Speaking in Israel on Jan. 22, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence declared that the United States would move its embassy to Jerusalem by the end of 2019 – sooner than had previously been announced. The news was met with cheers from his Israeli hosts, and angry protests from their Palestinian neighbours.
This was a big moment for Pence, an evangelical Christian who once declared that, “My support for Israel stems largely from my personal faith.” It was also a big moment for the Christian right more generally. According to U.S. President Donald Trump’s leading evangelical liaison, “This (embassy) issue was, to many (evangelicals), second only to concerns about the judiciary.”
The glories of New Jerusalem figure heavily in the Book of Revelation. (“The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone.”) Many evangelical Zionists believe that Christ will return to earth only after the world’s Jews have been gathered in the Holy Land. When the rapture comes, these Jews will have the choice of embracing Christ, or being killed and sent to hell.
It’s a terrifying vision. Yet the real history of Jerusalem is full of epic real-life slaughter that’s scarcely less horrifying. Historian Eric Cline tallied more than 40 instances over four millennia in which the city was captured, or recaptured, by force. No other city in the world is known to have witnessed such a steady stream of carnage.
I have visited Jerusalem half a dozen times, and always learn something new. But compared to the rest of Israel, the Old City – which Christians, Muslims and Jews all treat as a sort of architectural field telephone to God – usually feels tense and strangely joyless. Small disputes over ritual and real estate can spiral out of control. Since the 19th century, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been divided among six bickering Christian denominations. In 2002, a monk who moved his chair 20 cm into another sect’s zone sparked a brawl that left more than 10 men hospitalized.
Even from a distance of thousands of kilometres, the mere idea of Jerusalem can arouse mobs to sadistic violence. Before 9/11, Osama bin Laden declared that the fact that the Jews control Jerusalem was “burning him from within.” Saddam Hussein fired up the Arab world with a “Jerusalem Brigade” that he claimed would liberate the holy city. The terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad still uses such terminology (Saraya al-Quds) to describe its cadres.
The tradition of murderous European anti-Semitism owes much to fantasies about Jerusalem that were spread during the crusades. “In the minds of simple folk, the idea of the earthly Jerusalem became … a miraculous realm,” wrote Norman Cohn in The Pursuit of the Millennium. “When the masses of the poor set out on their long pilgrimage, the children cried out at every town and castle: ‘Is that Jerusalem?’ ”
These hordes were looking to annihilate Muslims. But the Jewish ghettos of Europe were closer, and full of loot to sustain the eastward slog to Jerusalem. The en passant Jew-slaughter of this period became a genocidal habit that flared up repeatedly amid European historical traumas, right up to the Holocaust.
The first crusaders did eventually get to Jerusalem, where they found the Jews boarded up in a synagogue. The attackers set the building on fire, burning everyone alive. If God truly is listening in on the other end of Jerusalem’s field telephone, He must be tired of the endless screaming.
Jerusalem is unique – a place where even non-religious visitors will report feeling something sacred. But I never feel it. The opposite, in fact: remove the conceit of the divine, and history shows Jerusalem to be a city of curses.
And more suffering is always just around the corner. After all, Islamists and evangelical Zionists both agree that God will eventually cleanse Jerusalem of Jews. It’s just a question of who will take their place.