Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat declared recently that new transportation arrangements for the city have been designed to “cause the wider world to understand who really owns the city.”
Barkat was describing his proposed project to create a new tourist entrance into the Old City by building a cable car up from David’s City through the Dung Gate. With five stops, two of them in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, the cable car would be running above territory captured in 1967 while ignoring the Palestinians who live there.
The bombastic project, defying gravity, topography and politics at an estimated cost of $33 million, probably won’t actually happen. Jerusalem mayors seem to love cable cars. They’ve been proposed before and then rejected because they were too extravagant, too improbable, or too provocative — or all those things combined.
But other comparable projects — like the Museum of Tolerance, intolerantly built over a Muslim graveyard in downtown West Jerusalem — have happened, over the objections of professional planners and engineers. And ever since the Six Day War, when Israel captured East Jerusalem, Israel has attempted to assert Jewish control over the city by ringing Jerusalem with satellite neighborhoods in East Jerusalem that have had a detrimental effect on the development of both the Eastern and the Western parts of the city. In the past decade, separation barriers, ostensibly created for Israeli security needs, have cut off large sections of East Jerusalem from the city, leaving Palestinians to fend for their own security needs.
And now Barkat wants to assert Jewish ownership by building a cable car.
By proposing this project, Barkat is adding his name to a long list of leaders who have been willing to subordinate the city’s real needs for the sake of political posturing. In promoting this project, Barkat has allied himself with Elad, a right-wing Jewish nationalist group that foments conflict by expelling Palestinian residents from homes that Elad says once had Jewish owners.
The Palestinian residents of Silwan, who have not been consulted on this project, won’t benefit from the tourism it is expected to bring. And so the inequality — East Jerusalem receives few public services and budgets than West Jerusalem — will be perpetuated.
After the nearly half-century of control since the Six Day War, most Israeli politicians have forgotten that real sovereignty entails concern for all the city’s residents — including the approximately 300,000 Arabs who live in Jerusalem and make up some 37% of the city’s population, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Instead of thinking of the city as a human endeavor that both Arabs and Jews call home, they relate to it as contested political space.
Like so many other Israeli leaders, Barkat regularly professes his undying love for “unified Jerusalem.” But his is a zealous, jealous love — he “loves” the city so much that he would rather choke it than allow anyone else to have a part in it. This kind of love has only brought us strife and conflict.
When Israeli leaders speak reverently about Jerusalem’s indivisibility, they actually mean Israeli sovereignty with a Jewish majority. And when Palestinians speak about Jerusalem’s sacred unity, they intentionally ignore Jewish rights to the city. But in order for Jerusalemites to live productive, creative and peaceful lives here, and in order for the city to thrive for the billions of people who hold it dear, leaders on both sides must summon up the courage, generosity of spirit and compassion to “divinite” the city.
“Divination” is a complex process of division and unity, in which Jerusalem must be simultaneously divided politically into two capitals for two states, while remaining united geographically as a single urban unit. Only divination will enable us to attend to the national agendas and religious emotions that divide us while taking care of the urban fabric that binds us.
As I have written before, the process is difficult, but possible. Cities like Belfast and Sarajevo, once violently contested, now live in relative peace. The city of Basel is divided between three states (Germany, France and Switzerland), less than a century after World War II. Nova Gorica in Slovenia and Gorizia in Italy are connected across the Slovenian and Italian borders, functioning as a common trans-border metropolitan zone.
In contrast to Barkat, some civil society groups in this city have proposed more politically and practically viable projects. Once such group, Windows on Mount Zion, for example, has proposed establishing the main tourist entrance to the Old City on Mount Zion, where there are sites that are holy to Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and which has been under Israeli control since before the establishment of the State. Instead of the Jewish-only and Israel-only narrative that the cable car through Silwan represents, an entrance through Mount Zion would create a spiritual narrative of tolerance and coexistence. And it would allow both Palestinians and Israelis to benefit from the project.
Jerusalem’s troubled history and tense present prove that this city doesn’t take well to simplistic answers based on ownership and control. Yet the city invites those of us who truly love it to imagine a different kind of future. Cable cars in the sky, disconnected from the on-the-ground reality, won’t bring that about.
Eetta Prince-Gibson, the former editor in chief of The Jerusalem Report, is an award-winning journalist who lives in Jerusalem.