I want terribly to engage the history of this place, to relive the ancient history of the Jewish people and fall in love with their customs and culture. The history of the Jews is my history, not just any history but the history of our salvation and the history of God’s own work. I want to join them in their reverence for this holy city of Jerusalem. But they condemn themselves with their refusal to admit their own complicity in a terrible violence; they place themselves once again in danger of God’s judgment.
Today, we traveled into Jerusalem to visit “King David’s Tower,” the base of which was built by Herod the Great himself; and to see the Burnt House Museum, which showcases the archaeological remains of a priest’s house burned in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The walk through the Burnt House begins with a video dramatization centered around the family that would have occupied this house leading up to the burning of the Temple, demonstrating along the way the tensions that existed within Judaism at the time. But it was not only a re-telling of this history–how could it be? The entire presentation was framed by current events, and the story was told in a way so as to directly legitimate the Jewish control of Jerusalem.
The presentation began with an explanation of how the burnt house came to be discovered: through a dig that began after the “liberation” of the west wall in 1967. Liberation from whom or why was not mentioned; the screen only showed video footage of Jewish soldiers falling in front of the west wall and kissing it. The presentation cut to the past, and a young man began telling the story of the ruins–a young man, as it turns out, who was the zealot son of the priest who lived in this house. I gradually became aware of a cloth that was sitting on top of the chair where he sat: a white cloth, with several blue stripes–the colors of the Israeli flag. As I watched, I realized these colors were ubiquitous, on shawls and bags and those long scarves that orthodox Jews wear around their necks (the name of which escapes me). The moral thrust of the story was that only in unity can the Jews hope to resist invading forces, condemning the division between priest and zealot that existed in the characters of the father and his son. After finishing the story of his home’s destruction, the son is reflecting on what’s happened. “I don’t know why,” he says, “but I feel we will come back here one day.” He could sense that one day there would again be children playing in the streets. The presentation concluded, then, with a quote from the Hebrew Scriptures about the restoration of Jerusalem and the Jews’ return from exile. Jerusalem would again belong to the Jews.
In another room of ruins, a sign did give more information about the war of ’67. The Jews had been banished from Jerusalem in AD 70 (did it mention the more complete expulsion of AD 135?), only to return in the 14th century. Suddenly, then, in 1948, the Arab League attacked Jerusalem and razed the Jewish Quarter. It was only in 1967 that Israel was able to reclaim the west wall and restore peace for the Jews to Jerusalem. Obviously, a few important things are missing from this account: that the war in 1947–48 was not sudden but a response by the Arab nations to the new land claim staked by the Jewish people, for example, and that 1967 was not simply about “liberation” but involved a colossal attempt at expansion, with Israel not only taking control of the west wall but also occupying the West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights.
It was especially difficult for me after seeing these things to pay any attention to the history of Jerusalem. This ancient site of a terrible tragedy had been transformed into Israeli propaganda. Every tourist that walks through this place–the innocent tourist who does not know the history of the conflict–receives an unexpected lesson in Israeli ideology. It is subtle, brilliant propaganda to be sure. No one would think they were being trained to read history in a very tendentious way if they did not know what was missing from the stories or what aim was originally sought by the prophetic texts of restoration. What is a long history of oppression and disaster–for Palestinians as much as Jews–was reduced to a simple story of violent exile and liberatory return; what is God’s promise of hope for restoration based on obedience and worship was reduced to an emotional tool for political re-establishment.
It is a terrible thing to see such a tragic history being used for so much violence.