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The One That Rules

On Jerusalem.


On my last day in Jerusalem, a woman was shot and killed near the Damascus Gate. This was in early 2017: before the United States moved its embassy to the city, before this year’s recent explosion of violence over Sheikh Jarrah. I was returning to the city for the first time in my adult life.

The woman who died was forty-nine years old. According to the authorities, she’d approached a metal police barrier brandishing a deadly weapon, at which point the cops opened fire. The deadly weapon in question was a pair of scissors. A few months earlier, her son had also been shot dead in Jerusalem while riding in the passenger seat of his cousin’s car. The cousin was driving haphazardly; the police claimed they thought he was about to ram into a crowd of pedestrians; they opened fire. The passenger died. He was twenty-seven years old. The driver, his cousin, survived. After a short investigation, the driver was arrested for driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol, for previous traffic offences, and for manslaughter: by driving erratically, they said, he, and not they, had killed the man sitting next to him. I don’t need to note who in this tragedy was Jewish and who was Arab, who was Israeli and who was Palestinian: you already know. I can’t say with any certainty that one killing led to the next. Just that first the son was killed, and then his mother; that others were killed before them, and others would be killed in the days to come.

I was in the Old City when the killing happened, but I didn’t witness it, or hear the guns when they fired. I found out about it much later, from the news. Just after sunset that day, I left by the Damascus Gate, and walked to the Airbnb I was sharing with my then-girlfriend in Musrara. We had to pack our things; we were flying back to London the next day. There was nothing at all to suggest that a woman had been shot and killed a few hours previously, a few minutes’ walk from our door. In the evenings, the air in Jerusalem smells of orange zest, pine resin, za’atar, aftershave, bitumen, and cat piss. The smell of guest rooms, unfamiliar body odor mixed with fungus and cleaning products, the musky drip from air conditioner units, the neighbors’ cooking. It does not smell like death. Or, at least, this was not how I expected death to smell.

I say that I was returning to the city because, like roughly one million other people, like the woman and her son who died, I was born in Jerusalem. My first breath might have tasted of oranges and hyssops, and—given that this was in a hospital—of cleaning products, air conditioner units, and death.

Being born in Jerusalem doesn’t mean much: what matters is which Jerusalem is yours. Everyone knows that this city is really two cities. Sometimes they’re called East and West, but that doesn’t really cover it—not when there are neighborhoods like Ma’ale HaZeitim or Givat HaMatos, which are geographically part of the East, but in every other way belong to the West. No definitions are really precise. One of the cities is not necessarily Jewish; the other is not really Muslim. The rich city is not always rich, and the poor city is not always poor. Still, there’s one that’s served by the public transport system and one that isn’t, one that builds huge apartment complexes and one which is torn down piece by piece, one that has full voting rights and one that is disenfranchised. There’s one guarded by heavily armed cops, and one it’s guarded against.

But the city has other, subtler divisions too. There is the real Jerusalem, with its trams, its schools and taxes, its smells, and its women being shot on the streets. And then there is the true Jerusalem, the holy city, the invisible city, the city more real than the real. There are no maps of the second city. It lives in the cracks and interstices, the messages shoved between the stones that go straight to God, the flight of sparrows. It’s somewhere in the air.

Every so often, people get a glimpse of the true Jerusalem. These are almost always tourists, and usually American. To see the true city is a kind of madness; the British Journal of Psychiatry calls it Jerusalem Syndrome. Something happens to the devout of the New World in this place: people who grew up surrounded by big-box supermarkets and fields of genetically modified grain. Something about the Middle East, in its gloomy sun-crusted antiquity, sends them mad. Sufferers usually experience an obsessive-compulsive cleanliness; they’ll rub themselves raw in the shower, or try to clean every speck of dirt from under their fingernails, to be as pure as the city they’ve entered. Often, they isolate themselves from their families or church groups, and make a procession alone to a site of particular religious interest, chanting hymns or Bible verses. Once there, they deliver a sermon. Sometimes this God-fearing person from Kansas or Colorado will announce themselves as the reborn Messiah, or Elijah, or Moses, or John the Baptist. Sometimes they declare the End of Days. More often, they’ll just ramble, pleading with the people around them to live better, simpler, holier lives. Something is wrong in the world; it ought to be more like Jerusalem, and instead it’s like Ohio. These symptoms tend to vanish entirely once the sufferers are removed from the city, but they can still remember how it felt: the sense of something opening up inside them, an infinite reservoir of pure and holy light.

There’s one detail I particularly like. The prophets will often dress themselves in sacred garments, a white robe or toga. This robe is almost always made from a hotel bedsheet. The Messiah comes adorned in a mix of cotton and synthetic fibres, bought in bulk by some international hospitality chain, and mass-produced in sweatshop conditions somewhere on the far side of the world.

Other people have also seen this second city. The prophet Ezekiel saw the true Jerusalem from his exile in Babylon: a holy city, a clean and sanctified city, nourished by miraculous waters, along whose banks “every thing that liveth, which moveth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live.” This vision was miraculous, but also precise: he numbers the gates of the hidden city, he gives the dimensions of its suburbs, “the windows, and the arches, and the palm trees.” Isaias saw the same vision, with “battlements of rubies” and “gates of sparkling jewels.” John the Divine saw it too: “that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of Heaven from God,” in the form of an immense cube twelve thousand stadia across in every direction. A city made of gold so pure it shone “as it were transparent glass,” a city glowing brighter than the sun itself. (Twelve thousand stadia is over two thousand kilometers. This is a city that would, if it descended to the earth, pop our planet’s rocky surface like the skin of a balloon, turning it once again into a ball of livid and lifeless slag.) Later, Mohammed saw it in al-Hijr, when God unfurled Jerusalem before his sight, and he described it to the people. Even those who haven’t seen it themselves recognise its existence. At the end of the Passover service, Jews recite: “This year we are slaves, next year we will be free; this year we are here, next year we will be in Jerusalem.” We say this even if we happen to be physically within the city. We’re talking about the other Jerusalem.

Some have, just as famously, failed to witness it. The great medieval rabbi Nachmanides won a public debate against Pablo Christiani, a converso who became a Dominican friar, on the topic of Christ’s divinity. In the inevitable aftermath, he was forced into exile from his native Spain, and in 1267 he travelled to Jerusalem. Instead of the holy city of David, he found ruins, wracked by centuries of crusades. “Many are its forsaken places,” he wrote in a letter to his son, “and great is the desecration. The more sacred the place, the greater the devastation it has suffered. Jerusalem is the most desolate place of all.” He ends his letter with hope for the other city. “May He who let us see Jerusalem in its destruction, let us see Jerusalem rebuilt and restored, when the Divine Presence will return on it.” But he did not see that day. Nachmanides left Jerusalem for Acre; three years after he arrived in Palestine, he died.

I couldn’t see the second city either. I returned to Jerusalem on a hot and stinking bus from Tel Aviv, grumbling over the hillsides. Once, I thought, prophets might have stood on those hills. Once, a prophet stood on every hill. Now they looked tiny, almost comic; dwarfed by the big housing compounds on their summits. In the valleys, cement plants stalked on fat segmented legs. Bridges on concrete struts carried the highway over the hollows of the land. Is the ragged industrial backwater of a holy city a holy backwater? Were these holy cement plants? Was this gas station ordained by God?

Things didn’t get much better once I was inside the city itself. At night, in the pedestrianized tangle just outside the walls of the Old City, the sweat stuck clammy to the inside of my jeans. People clumped wetly on the streets, by falafel joints, by twenty-four-hour stores selling sunglasses and Coke, by an American-style Irish bar called Mike’s Place. Coursing through this maze like blackened honey were the frummers, trains of ultra-Orthodox Jews, heavy in their big coats and broad hats, giving me and my shiksa girlfriend quick and evil glances. The man letting out our apartment was another frummer: when he handed over the keys he wouldn’t shake my girlfriend’s hand or even look her in the eye. I didn’t like him, and I didn’t much like his city either. Not its bland modernity, nor its cultish backwardness. Never mind the great and holy Jerusalem—this didn’t even feel like my birthplace; I saw nothing of myself reflected here. Tel Aviv was bad enough, with its heavily armed teenagers lounging around on the beach, a city out of Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers; I’ve never felt more exposed and self-conscious as a Jew than in Israel, a country that only sees me as a Jew and not a human being, a twentieth-century invention that wants to gobble up the three thousand years of tradition I’ve inherited. But Jerusalem was worse. It felt like a strange place in a foreign country, which is exactly what it was.

My girlfriend didn’t think much of the holy city either. Ordinarily an only moderately strident atheist, it seemed to set off something, a kind of anti-Jerusalem Syndrome. For her, Jerusalem meant Jesus, which meant the Catholic Church, which meant the Catholic Church in Ireland, which meant generations of Irish Catholic men living with various forms of guilt and terror, and generations of Irish wives and daughters left to pick up the pieces. All the holiness of Jerusalem was just an elaborate disguise for what was really there: a village somewhere in County Kildare; the priest, the birch, and the bottle. I understand this impulse: if Jerusalem is a holy city, then every evil that happens there is mired in the sacred; these are holy cops shooting holy bullets at holy cars and being threatened by holy scissors, and who are you, mortal, to make judgements about it? Justice seems to demand that we clear out all the old superstitions, and see the robes of the prophets for the hotel bedsheets they really are.

Like I said, I understand. But I don’t agree. Just because the other Jerusalem has only been seen by prophets, madmen, and Americans, just because it was not seen by either the great rabbi Moses ben Nachman or myself, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

One of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is Sophronia, a city in two halves:

In one there is a great roller coaster with its steep humps, the carousel with its chain spokes, the Ferris wheel of spinning cages, the death-ride with the crouching motorcyclists, the big top with the clump of trapezes hanging in the middle. The other half-city is of stone and marble and cement, with the bank, the factories, the palaces, the slaughterhouse, the school, and all the rest. One of the half-cities is permanent, the other is temporary, and when the period of its sojourn is over, they uproot it, dismantle it, and take it off, transplanting it to the vacant lots of another half-city.

And so every year the day comes when the workmen remove the marble pediments, lower the stone walls, the cement pylons, take down the Ministry, the monument, the docks, the petroleum refinery, the hospital, load them on trailers, to follow from stand to stand their annual itinerary. Here remains the half-Sophronia of the shooting-galleries and the carousels, the shout suspended from the cart of the headlong roller coaster, and it begins to count the months, the days it must wait before the caravan returns and a complete life can begin once again.

Jerusalem is Sophronia. Other cities are built, and then sometimes turn into ideas; in Jerusalem, the idea comes first. The real city is only an imitation of the true city, an image of the vision glimpsed by Ezekiel and Isaias and all the rest. The stony echo of a collective dream. Because when Donald Trump moved the American Embassy to Jerusalem, it wasn’t so his diplomats could meet with members of the Knesset without having to commute from Tel Aviv. Instead, he was putting his embassy in the city made of pure transparent gold.

Things in Jerusalem start to make a lot more sense once you understand that the entire place is teetering over the edge of unreality. I remember the engraved marble plates, straddling an ancient doorway in the Christian Quarter, that read:





Above, printed on ceramic tiles, is an image of the man himself, “Jerusalem basketball legend Issa Kassissieh,” with his precisely sculpted beard, a giant orange ball in hand, against the backdrop of the Old City. A big poster, with the same design, hangs over the back of the house. Issa’s claim isn’t invented: now retired, he was a prodigy, the star of the Palestinian basketball leagues. Issa started out practicing with a hoop he attached to the medieval walls. He wasn’t born in the city, but in a small town out in the Judean backcountry. His name in Arabic is that of Jesus. It’s not known which gate he went through when he first came to Jerusalem. It’s not known if, at the moment of Issa Kassissieh’s birth, a shining basketball appeared in the sky.

He played briefly for Israeli and Greek teams, but couldn’t stand being away from his city. The point wasn’t to become an international superstar, the point was to play basketball. Stardom, of a sort, claimed him. Even now, Arab Christians paint his name and his rhyming creed over the walls of Jerusalem. After giving up the sport, he found a new celebrity. Once a year, he decks out the house with holly and tinsel and Christmas ornaments, and locals queue for hours to see him in costume. Issa is the only fully accredited Santa in the Middle East, a graduate of the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Michigan, United States.

Stranger still is the Jewish Quarter. (The four quarters of Jerusalem are ill defined, and don’t quite fit together on a two-dimensional map. In the Muslim Quarter, for instance, most of the street-level shops and apartments are indeed occupied by Muslims—but many of the upper stories have been colonized by Israelis, who hang out flags from their windows to make sure everyone recognizes their domain. It doesn’t help that there was once a fifth, the Maghrebi Quarter, which was demolished in a single week, and survives only as a bad ghost, never to be spoken of.) The Jewish Quarter is a jumble of ancient-looking buildings, linked by narrow alleys where ten-year-old kids with flopping payot play raucous games of football during lunch recess. Ornate buttresses, secret stairs. The Jewish Quarter feels very old. The fact that it also contains a plasticky sandwich bar called Holy Bagel feels like an act of incredible vandalism.

It isn’t: the real vandalism is the Jewish Quarter itself. Almost every building in the district was pulled down when Israel captured the Old City in 1967, and then rebuilt. The Old City of Jerusalem has become an age-flavored urban experience: something considerably newer than the Victorian house in London where I grew up, or the clapboard suburbs in America that the bedsheet-wearing prophets call home.

This newness has a long history. When British forces took the city from the Ottoman Empire, fifty years earlier in 1917, they expected to inherit Jerusalem the Golden, the true city, and found themselves in possession of something very different: the real one. The architect Charles Robert Ashbee, pioneer of the Arts and Crafts movement and advisor to the Mandate of Palestine, described the scene: “There was much sickness, the misery and squalor were pitiful . . . on the south and east were great cess-pits . . . a piece of derelict and very filthy land.” So extensive sections of the city were demolished and rebuilt. British planners, hoping to recreate the holy and authentic Jerusalem out of the dross that occupied its space—mud or plaster houses, tin shacks, tent cities, crowded with the helpless people that have always lived beneath the holy sites—decreed that all new buildings would have to be constructed from the local limestone. Stone comes with biblical and historical associations, but it’s also expensive: at a stroke, the colonial authorities had forced many of the city’s poorer families out into the suburbs. Meanwhile, newcomers filtered in, eager to live in the imaginary Jerusalem that was being built.

When the State of Israel inherited the city, they altered the British decree: while the Mandatory authorities demanded buildings made from stone, Israeli law only requires a stone façade, no less than six inches thick. The buildings themselves are made from concrete and steel, dressed up as the past. This regulation was extended to the entire Jewish portion of the city, including all future developments. As the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman explains:

Like the stare of Medusa, the bylaw has been used by Jerusalem’s planners to petrify all construction in the new neighbourhoods—shopping malls and kindergartens, community centres and synagogues, office buildings, electrical relay stations and sports halls and, above all, housing – into stone. Suburban neighbourhoods placed on remote sites outside the historical boundaries of the city were thus imbued with the city’s overall sacred identity.

Here, sanctity is political. The Jewish settlements that hem in the Palestinian parts of the city are also faced in stone. For these authentically Jerusalemite colonies, inspiration is taken from vernacular Arab architecture, while most of the city’s actual Arab residents live in steadfastly modernist apartment blocks, besieged by a caricature of their own history. Weizman quotes Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian member of the Knesset: “Only in Jerusalem could the natural stone that was quarried from these very rocks look as a foreign element within these same mountains.”

The one thing in the Jewish Quarter that doesn’t pretend to be old is an immense gold-plated menorah, kept under a bulletproof glass dome. This is a replica of the candelabrum used in the Second Temple: more specifically, it’s based on an image on the Arch of Titus in Rome, which shows triumphant legionaries carrying off the Temple goods. This reconstruction is the work of the Temple Institute, a group of orthodox Jews who intend to raze the al-Aqsa mosque and rebuild the Jewish Temple on its site. (They made headlines a few years ago with their proposal to genetically engineer a pure red cow to be sacrificed there.) The Institute hope that their menorah will one day be used in that temple, at which point it will stop being a replica, and turn into the real thing. A fragment of the future, copied from an image of the past: a city where time simply refuses to flow in one direction.

For now, though, the Third Temple remains unbuilt; all we have is one remaining wall from the Second. Standing against the Kotel, I imitated the davening position, rocking gently back and forth, and mumbled the first Hebrew prayer that came into my head. The shehecheyanu, the words you say when doing something for the first time. The wall is loud with birdsong: swifts and sparrows live in its ancient hollows, among generous plumes of henbane. People write prayers on slips of paper— traditionally, for peace—and wedge them between the giant stones; the birds use these prayers to line their nests. Swifts travel here from distant continents; they’ll go months without touching the ground, so their young might come into the world cradled by letters to God.

The Western Wall itself is something wonderful. Its surroundings are not. As a child, in Jewish school, I was taught that during the Jordanian occupation of the Old City, the Arabs, in their spite, had defiled the wall with an immense row of open toilets. When Israeli forces conquered the city, the first thing they did was bulldoze the dungheaps, so Jews could return there to pray. They weren’t entirely wrong; a single latrine had been built against the face of the wall. The area in front of it also contained that lost fifth quarter of Jerusalem, the Maghrebi. Hundreds of houses were bulldozed, some with the families that lived there still inside. They’ve been replaced by a huge empty plaza. Plastic bins for plastic skullcaps. A car park with security vehicles. Metal poles hoisting floodlights. And, of course, a set of bright, clean, modern public bathrooms.

It’s more difficult to get to the Haram al-Sharif, Temple Mount itself; the compound is closed to non-Muslims for most of the day. When I first returned to Jerusalem, we didn’t make it in time. I came back in late 2020, alone, and tried again. The city was different then, rainy and quiet. Fewer tourists and pilgrims; the markets were closed, and locals went about with surgical masks over their faces. There are many entrances to the Haram al-Sharif, and all but one of them are open only to Muslim worshippers. I circled through them repeatedly, being told at each one to get lost by heavily armed Israeli teens. Eventually, in desperation, I approached a woman at a vaguely official-looking booth by the Western Wall. “Slicha, at medaberet anglit?” She grinned widely. “Yes,” she said, “I speak English, what would you like to know?” American. I asked her how I could get up to Temple Mount. “Oh,” she said, ecstatic, “first you have to be happy, you have to fill yourself with the joy of Hashem, and then you need to take a mikvah. . .” Hers was a cheery, Protestantised kind of Judaism, instantly repulsive. I clarified that I was really just looking for directions. With the slumping disappointment of a small child, she told me. Walking up, I got a better look at her booth: she was there on behalf of the Temple Institute.

The Haram al-Sharif is by far the most beautiful part of Jerusalem: its religious status has protected it from the cycles of demolition and reconstruction that, over the course of the twentieth century, turned much of the Old City into Disneyland. It’s a garden, planted with olive groves and cypress trees, a tiny generous Jannah on its hill. This doesn’t mean it’s always safe. Six months after I visited, Israeli police stormed the al-Aqsa mosque, firing tear gas and stun grenades at worshippers while they prayed.

This garden has been attacked before. At the center of the Haram al-Sharif is the Qubbat al-Sakhra, or the Dome of the Rock, which sits over the Foundation Stone: the navel of the world, the rock on which Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son, on which the Ark of the Covenant was placed, on which Mohammed ascended to heaven, from which all the waters of the world flow, and from which God fashioned the entire earth. I always imagined a pebble, black and shiny as lacquer, hard with potential. Something you could hold in the palm of your hand. It’s not: it’s a large piece of exposed bedrock, scarred by regular man-made indentations. One is a footprint, scorched into the rock by Mohammed as he ascended. Many others, the deep, vicious scars, were made by Crusaders a thousand years ago, letting out their frenzy on the limestone. Maybe that rock is a kind of archive: all the tortures of the earth are recorded on its surface. Or maybe, since the rock came first, it’s possible that the world itself is only a map of the stone.

Also inside the dome is a small reliquary. In 1990, the Temple Mount Faithful—another group that wants to uproot this garden and replace it with yet another new building pretending to be old—attempted to lay a cornerstone for the future Temple on the Haram al-Sharif. Muslims pelted them with stones, and Israeli police responded with live ammunition and tear gas rounds, killing twenty. Some of the gas canisters are still kept inside the dome. Lettering along the side of each shell informs you that they were produced by Federal Laboratories of Saltsburg, Pennsylvania. Did the workers at FedLabs know they were producing holy objects? If, some day, things resolve themselves in such a way that the plastic canisters from Pennsylvania can be removed from the place where the earth comes closest to Heaven, might some of the cracks and scars in the Foundation Stone start to heal over, until it becomes smooth again?

Probably the strangest thing in Jerusalem is at the end of the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus walked to his Crucifixion. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is almost invisible: unlike the big brash Lutheran Church of the Redeemer across the street, or the ornate Basilica of the Agony at Gethsemane, it has no golden domes or towering spires; you can wander into it almost by mistake. Inside, the air is cool and slightly moist; there’s a reverential hush, and I found the whole place utterly bizarre.

Here’s a question. What would you do if you came into possession of the very spot where death was conquered and a new life came to be? Luckily, this is not a decision I’ll ever have to make, but I think I would fence off the hill of Golgotha as discreetly as I could, so wild grasses might shiver lonely among the stones. I’d leave the tomb as a dark crevasse, a proper home for mystery. Everything would, as much as possible, look exactly as it did the day Jesus of Nazareth walked out from his grave. But wiser people than me got their hands on the site first, and this is not what they’ve done.

In the fourth century, the entire hill was razed to build the first chapel here; the scene of the Passion is now enclosed under a dark metal dome. Just inside the doors, by the Stone of Anointing, on which Christ’s body is said to have been purified after his death, a mosaic depicts the event itself, the stricken savior between rocks and trees, under a golden sky. Those tiles gleam faintly in the murk. Under a grand rotunda stands the Aedicule, a modest little chapel containing the empty space of Jesus’ actual tomb, prised out of the rock that once surrounded it. You reach the site of the Crucifixion itself by climbing a set of steep stone stairs. There, surrounding an altar decked out by the Greek Orthodox Church in frilly silver, fragments of the original rock of Calvary can be seen in glass cases. There are three slots in the stone: in one, a painted image of Jesus is nailed to a real wooden cross.

All churches are a kind of metaphor, an architectural recounting of the death and rebirth of Christ. But here, the place becomes a second-order representation of itself. We have been postmodern for a very long time. Imagine if they tore up Dealey Plaza, placed a replica Lincoln Continental in the middle of the dirt, and put a heavily stylized waxwork of President Kennedy in the back seat shown with bits of skull coming out his head. Imagine if the Excalibur Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas had instead been built over the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle.

It might have eradicated the biblical geographies, but the Holy Sepulchre has new, intricately coiled landscapes of its own. It’s a labyrinth: Byzantine columns next to Crusader shrines, medieval mosaics under a Baroque roof, ancient crypts decorated with globularly modern statuary, all collecting a thick residue of politics. It’s portioned off between the various Christian denominations according to an ancient patchwork of agreements and compromises. The Chapel of the Nailing of the Cross belongs to the Franciscans, the Chapel of Saint Michael to the Ethiopians. The tomb itself belongs to the Catholic, Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic churches, but there’s also an altar to one side (enclosed in a kind of holy plastic shower curtain), which contains an exposed section of the Sepulchre itself, and which belongs to the Copts. The Joudeh, a Muslim family, have held the keys to the main entrance since the days of Saladin. Everyone has their territory, and when processions cross the borders there are precise formalities to be observed, or else violence.

Every so often, a clutch of monks are hospitalized after a brawl, when someone moves a chair into the wrong patch of shade, or leaves a door open that ought to be closed. Land-grabs, geopolitics, encirclements, factions guarding their access to strategic points. Tourists move through the arteries of a body at war with itself and see almost nothing. Outside the basilica, a ladder has been leaning against an upper window since the mid-eighteenth century. It was left there by a stonemason, a local Muslim, carrying out repairs to the façade, but the ledge on which it stands is still disputed between the Greek and Armenian churches. For anyone to remove it would be to enforce a claim, a hostile and dangerous act. When the last day arrives and all the churches are united as one, maybe the only sign will be the disappearance of a single ladder.

It would be too easy, I think, to see the Holy Sepulchre as a microcosm of the whole country: all these religious factions breaking out in flurries of violence, all fanatically enforcing their claims. No: the Holy Sepulchre is what things should look like; it’s something to hope for. The different groups there don’t always get along, but they all have to share the same space, where every day is another agony of small grudging compromises, where nobody rules except the One that rules over everything. When there are disputes, they’re between equals. The situation in Israel and Palestine is simply not the same.

I did not visit Sheikh Jarrah, the Jerusalem neighborhood at the center of the recent violence. But I’ve been to enough places where the same thing has happened, or is still happening. Places like Hebron, less than an hour’s drive away in the West Bank. Wherever the Israeli settlers go, they make a desert. Much of Hebron is, like most Palestinian towns, a noisy, chaotic, and gregarious place; its beautiful historic center, which is occupied by around eight hundred Jewish settlers, is a wasteland. Broken glass, shuttered arcades. The old buildings are in decay, spiky with weeds and I.D.F. machine gun nests. As our little group walked through the ruins, some of the settlers buzzed past us in their electric scooters, shouting leftists! or Arab-lovers!, filming us on their phones. A little inscription on one of these scooters told me that it had been kindly donated by the Kupietzky family of Chicago, Illinois.

Sheikh Jarrah is a rough triangle of land just north of the Old City, surrounded by Jewish districts on its other two sides. The buildings there were put up by the Jordanian government to house Palestinian refugees from the ethnic cleansings of 1948. These families were originally from Haifa, Jaffa, and Tzifrin, places that are now closed off from them forever. East Jerusalem was formally annexed by Israel in 1980, but its people were not granted Israeli citizenship; they’re also not eligible for Palestinian Authority passports. They are stateless and stuck. Most of their descendents still live in Sheikh Jarrah today.

Whole generations have grown up in these houses. But Israeli settlers claim that the land was originally bought by a Jewish organization in the nineteenth century, and that the title therefore rightfully belongs to them. (Under Israel’s Basic Law, Jewish property is inalienable; it can never pass out of Jewish hands.) On this basis, the courts have been steadily evicting families from their homes and doling them out to religious settlers from the other side of the globe, hungry for their own slice of the holy city. There’s an ethnic quota to be maintained; any Jew will do. Some settlers don’t even wait for approval: they force their way into the homes and take up residence there, living under the same roof as the families they’re robbing, making their lives unliveable, with the full protection of the police.

Earlier this year, the dispute over Sheikh Jarrah metastasized into an all-out war fifty miles away in Gaza. Homemade rockets, built in basement workshops, fired in the general direction of the outside world. MPR500 laser-guided surface attack bombs, capable of penetrating three feet of reinforced concrete. By May twelve Israelis and more than two hundred Palestinians had been killed. Then the Israeli Supreme Court proposed a compromise solution for the families of Sheikh Jarrah: they will get to continue living in the homes they have inhabited for generations, so long as they pay rent to a Jewish ultra-nationalist group called Nahalat Shimon. Unsurprisingly, they have refused. The fissure between the two cities runs within the walls of a single house. In the real Jerusalem, where you’re just trying to live a decent and ordinary life, this has been your home for generations—but in the true Jerusalem, in the mad fantasy that lurks beneath the stones of this place, everything I touch is mine.

Sam Kriss is a British author and dilettante.

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