I never would’ve thought Donald Trump and Mahmoud Darwish had anything much in common, but hearing Trump make his announcement this morning recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital reminded me of the same banality of holiness evoked in Darwish’s “A Soldier Dreams of White Lillies.”
Like anything—not least our 45th president—that poem has its flaws (it denies the reality of Jewish communion with the land, and suggests that a Jew disabused of vulgar nationalism can only abandon his community and quit the region.) Not incidental to those flaws, the Arab threats of violence in this matter are frivolous, narcissistic and—above all—boring, even if they’re followed through upon.
The first Arab riots against Zionist designs on Jerusalem were sparked in 1929 by allegations that the placement of a dozen chairs and a cloth mekhitza for elderly Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall was a prelude to the destruction of the al-Aksa mosque—the rioters murdered whole families. As of 2017, fifty years of Israeli administration has entailed a great deal of covetous malfeasance, but not the slightest disrespect of the Noble Sanctuary. Yet the Muslims never tire of this pretext, and such outbreaks are veritably seasonal in Jerusalem, because—although Israel indeed steals their property and stifles their freedom to organize—the real Zionist provocation has always been assertiveness on the part of a non-Muslim minority. Political repression is par for the course in that region with or without Israel, and in almost every Muslim land, some ethnic or religious minority is constrained to know its place, and know it well.
Fortunately, Jewish non-combatants are better protected today than in 1929, because a Palestinian protest is rarely just that, and international audiences watching Israeli troops fire tear gas canisters into throngs of Arab men don’t generally realize the appetite of the Palestinian resistance for violent confrontation is not limited by scruples regarding age, gender, or non-combatant status—nor, until quite recently, has it ever been readily divisible into violent and non-violent factions.
So for Trump to be deterred by the Arab street’s predictable reaction would be pusillanimous, regardless of whether his Jerusalem decision was a wise one. But the arbitration of highly sensitive religious matters by the star of The Apprentice may not be the biggest irony here. That among all the gravely concerned world leaders opposing him in the matter (not a few of them embezzlers, inveterate liars and icky-fingered war criminals in their own right) the one whose objections carry the most moral force is the sinister pope, Francis—a gilded, pharisaical career accomplice to the foulest possible acts of sexual predation—is a commentary all its own. The conventional wisdom is that the international community indulges Israel and tolerates Palestinian suffering, but generally speaking, the extent of world outcry on the Palestinians’ behalf is greater, more sustained and less proportionate to the corollary offenses against them than any sympathy the Jews have ever managed to elicit, certainly from the Vatican, and including during the Holocaust. Massacre of Jews just feels too familiar to be condemned without nuance: a consensus that Israel ought to be prepared at all times to absorb a modicum of civilian casualties—without response, as a matter of course—exists among world bodies, governments, NGOs and news agencies that would never be so much as whispered to Muslims as a suggestion. Since the Oslo Accords went into effect not only Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the PFLP but the PLO (through its bad-cop Tanzim faction—essentially a death squad) has carried out dozens of attacks on Israeli civilians. So when PLO officials and PLO-affiliated scions of Palestinian civil society like Marwan Bishara, in his capacity as a TV host for Al Jazeera, warn that bloodshed will result from Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, they aren’t forecasting the weather—they’re making a threat. Of course they don’t mean to be understood this way by anyone but the Jews. Surely (to some degree) they don’t even understand themselves this way, because the Palestinians are always supposed, and suppose themselves, to lack agency in events. Like the dozen chairs which provoked them to a frenzy of murder of women, children and the elderly in 1929, they don’t think, they are only moved by others. Supposing we grant this premise, then when Ismail Haniyeh warns that Trump has “opened the gates of hell” with his decision: who are the demons?
But if the Muslims are evil to covet Jerusalem, the Jews are evil for clinging to it, and ought to be put in mind of an Arab proverb: “Where there is concession, there is strength.” I, for one, would take a summer night out drinking in Tel Aviv or an autumn morning strolling the hills of Haifa over an eternity ensconced in the King David Hotel presidential suite. For what is Jerusalem? It certainly isn’t worth American lives. I recall it as a dusty, mildewy disappointment, like a woman who has to be gazed at from a very peculiar angle to be thought beautiful; the Dome of the Rock as a lid rattling precariously atop a broiling, apoplectic sense of entitlement; the Holy Sepulcher as a creepy, vulgar little tourist trap akin to an amusement park haunted house. And the Western Wall? That Jews should venerate and kill and be killed for that stupid, ugly pile of bricks left behind by Herod—a sadistic Quisling—is the very definition of idolatry that Judaism once cut its teeth forbidding.
So I don’t use the word “evil” lightly. Israeli administration of Jerusalem has from the very beginning involved strategically needless property theft, selective destruction of historical sites and expulsion of innocent people from their homes. In 2007, this was ratcheted up to the worst form of desecration: the wholesale removal of medieval Muslim graves to a trash dump and their replacement by a Wiesenthal “Museum of Human Dignity” (seriously) atop the former grounds of the Mamilla Cemetery, just over the Green Line from the Old City. But Israel’s “unified eternal capital” is, indeed, an interactive museum, teetering precariously on the nape of what normal, everyday life still manages to persist there. It belongs in the same general category as Florida’s Holy Land Experience, or the Kentucky Creation Museum, but at least those institutions’ proprietorship doesn’t require recurring blood sacrifice (or grave robbery.) There is so much that is beautiful and admirable about Israel, but to the extent that the place is ugly, it’d be a lot less so without the Old City of Jerusalem and the mischief that the coveting of holy relics always inspires: