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Updated: January 8, 2010 06:18 IST

The Jerusalem Syndrome

Neena Vyas
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Israeli workers dig up a walkway to the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in east Jerusalem’s Old City in this February, 2007 file photo. Israel said the centuries-old earthen ramp needed to be replaced, but those assurances did not calm Muslim passions over the project.
AP Israeli workers dig up a walkway to the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in east Jerusalem’s Old City in this February, 2007 file photo. Israel said the centuries-old earthen ramp needed to be replaced, but those assurances did not calm Muslim passions over the project.

Myth-making and demographic cleansing are central to Israel’s legitimisation of its illegal occupation of the Palestinian half of this holy city.

The air in Jerusalem is thick with religiosity. Competing claims based on the three great Religions of the Book — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — cry out for the suspension of all disbelief. You are invited to walk several hundred centuries into the past to revisit the conflicts that in many ways are at the root of the 60-year-old crisis in the Middle East today.

No wonder tourists, visitors and even residents are awe-struck by the holiness of the place and some are taken in by the Jerusalem Syndrome — waiting for Christ to return; or the advent of the Jewish Messiah, the Redeemer, son of King David, who will usher in an era of peace; or look in wonder at the Al Aqsa Mosque from where Prophet Muhammad ascended the golden stairs to the Seventh Heaven.

“Jerusalem is a bubble,” said writer Shifra Horn over dinner. As we ate a delicious kosher meal in the city just a few days before Christmas — six Indian journalists were guests of the Israeli government — Ms. Horn talked about the Jerusalem Syndrome. “Haven’t you come across people waiting for the Second Coming of Christ? The Crusaders called it the Jerusalem fever… after a visit here people fantasise about the city for the rest of their lives.”

Here is where myth blends into history, fiction and legend are presented as a melodramatic reality play, and history cannot be separated from mythology and legend without offending someone’s religious sensitivity. But most of all, Jerusalem and the legends associated with it are an intrinsic part of the political plan to legitimise the presence of a Zionist state in the midst of predominantly Muslim Arab nations.

In the old walled city of Jerusalem — that was part of Jordan till 1967 and is now under illegal occupation of Israel — Jewish people from all over the world come to the Western Wall (popularly known as the Wailing Wall) to grieve over the two lost temples by which they define their nationhood. The old Wall, we were told, is what remains of the temple complex, marking the compound where the Biblical King Solomon’s temple stood, never mind the fact that the grand old Al Aqsa Mosque has been standing at the spot since the eighth century A.D. And as if this was not enough to make us tremble under the weight of the old conflicts, a few metres away Stations of the Cross mark the path Jesus took to Crucifixion. And the Church of the Holy Sepulchre marks the empty grave from where Jesus miraculously rose from the dead three days after his death.

Myth and legend dating back some 3,000 years are an inseparable part of Zionism. This is the Biblical “promised land” and Jerusalem is central to it. The now non-existent Jewish temples on this Temple Mount are crucial to the Israelis’ claim that this is their ancient land.

In 2002, Yasser Arafat had challenged Israelis to find a “single stone from the Temple of Solomon.” They have been digging around for 34 years without finding even one, he pointed out.

Undoing the intervening centuries since King Solomon and pushing under the carpet the atrocities inflicted on Palestinians and Arabs has been an official Israeli project from the start. In a lengthy article “An Introduction to the Israeli-Palestine Conflict,” the radical American scholar Norman Finkelstein quotes the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, to make the point that “settlement” was the weapon used by the Zionist movement “to establish a great Jewish fact” in Israel.

The “great Jewish fact,” it would seem, is being established by not only presenting religious beliefs as history, but by engineering the demography of the walled city.

A Moroccan quarter was cleaned out to make way for the compound in front of the Wailing Wall; after the 1967 “capture” of East Jerusalem by Israel, thousands of Muslim Arabs left or were forced to leave. Israeli law prevents them from returning to claim their properties. We saw refurbished modern apartments housing ultra-orthodox Jews that have come up exactly across the compound.

It seems the process is slow but never-ending. A CNN report said in 2008 that more than 4,500 residency permits of Muslim Arabs were withdrawn and more than 8,500 were “cleansed out” in the previous years. Mr. Finkelstein quotes British Labour MP Richard Crossman as saying in the 1940s: “Zionism is… the attempt by the European Jew to build his national life on the soil of Palestine…” and the Arab must “go down before the march of progress”.

The former Israeli Foreign Minister, Moshe Dayan (whose incognito visit to India in the 1970s led to India eventually establishing diplomatic ties with Israel) had admitted that Israelis were “a generation of settlers, and without the combat helmet and the barrel of a gun, we will not be able to plant a tree or build a house.”

He might as well have added that without U.S. aid of some $3 billion a year and German guilt money totalling some €64 billion (including sums paid to private entities) the Israeli economic miracle of $24,000 per capita income, a war machine like no other, and lush fruits and vegetables in greenhouses in the middle of the desert may not have been possible.

“There is a longing for peace... but in 1967 war was imposed on us [by the Arabs],” continued Ms. Horn over dinner. “Yes, we took advantage of that war to take and keep a bigger Israel [including the walled city of Jerusalem],” she admitted. “We are the survivors of the Holocaust… everywhere we lived as minorities… now we are settled here; for us this country is a shelter…”

But what about the Palestinians, whose home this was? “I’m very, very sad we cannot live like in a normal country…we believe our [Muslim Arabs and Jews] DNA is similar… Palestinians were Jews converted to Christianity or Islam…”

The script was familiar to Indians. After all, have we not heard the Hindu Right fanatics declare their love for Muslims (and Christians), for after all, were they not Hindus not so long ago?

As Jewish settlers from around the world were invited to return to “the promised land” to resolve what some European scholars have described as Europe’s “Jewish problem,” the price of European anti-semitism and Hitler’s genocide began to be paid by the Arabs. Edward Said put it briefly: what the Holocaust was to the Jews, the Naqba (the day of disaster when Israel was created in 1948) is to the Palestinians.

Just 20 months ago when Israel celebrated its 60th birth anniversary, some 100 Jewish intellectuals wrote a letter to The Guardian explaining why they would not celebrate the event. Even as Israel was born, Plan Dalet was put into operation, authorising the destruction of Palestinian villages and the expulsion of its people, they said. Some 400 villages were wiped off the map. In all 7,50,000 Palestinians became refugees. They will not celebrate Israel’s birth.

The question of refugees popped up during a conversation with an Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry official. “Yes,” he said, “there were refugees, but the total number was small. Instead of keeping them in camps, why couldn’t Lebanon and other Arab countries absorb this population? They want to keep the problem alive…” Of course, the question of Israel absorbing them did not arise, we supposed. Israeli law does not allow Muslim Arabs who have left their homes, for whatever reason, to return.

Through myth-making or an act of faith, the repeated attempt is to prove that Jews have been here since Biblical times and that this land belongs to them. Arab presence is simply an inconvenient fact.

It is the same theme everywhere. “Sixty years ago we were given this land to set up kibbutz Ein Gedi,” said Ron Meir as we were shown around the botanical gardens maintained by the kibbutz, situated not far from Jerusalem. “We were just 3 km from the Jordanian border. The idea was to establish a Jewish presence in this desert…”

But the young in Israel may be changing; at least that is the hope, said film producer Sylvain Biegeleisen. “Hundreds of films have been made about the conflict… I made a series of giving cameras to children on both sides…when Rabin and Arafat shook hands I made a film on what people felt… on both sides they want peace… Yes, there is a censor, but few films have been banned...”

There are strong, dissenting voices within Israel — even among the young who are forced to do military duty. But reports suggest that there is a renewed attempt by the Israeli government to muzzle all voices that question its militarist policies.

Something needs to be done. “Israelis need to integrate with the Middle East. We cannot forever remain like some strange European bodies in the middle of the desert,” said foodie Janna Gur, noting the Lebanese, the Moroccan and the Palestinian influences on what goes as Israeli cuisine.

When will peace come to the Middle East, pocked by conflict for 60 years? Why does Israel have to respond with such ferocity to every hostile act by Hamas even when that has not caused much damage or injury? David Goldfarb in the South Asia Department of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, who attempted an answer, was, perhaps, looking for a Second Coming of a different kind: “For that to happen we would need two Gandhis, one on our side and another on the other side.”

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