Today is Jerusalem Day in Israel. The central narrative underpinning what is at best a quasi-holiday (in my experience, few Israelis outside of Orthodox Jerusalem pay it any mind) is that Jerusalem was “re-united” in the 1967 Six Day War, and thus the city now stands as Israel’s “eternal, undivided capital.” In order for that to be true, though, we must write Palestinians out of Jerusalem’s history all together—an effort that Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat appears more than eager to make.
In a holiday interview with the Times of Israel, Barkat suggested “that if the Palestinians wanted a capital in Jerusalem they could rename Ramallah ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘northern Jerusalem’”:
It was in Jerusalem’s DNA to be a united city, under sole Jewish rule, he said. "By definition, that DNA cannot be divided." Palestinian demands for some degree of sovereignty in the city, largely endorsed by the international community as integral to an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation, were unacceptable and unworkable, he said.
First of all, not to get all sciencey on a politics blog, but just for the record, DNA is divided literally all the time (it happens in the mitosis phase of the cell cycle).
But surely more to the point: Jerusalem is not only essentially divided in its lived reality—the city’s current manifestation bears almost no resemblance to historically Jewish Jerusalem. If Mayor Barkat wants to learn more about Jerusalem’s actual history (as opposed to the fever dream to which he and the national government subscribe), he could do no better than to read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s masterful Jerusalem: A Biography (and yes, that’s “Montefiore.” The author is a descendent of Moses Montefiore, whose largess was responsible for so much of Jewish Jerusalem’s modern fortunes—not least, that beautiful windmill).
We can only posit an exclusively Jewish “DNA” in Jerusalem if we erase the past. If we ignore the millions of Palestinian Arabs who have lived in the city over the decades and centuries, if we close our eyes to their mosques, churches, schools, hospitals, and homes, if we refuse to listen to the modern-day people and leadership when they say—as they have said, throughout the entire history of this conflict—that Jerusalem is their national capital, and that only by sharing it is peace even conceivable. We have to erase history and posit a Palestinian people that is, somehow, essentially different from other people. Essentially different—and this is perhaps the most important point—from us.
Back in the day, when the global powers wanted to deny the Jews a state, no less a Zionist than Theodore Herzl suggested that Jewish nationalists might be able to make do (temporarily) with Uganda. Also bandied about were Canada, Angola, Australia, Texas, and the countries that are today Iraq and Libya—essentially, folks suggested that we might be willing to go someplace else and call it “Zion.”
These efforts were rejected, of course, and rightfully so. A people that has been thrown off its land and pined and prayed for return across the generations cannot be sold a knock-off, wannabe home. The Jews of yesteryear knew who they were, and they knew where they belonged. Clumsy re-branding was not going to cut the mustard.
Only by presuming that the Palestinians are somehow different from us—less devoted, less honest, less human—can we seriously suggest that they have no claim to our shared holy city, and that they should probably just give an existing city a new name.
But that’s the lie on which the entire premise of Jerusalem Day rests, so it’s no surprise that Jerusalem’s mayor is sticking with it.
Maybe if we’re really lucky, Mr. Mayor, Jerusalem’s Palestinians will move to Uganda.