Few cities evoke feelings as immediate, visceral and primal as Jerusalem. The name is synonymous with salvation and destruction, the beginning and the end of time. Few who have visited it could escape its pull. It is fascinating, not just for its religious symbolism but also for the intense emotions people feel in encountering it. Even with the distant gaze of a secular humanist, I cannot help but feel connected to the connection, as it were, connected with the human search for meaning so spatially tied to the city.1 Jerusalem leaves no one untouched, despite the banalities of its overzealous souvenir hawkers, crawling traffic, overwhelming noise and overpriced hotels.
Today, we are seeing Jerusalem develop as a strange concoction of ossified faith and cutting-edge technology, instrumentalized for a return to the past. A gleaming light rail train connects West Jerusalem to the Old City and the northwestern settlements. This instrument of modern transportation cements a fundamentalism of ownership, of creating facts on the ground in contravention of international law. Likewise, generic office buildings, malls and apartment blocks are not just unimaginative investments, but rather claims to monopolized possession of truth. Those who visit the Old City of Jerusalem as pilgrims or tourists may be too preoccupied with the sights to notice the ubiquity of surveillance mechanisms. When clashes take place in Palestinian neighborhoods, one can see surveillance blimps flying above the city. Many Israeli companies in this sector are industry leaders, born out of a need for legitimate protection but also in order to fortify control of the eastern part of the city (and the Occupied Territories) in contravention of international law — using hyper-advanced tools for the realization of an idea thousands of years old. Nothing is left uncontested in this prime real estate of salvation.
Contestation and projection of history reach a pinnacle in Jerusalem. Religious significance has become linked to territorial hegemony. In a zerosum understanding of Jerusalem, when a place is holy for one side, so it must be for the other in order to contest claims of ownership. The use of archaeological research with all but predetermined findings to ideationally solidify particular territorial claims plays into this logic. The idea that a symbol can have only one meaning is a key source of the city’s tragic violence. It is unconscionable that some Palestinians are discounting the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and just as abstruse for others to disavow the Muslim meaning of the holy site.
As someone who has worked in Jerusalem, I am fascinated with the concurrent uniqueness and banality of the experience, of the routine of ecstasy and suffering amidst the rush-hour traffic. Jerusalem is a city in which people are trying to live, a city where some are preventing others from living, and a city in which people are trying to die while causing maximal pain to the perceived “other side”.
The great tragedy lies in the similarity between those who are fighting against each other. Those who are the most alike in Jerusalem seem to fight each other the most. There is a striking similarity in language, in deep religious conviction, in a belief in the above and beyond. However, the metaphysical beliefs of Jerusalem’s inhabitants are quite physically anchored in a way that is highly exclusionary. A key question for the fate of Jerusalem is whether this anchoring is necessary or if an understanding can be reached in which the city’s stones serve as symbolic stepping stones, not as the ultimate end of faith.
Moreover, the certainty with which people prostrate themselves at particular locations to which they assign meaning is not necessarily borne out by historical fact. Many of the locations of holy sites are good guesses at best; in some cases, competing locations exist. This makes the insistence on full ownership all the more absurd, when in fact the idea and symbol behind the location is more important. There is a tragedy in the insistence on the earthly aspects of religion when it is by its very nature about transcendence and the beyond.
The Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh uses the poignant example of the fight between Jews and Muslims over whether Abraham sought to sacrifice his son Isaac or his son Ishmael. As Nusseibeh says, the lesson of this biblical episode is a moral one, i.e., that God told Abraham not to sacrifice his son.2 The story is not about succession and ownership; it is not about sacrifice and spilling blood. It is about absolution and release. And, seen from this perspective, the concurrence of meanings for Muslims and Jews does not detract from either of them.
Jerusalem as the Archaic and the Modern
Since the 2016 U.S. election, we have been hearing much about the rural-urban divide, about the “reverse insularity” of the global city vis-à-vis its rural environs. The “city” has come to be seen as a place where identity is defined more by what one does than by what one is. Meaning is crafted out of something not linked to origin. Nationality loses meaning, becomes commoditized as shorthand for a particular lifestyle and becomes flexible and fungible. Identities are redefined, blended and syncretized.
Yet there is significant resistance to this loss of identity. In the metaphorical as much as the real countryside, many of those left behind by the whirlwind of globalization are trying to recoup their place by defining themselves as victims of the even more left behind. The loss of standing and of a secure livelihood directs a powerful torrent of existential angst against easy scapegoats. Shortcuts are sought to a feeling of security and meaning. Too often this is achieved by “otherizing” those scapegoats and by trying to make the world less complex by discounting and pushing out alternative views.
Jerusalem plays a role in the search for meaning for a plurality of people around the world, often for those whose vision of Jerusalem is a “rural” one in the sense described above: of identity against the other, of insularity. Birds of a feather flock together, so to say; each denomination sticks with its “own” Jerusalem. Russian Orthodox pilgrims experience Russian Orthodox Jerusalem, Catholics experience Catholic Jerusalem, etc.; all experiences run right next to one another — at best entirely in parallel, at worst in outright conflict over access and ownership. Jerusalem is in this sense a global city of parallel rural identities. There is no shared transliteration of experience. And it is not just Israelis and Palestinians living parallel lives in Jerusalem — almost everybody does.
Jerusalem is emblematic like no other place of this spatial closeness yet mental distance. The Jerusalemite phenomenon of trying to put in place a singular immutable meaning and identity (from which others can either be excluded or to which they can be recruited) from separate realities is part of the schizophrenia of modernity. The creation of echo chambers and spaces where only our own shouting resounds has recently been blamed on social media and may indeed be seriously compounded by it, but it is as old as time in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem has become a city waiting for its resurrection, stuck in a feverous schizophrenia of being everything to everyone, walled-in with an archaic, literally cemented ugliness of separation, an ideological archaeology, a self-blinding ahistoricism. We leave Jerusalem with shaking heads, pounding hearts and trembling hands, wondering whether this global and modern yet oddly rural and archaic city can ever find peace and quiet.
A Post-Modern Jerusalem
Jerusalem at once exists as a real place and as a concept in our heads. In international law, Jerusalem is often described as a “corpus separatum,” a separate body. This is not merely a legal definition and a way of acknowledging that it cannot be defined according to one identity; instead, it almost calls for a philosophical discussion. It addresses the extraordinary position of Jerusalem in that it covers the world’s separation and diversity in the smallest of physical spaces. And it becomes clear precisely in this place that the globally applied concepts of national identity and divisibility must fail — utterly. They are constructed meanings and can be maintained only for a time, and only by structural and acute violence.
A meaning defined against another is, however, ultimately meaningless. And the alternative to prescribed or universalized meaning is not anarchic meaninglessness. As Alan Watts said:
When … you realize that you live in, that indeed you are this moment now, and no other, that apart from this there is no past and no future, you must relax and taste to the full, whether it be pleasure or pain. At once it becomes obvious why this universe exists, why conscious beings have been produced, why sensitive organs, why space, time, and change. The whole problem of justifying nature, of trying to make life mean something in terms of its future, disappears utterly. Obviously, it all exists for this moment. It is a dance, and when you are dancing you are not intent on getting somewhere… The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.3
Anyone who stands still and watches those around them in Jerusalem for a while will note that there is a dance being performed around her or him, yet it is often anxious, heavy and ritualized. A postmodern Jerusalem would be like a dance party where everyone listens to her or his own music through headphones, in silence to the external observer. And indeed, there is no need to all dance to the same tune. Nor is one tune truer for everyone than any other. But postmodernity carries the risk of atomization, of discounting meaning in everything in exchange for liberation from topdown imposition thereof.
Jerusalem as Striving for Meaning
The transcendent beauty of Jerusalem is in discussing meaning with those who want to experience it, through a universalism of difference and kindness not of monoculture and force, of sharing, not imposing. This is precisely where Jerusalem could bring people together — in unity, not uniformity. We often see Jerusalem very negatively, and I have described some of these aspects above. It is violent and archaic, but it is also beautiful. This once tiny hamlet turned into a name reverberating around the world because humans seek meaning. This very idea is so powerful and potentially productive — humans need meaning. The accumulation of wealth and the experience of pleasure do not suffice. We are looking for something beyond ourselves, and there is such vast power and potential in this.
As far away as we are from this today, Jerusalem could be transformed as an idea and as a place into a city of joint striving for our own meaning. It is, in this sense, the city that stands for an acceptance of the need for different meanings, but a rejection of meaninglessness. Jerusalem could become about the realization that we all live contradictory lives and that our strife and striving for meaning is deeply human and connects us all. Jerusalem is our collective appeal for meaning and need for a feeling of safety in the plane in turbulence.
Jerusalem’s potential for engagement is so significant; if properly and openly explored, it could be such a fantastic platform for breaking out of narrow worldviews, for engaging one another. The world of ideas cannot be zero-sum; neither can the search for meaning.
As Zygmunt Baumann writes in his wonderful monograph Alone Again: Ethics after Certainty, “Hannah Arendt thought the capacity of inter-play to be the quality of the polis — where we can meet each other as equals, while recognizing our diversity, and caring for the preservation of that diversity as the very purpose of our meeting … How may this be achieved? Through the separate identities stopping short of exclusivity, of refusal to cohabit with other identities. This in turn requires abandoning the tendency to suppress other identities in the name of the self-assertion of one’s own, while accepting, on the contrary, that it is precisely the guarding of other identities that maintains the diversity in which one’s own uniqueness can thrive.”4
This is undoubtedly also true for the search for meaning — in Jerusalem and beyond.
1 There is a wonderful description of this feeling (unfortunately only available in German) from the author Sven Behrisch in his description of spending a night in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, available https://www.dasmagazin.ch/2016/10/21/meine-nacht-im-grab-jesu
2Cf. Nusseibeh, Sari (2011). What is a Palestinian State Worth?, Harvard University Press, p. 18.
3Watts, Alan (1951). The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety, Vintage Books. As cited in Maria Popova, “Alan Watts on the Antidote to the Loneliness of the Divided Mind, Our Integration with the Universe, and How We Wrest Meaning from Reality.” Available https:// www.brainpickings.org/2016/11/01/alan-watts-wisdom-of-insecurity-3/ .
4Zygmunt Baumann (1994). Alone Again: Ethics after Certainty, DEMOS, p. 33.