Columns / Discourse / February 27, 2013

Jerusalem: Golden city divided

I visited Jerusalem over a dozen times last year, while studying abroad at the University of Haifa International School in Israel. How can I describe each visit except as a walk down memory lane? The memories were, of course, initially borrowed; that is, absorbed and grafted onto my own sense of being from Old Testament accounts of the city as it grew into the nerve center of a kingdom, laid to waste by different conquerors and rebuilt again and again before and after the death of Christ.

Jerusalem has always been the “city of gold” coveted by all and yet claimed by none. Almost every slab of stone on the streets and alleys of the Old City depresses quaintly in the middle, a sure sign of just how many kings, paupers and merchants have walked over them and made the city their home at some juncture in history. Even after Israel took entire control of the city in the 1967, it has maintained a diverse population of Arabs and Jews and Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christians.

Recent developments in West Jerusalem,  specifically in the Arab village of Beit Safafa (Arabic for “summertime home”), however, are threatening this diversity. In a bid to improve access to settlements in the West Bank, the government has sanctioned the construction of a six-lane highway through the village. The project only confirms Arab suspicions that the Israeli government wants them out.

While benefiting motorists traveling to and from the West Bank, the new highway spells disaster for the 9,000 inhabitants of Beit Safafa. In November, they woke up to the rumble of bulldozers clearing their olive tree plantations. As second-class citizens, they could do little but protest and pray. Even a local court judge refused to support their petition as police routinely dispersed demonstrations.

The new highway is particularly stinging to the inhabitants of Beit Safafa given their history of loyalty to the state of Israel. Those alive in 1967 actually welcomed Israel’s victory in the Six Day War as this reunited the town, which had, for 20 years, been bifurcated by the armistice line. In lieu of his re-election campaign, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has also promised the construction of new housing units on a hilltop overlooking Beit Safafa that Arabs call Tabaliya and Jews, Givat Matos.

Forceful evictions of Arab families and communities are not uncommon in Jerusalem and in the West Bank. The last few years have witnessed a determined campaign to build more Jewish suburbs around the Old City at the expense of Arabs mostly. Right wing Zionists who want to ‘purify’ the Jewish homeland are spearheading the effort. Zionism emerged in late 19th century Europe as the belief that only a physical homeland can protect Jews from persecution like the pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia.

After the Holocaust, this sense of existential fear only heightened, which explains why many Jews, even liberals, want to maintain a Jewish majority. For more militant Zionists, the population race to keep Israel ‘Jewish’ is real and must be won; if not, they fear that they will once again suffer persecution in the face of what Alexis de Tocqueville termed “the tyranny of the majority.”

There is no easy solution to the stalemate in which Jews and Arabs find themselves. From a moral standpoint, forceful evictions are wrong; simultaneously, the fear that drives them cannot be dismissed: we may be seven decades out of the Second World War, but the fear of “what could be” hangs indefinitely above the minds of many Israelis like the mythic Sword of Damocles.

It does not help when some Arabs are cultivating their own brand of racist hatred. While at a famed hummus restaurant in the Arab quarter in East Jerusalem, my German friend began talking with someone who, with his slick hair and neon-colored Nike shoes seemed hip, young and enlightened. In his broken English, the man asked whether my friend was from America. “No,” my friend replied, “I’m from Germany.” The man’s eyes suddenly lit up. He said, “That’s great! You kill Jews.” We chose, then, to end the conversation.

I arrived in Israel ardently pro-Palestine, but I left a year later aware that both sides need the empathy of the outside world. The injustice in Beit Safafa is lamentable because its inhabitants have done nothing to deserve it. But we must remember that it is part of the larger narrative of Jews and Arabs struggling to live peacefully together. The dilemma will not find complete resolution in the legislature and the judiciary. This is a heart matter, as all lasting conflict is. “Turn the other cheek, forgive.” The Jewish man who uttered these words 2,000 years ago —  Jesus Christ —  may have been onto something.


Tags:  arab Beit Safafa diversity Givat Matos Jerusalem Jewish West Bank

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