diasporising jerusalem

by tobybee

The other night at a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, organised by the Jewish Studies centre at Monash Uni (the ACJC) and Shira Hadasha a friend and I spoke together on the topic of ‘diasporising Jerusalem’. It was an interesting night – the topic for the whole night was “Yerushalayim Shel Ma’ala; Yerushalayim Shel Mata — Jerusalem of Above; Jerusalem of Below.” Anyway, I thought I’d share here what I said (and maybe the other person will share what he said too, but we’ll do that in a later post):

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem. What is the Jerusalem that we remember? Is ‘what’ the correct way to begin that question? Maybe ‘who’, or ‘where’, or something else altogether, would be better. And remember? What is the quality of ‘remembrance’? Does remembrance impel us to action? How can it not? How could a remembrance of Jerusalem demand nothing of us? What then, can it demand?

I think here of Jerusalem as both imagined and material; as the writings on the page, and the stones which can be seen; as the ideas which float around, and the bodies on the streets. And I think of remembrance as emotion, as stories, as histories, as ties between people. Is this what a diasporised Jerusalem could look like? As a space—both physical and fantastic—to retain our stories?

Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz writes, “What do I mean by home? …I mean a commitment to what is and is not mine; to the strangeness of others, to my strangeness to others; to common threads twisted with surprise.”

Jerusalem as a home for the Jews. Only for the Jews? Ghassan Hage writes of the modern nation which is imagined as a ‘homely’ one: a space of exclusivism, wherein the owners of the home are entitled to, and take up their entitlement to, control who lives in the home. The owners, in this iteration, are gatekeepers. But this, of course, is not the idea of home which Kaye/Kantrowitz writes of. Instead, I think, she implores us to consider a home which is, in a sense, a very yiddishe home: a home of belonging, certainly; but a home with its door open. A home with soup (not necessarily of the chicken variety), but also a home of challenges.

How then can this idea of home, the idea which Kaye/Kantrowitz articulates, be applied to Jerusalem. Alternatively, how can we envision or imagine Jerusalem as a home which is both mine and not mine (or ours, and not ours); which is both strange and familiar, to us and to others; which is both common and filled with surprised. And, even better, how can Jerusalem be a space which collapses ‘us and them’; an imagined and material space which encourages us to sit with difference, rather than be alienated by difference; which demands that we rub up against that difference, challenging ourselves to reconsider what difference means.

And here, then, we will sketch for you some ideas. We could call it ‘a provisional imagining of a diasporic Jerusalem’.


In Sheik Jarrah in East Jerusalem, at the moment, there are Palestinian families who have been evicted from their houses and who live on the streets. We can debate the legality of the ownership of the property from which they were evicted: the Jewish settlers who moved into the houses would say that they have prior ownership to the land, based on documents from the Ottoman era which indicate that the land was lawfully bought; the Palestinian residents would say that they moved into the properties after they were forced out of other areas of Jerusalem, and into East Jerusalem, in 1948, and, as refugees, are entitled to live in the homes which they legally own. And there’s greater complexity to the legal debate than that, of course.

But it’s not a simple legal matter. Nothing in Jerusalem is—or should be.

It could be about ownership, and ideas of personal property. It could be about the possibilities of protest, and the weekly protests by a group of Jerusalemites and foreigners outside these homes which were confiscated from Palestinians in August 2009, as they face the settlers who moved into the houses, claimed them as their own, and who use their Friday prayers as a way to vocally put distance between themselves and the Palestinians.

But, and this is perhaps the most important part, it could also be about bodies. About the material presence of Palestinian people—Palestinian bodies—living on the street. And about the act of walking into somebody else’s home and sitting in their furniture, looking at their photos, using their crockery. There’s something incredibly tangible about those acts. About doing those things, while the people whose photos you look at lie on the street out the front of the house. But they don’t just lie there. While the people whose photos you look at stand on the street and protest your actions. These are bodies who collide over the demand for the same space. The very same space. But, I fear, it takes a particular type of person to knowingly demand that someone cede their home—their home—in order to take up residence there. It takes a particular vision of the world, and of one’s place within it, to knowingly make someone else a refugee in order to make sure that oneself can live in a particular place. Is this what a homely Jerusalem entails? Is Jerusalem as a Jewish home one which is ‘united’. What does this vision of unitedness entail? How is a united Jerusalem currently being materialised?

As the protestors say, as they did on Yom Yerushalayim last week,

“We will never let Jerusalem again be a divided, gloomy, and halved city,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today to celebrate Jerusalem Day, a national and religious holiday in Israel marking the day that Israeli forces conquered East Jerusalem.

Not Unified.

In Sheikh Jarrah this Jerusalem day, things looked rather divided, more than gloomy, and at times positively racist, as hundreds of far-rightists marched with Israeli flags and danced while the evicted Palestinians of the area watched, and the police did their part to arrest four of our activists, in plain violation of the Israeli High Court ruling. Later one settler summed it up: “we are here to purify the air.”

At Netanyahu’s speech and at the Western Wall, many celebrated the Jerusalem of their dreams (which is their right), but here in Sheikh Jarrah, it looked like the far-right demonstrators were celebrating the actual Jerusalem, in which they were able to put three Palestinian refugee families out onto the street this year, making them refugees for a second time with support from the Israeli courts. Legal proceedings are underway to banish two more families from their homes. So, sitting in the real Sheikh Jarrah, our jaws dropped when Netanyahu came to the part of his speech about a Jerusalem in which Israel is “not banishing anyone.”

Something here doesn’t make sense. Why would one half of a city be trying to take over the other half if it were actually unified? Why would the ‘Jewish half’ be attempting to Judaize the ‘Arab half’? As even the rightist speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, acknowledged today, the answer is clear: Jerusalem is hardly united.

But let us consider this rhetoric of Jerusalem and a desire for unitedness, a unitedness which is made in opposition to an idea of Jerusalem as divided, halved and thus gloomy. What does a ‘united Jerusalem’ mean, in this iteration? Why does ‘united’ mean mono-religious? This brings us back to Ghassan Hage’s description of the ‘homely’ nation: one which is exclusivist. Does a united Jerusalem necessarily mean exclusivist? In this telling, yes, it seems. It seems that there are religious Jewish settlers who prioritise their own desire for a Jerusalem which contains people of only one religion, over the need of others for a home. Others here are reinforced as other.

But, presumably, the Jerusalem of our imaginations—the Jerusalem which a diaspora Jewry imagines—is not exclusively Jewish. We live in Melbourne. I imagine that I am not alone in enjoying that I live next door to Anglos, to Greeks and Italians. That I live down the road from numerous Turkish and Lebanese restaurants. That on my neighbourhood block there are two churches and a mosque, and the former Kadimah. Of course, that is the most basic materialisation of multiculturalism—and there is an entirely apt critique of that which reminds us that living next door to people and eating each others’ food is not enough to truly appreciate and live with difference. But it is a beginning. And we choose to live in Melbourne, I would think, in part for its diversity. For monocultural cities, we as Jews, one or two generations after the Holocaust, know, can materialise in genocide.

Why then would we want anything less for Jerusalem: a city of our hopes and dreams. Isn’t this, in a sense, what makes Jerusalem Jerusalem? That it contains the provocation to think which difference brings. And as such, is Jerusalem—as both idea and material presence—being shredded by these settlers—and the police, the courts, and the government which back them up—who make of others refugees?

We accept—although perhaps this is an imprecise analogy, but there’s something here that resonates—in practising the act of the bris, that united, whole, bodies are not necessarily best. That the way one should live a life is marked by a cut. A cut which cannot be removed. When we die, yes, we demand that bodies be buried whole. But that is how we are in death. Not in life.

But, of course, there is a diaspora demand for a ‘whole, undivided’ Jerusalem. There is a collective memory which persists and insists, and it says that Jerusalem once was whole and is now divided. But the geographical borders of this Jerusalem are not articulated in this memory: the memory is not one which is tied to a particular, known, place. It is, to use Michel de Certeau’s differentiation between place and space, tied to an imagined, remembered space. This is not to suggest that the emotions and memories are false: there is, in a very important sense, no such thing as either false emotion or false memory. But it is to ask that we deconstruct and historicise these emotions and histories. And that we understand that they are historical: those who carry them—and I include myself, in some way, in carrying an emotional tie to a memory which says that my people walked on the stones of Jerusalem and that I therefore should be able to walk on those stones too; that when I saw the walls of the Old City for the first time a few years ago I skipped forward, eager to see what was inside those walls, eager to see the material incarnation of the memories which I carried, which tied me to a collective, to a people—so those who carry these memories carry them because of stories we have been told, and stories we tell ourselves.

Indeed, I would argue, that is precisely what makes a diaspora Jewishness: what unites me with someone I’ve never met, but with whom I make a connection. It might be in a bar in New York, when we introduce ourselves and recognise in our curly hair and our Jewish names that we are Jewish. And then we reveal bits of ourselves, making jokes and telling brief stories, and we bond over those shared signifiers of Jewishness. This is what makes a diaspora people a people: the shared memories and histories. And the memory, hopefully, that these stories are historical: that they come from a contingent time and place.

So Jerusalem is a historical space. A space of collective memory and history. And it is a particular collective memory which dictates that Jerusalem can only be Jerusalem when it is ‘united’, and wholly Jewish. But a diasporised Jerusalem? No, that Jerusalem sits on collective memories of difference. It demands that Jews do not make of anyone refugees.


Adrienne Rich, the lesbian feminist Jewish poet, author and theorist, in a consideration of difference, wrote that “Jews, like women, exist everywhere, our existence often veiled by history… We exist everywhere under laws we did not make; speaking a multitude of languages; excluded by law and custom from certain spaces, functions, resources associated with power; often accused of wielding too much power, or wielding dark and devious power. Like Black and other dark-skinned people, Jews and women have haunted white Western thought as Other, as fantasy, as projected obsession.” Ronit Lentin, in her stunning piece, “A Yiddishe Mame Desperately Seeking a Mame Loshn: Toward a Theory of the Feminisation of Stigma in the Relations Between Israelis and Holocaust Survivors” reads these lines by Rich as describing a relationship between Europe and Other which is predicated on stigma. That is, the stigmatised Other dictates the identity of the Self: the place of the Other creates the place of the Self. As Lentin says, “The central issue for stigmatised groups is their place in the social structure, but ‘normal’ society stigmatises its others in order to define itself in turn.” Lentin explains then that, for the Other, the options seem to be restricted to disappearance or assimilation. But—and this is quite a ‘but’—she points out that “assimilation, [as Zygmunt] Bauman argues, is an impossible project: its victims are the first to see through the modern dream of uniformity.” Let me repeat that: “the modern dream of uniformity.” Uniformity, assimilation, sameness, unity: it is an illusion, a dream, a space of fantasy.

We are then faced with the necessity of negotiating stigma, of negotiating our place, as Jews, and—for some of us—as women too, in a society which in many ways marginalises us. It becomes a question of what to make of that marginality: how to turn the haunting place which Rich suggests—and I would concur—that we occupy in relation to white Western thought from a haunting which is deemed dangerous to a haunting which is inspiring. That of course is not purely a project of the Jews—it is also importantly a project of the West, and its ability to learn to manage its own fears of Jews and women (and other Others). But it is a project in which Jews, and women, can guide the way.

Which brings us to South Africa, that interesting place and space for Jews in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, upon which a multitude of fears, anxieties and fantasies are projected. And, in particular, to the recent words of Albie Sachs, who speaks with a certain authority when he says,
“When I was detained in solitary confinement the only reading matter I had been allowed was a book containing the Old and the New Testaments. Rationing myself to two pages a day, I slowly read through the Torah from beginning to end. The parts that reached me most powerfully were the lyrical and beautiful Songs of Solomon and the magnificent poetic visions of the prophets in exile. What they extolled above all was the righteousness of the humble and the oppressed seeking to be free in an imagined new world where all would be free. I picked up similar themes poetically expressed in the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament. The connection with the past that served as a source of courage for me in prison, came not from the passages exalting leaders who smote their enemies and destroyed every living thing in captured cities, nor from what I perceived as the inward-looking zealotry of some of the scribes. It stemmed from the way I felt myself to be immersed in an eternal striving for the achievement of knowledge that would enable the world to be better understood and human life to be made more perfect.

As I lay captive, in my mind the subsequent wandering of the Jews throughout the world could not be separated from the wondering of Jews about the world. If the universe had constantly to be re- understood, re-imagined and re-configured, it was no surprise that three of the most influential and revolutionary thinkers of our epoch had been Jews –Karl Marx, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. A heightened sense of the link between marginalisation, migration and freedom had undoubtedly integrated itself into my Jewishness. My grandparents fled from pogroms in Lithuania, where every Easter they hid in concealed basements or ran into the forests as Cossacks swept through their villages shouting that the Jews had killed Christ, now they would kill the Jews. Many of their generation brought with them to their new country the ideals of a world of equality without oppression and exploitation, ideals which were to engulf my parents and affect my existence from birth. Though none of these ideas were exclusively held by Jews, they lay under my pillow, so to speak, because I was a Jew.”

Sachs writes as a Jew; Adrienne Rich as a Jew and a woman. Both write from the margins, and find something productive there. For it is not just that Sachs is a Jew here, I don’t think. It’s that he’s a Jew in the diaspora; or, even better, a diasporic Jew. There is something particular in the construction of Jew as Other—of Jew as marginal—that happens in the diaspora that creates the type of Jew that Sachs inherited through his pillow. Just imagine if Jerusalem could be that kind of diasporic Jew!

Jonathan Safran Foer, in the piece from the edited collection Wrestling with Zion, which we have given you to read, writes, “If I had my way, Jerusalem wouldn’t even be in Jerusalem. Or rather, not exclusively in Jerusalem… [Jerusalem] is a holy place, of course—because it has been a holy place to so many for so long. It is a profoundly beautiful place, physically and historically. It is spiritual, by just about any definition. But it is subject to the same contingencies as everything else. My Jerusalem would not be an imperative, but a choice.”

And my Jerusalem would be a choice which we are impelled to make: an infinite choice, between more options than we can possibly imagine. It would be a choice which is historical and situated, a choice which expresses our fantasies and our hopes. And Jerusalem, in this imagining, would be a choice which demands that we never stop choosing.