Why we all need to explore East-Jerusalem

When I wander through the streets of Jerusalem, I often ask myself: what is Jerusalem? In time the city teaches me more about her world, yet it is as if I can only whisper what she is telling me. Nonetheless, I feel it is important to understand her because Jerusalem is like a mirror. Revealing something about ourselves and the way we live in this world. In my attempt, I observe. I read. I talk… And this has shown me: no one, even if visiting Jerusalem for a very short while, should leave the city without exploring the east.

My way to do this was to go on a tour with Ir Amim, an NGO that focuses on Jerusalem within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What follows is not only my experience and reflection of this tour, but also a deeper contemplation about the city that has drawn people to her for thousands of years. Maybe the question to keep in mind is above all: how do you see Jerusalem, and what is the deeper meaning of that? Studying the map below is your first step towards a possible answer.

Our wonderful tour guide starts with a similar point: people see Jerusalem in many different ways. This was true in the past, is true in the present and will remain true in the future. According to our guide we do not need to try and find the final answer to what Jerusalem is, but we do need to be open en informed about the city – and know how people relate to it. Therefore, he says, we certainly also need to learn about the eastern part of the city.

For many (if not all) Israeli-Jews, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. For (most) religious Jews especially because this is Zion, the city of the Holy Temple – which for them goes back to the Temple of Solomon almost three thousand years ago. For many non-religious Jews Israel is the land where they belong, and Jerusalem is ‘simply’ part of it. Therefore, a lot of Israeli-Jewish politicians echo the words of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, as we get often reminded by our tour guide: “Jerusalem is united and will never be divided again.”

Yet, the question immediately arises: how can this view of Jerusalem go together with the way Palestinians see her? Among the Palestinians we find both Christians and Muslims. For the first group this is the city where Jesus walked, taught, was crucified and stood up from the dead. For the second group it is the first direction of prayer, as the prophet Muhammad did in the early years of Islam – with Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque as one of their holiest places. Above that, Palestinians have lived here for many centuries. To many of them, also those who are not religious, this is simply home as well. It seems, thus, that both peoples have a deep (historical) connection to this land and Jerusalem especially. It is for this reason that Ir Amim, as the name of the organisation reflects, works for a ‘city of peoples’ (or: ‘city of nations’).

The above perspectives of the city will not surprise you, I suppose. This is something you probably now. We could add the following to it. Many people who visit Jerusalem, from whatever background, visit the Old City, Jaffa Street, the Shuk and places in the centre. They might feel that Jerusalem is a wonderful place, where different peoples live together. Standing in front of the Western Wall or on top of Temple Mount, they might be reminded that ’the conflict’ between Israeli-Jews and Palestinians is yet to be resolved. But overall, I think they do not really feel any problem or suffering. What our tour taught me, however, is that there is much more to the city that we need to know about. And East-Jerusalem holds one of the keys to understanding the city, the peoples that are part of it and maybe even to peace in the Middle-East and the entire world.

To start with: East-Jerusalem is, till this very day, envisioned by Palestinians and the international community alike as the future capital of Palestine. Visiting East-Jerusalem with our tour guide confronts us, therefore, not only with problems of the city as such but also elements that are part of the greater conflict: facilities, resources, sovereignty, security, refugees, settlements, and so on.

The green line, drawn in 1948, is not the municipality boundary that got established later – this is moving much further into the east of the city. The way the blue (municipality) line is drawn is based on a simple principle: as much land as possible to be part of the city, yet as few Palestinians as possible. The reasoning behind this is also simple: to make sure there is and will always be a Jewish majority. Which, from a Jewish perspective, is understandable. However, at the moment of writing, that very balance is shifting. A few decades ago the Palestinians formed about twenty-five percent of the population, whereas they now form about thirty-eight percent of the population.

But the situation in East-Jerusalem tells us a lot more than just demographics. It teaches us that Palestinians do not have citizenship, but something called ‘permanent residency’. They loose this status if they move out of the city. It also means they can vote for the municipality, but not for the national parliament. Which is why almost all do not vote at all (only two percent), since they believe the second rules the first and therefore determines their situations. Besides, voting would be seen as legitimizing the current situation which to them is unacceptable.

East-Jerusalem also shows how the municipality holds a policy which seems outright discriminatory: the Palestinian neighborhoods only receive ten percent of the yearly budget, there are far less services (healthcare, post, public transportation) and much more children than there are classrooms in the schools. On top of that, even though a growing population, they are not allowed to build new houses. So, on average, about eight people live in an average apartment; the unemployment rates are high (sixty percent); as is poverty (seventy-five percent live below the poverty line). A big cause for these numbers is the building of the barrier, which often divides communities and – again – keeps several Palestinian communities out of bounds of the city while making space for more Jewish communities.

The neighborhoods being build for new Jewish communities have all the facilities one might expect, also in order to attract more Jewish people to the city, that since 1967 became more than three time the size it had in 1948. Largely because of the demographics the municipality has forbidden Palestinians to build on land that is ‘empty’ – by making it a public garden, after the Supreme Court ruled they could not justify to turn it into a national park. Furthermore, it intents to build further in the east, in an area known as E1. That it has not done so is, mostly, because of international law and politics. E1 is in the West Bank, therefore considered to be illegal. Moreover, it is located in such a way that if it would be build, it cuts off several Palestinian neighborhoods from the West Bank – and, as a consequence, make an end to the two-state-solution that all parties – formally – still embrace as the final goal.

It is not hard to see how the city of Jerusalem, when someone becomes aware of the eastern part of the city, carries all the elements in it that are also part of the conflict in it’s entire. It is like a microcosmos that reflects a macrocosmos, of which the above is just a part of what is going on – and I am aware that this relatively short will not do justice to it’s complexity. Looking at the east of Jerusalem is, in that sense, only a part of the complexity and we need look towards the west as well – and beyond the city.

Yet it is a part that we need to include. Again, we are faced with different perspectives on the city. For Palestinians their Nakba continues in the form of house demolitions, lacking facilities, being discriminated and not being citizen of an own country. For Jews Jerusalem is ‘once again united’ and ‘never to be divided again’. The city, to them, is restored to the people it belongs to.

What would happen, I wonder, if the different ‘peoples’ or ‘nations’ stepped into the histories of the other? If they used their natural capacity of empathy – Jews seeing the city of Jerusalem through the eyes of the Palestinians and vice versa? If they realize that their suffering and well-being is not only intertwined with each other, but they actually carry a responsibility for the other – being part of  what the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas calls ‘an interhuman order’?

The same, I wonder, is true for any visitor of Jerusalem and inhabitant of Israel, if not the entire Middle-East and the world: what if they look to the city through both the ‘western’ part and the ‘eastern’ part? What would it tell them? About both the city, and themselves? And how might that make a difference in their personal relationship with Jerusalem, and to help make it a place of love, light and peace? Or, as I pointed out in the beginning: how do you see Jerusalem, and what is the deeper meaning of that?

There are a lot more questions to ask, and many things to write. And I will keep exploring the streets of what the famous Amos Oz described as ‘a city of love and darkness’. Trying to understand Jerusalem and through her myself, my worldview and how I can help make it a place of love, light and peace. But I want to finish for now with something that the Israeli singer David Broza so beautifully expressed in a documentary called ‘West Jerusalem / East Jerusalem’. This is also a great start to explore your relationship with the city and start looking at both East and West as well. He realises that the conflict might not be resolved soon. As the physical wall might keep standing for quite some more time. But, and I could not write it better and therefore and with his words: “What I believe in is breaking down the walls that are in your mind, that are in your heart.”

Note: This story, information and my understanding would not have been possible without Ir Amim and our great tour guide. So I want to express my gratitude and can recommend every reader to visit their website and join a tour: http://www.ir-amim.org.il

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