Meir Shalev Reflects on Jerusalem

Jerusalem: Israeli Soldiers at West Wall
Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall Anja Niedringhaus / AP

I have spent most of my life in Jerusalem, and I can confirm that it is an interesting and worthwhile city to visit, but it’s hard to live there. The city has so much importance and holiness that it has lost respect for its own residents. When I am asked about Jerusalem, I often quote Mark Twain’s derisive observations from The Innocents Abroad. But I am even more taken by an assessment by Herman Melville, who visited Jerusalem in 1857: “The city [is] besieged by army of the dead,” he wrote in his journal, “cemeteries all round.”

Melville was right—the dead are powerful here. Two dead Jews run the city: King David and Jesus. The militant Christian spirit of Richard the Lionheart is also present. Muhammad, who made an important night journey to Jerusalem, and Saladin, who took it from the Crusaders, are also members of its city council. All these are stronger and more influential than any of today’s politicians and leaders. They are Jerusalem’s true landlords.

Since I have evoked two authors, I will also mention a poet—less famous, but more of a Jerusalemite: Yitzhak Shalev, who was also my father. He lived in Jerusalem from the age of 3 and wrote about it to his dying day. On his grave, as he instructed us in one of his ­poems, we engraved the inscription, “A slave of this city.”

My father’s poems were love poems to Jerusalem, and they also advocated the occupation of the Old City and its unification. We, his children, remember the walks he took us on, along the border that bisected the city until the Six-Day War. From the Mamilla neighborhood, we peered through the concrete and barbed wire at the Old City—“the captive city,” as my father called it. From Abu Tor we looked out onto Mount Zion, where legend has it King David is buried. And from the roof of Notre Dame, we could see the Muslim dome of gold, built “on our holy temple,” and the cemetery on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. The high point of every walk was the moment when my father picked me up so that I could catch a glimpse of the upper level of the Western Wall. My father was not a religious man. But he was moved by these sights, and they prompted him to say things that have gone out of fashion these days: that I had to grow up, serve in the army, and, if I was fortunate, I might be one of the soldiers who would liberate the Old City.

Part of his prophecy-cum-wish came true in 1967. Jerusalem was reunited, but I did not fight for it. I came back to the city from other battlefields, rented a room not far from Jaffa Gate, and walked to the Old City frequently. I was drawn there, but not by the ties of faith and enchantment that bound my father and other admirers. Rather, there was now an allure that the city itself did not know. Jerusalem’s reunification brought a new kind of visitor: young people from all over the world who walked its streets, played music, smoked, laughed, and loved. Short skirts competed with veils and coifs, long hair with beards, the smell of marijuana with incense and frankincense.

The city appeared to me in a new and exciting light. For a moment it seemed that Melville had been wrong, that the dead had lost the battle and retreated into their tombs, that Jerusalem would look to its present and future, not just its past. But this was merely a short-lived illusion: the city enlisted its memories and sanctity to reinforce its army of ghosts. They returned to the battle, aided by politicians, militarists, and the clergy of three monotheistic faiths that define themselves as religions of peace and love. Jerusalem was once again what it loves to be: a holy city of warfare and terror, of extremism and hostility, boasting the false title of “City of Eternal Peace.”

I will not offer advice to Christians, nor to Muslims; but I wish to remind my own people that the justifiable claim to our primary position in this holy city has two sides: it confers not only rights and ownership, but responsibility too. I frequently think that the Jewish people, who invented and branded Jerusalem, who forged it as the physical and spir­it­ual platform on which Islam and Christianity could also stand, must reinvent it and extract it from the pit it has dug for us and for itself.

How can this be done? Well—it can’t. Jesus, David, and Muhammad won’t allow it. As for me? A few years ago I bought a house in the Jezreel Valley, and I visit Jerusalem once a week. As I said: it’s not easy living in Jerusalem, but it’s very interesting to visit.

Meir Shalev is a popular Israeli novelist and essayist, and is 
the author of many books. This article was translated from ­Hebrew by Jessica Cohen. Editor’s note: This essay, by a Jewish citizen of Israel, is the second in a two-part series on Jerusalem, which last week featured an article by Sayed Kashua, an Arab citizen of Israel.