He appears to prophecy a day at the end of that time when the city would return into Jewish hands. Sure enough, in AD 70, the Romans, in order to quell a Jewish rebellion, destroy the Temple and send the Jews on a world wide diaspora. The gentiles owned Jerusalem. But the scattered Jews vowed year after year at the Passover celebration, “Next year in Jerusalem.” The dream never died.

But the Roman empire would not last forever either. A few hundred years later the empire split in two. Constantine took the reins of the eastern half, and became a Christian. His devout mother traveled to Jerusalem to visit the city where Jesus walked. She led a Christian devotion to the ancient city that exists to this day. As the Christian Roman empire battled to hold onto its land with the neighboring Arabs and Persians, “Jerusalem was about to suffer a rollercoaster epoch that would see her ruled by four different religions in twenty-five years: Christian, Zoroastrian, Jewish and Muslim.” 

The Persians triumphed in the region, but their reign over Jerusalem would soon be contested by the perennial assaults the Christian crusaders, anxious to return the Holy city to Christian hands. Throughout the history of the Crusades, Jerusalem would become ground zero of a perpetual tug-of-war between Christians and Muslims. In fact, because Jerusalem had become holy to the Jews, Christians and Muslims, many times, whoever was in power had to figure out a way to share the city peacefully. Since the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock sit where the Jews Temple once was, many Muslim overlords made sure to allow Jews and Christians times and places to worship in and around these Islamic treasures. Jerusalem would see itself overrun and disrupted time and again over the next several centuries. Peace was a chimera as the three biggest groups of believers, as well as smaller sects like the Armenians, constantly fought for control and access to the holy places. Religious pilgrims constantly flooded the city, leading to chaos and cacophony, while experiencing moving religious awakenings for those who basked in the holiness of the rubble.

This is the part of the book that became overwhelming to me. The writing was brilliant, and the research top-notch, but I simply couldn’t keep track of which faction was which and who was in charge. Basically, I believe that after short-lived Christian victories in the area during the Crusades, the Muslims and specifically the Ottoman Empire came to control Palestine. Some of the rulers were fair, others mistreated the minorities within their borders. But at no time did the Jews control their ancient capital. In fact, while a small contingent of Jews have always lived in Jerusalem, the Jewish concerns became quite secondary to those of the warring Christians and Muslims. 

By the 1600s, Puritan Christians in England began to take up the cause of the Jewish people, torn from their homeland centuries prior. This nascent Zionist movement believed the return of Christ would not occur until the Jews returned to Israel and were converted to Christianity. They glorified Jerusalem and imagined the prophesied return of the Chosen. “As the real Jerusalem decayed, the imaginary Jerusalem ignited Western dreams, encouraged by napoleon’s nasty little Middle eastern war, the decline of the Ottomans -- and the book that Chateaubriand wrote when he got home. His Itinerary from Paris to Jerusalem set the tone of the European attitude to the Orient with its cruel but inept Turks, wailing Jews, and primitive but ferocious Arabs who tended to congregate in picturesque poses.” The Zionist fever swept over Britain and soon “a belief in a sacred return of the Jews to accelerate the Second Coming was almost British government policy.” The Prime Minister of the U.K., Benjamin Disraeli believed the best thing to do was buy the land from the Ottomans and restore it to the Jews.

Once again, Christians began flooding into the Holy Land. This time, not as Crusaders, but as evangelists and reformers. The 1800s saw a rise not only in British Protestant evangelism to the Jews, but in Russians protecting the Orthodox and the French protecting the Catholics. Quickly, the city took on international importance as many European nations, all of whom proclaimed Jerusalem under their protection, sent consuls and officials to meddle and reconfigure Jerusalem to suit their own vision. The tensions in the Holy City played out in the Crimean war against Russia by the British and the French. As the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the European nations fought a world war for control of the region. At this time, wealthy Jews from around the world began to take an interest in restoring their homeland and helping their besieged brethren. The Jews of Jerusalem had been relegated to potential converts or poverty cases. International Jews sought to rectify this injustice and create a strong Jewish faction in the city.

“Throughout her history, Jerusalem existed in the imagination of devotees who lived faraway in America or Europe. Now that these visitors were arriving on steamships in their thousands, they expected to find the exotic and dangerous, picturesque and authentic images they had imagined with the help of their Bibles, their Victorian stereotypes of race, and once they arrived, their translators and guides.” The real Jerusalem of the Arabs and Sephardic Jews was dismissed.  

As anti-Semitic violence grew in Europe at the turn of the century, leading Jews concluded they could not be safe without a homeland. The victims of pogroms, with visions of a utopian Jewish nation began to make their way to Palestine to organize a Zionist nation. One such Zionist, Dr. Chaim Weizmann was able to speak with the most powerful British ministers and win the backing of Britain for a radical plan - to carve out a Jewish nation from the ruins of the declining Ottoman Empire. As WWI commenced, it became in the best interests of the British to make Zionism their official policy. They needed the Jews of Russia and America to keep their respective countries on the side of Britain and against the Germans and their Ottoman allies. By the end of the war, the British troops had routed the Ottoman troops of Jerusalem and controlled the city.

Of course, in Jerusalem, nothing is easy. Riots broke out when the resident Arabs refused to surrender. After Britain regained control, established the Mandate and quieted the city, immigration exploded, both of Arabs and Jews. The large influx of Jews upset the delicate balance the city had enjoyed while the Jews were a small, persecuted minority. A new power-sharing arrangement was in order, but both sides became more entrenched in their respective desire to control the land. The unrest among the Arabs and Jews led the British to try to limit the Jewish immigration and offer the Palestinians their own state. This infuriated the Zionists under Ben-Gurion and was rejected by the Arabs. Now each group had a reason to hate each other as well as their British overlords. British attempts to stop the flood of Jewish immigrants into the territory in order to quell the rage of the Arabs occurred exactly when the Jews most needed the protection of a homeland - 1939. 

World War II raged in Palestine as well as the rest of the world. The British found Jerusalem to be ungovernable as the warring factions continued to attack them and each other. Once the war was over, and the horrors of the Holocaust known, the UN formed a committee to determine the fate of Palestine. David Ben-Gurion announced to the world, “The Declaration of the establishment of the State of... Israel. The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. We did it!” While the Jews of Jerusalem were overjoyed to be granted a UN sanctioned homeland, even one with indefensible borders, the Arabs immediately rejected the UN’s authority to carve up the land. The British departed, leaving the Jews to their fate. 

The surrounding Arab nations immediately attacked. After a nothing-short-of-a-miracle victory in the modestly named Six-Day War, the Jews settled into the business of governing their first sovereign homeland in almost 2000 years. The city of Jerusalem proper presented a challenge. While it was controlled by the Jews, the Arab holy sites sat on the Temple mount. The Israelis decided to give control of the mount to the Arabs while keeping the Western Wall for the Jews. After subsequent battle to retain their sovereignty over the land, the situation of the Jewish nation remains essentially unchanged.

Montefiore sums us the history of Jerusalem thusly: For 1,000 years, Jerusalem ws exclusively Jewish; for about 400 years,Christian; for 1,300 years, Islamic; and not one of the three faiths ever gained Jerusalem without the sword, the mangonel or the howitzer.

To me, the astonishing thing is that the Jews finally regained their homeland after thousands of years out of power. The Bible prophecies this would happen. "So the LORD gave Israel all the land which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they possessed it and lived in it. And the LORD gave them rest on every side, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers, and no one of all their enemies stood before them; the LORD gave all their enemies into their hand.” Joshua 21:43-44 Today some Christians claim the prophecy is not quite fulfilled because they do not have “rest on every side.” But I believe that today’s Israel is the most secure it has ever been in its 3,000 year history. Their army is feared and respected around the world. They have nuclear technology. Their scientists and engineers consistently rise to the top, world-wide. They have never had this level of control over their destiny since the time of Solomon. 

I think these verses sum it up:
      "Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things?
       Shall the Earth be made to give birth in one day?
       Or shall a nation be born at once?
       For as soon as Zion was in labor, she gave birth to her children."
       (Isaiah 66:8)   
     "He will set up a banner for the nations,
       and will assemble the outcasts of Israel,
       and gather together the dispersed of Judah
       from the four corners of the Earth."   
       (Isaiah 11:12)

     "Thus says the Lord God:
     ' Surely I will take the children of Israel
       from among the nations,
       wherever they have gone,
       and will gather them from every side
       and bring them into their own Land."
       (Ezekiel 37:21) 
     "And you, son of man, prophesy to the mountains of Israel,
       and say, ‘O mountains of Israel,
       hear the Word of the LORD ...’"
     "But you, O mountains of Israel,
       you shall shoot forth your branches
       and yield your fruit to My people Israel,
       for they are about to come . . ."
     "For I will take you (the children of Israel) from among the nations,
       gather you out of all countries,
       and bring you into your own Land."
       (Ezekiel 36:1, 8, 24)

     "Thus says the Lord GOD:
      ‘Surely I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, 
       wherever they have gone,
       and will gather them from every side
       and bring them into their own Land;’"

       (Ezekiel 37:21)