Loving Jerusalem, With Maturity


By Daniel Seidemann

Published May 13, 2009, issue of May 22, 2009.
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On May 21, Jerusalemites, barely recovered from a city shut down by a papal visit, will brace themselves for yet another round of massive gridlock. Throngs of religious-nationalist youth will take over the center of town. Yeshiva students will march en masse into the Old City, in celebration of the “reunification” of Jerusalem in 1967.

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Apart from some tourists, few others will be celebrating. The city’s ultra-Orthodox population will look on in apathy and disdain. Non-religious Jerusalemites will have planned their escape routes in advance. The 35% of the city’s population that is Palestinian will stay in the background, simultaneously defiant and resigned to the sight of yet another Jerusalem event that celebrates yet another one of their tragedies. Some will also cower in anticipation of the traditional trashing of their shops that has often accompanied such events.

In short, Jerusalem Day is not embraced by all of Jerusalem — let alone by Israeli society at large. It does, however, provide an annual opportunity for ideologues of the right to shake their heads and lament the loss of solidarity and the devaluation of all that was once sacred, while some on the left point to it as proof that Israelis now realize that the dividends of the Six Day War included the curse of a protracted occupation over another people.

There is an element of truth in both of these views, but what this collage illuminates more than anything is a dirty little secret (no longer) truth: The mantra of “Jerusalem-the-undivided-capital-of-Israel-that-will-never-be-re-divided” (one word, and a noun) is dead. Until 2000, this mantra reigned supreme, an unassailable article of faith. But when Ehud Barak, as prime minister, placed the political division of the city on the bargaining table, with relatively little protest from the Israeli public, it became clear that the mantra had been overtaken by reality.

Today, there is a growing awareness that Jerusalem is already deeply divided, with what might be called “glass walls” all over the city, invisible yet often impermeable social and psychological boundaries. Israelis rarely venture into East Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods, and Palestinians venture into West Jerusalem only for compelling, utilitarian reasons (mainly to the workplace and back). Israelis have never seen East Jerusalem Palestinians as Israeli Arabs, nor have the city’s Palestinians — most of whom are not entitled to vote in national elections and unwilling to vote in municipal elections — viewed themselves as Israeli. Meanwhile, only between 5% and 12% of the municipal budget goes to the Palestinian sector, which represents 35% of the city’s population. Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem are separated by differing perceptions, entitlements, schools, patterns of movement and living spaces.

Most Israelis remain skeptical of the notion that there is any possibility of a final-status agreement with the Palestinians at present. But they also know that when this agreement is reached, it will entail a politically divided Jerusalem. The Israeli soul is torn between the “politically impossible” and the “historically inevitable” — generating fluctuating, often contradictory polls on the future status of the city. But it is telling that when, in talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed the division of Jerusalem along lines similar to those of Barak’s proposals in 2000, it was a non-event.

Virtually all of this remarkable transformation has bypassed the American Jewish community, which remains devoted to a “united” Jerusalem. It is a position that is easy to caricature, leading to occasional snickering from some Israelis who, when it comes to attitudes toward Jerusalem, see American Jewry as the equivalent of a clueless tourist sporting a Hawaiian shirt. Nothing, however, could be less warranted than this sort of disdain. American Jews’ love of Jerusalem derives from the same wellsprings as their love for Israel.

But times have changed, and there is more change to come. If President Obama and his administration are serious about achieving a Middle East peace breakthrough, then we are on the brink of a serious push to grapple with the outstanding final-status issues, most prominently that of Jerusalem. If and when the Obama administration creates the political platform needed to address the Jerusalem issue, it will not derive from hostility toward Israel but rather from a coherent view of Israel’s genuine national interest, one that differs significantly from the ideologically driven views of the Bush administration and the political/religious right in Israel.

Unfortunately, American Jews are singularly unprepared to engage in sober, rational discourse on the city’s political future. But it is now imperative that the Jewish community replace sloganeering about Jerusalem with a more nuanced approach, rooted in a familiarity with the complexities of the city and the genuine Israeli and Jewish interests embedded in it. In reacting to the prospect of an engaged White House and progress toward a final-status agreement, American Jews should not abandon their love and devotion to Jerusalem, but they must undergo a process that many Israelis have already undergone: transforming devotion to Jerusalem from a teenage infatuation into a mature, adult love.

And if, against all odds, diplomatic efforts succeed, the pain of politically dividing Jerusalem should be allayed by the appearance of the first Arab embassy in Israeli Jerusalem, signifying the crowning achievement of Zionism: Israel’s universal acceptance into the family of nations, with Yerushalayim recognized as its legitimate capital. In contrast to the charade that Israel will witness later this month, that will be a Jerusalem Day that can be welcomed and celebrated by all Israelis — even at the expense of massive gridlock.

Daniel Seidemann is the founder of and a legal adviser to the Jerusalem nongovernmental organization Ir Amim, or “City of Nations.”

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