POSTCARD FROM JERUSALEM: Studying the Middle East

JERUSALEM—I came to Jerusalem because I was lucky enough to get the money out of Harvard’s senior thesis grant machine, and because it seemed like such an obvious destination. It is a place where my fields of study—religion, history and international affairs—present glaringly important and intriguing questions. And yet I would wake up every morning in my small room off of Zion Square gripped by the same desperate question: What on earth am I doing here? Really, what am I going to accomplish?

A Jerusalem-based journalist unknowingly offered me a reminder: “You’re studying an area of vital importance that very few people know anything about: the role of religion in international affairs, the relationship between religion and politics.”

I am flattered but not exactly reassured by his assessment. My project is vaguely about a religious site in Jerusalem’s Old City that has taken on an increased political significance in the Middle East peace process. Known as the Temple Mount in Judaism and as the Noble Sanctuary in Islam, the site has a tremendous importance in all three of the world’s monotheistic religions, although contemporary arguments about sovereignty over the site mainly involve the Israelis and the Palestinians. The story of the site is a mess of competing religious claims, conflicting historical narratives and violent reactions to seemingly sinister symbolic actions. Some popular media accounts blame this issue as the straw that broke the camel’s back at last summer’s failed Camp David talks, and Ariel Sharon’s controversial visit to the site last September sparked the latest pattern of violence in the region.

It’s true that I am a little lost as to how I should approach such a complex subject. I am duly reminded of my amazing ignorance by my meetings with people who have spent their lives thinking about these problems, people whose experiences with and perspectives on the region’s Big Issues make my hesitant questions seem slightly naive and foolish.

But it’s not the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing that really bothers me. That’s to be expected at the beginning of any research project. My larger uncertainty about this project stems from the sneaking suspicion that my time in Jerusalem has produced in me about the limits of any academic endeavor like this.

Yes, this is an important field, and we need to better understand a bad situation before we can try to remedy it. No, it is not impossible to make sense of the problems that plague the region. Sooner or later we do make some sense of it all; we come to informed and hopeful conclusions, temporary and imperfect as they are, if only because we have to.

The idea is that if we can come to know a problem in an enlightened and humane and deeply insightful way, we will then know what to do about it. The hope is always that informed action will eventually bring about a situation in which things can be resolved without brute contests of physical force, without violence.

What bothers me about this plan is that it rarely works, or rarely works well, anyway. There are many people who have devoted their lives to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and they have made many meaningful observations and recommendations. But good intentions and deliberate actions are inevitably diluted and frustrated by the overwhelming power and complexity of What Actually Happens in the Real World. It’s true that there are often conflicting views on how to solve things, and that it is no easy task to properly implement even the simplest of policy recommendations. But I can’t help but feel disappointed that it never seems to be enough to simply understand a situation or to want to work things out. Is it that we don’t know enough about the problem and we haven’t seen it in the right light yet? Or is there something bigger thwarting our good intentions? What we think we understand is undermined by our vague powerlessness in the face of the confusion and inefficiency generated by the very methods necessary to avoid or discredit violence: dialogue, discussion, negotiation, democracy.