Jerusalem Growing in Size and Depravity


Paola Caridi’s book offers a provocative critique of everyday life in modern Jerusalem. <Available from Middle East Books and More>

Given its deep significance to the world’s three major monotheistic religions, outsiders often view Jerusalem through the prism of faith, as a place defined by ancient events. In her new book, Jerusalem Without God: Portrait of a Cruel City, Italian journalist Paola Caridi doesn’t dismiss or downplay the city’s august spiritual significance. Rather, she sets aside the city’s religious aura to reflect on the everyday functioning of today’s modern, earthly city. Her conclusion is a solemn one; she portrays a Jerusalem bereft of humanity, where cruelty reigns and the very basic characteristics of a city are absent.

Caridi began her Nov. 16 talk at Georgetown University’s Washington, DC campus by observing that “Jerusalem has more geography than history.” On its face, this is a strange assertion, given the traditionally small size of this history-rich city. Indeed, she noted, her statement is a provocation, a restructuring of Israeli professor Avishai Margalit’s 1991 statement that “Jerusalem has always had more history than geography.”

The intention behind Caridi’s prodding comment is not to question the historical validity of Margalit’s statement, but rather to highlight how Israel’s post-1967 actions have altered the concepts of space and community in Jerusalem.

Since it captured Arab East Jerusalem from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel has perpetuated the sublime image of a “unified Jerusalem” that serves as the country’s “undivided capital.” In reality, Caridi noted, Israel’s strategy has been to Judaize the city by promoting Jewish immigration, isolating Palestinians in heavily concentrated areas, and expanding the city’s municipal borders. “The city’s entire political destiny is caught up in its expansion,” she said. “The borders, already modified and expanded immediately after 1967, have been gradually stretched like elastic.”

It is this physical expansion of the city that leads Caridi to proclaim Jerusalem, once defined by the walls of the ancient Old City, to have “more geography than history,” as modern political ambitions have dramatically redefined the scope of the city.

Beyond the physical reality, Caridi explores in her book how post-1967 Jerusalem, suffocated by “invisible lines” and a dearth of shared spaces, casts a cold chill over the ethos of the city. The people of Jerusalem, she writes, “brush against each other without touching, pass along the few streets in which the diverse communities must inevitably meet each other, in this web of separate streets and invisible traffic signs that indicate to the residents where they may go and where, on the other hand, is for the ‘others’ to go.” Israel’s “unified Jerusalem,” she contends, is much more divided than it is united.

Reflecting on this depravity, she—again provocatively—suggests that Jerusalem is not a city—at least according to the most virtuous definitions of the concept. She juxtaposes Jerusalem’s reality against the archetype of the “heavenly city” offered by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former archbishop of Milan. He defined the perfect city as “a place where men live in harmony, in a weave of complex and constructive relationships…[and] there is a need for squares, for agora, where people can meet and understand each other and exchange intellectual and moral gifts of which no one is deprived.” This, she said in her talk, is the opposite of Jerusalem, which she described as “an urban body where the ongoing conflict has changed the parameters of coexistence, moving from open and shared social spaces to closed social spaces where access is limited according to ethno-religious affiliation.”

Another morbid feature of modern Jerusalem is the centrality of the city’s new wall of division, Caridi told her audience. Once defined by its ancient walls, which were meant to protect the city from outsiders, the city’s new wall serves to fracture and divide the city’s own residents. “Jerusalem is still a city within walls, that is, the archetype of an anti-modern city,” she said. “The ancient walls of Suleiman the Magnificent [in the Old City] contain ‘only’ the religious and tourist dimensions of one of the most contested places in the world. Third millennium Jerusalem is enclosed by ‘the Wall,’ a concrete wall of separation to the Palestinians and a ‘defensive barrier’ to the Israelis. As a newly equipped fortress, Jerusalem is now caged inside a security system composed of the Wall and checkpoints, guarded entrances, terminals—postmodern drawbridges.”

As Jerusalem endures its schismatic modern day reality, Caridi proposes a more universal and inclusive approach—one that magnifies rather than mocks the values of the faiths that cherish the city. “Jerusalem belongs to many, not to one,” she writes. No country or group can lay sole claim to the city. “It belongs to everyone….The city is not only Israeli, not only Palestinian, not only Jewish, Muslim or Christian.”

The faithful may long for the perfect “heavenly city”—known as the “Heavenly Jerusalem” in Christian eschatology—but Caridi simply recommends trying to humanize the earthly Jerusalem. “Jerusalem cannot be divided because it is multiple,” she concludes in her book. “Jerusalem cannot be made sacred because it is made of flesh and blood inhabitants. Further than the faiths, a Jerusalem without God lives its daily drama. To this city, few unfortunately give heed.”

Jerusalem Without God: Portrait of a Cruel City is available from Middle East Books and More.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *