GUY RAZ, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
The writer James Carroll first visited Jerusalem as a young Catholic priest back in 1973. And since then, he's been back dozens of times. And James Carroll, like a lot of people who know Jerusalem, has a kind of two-sided relationship with the city. It's a place that can inspire and also disappoint, the city of peace, but also, as he describes it, the home base of religious violence.
Carroll's written about these two sides of Jerusalem in a new book. It's called appropriately, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem."
And James Carroll joins me from WBUR in Boston.
Mr. JAMES CARROLL (Author, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem"): Thank you so much.
RAZ: I'd like to start by asking you about your first trip to Jerusalem in 1973. What were you looking for at the time?
Mr. CARROLL: Well, the short of it is, my life was kind of a mess. I was a young Catholic priest. Having grown up the son of an American Air Force officer through the 1960s, early '70s, my life had been upended by direct experience of the dread of nuclear war, the war in Vietnam. I was a member of the Catholic left, the so-called Catholic Peace Movement, brought about a lot of conflict, not only with my dad, but with established authority in general, which left me a bit adrift as a priest.
And I went to Jerusalem, not sure why, presented itself as a kind of a drawing magnet to me. And in Jerusalem, I was shocked to discover it was itself a kind of mess. I encountered in ways I hadn't before the very real tangible sacramental presence of God, and it was a kind of threshold for the rest of my life.
RAZ: You say you caught Jerusalem fever on that trip. Can you explain that phenomenon?
Mr. CARROLL: Jerusalem fever is the temptation to use the city of Jerusalem as a screen on which to project all kinds of millennial, end-of-the-world fantasies. It's been certainly a Christian habit of mine. You see it powerfully in the book of Revelation. But every group that's had a relationship to Jerusalem has done this.
The Jewish fantasy of Jerusalem kept Jews in exile and then diaspora a coherent and cohesive people down through the centuries. The Islamic fantasy brought Islamic armies to the gates of Jerusalem within five years of the prophet's death. Even today, the United States of America defines itself as the city on the hill, which an inch below the surface of our rhetoric is Jerusalem.
So Jerusalem fever is this feeling that a particular place has been touched by God, and therefore, almost transhistorical consequences are set in motion.
RAZ: James Carroll, this book, of course, is also a history of this city. In Jerusalem, there is no river, there's no port or sea, just hills on the edge of the Judean Desert. Why this city? Why this place? Why was it there?
Mr. CARROLL: It's a hilltop city, which is part of the answer, no doubt. It's a city on the edge of the fertile crescents of the crossroads where our civilization was born, the great crossroads of the ancient worlds. All the empires of the ancient world came into conflict with each other there or near there, and a savage violence found a home in Jerusalem.
And that's the point. It was in resisting that violence that the people of Jerusalem invented a new religion, monotheistic Judaism. They invented a book, which records the struggle against violence. People complain that the Bible is full of violence, but that's missing the point. Of course, it is, because the Bible's subject is violence.
And in Jerusalem, people have found ways to mitigate violence: the story of Abraham and Isaac is a classic example, God saying no to human sacrifice. They have found ways to surpass the violent impulse; Jesus of Nazareth, remembered, above all, as a person of nonviolence And right into the sort of centuries of Western civilization, crusader violence became a note of Jerusalem.
The war between Europe and Islam, now a thousand years old, centered on Jerusalem, and we're still trying to find ways to reckon with that. And yet, the history of the place tells us that violence can be reckoned with and can be directly confronted and can be left behind. That's the hope of Jerusalem that I'm trying to lift up with this book.
RAZ: I lived there as a reporter for two years. And I think anyone who does live there is really taken in by the city. It is beautiful and inspiring, and history is all around you. Yet, it's a difficult place to be. I mean, it's tense, it's polarized, it's political.
Mr. CARROLL: It's a cockpit; it's an historical cockpit. There's nothing comfortable about it. It's a mess. And of course, what I eventually understood, both as a young man in visiting Jerusalem and then down through the years as I've gone there most years, is that it's precisely its messiness that is the point.
Speaking religiously, God comes to us exactly in the mess of our lives. God doesn't come to us in a pristine garden. And it's in the conflict of Jerusalem that religious meaning has to be found. It was out of the terrible Roman destruction of Jerusalem that rabbinic Judaism understood the meaning of Israel in a new way. It was out of that same destruction that the people of Jesus understood themselves as the church.
There's a version of this experience that belongs to Islam, and there's a version of it that belongs to Western civilization.
RAZ: I'm speaking with the author James Carroll. His new book is called "Jerusalem, Jerusalem."
It's hard to write about Jerusalem or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict without being accused of having a political agenda, as you know. But I found that in this book, you write with a great deal of empathy for both Israelis and Palestinians. And it seems that you genuinely - I mean, you've gone there many times. You've been to Jerusalem many times. You have friends, I'm assuming, all over the place.
Mr. CARROLL: Yes.
RAZ: Is it a struggle for you to write with empathy about both communities?
Mr. CARROLL: Well, the story of Jerusalem is many stories. And my hope in this book was that I would be able to relate the narratives of various peoples respectfully. And my purpose was to relate the narratives in a way that both peoples could recognize themselves, recognize their story.
It goes to the larger point, which is that peace comes about when one party recognizes the narrative of an antagonistic party and sees its point. Peace presumes the capacity to enter in some way into the experience of the other.
RAZ: That's James Carroll. He's a columnist for the Boston Globe and a distinguished scholar-in-residence at Suffolk University. His latest book is called "Jerusalem, Jerusalem."
James Carroll, thank you so much.
Mr. CARROLL: Thank you. I'm honored to have been with you.
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