Oh, Jerusalem! Berlin exhibition encapsulates troubled past, sobering present
Challenge was presenting five millennia of history – 55 attacks, 23 sieges, two levelings – in 15 rooms
An ancient book with Jewish text, part of the “Welcome to Jerusalem” exhibition in Berlin. The diverse challenges Jerusalem faces are presented in historical displays, artistic reactions and medial staging. Photograph: Felipe Trueba/EPA
When Germans talk of a Reise nach Jerusalem, they might be discussing a trip to the city recognised last week by US president Donald Trump as the capital of Israel.
Or they might be referring to the game we know as musical chairs: too many people march around too few chairs and, when the music stops, the person who fails to grab a chair is excluded.
Given that the game usually ends in tears, its German fits perfectly with Jerusalem’s 5,000-year history of too many groups fighting over contested spaces to the exclusion of one or more – often with catastrophic results.
From now until April, anyone taking a trip to Berlin can take a quick detour to Jerusalem, in a striking new exhibition at the German capital’s Jewish Museum.
In a twist of fate, the Berlin exhibition opened just as US president Donald Trump announced he was moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv.
It is a move many fear will cement Jerusalem as capital of the conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, who both claim the city as their respective capital.
But today’s conflict of illegal land grabs and violent uprisings is not new. The medieval Arab geographer described Jerusalem as a “golden goblet, full of scorpions” while the writer Amos Oz, in earthier terms, describes it as “an old nymphomaniac who squeezes lover after lover to death, before shrugging him off with a yawn”.
Visitors eased in
Instead of throwing visitors in the deep end, the Berlin exhibition eases in visitors with large video screens of footage from the 2013 documentary 24h Jerusalem.
In this city, men serve food in street kiosks, women walk their dogs and children walk home from school, lost in thought and oblivious to the contested soil beneath their feet.
Irish visitors will recognise the familiar metallic ring of the tram – identical to Dublin’s Luas – and make their first, important realisation about Jerusalem: this is home to 850,000 people who, by and large, just want to get on with their everyday lives.
After this acclimatisation, visitors pass through a series of rooms that are a feast for the senses and that, like Jerusalem’s chequered history, are sometimes light and sometimes dark.
The air and the walls are filled with two constants in Jerusalem’s history: the sounds of religious worship and the souvenirs of pilgrimage so crucial to the local economy.
This is the red thread chosen by curator Cilly Kugelmann through her exhibition: the holiness of the city for the three monotheistic faiths – a holiness that, she argues, has contaminated it with a stifling metaphysical overlay.
An early highlight is a projection map, explaining the history of the city so concisely and clearly that it could carry a sign: “Everything you ever wanted to know about Jerusalem but were afraid to ask.”
It shows where King Solomon built the First Temple in 957 BCE on the Temple Mount, where Jews believe God made his pact with Abraham and his descendants.
The Second Temple, on the same site of its destroyed predecessor, was later expanded by Herod the Great.
In the next room a white model of Herod’s Temple is, through headsets, brought back to life through a remarkable virtual flight.
You can sail over the heads of pilgrims visiting the vast complex and its holy shrine, reduced to its foundations – today’s Wailing Wall – by the Romans in 70 CE. Today the site is the third holiest place in Islam: the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, constructed in 691.
This site, where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven on his Night Journey, gets a low-tech, but equally remarkable presentation in the exhibition: a 1:200 model from 1879 by German architect Conrad Schick.
In a case of life imitating art, the dome – covered with gold leaf in 1962 to become Jerusalem’s best-known landmark – is already golden in the 19th-century model.
Presenting five millennia of history – 55 attacks, 23 sieges and two levelings – in just 15 rooms is a huge challenge, and much is mentioned only in passing.
Perhaps the most questionable exclusion is the Crusades, the bloody Christian siege and capture of the city of Jesus’s death and resurrection.
Contemporary chapters in Jerusalem’s history, from wars to Palestinian armed uprisings or intifadas, are dealt with in a circular projection space where video footage concludes by walling-in viewers.
Its multimedia elements come to the rescue in an exhibition that is light on authentic exhibits, in part because of the ban on archaeological digs in Jerusalem’s holiest sites.
And though the exhibition is housed in the Jewish Museum, its catalogue pulls no punches on Israel. One essay insists that peace can come only through concessions, not annexation and occupation. In another essay, a former Mossad official suggests the greatest existential threat to Israel is its occupation of Palestinian land.
More historical mosaic than exhaustive history, Welcome to Jerusalem closes by retreating once more behind its residents.
In one video clip, Aba Issam (85) looks down sadly at the home he fled with his family at the outbreak of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, never to return.
“We thought we would away a week,” he says, brandishing a key to the house now occupied by Israeli strangers. “I don’t come here often – the rage takes over.”
‘Eradicate the Jews’
Then there is the Berlin-raised Ruth Bach (90), who fled to Jerusalem with her family in 1938 but still remembers Hitler speeches promising to “eradicate the Jews”.
Eight decades on, Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israeli capital has brought furious protesters on to the streets of Berlin and other European capitals, shouting of “Death to Israel” and “Slaughter the Jews”.
Jerusalem’s troubled past and sobering present leaves visitors to the exhibition chastened as they depart, judging by thoughts left on postcards pinned to the wall.
“An overwhelming exhibition,” writes one visitor, “particularly the realisation that there will never be peace there.”
Welcome to Jerusalem is at the Jewish Museum Berlin until April 30th, open daily 10am-8pm jmberlin.de/en