Israel is Real: An Obssessive Quest to Understand the Jewish Nation and Its History

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9780374177782: Israel is Real: An Obssessive Quest to Understand the Jewish Nation and Its History
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“It’s a great irony that Israel was more secure as an idea than it’s ever been as a nation with an army.”

 

In AD 70, when the Second Temple was destroyed, a handful of visionaries saved Judaism by reinventing it—by taking what had been a national religion, identified with a particular place, and turning it into an idea. Jews no longer needed Jerusalem to be Jews. Whenever a Jew studied—wherever he was—he would be in the holy city. In this way, a few rabbis turned a real city into a city of the mind; in this way, they turned the Temple into a book and preserved their faith. Though you can burn a city, you cannot sack an idea or kill a book. But in our own time, Zionists have turned the book back into a

temple. And unlike an idea, a temple can be destroyed. The creation of Israel has made Jews vulnerable in a way they have not been for two thousand years.

 

In Israel Is Real, Rich Cohen’s superb new history of the Zionist idea and the Jewish state—the history of a nation chronicled as if it were the biography of a person—he brings to life dozens of fascinating figures, each driven by the same impulse: to reach Jerusalem. From false messiahs such as David Alroy (Cohen calls him the first superhero, with his tallis as a cape) and Sabbatai Zevi, who led thousands on a mad spiritual journey, to the early Zionists (many of them failed journalists), to the iconic figures of modern Jewish Sparta, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon, Cohen shows how all these lives together form a single story, a single life. In this unique book, Cohen examines the myth of the wandering Jew, the paradox of Jewish power (how can you be both holy and nuclear?), and the triumph and tragedy of the Jewish state—how the creation of modern Israel has changed what it means to be a Jew anywhere.

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About the Author:

RICH COHEN is the author of Sweet and Low (FSG, 2006), Tough Jews, The Avengers, The Record Men, and the memoir Lake Effect. His work has appeared in many major publications, and he is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. He lives with his family in Connecticut.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

ONE

The Fire

Most great cities have a reason for being where they are, and doing what they do. Either they sit at the confluence of great rivers, at the head of a mountain pass, on the shore of a canal, on a trade route or a railroad crossing or a superhighway, but Jerusalem, as far as anyone can tell, has no reason for being where it is—at the edge of the desert, on a hill surrounded by identical hills, guarding nothing but itself, doing nothing but being Jerusalem.

Is it the oldest city in the world?

No. Jericho is older. But it’s in that same league, from the same place in time. Always at issue. Always changing hands, filling and emptying. Stained with the blood of its citizens. Claimed by people who do not live there—nor did their parents, nor did their grandparents—but who still consider it their own. It exists in the past, as the capital of a lost civilization. It exists in the future, as the portal to the next world. It exists everywhere but in the present. It’s where the past and the future overwhelm the present.

Jerusalem is first mentioned in Egyptian writings circa 1900 BC, where it’s called Aushamen, a city on a hill on the far side of the desert. It turns up later, in the literature of Acadia and Assyria, as Urushalima, city of the deity Shalem. It was then a Canaanite city, holy to the priests of Ba’al. In the Torah, in which it’s mentioned just once, it’s called Salem. It’s where Abraham, on his way home from battle, is given sustenance by the stranger “Melchizedek, the king of Salem,“ who, according to Genesis, “brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed [Abraham], and said, ‘Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth.’ “

Melchizedek is the spirit of the Canaanite city blessing and forgiving its future usurpers: this story is like a mural in which Pocahontas kisses John Smith. To Christians, Melchizedek prefigures Christ, hints at Christ’s coming, or is Christ Himself, the founder of a clerical line that will be fulfilled in the Church. That’s why he blesses Abraham with bread and wine, the meal of the last supper and the Catholic Mass. In the New Testament, Melchizedek is called a “priest forever,“ an eternal priest who was never born and never dies, who always existed and always will, as the holy city always existed and always will.

Jerusalem entered history in 1000 BC, when it was conquered by David, the warlord who became king of the Hebrews.* David, who was in the process of uniting the scattered Hebrew tribes, picked Jerusalem as his capital because it was on neutral ground, located between the northern and southern kingdoms (Judea and Samaria) but had no special meaning to either. (It was chosen in the way Washington, D.C., was chosen.) It had already been hallowed by hundreds of years of Canaanite sacrifices to their gods Ba’al and Ashera,† deities who appear in the Bible as examples of the defunct order. In other words, Jerusalem was holy to Jews because it had been holy to Canaanites. Holy because it always had been, always had been because it always was.

*The word Jew began to refer to the people as a whole—as opposed to merely the members of the tribe of Judah—around 700 BC, following the destruction of the nation’s northern kingdom (Israel) by Assyria.

†Ba’al was worshipped in Jerusalem even after the Temple was built. During times of backsliding, altars to the Canaanite god sat beside altars to Yahweh. In the reign of Josiah, while the Temple was being renovated, a lost scroll was found between the walls. Josiah studied the scroll (probably Deuteronomy), read it to his priests, rent his garments, and went into mourning. The next day, all statues and altars to Ba’al were dragged off Mount Moriah and burned.

David moved the Ark of the Covenant to his new capital. It was kept in a tent on a hill in the center of the city. When Solomon became king, he built a house for the Ark, thus a house for the Lord. The Temple of Solomon lingers in Jewish imagination as the center of the world when the world was whole. This move from tabernacle to temple represents the evolution of the Jews from tent-dwelling Bedouins to book-reading urbanites. The hill, which flattened out on top, had been used as a threshing floor by the Canaanites and was later identified as the Mountain of God—where the first man was made of clay, where Abraham bound Isaac. “Get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering.” It’s unclear if everything happened on this mountain or if, when something enormous does happen, you are somehow back on the mountain, the navel of the world.

By moving the Ark to Jerusalem, David made his capital the center of political and religious power. Over time, it became something more: a symbol, a metaphor. It was the city as civilization, sacred as all cities are sacred. As Paris is sacred. As New York is sacred. But more so. The most famous story associated with Jerusalem is that of David and Bathsheba. The king looks out from the roof of his palace and sees Bathsheba washing herself. Sends for her. The rest is tragedy. The collapse of the United Kingdom of Israel. What is of interest here are the logistics: the fact that by looking from his roof David can see a woman bathing. This happens only in a city. In a sense, the downfall of the Jews results from the temptation and sin that come from life in a city—its concentration and compression, all those windows stacked on top of one another.

Jerusalem came to have a spiritual power not warranted by its size. It’s a model for all great cities. When plans were drawn for Moscow in the seventh century, one proposal (not executed) based the city on the layout of Jerusalem, as depicted in the Book of Ezekiel. When Lali-bela, the king of Ethiopia, returned from exile in Jerusalem (or maybe the idea came in a vision or dream; no one is really sure) he rebuilt his capital as a copy of the holy city, with churches and buildings carved from African sandstone. Jerusalem became a prize, a treasure to be taken and dominated. The list of its conquerors is the story of the world: Hebrews, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, Britons, Zionists. It entered the orbit of Rome in ad 66. The legions came at the invitation of Jews, who wanted them to establish order at a time of civil unrest. There had long been tension in the city between Hellenized Jews, who behaved like Greeks, and those who followed the ascetic faith of the desert.

The Romans restored order, then stayed, which is how Israel became a vassal, then a province. We know what this Jerusalem looked like. From letters, documents, books. It was dust colored and sat on a hill. It was a confusion of walls and streets. There were markets, mansions, slums. There was an Upper City and a Lower City. There was a trash dump in a valley called Gehenna, where pagans practiced human sacrifice. There was an underground spring, tunnels, chambers where food was stored in case of a siege. As you approached from the west, you would first see the Temple, then the walls. There was a sharp line between city and country, a black line, where wilderness ended and civilization began. One moment you were in the desert, the next you were swallowed up in the noise and chaos of town.

You could not live under the Roman emperor and practice as a Jew. Not really. Roman officials looted the treasury and abused the priests. Roman soldiers sacrificed to pagan gods on the Temple Mount. To the Romans, every holy place offered access to the eternal, as in our time every money card works at every ATM. In ad 39, when Caligula declared himself a living god and gave orders to raise his statue in the Temple, the Jews rioted. These two cultures, occupying the same land, ground against each other. The particularity of the Jews—the fact that they recognized no god but their own—was a constant irritation to Rome. Why wouldn’t the Jews, these tax-paying vassals, accept what was plain to the conquerors? That the Hebrew God was inferior to the gods of the Imperium.

This refusal alone was reason to hate the Jews—a hatred widespread even in the ancient world. Without saying so, the Jews seemed to insist that only their belief was true. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon calls Jews the “single people [who] refused to join in... the common intercourse of mankind. The sullen obstinacy with which they maintained their peculiar rites and unsocial manners seemed to mark them out as a distinct species of men, who boldly professed or faintly disguised their implacable hatred to the rest of humankind.”

Rebellion was inevitable. In the event of rebellion, Roman victory was inevitable. In this way, the destruction of Jerusalem was also inevitable. The city was created to be destroyed. Is created and recreated to be destroyed again and again. The story of Jerusalem is not complete if it is not destroyed. As the story of Rome is not complete if it does not destroy. Rome destroys, Jerusalem gets destroyed. Flesh and spirit, reason and faith. Jerusalem needs Rome as Jesus needs Judas: to be sacrificed into a symbol. By being destroyed, Jerusalem sheds its skin, its alleys and markets and tortured history, and becomes immortal.

The last days of the ancient kingdom were rank with false messiahs and premonitions. The Book of Daniel, the Book of Revelation. The seven angels came out of the Temple, having seven plagues, clothed in pure white linen. When Jesus told Mark, “Seest thou these great buildings? There shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down,“ he was working less as a prophet than as a poet, amplifying the mood of his time. How should a Jew live? How should a Jew face occupation? These were the questions of the day. There were moderates who said Jews should find a way to exist in the Roman world. There were Essenes who, in their prac...

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