“There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” Wendell Berry
Being in Jerusalem is living in the prosaic Best of Times/Worst of Times. The anticipation of a thrilling spiritual experience quickly becomes a troubling moral struggle.
Jerusalem is surely one of the world’s most singular places, a living phenomenon of history and mythology, but while it inspires and exhilarates, it simultaneously disappoints and crushes. As with Beszel and Ul Qoma in the novel The City and the City, there are two cities in the Jerusalem municipal boundaries, virtually overlapping but existing on separate planes. Moving between them requires “a shift in perception, a seeing of the unseen.”
The city plans call for “balance” which in this world means 70% of the population is one people while the other is 30%. It means that some are citizens and others are residents. It means that the 30% need to constantly prove, by answering knocks on the door late at night and showing their toothbrush and milk in the refrigerator, that Jerusalem is their “center of life”, or else lose their right to live there. But in this dystopia, the proof must be made by Palestinians whose lives there go back for multiplied generations to Israelis who immigrated a few decades ago with a zionist vision, weapons, and international silence, and set their sights on land already inconveniently lived in.
Even from a far hilltop, the city and the city tell the story. One is bursting with construction and development, cranes roaming the streets building modernity among swaths of green space and parks. The other is brown, bare, and rocky, homes haphazardly placed wherever there might be space left for them. There’s hope for parking, schools, playgrounds, trash disposal, sidewalks and such, but those are rarely found. There’s no municipal money left for those because the residents’ taxes are paying for those cranes and modernity. The homes are cherished because one day they might be demolished for lack of a permit that cannot be obtained. Follow?
The name for Jerusalem in Arabic is Al Quds. The Holy. But there’s little holiness there these days and hasn’t been for decades. And it will take more than prayer vigils and interfaith conversations to make this city holy again. Holding persistently to the false beliefs that “the situation is complicated”, and that “both sides are to blame” is wasted time. Radical action is needed, truth is needed, courage is needed. Justice and only justice will restore these two cities to one.