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Jerusalem: “Nothing and Everything”

December 11, 2017

In my favourite scene from Ridley Scott’s crusader epic Kingdom of Heaven, Balian of Ibelin, the defender of Jerusalem, asks Saladin “what is Jerusalem worth?” “Nothing”, says Saladin, and then, as he turns back to the defeated crusader, “everything!”

I keep coming back to those words when I think about Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

It means nothing in the sense that it will not change the Israel-Palestine impasse. Few countries will follow Trump’s lead. In political terms Israel’s possession of the city is no more legitimate today in the eyes of most of the world than it was before Trump issued his fatwa.

And if Jerusalem’s ancient walls were sentient, I suspect that they would be having a hollow laugh at Binyamin Netanyahu’s triumphant crowing, just as they would have done at Saladin’s glee.

Nothing is permanent in Jerusalem. Saladin passed on. Over the following eight hundred years, and up to the present day, there were more conquests, sackings, periods of peace, changes in control. No faith or political entity could truthfully be said to own the city.

Trump, Netanyahu and Abbas will also pass on. Unless the city is destroyed in an apocalypse, new leaders and new dynamics will come into play, and the struggle for mastery will continue.

No matter that Jerusalem means everything to those who seek to rebuild the temple, regain possession of Al-Aqsa and the Dome or hasten the second coming of Jesus, Trump’s pathetic gesture will most probably turn out to mean nothing to ordinary Israelis brutalised by the fear of encirclement and annihilation, and to ordinary Palestinians whose lives under occupation can hardly get worse.

The sadness in all of this is that we lucky people who only have the price of bitcoins and a few snow storms to worry about seem to think that we live in a better world than that of our ancestors.

The unholy conflict in what the devout call the Holy Land shows us that we don’t.

We’d better not be too complacent, because what we call civilisation is a very thin veneer.

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