City of Peace, City of Conflict: the Politics of Jerusalem in Popular Culture
Video Essay
by Sary Zananiri

Jerusalem is a city that often struggles to live up to the heavenly resonances of its religious reputation, especially given the colonial legacies of political turbulence over the last century. In City of Peace, City of Conflict, Sary Zananiri unpacks the city of Jerusalem as subject of inspiration for artists, writers and musicians, well beyond the confines of Historical Palestine, and how the two conflicting Jerusalems, both heavenly and earthly, relate to one another.

Headlines of the tense political situation in Jerusalem, and more broadly across Palestine and Israel, have once again brought the region sharply into attention. The Jerusalem Flag March on 15th June,1 which commemorates what Israelis regard as the re-unification of Jerusalem in 1967, raises questions of sovereignty over the city that are consistently brewing just below the surface. 

Given the religious symbolism that is so associated with Jerusalem, until such moments of crisis it is sometimes easy to forget that Jerusalem is in fact a real city in the physical world and not simply a metaphor for the spiritual or the transcendental. However, brutal reminders such as the current situation in Sheikh Jarrah which sparked the recent violence2 in many ways belie the mythologies of the ‘city of peace’ that obscures and informs Jerusalem’s reality. Indeed, Jerusalem is a city that often struggles to live up to the heavenly resonances of its religious reputation, especially given the colonial legacies of political turbulence over the last century. That said, it has also long been a subject of inspiration for artists, writers and musicians, well beyond the confines of Historical Palestine. But how do these two conflicting Jerusalems, both heavenly and earthly, relate to one another? 

Jerusalem in the International Imaginary 

The symbolic nature of Jerusalem as a spiritual idyll has long been a feature of Western cultural production. We have seen this influencing the visual arts, literature, photography and cinema, generally in Biblical terms that are divorced from Jerusalem as an earthly city. One such example is artist and writer William Blake’s poem And did those feet in ancient times penned in 1804 as a preface to his epic Milton: A Poem in Two Books. Written against the backdrop of Britain’s industrial revolution. This coincided with the disenfranchisement of British peasants through the Enclosure Acts3 that privatised common land and created a mass movement of people from the perceived idylls of the British countryside to swiftly growing industrial cities in search of work. The poem proposes – in line with the British folk tale – that Jesus visited England in the period between his childhood and later life that is little documented in the Bible. 

And did those feet in ancient time, 
Walk upon England’s mountains green: 
And was the holy Lamb of God, 
On England’s pleasant pastures seen! 

And did the Countenance Divine, 
Shine forth upon our clouded hills? 
And was Jerusalem builded here, 
Among these dark Satanic Mills? 

Bring me my Bow of burning gold: 
Bring me my Arrows of desire: 
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold: 
Bring me my Chariot of fire! 

I will not cease from Mental Fight, 
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand: 
Till we have built Jerusalem, 
In England’s green & pleasant Land. 

-William Blake And did those feet in ancient times, 1804 

Blake’s conjuring of those “dark Satanic Mills” is widely seen as an allegory for the industrial revolution that is actively juxtaposed against the idealisation of England’s pastoral idyll. The contrast between the incursion of a monstrous modernity into a perceived natural order produced by god is in many ways an allegorical refutation of the vast social upheavals taking place in Britain at the time. Such upheavals eventually gave rise to various working class emancipationist movements shaping much of early 19th century British political history.   

Blake asks “And was Jerusalem builded here, Among these dark Satanic Mills?” in the second stanza, in contrast to the final stanza of the poem discusses the necessity of building a new Jerusalem “In England’s green and pleasant Land”. Jerusalem is conjured as an arbiter of a rural, utopian idyll, a timeless and transcendental place to which Britons must aspire, and one that undermines the brutal incursions of industrial modernity. 

Blake’s idea that Britain might be built in Jerusalem’s image relies on a convoluted set of references mixing Christian narrative, British mythologies such as Arthurian legend and classical motifs that form a syncretic image of the city. This image is one that even in its idealisation ignores the reality of earthly Jerusalem, instead gesturing towards an imagined British image of the city. 


A century later, amid the carnage of the First World War, the poem achieved a new iconic status in 1916 when Hubert Parry set Blake’s words to music. The resulting hymn, Jerusalem, swiftly grew in popularity, firstly against the backdrop of the war, but also in its uptake by the Women’s Sufferage movement.4 Blake’s poem had been relatively unknown until its lyrics were set to the rousing hymn just as Britain was reaching the apex of its political power as an empire. By 1927, at the centenary of William Blake’s death, Parry’s musical setting of Jerusalem was so popular that arguments were made that it should become the national anthem5 and King George V said he preferred it to the British national anthem God Save the King. The song has since become fundamental to British self-image as can be seen in its choice for the wedding of British heir to the throne Prince William to Kate Middleton in 2012. 


The timing of Parry’s composition in many ways could not have been better. Just a year later British troops pushed eastwards from their bases in British-controlled Egypt, through Sinai and Gaza to capture earthly Jerusalem from the Ottomans.6 In the lead up to the military campaign, then-British Prime Minister David Lloyd George demanded that General Allenby capture Jerusalem by Christmas. On 11th December, 1917, Allenby entered the city which had fallen to British control. Lloyd George described Allenby’s victory as a “Christmas present for the British people”. The statement was a propagandistic morale boost for the war effort, but also showed how little Jerusalem’s indigenous inhabitants figured in British thoughts about the city. 

Where Blake had questioned or proposed the building of a Jerusalem in England, the outcome of World War I saw the British claim the bricks and mortar of the earthly city. Jerusalem was no longer simply ideal to which to aspire, but the administrative capital of British Mandate Palestine, in what seemed to be an endless expanding British Empire. With the capture of Palestine, the building of Jerusalem appeared to be a literal, rather than metaphorical, act that glorified British colonial ambition. The song, and its religious references, appeared to be the aural embodiment of a preordained natural order, a colonial logic which placed the monarch as both head of the Church England and the British Empire’s head of state.   

The impacts of the British administration in Palestine were severalfold. Firstly, the British had made commitments to the fledgeling Zionist movement with the Balfour Declaration that enabled the largescale immigration Jewish Europeans to Palestine. Secondly, under the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence the British had committed to an independent Arab state in exchange for Arab forces supporting the Allies against the Ottomans in World War I. This created a situation of much instability with two diverging visions of the future of the nation. Thirdly, immediately after the British occupation of Jerusalem, the British created the Pro-Jerusalem Society headed by Charles Ashbee, a member of the British Arts and Crafts Movement and a disciple of William Morris, to deal with urban planning policy, heritage preservation and cultural activities within the city.

Charles Ashbee and the Pro-Jerusalem Society had a swift and decisive impact on the city. In line with the romanticism of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Ashbee set about what he saw as the preservation and restoration of the city. For the first time, the British were in a position to act on the romantic notions of Blake to build Jerusalem. In the years after World War I, the Pro-Jerusalem Society, under rubrics of restoration and preservation, set about demolishing modern structures in the city such as the Ottoman clocktower at Jaffa Gate, the many houses and buildings that had organically grown out of the Old City area into its new suburbs and banned any modern construction or the visible use of modern materials in the repair or building of new structures in and around the Old City.

Indeed, despite the turbulence of the many different regimes who have controlled Jerusalem through the course of the 20th century, the city as it exists today is predominantly based on the urban planning schemes laid out by the Pro-Jerusalem Society in the years after the war.   

Aside from the competing nationalist visions of Arabs and Jews in Palestine, the political control of the British enforced a British Arts and Crafts vision of the city that focused primarily on rubrics heritage. While the much-needed restoration of ancient sites was undertaken, there was also a strict denial of producing a modern city for its modern inhabitants. This has led some scholars to talk about Jerusalem as a Biblical theme park.7

This Arts and Crafts vision of Jerusalem saw a British imagining of Jerusalem made concrete, with the literal rebuilding of Jerusalem. Where Blake had envisioned Jerusalem as a heavenly, utopian state – a natural state evident in England-as-rural-paradise – to which Britain should aspire, by the early 20th century Jerusalem had become a British colonial possession. As a colonial possession, we have to understand the role Blake’s poem and Parry’s setting had in legitimising and popularising the idea of colonial rule among the British population, but also the ways in which British cultural production, particularly the attitudes of the Arts and Crafts movements, shaped the remaking of ‘earthly’ Jerusalem. The British occupation of Palestine was not only disastrous in politically pitting Arabs, Jews and their respective nationalism against one another, but also saw a collision between the earthly and spiritual Jerusalems.

Jerusalem to Jerusalema 

In the current paradigm of upheaval brought by Covid 19, it is perhaps no surprise that South African Master KG and Nomcebo Zidoke’s Jerusalema became the unexpected hit that it did. The track was initially recorded in November 2019, just as the first reports of what was then only classified as an epidemic were making headlines in the international media. It was initially thought the song would be typical of South African music patterns, having a life over the course of the southern hemisphere summer fading by March or April in the Autumn to follow.8 By mid 2020 it had reached number 1 on the charts in a number of countries, including The Netherlands.


The catchy and uplifting house beat combined with the message of hope in its isiZulu lyrics and a musical lineage that borrows from South African spirituals draws together a series of ingredients that makes Jerusalema what it is.  Currently, the original music video alone has over 350 million hits on YouTube, let alone the many other videos challenges that populate the digital realm. Indeed, there are so many challenge videos that there are now people curating ‘best of’ compilations to suit various tastes.


In February 2020, the setting of dance moves9 to the song by the Angolan dance troupe Fenómenos do Semba saw the song transformed into a viral dance challenge that soon spread as swiftly as Covid did.10 It’s interesting to note that popularisation of the song against the backdrop of Covid has parallels to the circumstances in which Parry’s Jerusalem was popularised, namely the First World War and the previous global pandemic at its end, the Spanish Flu, which is estimated to have had a death toll of around 50 million people, though statistics vary.11

Very quickly, groups around the world took up the Jerusalema challenge. Trawling through the endless challenge videos reveals interesting cross sections of participation from religious folk like priests, monks and nuns to emergency workers like police and fire brigades to front line medical staff as well as groups ordinary citizens. These videos show a global spread from Africa to Europe, North and South America, India, East Asia and beyond, making it a phenomenon that really has spread across much of the world.

The spread of the Jerusalema challenge has been framed by questions of soft power and cultural diplomacy12. That is to say, the ways in which culture is deployed in quietly political ways by nation states to foster good will and sentiment towards them. As an example, we might think of the term “winning hearts and minds” which is used to describe nations gaining community support for their political ends, rather than deploying military force.


Indeed, a world record attempt for the largest Jerusalema Challenge was made in South Africa’s Plettenberg Bay in late August 2020 under the trying conditions of the lockdown. A little over two weeks later, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in an address to the nation urged people to celebrate Heritage Day, a public holiday, by taking up the Jerusalema Challenge.


In this light, the song and the Jerusalema dance challenge were clearly becoming a source of civic pride for South Africa, and couched as part of a state-sponsored celebration of its contemporary national heritage in the trying times of the pandemic.

The isiZulu lyrics of Jerusalema, in many ways have a confluence with the themes involved in Blake’s poem and its musical setting by Parry.  Zidoke in discussing her vocals admits she was in a rather dark place when they were recorded.  The Jerusalem that her lyrics cite is similarly spiritual to that of Blake, but for her, Jerusalem is not a place to be claimed through building, but a symbol of escape from desperation to which one aspires.

Jerusalem, my home.
Rescue me,
Join me,
Don't leave me here!

My place is not here,
My kingdom is not here,
Rescue me!
Come with me!

Save me, save me, save me,
Don't leave me here,
Save me, save me, save me,
Don't leave me here!

With the popularisation of the song and dance challenge, Zidoke’s longing for the spiritual Jerusalem came to be echoed by Palestinians, for whom access to Jerusalem has become increasingly difficult since the Second Intifada and the building of the Wall.  While popularly regarded by Palestinians as their capital, for Palestinians living in close proximity to the city in the West Bank or Gaza Strip, access to Jerusalem is only allowed with permission from the Israeli military.13

Since the failed Oslo peace agreements of 1993 and 94, the international community has viewed the question of sovereignty over Jerusalem as fundamental to brokering a lasting peace.  However, in 2017, US President Donald Trump moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognising sole Israeli sovereignty over the city, marking a significant break with both International Law and the international community’s stance on a two-state solution.14 The controversial US Embassy move inflamed tensions in the fractured city, which had been divided in the wake of the war in 1948, when the British Mandate withdrew. 

For Palestinians, the isiZulu lyrics of the song resonate in a very different way to the metaphorical longing for a transcendental place.  Given the majority of Palestinians were made refugees in the war of 1948, the lyrics have been argued to stand in for a longing for a return to home, family and peace by Palestinians, as Samer Hussam Abu-Eisheh from the Jerusalem-based music collective Jaw has argued.1516

The Jerusalema challenge, for Abu Eisheh and other members of the Afro-Arab community in Jerusalem, also reflected historical links between South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement and the Palestinian liberationist movement. Zidoke was extremely pleased by the reception to the song in Palestinian communities, commenting that “I understand why they feel so touched by the song after what happened. They’ve got the meaning and it’s on point."17 While Zidoke’s lyrics maybe read in a spiritual connotation, it is also clear that for her the religious subtext is also part of a message of liberation that holds a political resonance.

Several months later, a video challenge was produced by the Palestinian-run Popular Art Centre in partnership with South African Palestinian solidarity groups and produced in collaboration with Palestinian dance troupes across five governates in the Palestinian Territories.  The video fused the original dance moves with Dabkeh, a traditional Palestinian dance style.


Choreographed by Sharaf DarZaid, the various dance troupes from Jerusalem, Gaza, Bethlehem, Jenin, Ramallah and El-Bireh number 130 dancers in total, with footage cut together from the various locations and measuring the close physical distance to Jerusalem, despite the inability of most of the dancers to visit the city.

Sharaf, in an interview, said that he was encouraged by friends in South Africa to do the video, hinting at the historical relations between the two peoples. He goes on to say that the main inspiration for the video is that Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine and that “attention is drawn to the physical barriers that prevent Palestinians from accessing Jerusalem”.1819

While Ramaphosa’s call to celebrate Heritage Day by doing the Jerusalema Challenge shows an assertion of South African cultural diplomacy, the uptake of the challenge in Palestine saw a different use of the song’s soft power by highlighting exclusion from Jerusalem itself.

Within the context of the Covid pandemic, perhaps one of the most interesting things about DarZaid’s video is the emptiness of some of the famous places in areas like Bethlehem and Jerusalem that typically are heavily filled with tourists and pilgrims.20

The increasing politicisation of the song over the course of the pandemic in 2020 is in many ways reflected by the politicisation of the pandemic in Palestine-Israel as attempts to curb the spread of the virus began with the role out of newly available vaccines. Israel has been hailed as a model of leadership in vaccination having already vaccinated half of its citizens by March 2021.21 However, the disparity between Palestinians and Israelis in access to vaccines has been contentious, with Medicine Sans Frontieres stating that those in Israel are 60 times more likely to be vaccinated than those in the Palestinian Territories22 leading to much debate and criticism about Israel’s international obligations.23 Added to this is a recent deal where Israel would trade 1.4 million soon to expire Pfizer vaccines in exchange for fresh supplies from Palestine when shipments in September arrive has been rejected by the Palestinian Authority as the first shipment from Israel was due to expire just 12 days after arrival rather than the previously agreed 6 weeks.24 Such incidents related to Covid have added further fuel to the statement by groups such as Human Rights Watch that Israel is practicing a form of apartheid.25

In February this year, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a program to trade excess vaccines for diplomatic support, particularly to countries who had moved their embassies to Jerusalem or would open diplomatic missions in the city.26 It would seem that while the Jerusalema Challenge provided new impetus for Palestinian claims to Jerusalem as a national capital, Covid vaccines provided a similar outlet for Israeli cultural diplomacy through immunisations abroad to cement Israeli claims of sovereignty over the city. These competing claims both operated through politicised international networks, showing just how fragmented the city is not just domestically, but internationally.

Where much of the world has found some sort of unity in Jerusalema as song and dance challenge in the context of Covid, the interaction between the phenomenon and virus in Jerusalem and more broadly in Palestine/Israel has in fact highlighted the ever-growing disparity and political fragmentation, particularly in the lead up to the current violence.

Whose Jerusalem?

Headlines in recent weeks have discussed Israeli attempts to dispossess four Palestinian families from their homes in the inner city East Jerusalem suburb of Sheikh Jarrah that is at the centre of the current violence.27 What is surprising, however, is that the dispossession of these families has both garnered world attention and solidified Palestinian solidarity given that such evictions in Jerusalem are common place28 and 15,000 Palestinians from Jerusalem have had their right to live in the city revoked by Israel between 1967 and 2016.29

Beyond the politics of property and legal rights of Palestinians in Jerusalem, what is less understood about Sheikh Jarrah is its central cultural importance. It is home to key cultural institutions like El Hakawati, the Palestinian National Theatre,30 Dar Al Tifl, the Palestinian Folklore Museum,31 Dar Issaf Nashashibi, a literary organisation,32 and many Western-funded scholarly and cultural institutes such as the Kenyon Institute,33 Ecole Biblique,34 and the American School of Oriental Research.35 Sheikh Jarrah is also home to Orient House, which, until it was shut down by Israel in 2001, was the Palestinian National Authority’s only diplomatic mission in the city. Computers, files and its archive were looted, despite the protected diplomatic status of Orient House under the Oslo Peace Accords.36

The recent history of Sheikh Jarrah is a microcosm of the broader claims and counterclaims of the city. The push to control areas of such cultural importance as Sheikh Jarrah, the Old City and Silwan are at the heart of the current situation, which centres on controlling Palestinian culture in the city. The impact of Jerusalem’s Arab culture is already minimised, given that the majority of Palestinians cannot even visit national cultural institutions in the capital as access to Jerusalem itself requires seeking Israeli military permission.

These multiple claims and questions of ownership over the city, whether physical or spiritual, are addressed in a sound work by Palestinian artist Qais Assali and opera singer Ju-Eh. The work takes as its base an Arabic translation of Blake’s poem, read aloud in the performative tradition of Arabic literature, upon which Parry’s melody is overlayed sung by Ju-eh and then interwoven with English commentaries.37

The haunting sound work, which runs for close to seven minutes, forms a subversive reply to the claims which the original hymn makes. Its ethereal tone reflects back on the sense of spiritual transcendence with which Jerusalem is often associated, particularly in the context of Blake’s lyrics. But listening to the deftly interwoven commentaries that Assali intersperses also disrupts the serene chorality of the soundscape.

“It’s not only William Blake.
White English men had the same idea
It’s Britain.
Yes, it was a failure, to be in Palestine. 
Please take it.
Build it in England and leave Palestine.
Leave Jerusalem. 
And don’t get bored of it and give it to someone else.”

At one and the same moment, Assali’s commentary nativises the poem by translating it into Arabic, subverting the cultural incongruence of the original song, but then quips “And don’t get bored of it and give it to someone else”. This allusion refers to the British withdrawal from Palestine at the end of the British Mandate leaving the politically volatile situation that led to the creation of the Israeli State and the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe), which saw more than half of the Arab population made refugees in 1948. Effectively, the work questions and undermines colonialist notions of ownership of the city by reappropriating the weight of Blake and Parry’s imagining of it and recasting it from an indigenous perspective. This effectively flips questions of Jerusalem’s ownership on its head.

The question of ownership of Jerusalem has resonances beyond well beyond the political sphere. Indeed, the Jerusalema challenge seems to have created a continuity of the contestations that the city embodies, this time in an economic form. Recently, with the many video challenges placed online Warner Music, who hold the copyright to the song, sent infringement notices to a number of institutions in Germany.

Staff from a number of state operated agencies such as hospitals, police and fire departments and other frontline workers who have participated in the challenge have received notices of copyright infringement. In legal terms there is a strong case for such infringement notices,38 however, there is also a moral argument that the song’s popularity would not be what it is if it weren’t for such largescale participation in the viral trend.


In response to infringement notices, Dusseldorf University Hospital removed the video of their staff, with other institutions following suit, while the Interior Ministry of North-Rhine Westphalia have financially settled with Warner Music for the participation of several its police departments in the dance challenge amounting to several thousand euros.39

Warner Music, for its part has argued that private persons would not need the gain permission, but that if “there is an advertising or image-promoting effect in favor of an institution, organization or company," then license fees are applicable.40 In response there has been a strong backlash online against Warner Music for enforcing copyright, with much criticism directed at the company, particularly in light of the many frontline workers who have been at the centre of the affair.

There is perhaps an irony in the prosecution of police departments, in particular, for breaking copyright legislation. However, even within the challenges among various police departments, questions of nationalism play out.  After the Swiss police had posted a video, they challenged the Irish Gardai (police). The resulting Irish video went so far as to include choreography with horses, fusing the original moves with Irish dance and the use of drones to include sweeping aerial views of the landscape. In response, the Swiss who had challenged the Gardai hung the Irish flag from the window of their police department in defeat.41


In contemplating the question ownership, whether economic, spiritual or nationalist, it is clear that there is an intertwining of Jerusalem as a city and an imagined construct that is fundamentally political. Indeed, the competing cultural claims of Jerusalem show just how politically fragmented the city continues to be. More importantly, the imagined cultural or spiritual Jerusalem strongly informs, supports and reflects the political turbulence endured by its inhabitants, a turbulence that highlights Jerusalem as a global nexus in which many other countries and actors are complicit.

The many faces of the city give rise to cultural claim, colonial claim, processes of diplomacy and economic commodification showing just how contested the city is. Indeed, Blake’s lines “I will not cease from Mental Fight,/Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand” provide a foreboding warning to the many contestations of Jerusalem that would follow in the two centuries since they were written, the inherent violence of the metaphor made concrete in the city’s history, even as it continues to unfold. This perhaps beckons the question, whose city is it anyway?






  6. Surrender of Jerusalem photo, Matson Collection, Library of Congress -




































Sary Zananiri
Sary Zananiri completed a PhD in Fine Arts at Monash University in 2014. He has co-edited two volumes with Karène Sanchez Summerer European Cultural Diplomacy and Arab Christians in Palestine: Between Contention and Connection (Palgrave McMillan, 2021) and Imaging and Imagining Palestine: Photography, Modernity and the Biblical Lens (Brill, 2021). Forthcoming publications include Indigeneity, Transgression and the Body (Journal of Intercultural Studies, 2021) and Behold: the Work of Hoda Afshar for Monash University Museum of Art’s series Queer Readings. Recently curated exhibitions include Frank Scholten: Archaeology and Tourism in the ‘Holy Land’ at the Rijksmuseum Oudheden (May-October 2020) and Homosexuality, Biblical Narrative and the Classical at Der Haus Der Kunst der Welt for ALMS, Berlin (June 2019) and Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival (postponed). He will be artist in residence at the Camargo Foundation for If there were a there, it would be… in collaboration with Bozar and the A.M. Qattan Foundation. He is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher on the NWO funded project CrossRoads: European Cultural Diplomacy and Arab Christians in Palestine 1918-1948 and the Netherlands Institute for the Near East at Leiden University Frank Scholten collection.
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by Momtaza Mehri