Why Jerusalem? The politics of poetry

by Sidra Ezrahi
JERUSALEM – Jerusalem: one of the most ancient and richly-imagined cities in the world, and also the city that seems most intractable to peaceful resolution.

At least since the time of King David, Jerusalem has been a city claimed by more than one people or religious community, and conquest has been the preferred mode of resolution—from the ancient Israelites to the Babylonians and the Romans, from the Crusaders to Saladin and the Mamluks, from the Ottomans to the latter-day Israelis.

Nevertheless, there is some evidence for an alternative model even in the Hebrew Bible. Take, for example, the enigmatic verses that comprise the story of the Jebusites who may have yielded their ancient city to King David’s forces rather peaceably. Josephus Flavius’ Antiquities of the Jews elaborates on the biblical intimations that David’s conquest of the town of Jebus may have been relatively nonviolent, without massacre or expulsion, and may have allowed for peaceful coexistence with the original inhabitants, who are referred to variously as the “inhabitants of the land” or the “inhabitants of Jerusalem” (see II Sam. 5: 1-10; Judges 1:21).

In modern times, Iraqi Kanan Makiya’s book The Rock, a quasi-fanciful retelling of 7th century Jerusalem based on a reconstruction of the layers of claims, physical and textual, to the Temple Mount, represents the Dome of the Rock first and foremost as a tribute to the Temple of the Jews and to the Foundation Rock of the God of Abraham and Muhammad—a gesture to the Hebrew layer of the early Muslim religious imagination.

Beneath the rubble of war and the blood of sacrifice, you might say, there is a thick layer of imagination that suggests alternative realities and posits inclusive alternatives to exclusive ownership and the threat of annihilation of the Other. And perhaps most important, though lost in the noise of political debate, is that quirk of human imagination that engages in acts of substitution or exchange.

Substitution was (or should have been) the essence of Abraham’s lesson on “one of those hills” in the Land of Moriah (Gen.22) where the old man was sent to sacrifice his son Isaac to an implacable God. In the Muslim version, it is Ishmael who is to be sacrificed; the Christians see the scene as foreshadowing the crucifixion of Jesus. But in all three versions, the story’s basic and often overlooked frame is a death-defying, covenantally-necessary act of substitution: in the Jewish and Muslim versions, it is animal for human sacrifice and in the Christian version, Christ is viewed as the sacrificial lamb standing in for humankind.

The principle of exchange is demonstrated most dramatically in a much-later biblical text, the Song of Songs. Although Christian and Jewish exegetes insisted on attributing allegorical meaning to the rich evocative imagery, a “plain reading” of the Hebrew text unencumbered by the layers of interpretation exposes the world-embracing, compassionate engine of metaphor that forms the medium of the Shulamith’s instructions to her lover. Although the classical Rabbis and the Church Fathers would have us believe that the Song is an elaboration of the relationship between God and Israel, or between Christ and the Church, the “bare text” actually effaces exclusive religious claims. Love’s labours carve out a series of increasingly improbable, hyperbolic similes in which the beloved’s body parts are likened to or interchangeable with the agriculture, architecture and geology of Jerusalem, with no references to Solomon’s Temple or other sacred sites. The self-conscious production of literary imagery, in which every element in the created world is interchangeable and therefore expendable, is the exercise of both human dominion and humility.

You might say that I am tracing a psycho-literary impulse in which the substitution of the lamb in Gen. 22 laid the foundation for acts of exchange and substitution as a more inclusive way of relating to Jerusalem in later texts. It turns out that imagining Jerusalem in her many forms is as natural as fighting for her, or as pledging vengeance for ancient wrongs to be exacted in the time of return. During two thousand years of distance from the sacred centre, Jews learned to live in symbols. The ethical dimension of potentially endless acts of substitution and exchange, of metaphor-making and poetic inclusion, cannot be exaggerated.

Jewish return in recent times to the city which has been the source of its imagination has resulted in a politics that attempts to literalise metaphor, reclaiming the long-imagined city as Real or as Real Estate, claiming the Temple Mount as place of sacrifice and not of substitution, of one story and not of multiple narratives, of one chosen son and not two—or three.

In the idiom of the late 20th century, with its late 20th century municipal and human opportunities and challenges, poets like Yehuda Amichai continue to stand guard at the gates of Jerusalem, reminding us that “in Jerusalem everything is a symbol”. If everything is a symbol, then everything is negotiable, except human dignity.

I will go so far as to claim that it was poetry – which posits alternative realities—that saved the ancient Hebrews in Jerusalem, and poetry—or more precisely, metaphor—that could save the modern Hebrews and their neighbours. What will defeat us is the literalisation of what had remained in a state of metaphoric suspense for thousands of years. If we lose the city, then, it will be for having turned a deaf ear to poetry.


* Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi is a Professor at the Dept. of Comparative Literature, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A more elaborate version of this argument can be found in Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, “‘To what shall I compare thee?’ Jerusalem as Ground Zero of the Hebrew Imagination,” PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association], January, 2007, 122:1, pp. 220-234. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and is part of a special series on Jerusalem.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 22 July 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
Women of Tunisia: Let your voices be heard!

The women of Tunisia have a decisive role to play in shaping Tunisia's future. Fatma Ben Saïdane reminds women of the power of their vote and the importance of civic engagement.
"I like the articles you distribute because they're not always safe. They move the discussion forward, they're not reiterative. They help me think in new ways about problems that really need solutions, problems that are not simple but complex."

- Michael Wolfe, Unity Productions Foundation

It takes 200+ hours a week to produce CGNews. We rely on readers like you to make it happen. If you find our stories informative or inspiring, help us share these underreported perspectives with audiences around the world.



Or, support us with a one-time donation.

A special regime for Jerusalem
My Jerusalem by Carol Daniel Kasbari
My Jerusalem
Prepare Jerusalem for peace now
Our Jerusalem
# of hours per week to create one edition
# of editors in 6 countries around the world
# of subscribers
Average # of reprints per article
# of media outlets that have reprinted our articles
# of republished articles since inception
# of languages CG articles are distributed in
# of writers since inception


Other articles in this series

A special regime for Jerusalem by John Bell, Michael Bell, Mike J. Molloy, Tom Najem
My Jerusalem by Carol Daniel Kasbari by Carol Daniel Kasbari
My Jerusalem by Nita Schechet
Prepare Jerusalem for peace now by Hagai Agmon Snir
Our Jerusalem by Hanna Siniora