Feb/Mar 2011

City of God

Is Jerusalem really the capital of the West's divine madness?

Adina Hoffman


James Carroll writes that his new book is "about the lethal feedback loop between the actual city of Jerusalem and the apocalyptic fantasy it inspires." No one who reads the headlines or watches the evening news can possibly doubt that such a Zion-fixated end-time fantasy looms in the minds of many a pistol-packing Jewish settler, Rapture-ready Christian soldier, and aspiring Muslim martyr.

But that may be just the problem with Jerusalem, Jerusalem. Carroll's scrupulously ecumenical survey of the waves of violence the idea of the ancient city has churned up over the millennia is, in effect, an extended depiction of the same Jerusalem one wearily encounters in the daily paper and at all too regular intervals on CNN. Viewed from on high and in sweeping terms, this is a chronically blood-splattered place, where the human sacrifice of the ancient Canaanites is no more than a Palestinian teenager's stone's throw away from the bus bombs of the second intifada, and where King David's vicious vanquishing of the Jebusites foretells in dramatic fashion Israel's conquest of various Palestinian neighborhoods and groves.

Lack of ambition, in other words, is not one of Jerusalem, Jerusalem's flaws. And Carroll—a onetime Paulist priest–turned–religiously engaged antiwar activist, journalist, and best-selling author—is almost to be commended for daring to start his history of sacred violence with an In-the-Beginning return to "thirteen billion years ago," when "all mass was concentrated into a single point, far smaller than the dot at the end of this sentence." Grand subjects, he plainly believes, demand grand pronouncements—which is fair enough in a book designed to take a massive, thorny tangle of religious, political, and historical concerns and package them for the so-called common reader. This he does by means of vivid metaphors. Besides calling the city "the cockpit of violence," Carroll refers repeatedly to the idea of "Jerusalem fever," which, he writes, "consists in the conviction that the fulfillment of history depends on the fateful transformation of the earthly Jerusalem into a screen onto which overpowering millennial fantasies can be projected."

One may begin to wonder at the effectiveness of all this cranked-up generalizing, however, as Carroll proceeds to offer grand pronouncements about the Caves of Lascaux, Revelation, and the Babylonian exile and sweeping assessments of, among other things, Heraclitus, Jesus and the Temple cult, Muhammad's view of the oneness of God, the Masons, Calvinism, Christopher Columbus, Spinoza's heresy, the Thirty Years' War, Ottoman-era printing presses, Quakerism, Theodor Herzl, Nat Turner, the Battle of the Somme, Adolf Eichmann, the Rite of Spring, the Nakba, Billy Graham, 9/11, and the contemporary struggle to save the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah from an especially rabid group of Israeli settlers. Given the crushing complexity of each of these subjects and the inevitable fudging, if not outright inaccuracy, that comes with Carroll's need to talk so authoritatively about such a vast and eclectic range of topics, this subtlety-flattening march through time tends—for all his good intentions—to shrink rather than enlarge our view of the city and the distant shadows it casts.

Yes, Jerusalem fever does exist. The theologically febrile mind-set of certain people who dwell on or in the city is undeniable, and a whole litany of foreign wars fought over the centuries can certainly be understood as a kind of global epidemic of Jerusalem syndrome. Indeed, the book's most convincing moments occur when Carroll takes us farthest from the "actual city" and into the mythic realm of the heavenly Jerusalem, as it inflamed, say, the rhetoric of the American Civil War. "'The Battle Hymn of the Republic,'" he notes, "literally defines the republic's battle as the cosmic Armageddon out of the Book of Revelation" and so casts the Union's struggle against the Confederacy as though the latter were the Antichrist and "America [were] finally coming into its own as the instrument of millennial fulfillment." But the "apocalyptic fantasy" that, in Carroll's account, has plagued everyone from Pope Urban II to the first US secretary of defense, James Forrestal, is one thing, and the "actual city of Jerusalem" is quite another. To promise, as Carroll does on the book's first page, that, "always, the story will curve back to the real place" is to create expectations that disappoint. At least to one who lives in Jerusalem—who pays municipal taxes, picks pomegranates, waits in post-office lines, bumps into old friends, shops in the markets, uses the library, and hangs laundry out to dry—Carroll's broad brush plasters over precisely those startling, saddening, maddening, sometimes comical, often tender particulars that make the place so real.

The fevers and cockpits are, though, certainly attention grabbing, and reaching for such punchy metaphors is in itself no shame. In fact, Carroll took the same tack much more effectively in his darkly compelling Constantine's Sword (2001), an idiosyncratic sprawl of a book about the Catholic Church's fraught historical relationship to the Jews. Whatever its indulgences, that hefty tome burned with the fire of Carroll's strong feeling, and the narrative was shot through with his own hard-won perceptions. By contrast, Jerusalem, Jerusalem treats its subject in a far more studied fashion, and many of the ideas Carroll puts forth here are rehashes of rehashes. He describes, for instance, visiting the city in 1973 as a young, conflicted priest. After being repelled by the tourist-trap crassness of many of the religious sites, he was taken to an out-of-the-way archaeological dig by an elderly Dominican priest. There the priest showed him the threshold stone of the Herodian-era city gate, which he claimed Jesus must have stepped on with his bare feet. At this news, Carroll fell to his knees and kissed the dusty stone, since "this was as close to touching God as I had come." The force of his emotion at the encounter with that charged yet unofficially sacred spot was what persuaded him to leave the priesthood. "The threshold stone took on meaning as my threshold, a crossing into the rest of my life."

The experience was no doubt profound, but it figures prominently both in Constantine's Sword and in Carroll's National Book Award–winning memoir, An American Requiem (1996), and one may reasonably question the writerly wisdom of trotting out the epiphany yet again. Unfortunately, the warmed-over anecdote is emblematic of the recycled quality of much of the book. As Carroll leads us through his Intro to Western Civ–styled narrative—and toward a prescription for how "good religion" could and should replace "bad religion," much as he issued a call for Vatican III at the end of Constantine's Sword—he relies heavily on the insights of others, many of whom are themselves popularizing synthesizers (Karen Armstrong, Amos Elon, and Reza Aslan, among a late gathering of usual suspects). So it is that the book's central ideas are passed along to us at second and even third hand. Carroll sometimes relies on the thinking of more intellectually rigorous writers, such as the French anthropologist and theorist of religious violence René Girard and the Bible scholar James Kugel, though there is something disconcerting about the author's tendency to fix on one or two experts for each chapter and essentially reproduce, in his own graceful if not entirely grounded prose, the learned authorities' positions in the service of his own theologically based theory of everything.

At times, the truth-value of Carroll's argument can be difficult to determine. The book includes fairly ample endnotes, but it is often impossible to track where an enormous historical concept has landed from. And readers without prior knowledge of a given subject will have no way of realizing that some of the notions put forth are just wrong. Occasionally these inaccuracies are simple errors of fact, such as the idea that Palestinian Jerusalemites are Israeli Arabs, or "Palestinians with Israeli passports"; as it happens, most are considered permanent residents of the Jewish state, in the same way that it classifies immigrants as legal residents. At other points, the distortions involve out-of-date clichés, such as the tired description of the café sitters in West Jerusalem's German Colony neighborhood as "the mostly secular, or only loosely religious, children and grandchildren of the socialist founders of the state." For the past decade or so, the German Colony has become more like the Teaneck Colony, with modern Orthodox Americans and French constituting the majority of those sitting and sipping. Dubious conflations abound as well. Is every war a holy war? From this book, one might think so.

Carroll is not alone, it should be said, in oversimplifying, generalizing, and relying on hand-me-down visions of the contested city. For centuries, that has been the default mode of crusaders and conquerors, tourists and pilgrims, politicians and journalists. In an ironic sense, this is both the point of and the problem with Carroll's book: He seems to be suffering from a more peaceful version of the very totalizing syndrome he diagnoses.

Adina Hoffman is the author of several books, including My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet's Life in the Palestinian Century (Yale, 2009).

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