Jerusalem's Ego and Id

By Alex Joffe
Thursday, January 19, 2012

Biography is not the same as history.  Biography charts the outer and inner life of a person—character, spirit, morality, emotion, perhaps even soul.  History, by contrast, incorporates different individual narratives and pieces of evidence, seeks out new data, then rises above all the fragments with a synthesis, new or specialized. 

A city, therefore, is a more natural subject for history than it is for biography.  But in Jerusalem: The Biography, Simon Sebag Montefiore, the great-great nephew of Sir Moses Montefiore, makes an exception.

Montefiore's account is artfully constructed from texts by and about Jerusalem's leading figures, from King David to the 5th-century Caliph Abd al-Malik (whose reign is commemorated by the Dome of the Rock) to Lord Shaftesbury, the 19th- century British prime minister who sought to restore the Jews to the Holy Land.  The author tells the story of the city through the experiences, perceptions, aspirations, and outrages of such individuals, painting an unparalleled picture of the most significant, colorful, and telling figures in Jerusalem over the past three thousand years.

Builders and sadists dominate the narrative.  We meet Herod—"sexually voracious," "paranoid, over-sensitive almost hysterical."  We are introduced to Melisende, daughter of the Crusader king Baldwin, "married to the capable and experienced Fulk, Count of Anjou, descendent of the depraved serial-pilgrim Fulk the Black and son of the delightfully named Fulk the Repulsive."  We discover the Ottoman Ahmet Jazzar Pasha, a/k/a the "Butcher," who "terrorized his territories by mutilating anyone suspected of the slightest disloyalty."  Indeed, torture is a persistent subtheme throughout the book; and debaucheries, murders, and perversities are described in lavish detail.

Montefiore covers an immense sweep of time.  His treatment of it is mostly satisfying.  Unfortunately, his treatment of the modern era is less so.  Here, the stories are grippingly told but marred by omissions and misplaced emphases.  Thus, he barely mentions Alan Cunningham, the Mandate's last British High Commissioner of Palestine—a general who, having been relieved of his World War II command after suffering a nervous breakdown in battle, was given the empire's most sensitive proconsul position, which he proceeded to occupy with a mixture of pique and diffidence.  Likewise, Montefiore describes the community of Silwan, bordering the Old City, as an "Arab village"; he fails to mention that, from the 1880s until the 1920s, many, if not most, of its residents were Jews.

The author's pursuit of scrupulous fairness leads him to draw unfair equivalences.  For instance, contrary to Montefiore, the Israeli archaeologists now excavating tunnels around the Temple Mount are not intellectually or morally corrupt in the manner of the Palestinians who, partly out of fear of reprisals from their own people, deny the ancient Jewish character of the city.  In a similar vein, when Montefiore recounts the story of how the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority boycotted negotiations with Israel in 2009 even though Israel had agreed to a freeze on the construction of West Bank settlements, it is somewhat jarring to see him characterize Fatah as "secular and conciliatory." 

Are these quibbles or substantive disabilities?  Montifiore was wise enough to conclude his primary narrative with the year 1967; perhaps he should have ended earlier.

More fundamentally, because the book is styled as biography rather than history, it is oddly uncritical.  This is not to slight Montifiore's scholarship.  On the contrary, the book is prodigiously researched and equipped with a formidable number of footnotes.   But because Montefiore places notables at the center, he must mine both history and literature.  In the process, he blurs critical distinctions between the varying types of evidence.  To rely on accounts provided by the Bible, the Gospels, Josephus, Roman writers like Tacitus and Appian, Christian writers such as Eusebius, the 9th-century Muslim historian Tabari—or, indeed, virtually any writer before the 19th century—is to take moralistic literature at face value with very few grains of salt.  The result is a ripping yarn of kings and other eminent figures; but the commonplace, the mundane, and the mass of people are neglected except as piles of nameless corpses.

The still deeper problem is that cities are not people.  If they have a consciousness, it is that encoded in literature by their lovers and haters.  In this respect, no other city has a consciousness like Jerusalem's: No other city has had the level of literary attention lavished on Jerusalem.  Athens, Rome, Paris, London, New York—none of them comes close.  In fact, this level of attention is a great curse, a stream of tradition that has, so to speak, inflated the city's ego and given license to its uglier id. 

Montefiore accepts the city's ego at face value.  By repeatedly asserting that Jerusalem is the "cockpit of the Middle East," he succumbs to the city's self-absorption and obsessive demands for attention.  He perpetuates the relentless image and self-image of Jerusalem's holiness and indispensability.  It is not surprising that the feature Montefiore captures best is the city's obsessive-compulsive competition, jockeying, chafing, and bloodshed. 

By viewing Jerusalem through individuals, he grasps the politics and violence of the past—and, in part unknowingly, sketches the character or personality of Jerusalem itself.  Jerusalem moves people to the heights of poetry and cruelty; it gives them transcendent insights and makes them selfish, violent, and blind.  Beauty is complemented by ugliness.  The overall effect is schizophrenic. In spite of himself, Montefiore uncovers and illuminates the city's wild subconscious.

As Montefiore puts it, Jerusalem has had "no natural industries except holiness."  But readers will be led to sympathize with the Rambam's observation about holiness: "Whatever is more holy is more ruined."  Montefiore describes what he calls the Jerusalem Syndrome, in which true believers visiting the city come to think of themselves as prophets.  More apropos might be the Stockholm Syndrome.  That is, Jerusalem: The Biography succeeds because it is ultimately the story of the effect that Jerusalem has on people, for good as well as for ill. 


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