This year, the Jewish High Holy days and the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice (Id al Adha) coincide, as they do once every 33 years. In both religions, Jerusalem plays a very special role during this period. The city is the receptacle of the dreams and aspirations of all those who draw their inspiration from the Abrahamic tradition. It is also the concrete focus of the (increasingly troubling) nature of Jewish-Arab relations at this time. These days of celebration, reflection and reaffirmation offer an opportunity to ponder the Jerusalem that is and the Jerusalem that can be.
Jerusalem is one of the most complex urban areas in the world. It is Israel’s largest metropolis, as well as the biggest Palestinian city in the region. Of its 815,300 residents, 37 percent (301,200) are Palestinian. Beneath the façade of unity, it is deeply divided demographically, economically, physically, religiously, nationally and politically. In many respects, it represents a microcosm not only of layers of historical, ethnic and cultural interchange, but also of the deep challenges currently facing the region and — by extension — the global arena.
Images of Jerusalemites — Israelis and Palestinians, religious and secular, men and women, young and old, Muslims, Christian and Jews — filled the pages of the Israeli press this past weekend. Under the banner of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, they transmitted a powerful message of cooperation, hope, tolerance and commitment to a shared future.
We, the sons and daughters of Jerusalem, are opening our doors, walking out into the street and taking up positions in town plazas to declare: We are here.
Present day Jerusalem is tense and replete with suspicion and strife. July and August of this year were accompanied by a sevenfold increase in Palestinian insurrection in the city. In the process, property was destroyed (most notably light rail equipment and stations), buses were stoned, security forces were assailed and several Israelis were seriously injured. According to Israeli authorities, 152 cases of attacks were recorded during these two months alone. Over 740 Palestinians — many minors — were detained and 246 have been indicted.
Violence against Palestinians has also been on the rise: following the kidnapping and murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir in early July, according to Ir Amim (an NGO that tracks developments in the city), several dozens of violent incidents by Jews against Arabs were documented during the summer, resulting not only in the willful destruction of property, but also in serious injuries and at least one death. Palestinian taxi drivers are assaulted regularly; Arabs are harassed in the streets. Both Jews and Palestinians fear venturing into each other’s neighborhoods.
In the vision of the Jerusalem Season, “We are here to oppose evil, hatred and violence. We are here to turn the light on.” This undertaking is more difficult today than at any point in recent history. Only a comprehensive plan to combat ethnically-rooted intolerance and assure the security of all citizens of the city can counter these trends.
The tension permeating the city reflects a host of inequities, the most glaring of which is the housing differentials between Israelis and Palestinian Jerusalemites — which reached a new peak in the past year alone. The housing density for Palestinians is twice that of Jewish residents, according to updated figures provided by the B’Tselem human rights organization. Since 1967, one-third of Palestinian land in East Jerusalem has been confiscated. During this period, 27,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished. Only recently, after a six-year court battle, was approval given for the construction of the first Palestinian residential area in almost fifty years: 2,200 units to be built in A-Sawahara. Indeed, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) shows that only 14 percent of East Jerusalem is zoned for Palestinian residential construction. And the separation barrier constructed during the past decade divides Palestinian neighborhoods within the municipal boundaries of the city.
At the same time, Jewish construction has expanded by leaps and bounds, from Gilo in the southwest of the city, to Har Homa, French Hill, Pisgat Ze’ev, Neve Yaakov and Ramat Shlomo — to mention but a few of the post-1967 Jewish neighborhoods circling the city. Jewish enclaves in Palestinian parts of Jerusalem continue to receive support from the authorities. Most recently, the Temple Mount has once again become a powder keg with the stepped-up activity of the extremist Jewish Temple Mount Heritage Foundation.
“We are here to turn walls into bridges. To replace destruction with creativity. To repair what is broken.” It will take enormous commitment, massive allocations and untold perseverance to achieve this common — and increasingly vital — goal.
Jerusalem residents on the two sides of the national divide do not have the same rights nor do they share similar benefits. The residency of Palestinian Jerusalemites is precarious at best. They must constantly prove that the center of their life is in the city or risk revocation of their status (over 14,000 have lost their residency since 1967). The vision of a shared community, so articulately invoked in the Jerusalem Season (“We are here, armed with a love of humanity and tolerance to fight for the home we love so much“), is a far cry indeed from the growing asymmetries of daily life.
This reality is governed by glaring gaps in goods and services. Only 53 percent of Palestinian children attend official public schools. They study in overcrowded classrooms. Only 6 percent of toddlers are enrolled in pre-school programs in East Jerusalem (all Israeli children over the age of 3 are entitled to free education). Access to higher education remains skewed.
Similar discrimination exists in health, municipal services, water and sewage facilities and physical infrastructure. Perhaps the most startling data relates to poverty. ACRI reports, based on statistics provided by the National Insurance Institute, that 75.3 percent of East Jerusalem residents live below the poverty line and that 82.2 percent of Palestinian children in the city are poor.
These figures highlight the gap between the Jerusalem that is and the Jerusalem that can and should be.
We are here because we believe in the good that is in God, in humanity and in the earth. We are here because the message will emanate from us to the surrounding hills, throughout this land, and far beyond.
The Jewish Holiday season commences this week with ten days of individual and collective reckoning and introspection, ending with Yom Kippur, when the Muslim world will celebrate its roots dating back to Abraham and Ismael. As each of us turns to Jerusalem in our thoughts, it behooves us to think not only about the chasm that exists between the Jerusalem of now and the Jerusalem we aspire to create together, but also about what we can do, personally and jointly to make this vision come true.
“We are here because we have been silent for too long, and will now shout out the voice of hope.” And since we are here, now is the time to rededicate ourselves to making Jerusalem livable for all its citizens and thus ensure that it continues to be that enduring symbol of equality, tolerance and justice which its name evokes.