Let Jerusalem go

Let Jerusalem go
Let Jerusalem go

Freud gives a striking example of a good dream interpretation made by Alexander the Great’s counsellor. On the eve of a battle fought for the city of Tyre, the obscene figure of a satyr, dancing wildly, appeared in Alexander’s dream. The counsellor ignored the figure and focused instead on the word satyros, which he deciphered as ‘sa Tyros’: ‘Tyre will be yours.’ Perhaps, today, as the IDF tries to ‘pacify’ the same city of Tyre, we should reverse the focus, and concentrate on the figure of the satyr. What orgy of violence will be unleashed if the IDF does conquer Tyre?

The mystery of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of which the war in Lebanon, discussed by Elias Khoury, Rasha Salti and Karim Makdisi, is another horrific symptom, is why it has persisted for half a century when everybody knows the only workable solution: the withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank and – conclusively – Gaza, the establishment of a viable Palestinian state and, as part of that process, a compromise over the status of Jerusalem. How often has peace seemed possible, only for everything suddenly to fall apart, demonstrating the frailty of the negotiated compromise? There is, in effect, something neurotic in the Middle East conflict: everyone sees how the obstacle can be got rid of, and yet no one wants to remove it, as if there were some pathological libidinal benefit to be gained by persisting with the deadlock.

If there ever was a passionate attachment to the lost object, a refusal to come to terms with its loss, it is the attachment of Israelis and many diaspora Jews to the ‘Holy Land’ and above all to Jerusalem. The present troubles are supreme proof of the consequences of such a radical fidelity, when taken literally. For almost two thousand years, when the Jews were fundamentally a nation without land, living in exile, their reference to Jerusalem was a negative one, a prohibition against ‘painting an image of home’ or indeed against feeling at home anywhere on earth. Once the return to Palestine began a century ago, the metaphysical Other Place was identified with a specific place on the map and became the object of a positive identification, the place where the wandering which characterises human existence would end. The identification, negative and positive by turns, had always involved a dream of settlement. When a two-thousand-year-old dream is finally close to realisation, such realisation has to turn into a nightmare.

[Extract. Appeared in London Review of Books on August 17th 2006.]

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