Jewish Journal

‘Jerusalem’ — ancient symbol, modern struggles

by Jonathan Kirsch

Posted on Mar. 29, 2011 at 5:25 pm

Blood has been spilled yet again in the streets of Jerusalem in recent days, and so there is a certain urgency that inevitably attaches itself to “Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World” by James Carroll (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28). Carroll himself declares the theme of his book to be “the lethal feedback loop between the actual city of Jerusalem and the apocalyptic fantasy it inspires.”

Carroll, of course, is the author of the best-selling “Constantine’s Sword,” a masterful history of the troubled relationship between the Catholic Church and Judaism. The author adopts the same confessional tone — and the same genius for alloying solid historical data with his own deep thinking — in “Jerusalem, Jerusalem.” This provocative book will not please every Jewish reader, if only because Carroll insists that Jerusalem is no one’s exclusive or eternal possession, but it is so provocative and illuminating that it should not be overlooked by anyone who cares about the future of Jerusalem.

Carroll calls Jerusalem “the magnetic pole of Western history,” and he looks back over 20 centuries to describe how our civilization has been shaped and, in some ways, distorted by its symbolism. Like Karen Armstrong’s “Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths” (1996), Carroll’s book approaches Jerusalem as a point of connection between contending faiths and cultures, but he is rather less optimistic than Armstrong about the outcome: “A fight over territory has been made into a self-hypnotizing struggle for the cosmos, which can never be resolved,” he observes. “In this way, Jerusalem’s ancient themes live on.”

From the outset, he confronts us with the unavoidable fact that Jerusalem is defined by its diversity. “The city is home to thirty religious denominations and fifteen language groups which use seven different alphabets,” he points out. “In the past one hundred years, more than sixty political solutions to the city’s conflicts have been proposed by various national and international entities, yet conflict remains.”

Precisely because of these frictions, Carroll declines to side with the Israelis or the Palestinians on the question of sovereignty over Jerusalem. He suggests that both sides “may have painted themselves into a deadly corner from which only one may yet emerge alive, but they did not create the corner.” Rather, he blames the stresses of colonialism and anti-Semitism for fashioning what he calls “an unthreadable needle.” And he sees a terrible symmetry at work: “If Israelis and other Jews use a word that translates as ‘catastrophe’ to define their trauma, so do the people who were displaced by the longed-for Jewish return,” he writes. “Shoah and Nakba: the synchrony of language expresses the mirroring of loss and grief.”

Carroll was ordained as a Catholic priest and writes from the perspective of his faith, but he has a sure sense of the crazy-making culture of contemporary Jerusalem. He appropriately credits the pop song “Jerusalem of Gold” as “a modern psalm.” He singles out the YMCA across the street from the King David Hotel as “the perfect twenty-first century Jerusalem institution — a Christian organization headed by a Jewish chairperson and a Muslim CEO.” And he is capable of expressing himself in provocative but illuminating ways, as when he acknowledges the bond between Jerusalem and the Jews: “Jesus was not a Christian,” he observes in passing. “As a Jew, Jesus loved Jerusalem.”

Carroll does not confine himself to historical narrative or contemporary observation. He reaches all the way back to the Big Bang in his musings on the origins and workings of religion, and he shows how the arc of human civilization can be illustrated by a single object: “Jerusalem is built around a rock,” he explains. “For us, the rock is the point. Mythologized as the navel of the universe, and the birth bed of Adam, it came into history spattered with the blood of human victims. As such, the rock ties Jerusalem to the deep past of religious sacrifice.”

Nor does he regard Jerusalem merely as a place on the map. He ranges back and forth across the centuries, touching on the Crusades, the Reformation, the voyages of Columbus, the Great Awakening, the Civil War, the Eichmann trial and much else besides, always using the shimmering idea of Jerusalem as a theological polestar and thus allowing us to see quite another kind of “feedback loop.” Thus, for example, he points out that both the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem were copies of classical Greek architecture: “That biblical resonance makes Lincoln’s temple an echo chamber, as the lost voices of this long history bounce off one another.”

Carroll’s eloquent words apply equally to his own book. He closes with a little sermon on “good religion,” and he insists that “the touchstone to which every consideration must circle back is the essential role of religious self-criticism, now made urgent by the new human vulnerability.” Even as we ponder his earnest words, however, the echoes of Jerusalem’s tragic past and troubling future are ringing in our ears.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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