The City Does Not Belong to its Inhabitants
A letter from Jerusalem
I love Jerusalem. I was born to the city; the eleventh generation of my family to be born there. My spirituality and lyricism begin and end with feeling the pulse of Jerusalem in ways that defy secular logic, in ways that I believe would make people who read this piece puzzled, for they themselves are secular and see that the new God is either money or the state. Pre-Israel, a Jewish majority in Jerusalem — which has been the case since the 1860s — was not achieved through national hostility towards the Palestinian residents, but through a religious persistence of the Jews that lived in Jerusalem and viewed it as a holy place. Of course, this does not suggest that “Jerusalem is Jewish.” This phrase is not only problematic to the ears of the non-Jewish residents of Jerusalem, but also to the rest of the Christian and Muslim world. Jerusalem is holy to all three Abrahamic religions. At many times I enjoyed living in the city, feeling said holiness in ways that I could not explain. And because I hold Jerusalem to be a holy city, any conversation about its “ownership,” its “sovereignty,” or who it “belongs to” is absurd to me.
The holy is that which people have no control over: it is found only in the sovereignty of God and is unobtainable in the physical realm, which is what is described as “mortal” and is limited to people. Jerusalem is holy. That is why it was not the sovereign city of any tribe in the ancient kingdom of Israel. That is also why its Jewish residents (so wrote Rabbi Illay Ofran) have no permission to rent their homes to pilgrims, but rather must give them for free — “for it is not their own”; meaning the city is not of its inhabitants. And so does Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz interpret: “No person has an estate settlement in the city.” And why? Because Jerusalem does not belong to anyone. The Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal once wrote, “the holy is whatever can not be instrumentalized.” Whenever something is instrumentalized, when ownership is claimed over it, it is profaned and secularized: it is transformed into a vessel, it is made into something that should serve us and not something that should be served.
Thus the tragedy of the religious Jewish people in Israel is that the national perception of the Israelis has overwhelmed their religious perception. Religious Jews who keep Mitzvah celebrate the sovereignty of the state over Jerusalem and do not understand that by doing so they strip the city of its holiness, at least for them. They turn Jerusalem into a tool for their desire to control. To give a further sense of the instrumentalization of Jerusalem, consider that the Jewish religious public and its leadership portray the political problem of Jerusalem as a religious problem, and thus lend a hand to the secularization of Judaism, turning the religion from the worship of God to the cult of the national.
There is, moreover, an undeniable fetishization of Jerusalem. It is fetishized as a source of a magical protective power and has become an object of fixation, of obsessive devotion and irrational reverence. The fetishization of Jerusalem is not rooted in its holiness alone, but in its commodity value as well – a concept that is well known to the Marxist enthusiasts among us. The collective compulsion to take an object and create the possibility of commerce by placing a certain value on it — a price tag, a net worth— gives it a commodity value. Thus, the fetishized object (in this case Jerusalem), becomes an unreachable impossibility as it is the construct of a consciousness: we may always reach but never obtain. As the saying goes, “in an era of consumerism” the holy is no longer what cannot be commodified but what has already been commodified because of, not in spite of, its holiness.
By this logic, there exists only commodified holiness. Holiness is always filled with purposeful ideology because it has become impossible to simply acknowledge it as a thing in and of itself. As Marx said, “all that is holy is profaned.” This representation of the commodified Jerusalem is presented, although not fully, but additionally, throughout social media on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on. Social media is the venue in which a narrative of ownership is crafted and transmitted. This happens while keeping the commodity worth of Jerusalem alive by the economic means of those media, whether it be likes, shares, or comments. Such economic means do not only create commodity value, but also an emotional worth. This theatre, which invites immense slacktivism on the one hand and moral kitsch on the other, does not closen Jerusalem to those who view it, but rather distances the two, and causes Jerusalem to be a political simulacrum.
In light of the fact that this piece is written to a vast crowd of “little Rousseaus” on this – the Bard College Berlin – campus (and I’d like to thank my former Constitution class professor, Michael Weinman, for this expression), they might say that the matter of Jerusalem has nothing to do with religion, but rather with nationality; in that reality, Palestinians have the right over Jerusalem. In here, we return to the term that is discussed every morning, afternoon, and evening — the right over this city. The answer to such enquiries should be immediate: no nation has any right over any land. Here I am not only referring to the Jewish people and the land that they call Israel or to the Palestinian people and the land that they call Palestine, but rather to all lands and all peoples. I would like to paraphrase the Jewish philosopher and political theorist Yeshayahu Leibowitz by asking: What is the right of the Swedish people over Sweden? The answer is that they have no right over Sweden — except for that ten million Swedish people possess the mental consciousness that that land is their own and they are its children. And that connection is incomparably deeper than any right. For a right is something that can be (and has been) bargained over and debated about.
Still, there seems to be no refuge from a consciousness. To reiterate, nations have no rights, only the individual does — in both the moral and the judiciary meaning. In other words, a nation is not an entity but a collective consciousness and is not an objective reality or quantifiable data. When one doubts the existence of the “Israeli nation” or that of the “Palestinian nation,” one does not understand that a consciousness is in itself an existence. Consciousness has no “rights” — it has nothing but a subjective reality. It exists in the minds of a people; therefore, it is active. As for the case of Jerusalem, as we all know very well, some claim it to be Jewish and others claim it to be Palestinian. There is no moral or judicial resolution. There can exist a diplomatic arrangement or an all out war. Of course, the diplomatic arrangement is better as it will prevent death, suffering, and the loss of nations and their cultures.
Jerusalem does not belong to anyone and no one has a right over it insofar as it belongs to everyone and everyone has a right to its holiness. We, the residents of the place, try to preserve and nourish it. At best, the desire to control it expresses a religious stupor, an idolatry. At worst, it is an expression of national supremacy that is only confirmed by erasing the foreign people, charged by a never ending and always expanding history in which the right of the people to exist is justified by how much blood they have shed over the city.
And from this political reality, a new nation crystallizes. It is a synthetic nation: a nation without a specific original content, a nation whose sole uniqueness as a nation is nothing but its political framework. As I see it, it is no longer the Jewish people that are returning to their eternal capital city, but rather a political framework in the eternal capital city that has created a people for itself. Therefore, there is only space in the collective consciousness of those people for one content value — a solely Jewish city. The city itself becomes the ends, the prime value. And the reality of the people who inhabit it is only expressed in nationalism and patriotism: nationalism and patriotism have become the new religion. In the lack of other intellectual and cultural contents of which both Palestinians and Israelis are being deprived (for very different reasons), the people who are concerned with Jerusalem unify around the flag, the national might, the heroism of battle and, in one case, the occupation.
Ido Nahari is currently completing a B.A. in Humanities, the Arts, and Social Thought at Bard College Berlin, where he specializes in Ethics and Politics. A version of this essay was originally published on the Bard College Berlin Student Blog.