Michael Fox

Jewish Times imes/news/jt/local_news/documentary_examines_jerus alems_history/11423
March 27 2009

'Jerusalem: Center Of The World' delivers the history and culture of
the Israeli capital with nary a whiff of controversy.

The most surprising aspect of the engaging, two-hour PBS documentary
"Jerusalem: Center Of The World," which airs next Wednesday night,
April 1, is how casually, yet completely, it sidesteps anything
resembling controversy.

Even a viewer with merely a superficial awareness of the Middle East
saga and history has to wonder going in how American public television
would confront the combustible themes of religion, power, geo-politics,
conflict and land inherent to the region and the Arab-Israeli struggle.

One can only conclude from Emmy Award-winning producer/director Andrew
Goldberg's decision to condense the last 150 years of Jerusalem's
history into the final five minutes of screen time that avoiding
political sensitivities and hot buttons was an explicit and conscious

All we can say is, mission accomplished.

It's a bit unfair, actually, to mock the program's evasion of the
messy present situation, for it's clear from the outset -- and from
the travelogue format -- that there is no urgent public affairs agenda
propelling host Ray Suarez (co-anchor and senior correspondent of
"The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer") and company forward.

This is simply a lucid, generous-to-all rendering of history for
its own sake, filtered through three religions yet wrested free of
the gut-wrenching emotion and dogma that colors most views of the
Holy City.

Conceived and presented as a chronological view that draws on extant
biblical studies, archaeological analysis and historical research,
the well-paced program evinces a catholic point of view. It shifts
from Judaism to Christianity to Islam as Jerusalem -- the world's
most sought-after piece of real estate -- successively shifted to
the forefront of each religion over four millennia.

It has a surprisingly relaxed tone, exemplified by Mr. Suarez's white
chinos and pleasant interviews conducted outdoors in the open air
(rather than in the experts' stuffy university offices or cavernous

The documentary also embraces occasional moments of lightness, with
"cameos" by such illustrious types as Indiana Jones, Mark Twain and
(perhaps less amusingly) the queen of Sheba.

Penniless Princes

"Jerusalem: Center Of The World" begins with Abraham, the first
monotheist (and first mega-church preacher, as one historian describes
him). The already-sacred spot where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac,
Mount Moriah, soon became the city of Jerusalem.

The next key figure (after Moses) was the warrior king David,
who, seeking to unite the 12 tribes, took Jerusalem, made it the
capital and drew up plans to build an edifice to house the Ark of the
Covenant. It was left to Solomon to carry out the job, and his temple
stood for more than 400 years, until the Babylonians conquered Judah
and Nebuchadnezzer destroyed it along with Jerusalem.

It was Herod who rebuilt the temple, on a vast mount. When Jesus,
an iconoclastic Jew, came to Jerusalem, he was hailed as the messiah
by his followers (although the belief that he was the son of God was
certainly not a Jewish concept).

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. by the Romans,
and the end of the revolt three years later at Masada, Jews were
expelled from Jerusalem. This tragedy inspired the Amidah, the
three-times-a-day prayer recited by Jews asking God to rebuild
Jerusalem and restore King David's throne.

No Jews lived in Jerusalem for the next 500 years, until the Muslims
gained control of the city and allowed 70 Jewish families to move
in. The Crusades brought the Christian army to Jerusalem for a bloody
battle that ended with the massacre of the defeated Muslims along
with the comparatively small group of Jewish inhabitants.

Over the ensuing centuries, Jews trickled back into Jerusalem, although
it can't be said that the Chosen People prospered. They were supported
by Jews in the Diaspora, who considered them "the guardians of the
synagogue, the poorest of the poor, the penniless princes."

Mr. Goldberg (who also produced the 2007 documentary "Anti-Semitism
In The 21st Century" and 2006's "The Armenian Genocide") moves crisply
through the shifting sand dunes of time and geography, avoiding the dry
pedantry of arcane history. But no one will ever mistake "Jerusalem:
Center Of The World" for adventurous filmmaking, analytical scholarship
or, for that matter, a road map to resolving current tensions.

The closest the documentary comes to editorializing of any kind is a
lingering shot, in the waning moments, of the separation barrier in
the sun-baked landscape.

After two hours and 4,000 years, we're left to ponder if Jerusalem
will last as long as the walls that Saladin erected around the Old
City, or the temple built by Herod.

"Jerusalem: Center Of The World" airs next Wednesday, April 1, at 9
p.m. on Maryland Public Television, Channel 67. For information on
the documentary, check out