From 1948 until 1967, Jerusalem was a divided city, sliced through its heart by an armistice line separating West and East, Jew and Arab, Israel and Jordan. Fifty years ago, in June 1967, Israeli troops shattered the barrier and handily defeated the Jordanian army to gain control of the entire city. But united Jerusalem — where Israelis have their government and Palestinians wish they did — remains divided religiously, economically, socially and in the minds of many of its residents. I recently interviewed two men with deep family ties to Jerusalem. They have different perspectives and experiences about their city in 1967 and what it means to them today. Here are excerpts from our conversations.
Saman Khoury, born in 1948 — “I’m as old as Israel,” he says — has a thick mustache and a courtly manner. We met in the gracious courtyard of the Ambassador Hotel along a winding street in East Jerusalem.“I lived all my life seeing a wall about 50 meters from Damascus Gate. My mother was always telling me, ‘My house is on the other side,’” he said.
Before 1948, Khoury’s mother and her family lived in the German Colony, near the Smadar Cinema, which still operates today. His grandfather and brothers were local shopkeepers. They all had to leave in 1948. His father’s family fled to the Old City; his mother, pregnant with him, went to the Bethlehem area,. She wanted to give birth in Jerusalem, but she couldn’t make it in time. Eventually, the family was reunited in the Old City and then moved to Beit Hanina, a nearby Palestinian neighborhood.Khoury’s family is Christian, and he doesn’t recall conflict with Muslim neighbors: “If you do not infringe on others, you can live together in peace with others. We should respect the makeup of the city, its mixed cultures.”
Avinoam Armoni was born July 4, 1946. in Jerusalem, to parents who made aliyah from Russia. He grew up in the center of the city and was active in the Jewish youth movement and the Boy Scouts. His closest friend from childhood was Yoni Netanyahu, the late brother of the current prime minister. Netanyahu was killed rescuing Israelis hostages during the famous Entebbe raid in 1976. Armoni served as a paratrooper from 1964 to 1966 and was on reserve duty when the Six-Day War broke out.
We began our conversation over glasses of mint tea in the Tachana Rishona, a beautifully renovated outdoor space on the site of the city’s old railway station. As a child, Armoni remembers walking nearby through Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first Jewish neighborhood outside the Old City, and being afraid of snipers from the Jordanian side. He would go into a convent in West Jerusalem to look into East Jerusalem, and it was, he recalled, “like looking at a foreign land. To me, as a boy, this was the end of my world.”
Khoury: June 5,1967: “The Arabs thought: ‘That’s it. We’re getting back our country.’ The war broke out because the Israelis were more ready for it. The Arabs were not. We were told they were preparing for a big war. I jokingly say it was the six-hour war. All this bragging for 19 years, and we lost more land than the historical area of Palestine that they were intending to liberate.”
“The Jordanian and Egyptian armies were so brutal with us. All of a sudden, the Israeli army crushes them in a few hours. It was terrible, terrible.”
“The war started on a Monday morning. By the evening, they could feel the Jordanian army was somehow leaving, as if it disappeared. Tuesday morning my father woke up early to make his coffee, and he heard a different language outside. ‘I think I’m hearing Jews out there,’ he told my mother. She fought with him. ‘We Arabs are going to win,’ she said. But the Israeli troops were in Beit Hanina already.”
Armoni: “The days before [the war] were anxious, tenser and tenser,” Armoni said. “There was always fear when there was a call-up of reserves. The war was over in a flash. The walls are being knocked down. We Jerusalemites are suddenly touring the city.
“The post ’67 euphoria contained the seeds of our own self-destruction, but in those days, it was pure, pure euphoria.”
“Existential fear — that is the overriding element of understanding Israel to this day. In spite of the fact that we have come as victors in our military encounters with our neighbors, this basic, simple existential fear is the single most elemental nature of Israel. Left and right form their political views and their future, based on insecurity and existential fear.”
Khoury: By the third day of the war, he recalled, loudspeakers were announcing that there were buses at Damascus Gate, offering free rides to Jordan. Some left, but most stayed. Khoury’s family had left once already, in 1948, and didn’t want to leave Jerusalem again.
“In the early days, people were happy. Not that they were occupied, but that they had gotten rid of a brutal army. The Jordanians were vicious in terms of the Palestinians. People felt that the Israelis were normal; they introduced the idea of law and rights, and we had the chance to work. It was nice at the beginning. “People thought the occupation wouldn’t last.”
Khoury said conditions started deteriorating after 1973 — economic hardship followed by the violent intifada. Yet the Arab population in East Jerusalem continues to increase. Israel has strict residency rules, and many Palestinians fear that they will lose permission to live in Jerusalem if they leave the city for very long, so they live in an ever more crowded space.
“It’s haunting every person in East Jerusalem,” he said. “It’s very damaging psychologically. It made people want to stay despite their terrible situation. If you don’t have proof you are a resident, you are an infiltrator. “The Israeli law backfired. People cling to residency despite the hardship. To be a Jerusalemite, it’s an envy.”
Though a leader in the first intifada, Khoury said he believed in resistance but not armed struggle. “But under Israeli law I was still a terrorist, because I was resisting,” he said. Khoury spent around eight years in prison all together and spent much of his later years involved in the Peace And Democracy Forum in East Jerusalem.
“There was a constant attempt to wipe out the others’ existence by the Israelis, ongoing from day one of the occupation,” Khoury said. “They declared a united Jerusalem, but they never saw the people of Jerusalem.”
Armoni: “Not too many voices at the time were saying that this gift also has a price tag attached to it,” he said.
We left the former railway station and drove along the seam line between West and East Jerusalem. Armoni has had a storied career — as a vice president of Hebrew University, CEO of the Museum Of The Diaspora — but for our purposes it is the time he spent working as a special adviser to the famed Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek that resonates. Armoni knows the city intimately. He showed me Caspi Street, which he says has the city’s highest per capita income. “You need $15 million to buy a house here,” he noted.
The extremes are everywhere — between rich and poor, young and old, Jew and Arab, religious and secular — and the tension is building: “You have expensive residences bordering on a Third World-poor Palestinian population, who are having lots and lots of children with less and less income. It’s only a matter of time before there’s an explosion.”
We were standing on the Haas Promenade — known locally as the Tayelet — taking in a panoramic view of Jerusalem, old and new. Armoni pointed to the space, just behind the separation barrier, that is designated for a future Palestinian Parliament. The distance between the Kotel, the Western Wall, and that space is shorter than the distance between the Kotel and the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament.
When he worked for Kollek, Armoni tried to build a system of neighborhood self-management, but the experiment failed. “I never thought the city could be united, but I thought the city could be managed,” he said. “There is no way of physically dividing Jerusalem. We have to figure out a way to share it.”
Contact Jane Eisner at Eisner@forward.com or on Twitter, @Jane_Eisner.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.