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Jerusalem as holy city, flashpoint in modern world

Whispering to his wife a moment before an assassin's bullet entered his brain, Abraham Lincoln shared what would be his final words:

"There is no place I should like to see so much as Jerusalem."

If anything, Jerusalem's prominence in the Great Emancipator's consciousness reflects the almost hypnotic power of this perplexing City on a Hill.

As the crossroads of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Jerusalem -- symbolic in so many ways -- is a holy of holies that struggles to reconcile thousands of years of traditions, prejudices and hatreds with yearnings for self-determination, modernity and, above all, genuine peace.

Firestorms manifested as both worship and bloodshed have engulfed Jerusalem since time immemorial. As a nexus for both inciting savage violence and overcoming that savage violence, this fractured city possesses a profoundly paradoxical duality.

Which is James Carroll's fascination, and it's why he titled his ambitious new book "Jerusalem, Jerusalem."

What he sets out to explain is in the subtitle: "How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World." And he does it with a broad brush and bold strokes.

Carroll, 68, a former Catholic priest, is a National Book Award-winning author, a Boston Globe op-ed columnist and a moral imperativist of the highest order. In dissecting Jerusalem's split personality, he dwells on "the earthly and the heavenly, the mundane and the imagined."

The author sees the two Jerusalems rubbing against each other "like stone against flint, generating the spark that ignites fire." Over the last two millenniums, he recounts, "the ruling establishment of Jerusalem has been overturned eleven times, almost always with brute violence, and always in the name of religion."

Jerusalem, literally yet ironically, means "Abode of Peace." As both reality and metaphor, according to Carroll, this tumultuous city ignited "a viral fever of zealotry and true belief that lodged in the DNA of human civilization."

It is in Jerusalem, at the threshold stone on which Jesus quite certainly stepped, where Carroll came "as close to touching God" as he has ever come. He caught "Jerusalem fever" on his first visit, in 1973, and has returned dozens of times since.

Carroll considers Jerusalem not only evolutionary, but transformative, the place -- the hill -- where, for instance:

Through the story of Abraham and Isaac, the homicidal belief in ritual child sacrifice was finally suppressed.

The concept that God sponsors wars was (for the most part) dismissed, even though, to this day, "fathers perennially send their sons to war."

There was the pivotal breakthrough to monotheism.

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is invariably how Jerusalem is defined today in shorthand, America also is intrinsic to Carroll's sprawling, conscience-driven narrative.

It is America, after all, that has so enthusiastically championed the concept of the shining City on a Hill, the biblical Jerusalem from the Sermon on the Mount. "We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people," Herman Melville wrote, "the Israel of our time."

So all the way from the Massachusetts Bay Colony of John Winthrop in 1630 to the conservative revolution of Ronald Reagan that came 350 years later, lofty rhetoric -- the City on the Hill -- has inspired America to frame God in political terms and further the notion of a nation as a messiah-warrior.

Across our land, there is no shortage of signposts, Carroll points out. By his count, "127 U.S. towns and cities, in more than half the states, are called Salem," short for Jerusalem, "almost certainly the most common place name in the nation."

"Jerusalem is defined by its arguments," Carroll writes, but he is nevertheless heartened by its resilience -- its ability to be restored and, in some ways, even reinvented, although never coming close to realizing its potential as an ideal beacon for interfaith harmony.

Carroll's well-documented though at times unwieldy volume serves as a cautionary saga about the futility of the vicious cycle of violence and counterviolence so ingrained in Jerusalem and its environs. He does in print, on a grand scale, what Steven Spielberg did so searingly on film, in microcosm, with "Munich." Their messages are complementary and enduring.

Although he's an apostle of hope on a life's journey toward ultimate reconciliation, Carroll is only too aware of not only the hazards, but of the law of unintended consequences. No wonder so many people find the word "crusade," even in lowercase, so cringe-inducing.

Mired in impasse, the Israeli-Palestinian feud has defied more than a half-century of diplomatic intervention by the most powerful country on earth. And continues to.

"The Palestinian refusal to acknowledge the Jewish state's legitimacy matches Israel's refusal to reckon with its role in Palestinian suffering," Carroll says. It's as if when Dutch artist M.C. Escher drew "Ascending and Descending," his infinitely looping staircase, he was modeling it after Jerusalem.

Carroll brings a fresh sense of urgency to a picture that has rarely been so bleak. With the currents of history churning anew as revolutionary impulses roil the Arab world, he sees no better time to capitalize on this cumulative cry for freedom, even transcendence.

"Violence and religion have lasted long enough to call forth this meditation on the stark revelation of religious maturity -- that nothing lasts forever," Carroll writes. There is a triumphal contrarianism to his outlook for the Israelis and the Palestinians, which includes -- despite scant evidence on the surface -- the painfully obvious but maddeningly elusive two-state solution.

Nowhere are the divisions deeper than in Jerusalem, the eternal flash point -- the eye of the needle through which any Middle East peace must be threaded.

Carroll points to opportunity not only for the Israelis and the Palestinians, but for all humankind, in what could someday radiate from Jerusalem. To finally reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable, what he envisions, evidently through an enlightened generation of fresh leadership, is a heretofore missing ingredient: empathy.

Empathy unbound.

One Giant Leap.

Without this, Carroll says, "there will be no peace between these peoples or in the place of their dispute."

In his eyes, this is achievable. Jerusalem, a symbol like none other, can surpass itself, he believes, and embrace, after an eternity on the razor's edge, what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."

Carroll sees little choice. For as Jerusalem goes, he told an interviewer, "so go we all."

Gene Krzyzynski is a veteran copy editor for The News.

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Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World

By James Carroll

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

432 pages, $28

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