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Peta Jones Pellach
Teacher and activist in Jerusalem

Like Venice, Jerusalem is sinking fast

Human actions are destroying the city's beauty, but it's not too late to right the ship
Cityscape image of Jerusalem, Israel with Dome of the Rock and Western Wall at sunset. (iStock/RudyBalasko)
Cityscape image of Jerusalem, Israel with Dome of the Rock and Western Wall at sunset. (iStock/RudyBalasko)

Yehuda Amichai describes Jerusalem as a “port city on the shore of eternity” and the Temple Mount as a “great ship.”

My fear is that I am watching a ship-wreck.

I once saw what he saw and heard what he heard – the color, the excitement, the sounds of prayer and commerce intertwined. His metaphor of a pleasure craft with its masts and ropes, sailors and passengers, made me smile with recognition.

Every time I walked into the Old City, for work or commerce or pleasure or worship, I felt that I was stepping into a holy island that held all the promises of a vacation destination never visited before. The sounds and the sights and the smells were new each time, even though they were familiar. I would swell up with anticipation and with excitement just walking the streets.

Today, the city is sad.

The “jubilant saints,” the passengers he describes waving from the portholes, can no longer be joyous. They are fearful. Other passengers want to expel them from the ship – drive them into the sea, far from the port.

In Amichai’s poem, the mosques and churches and synagogues send out songs of praise. Where once there might have been harmony, each bell or shofar or voice of a muezzin adding to the music of the city, today I only hear cacophony, calls to war or battle-songs. The singing of praise to the Almighty sounds more like self-congratulations and triumphalism.

Amichai describes Jerusalem as “the Venice of God.” There is wonderful irony there. In the 1980s when Amichai wrote the poem, Venice was a beautiful tourist destination. Today, Venice is drowning. Due to global warming, the city is struggling to keep itself above water – literally.

Reflecting on it, perhaps the analogy is very relevant. What was once beautiful is in danger of being destroyed because of human actions.

Global warming is essentially the result of our lack of awareness of the repercussions of our decisions. It takes decades before the effects of the actions we take have a global impact – but they always do.

How apt that lesson is for Jerusalem.

Since 1967, when we released the Old City from Jordanian occupation, Israel has made a series of decisions or, in some cases, not made decisions, which today bring us to the brink of self-destruction.

One can point to the Waqf remaining under Jordanian jurisdiction, to the application of the status quo or to other poor legal decisions that might have been reconsidered in the past 57 years.

They might be analogous to the captain taking a rest in his cabin while the ship sails on.

What is far more dangerous is when the sailors also take a break – when they stop worrying about the food or the entertainment or even the direction in which we are sailing.

It is then that the passengers may threaten to riot or pirates can take over the ship.

For years, the residents of East Jerusalem have not had proper services. They lag behind the rest of the city (and the rest of the country) in areas such as street cleaning and street lights, health services and polling booths during elections.

I give credit to Mayor Lion for finally recognizing the need for many, many more schools – but the crew was asleep for far too long. And the children who did not benefit from proper access to the Israeli education system had alternatives which have led to alienation from Israel, or even worse, in addition to economic disadvantage.

But that is not the worst of it. Many of those children, as well as their parents, are permitted to sail on the ship without tickets. They are not Israeli but they have no other nationality.

They can’t disembark but their journey is not pleasant. The crew treats them with disdain. The other passengers treat them with disdain or distrust or are fearful of them.

Once I went on a cruise ship.

We didn’t know the other passengers but everyone was cordial, we trusted the captain and saw the good work of the crew. The ship itself was stable and all the ports we visited were interesting. It was a real vacation. There was not one moment when we did not feel safe – even if there were some moments of turbulent waters. The ship could cope.

It is not too late to patch up Jerusalem and make her cruise-worthy again. A good captain with a loyal crew, issuing tickets to all the passengers and having a clear idea of the destination – those things need to happen.

Meanwhile, those who venture to sail on the broken ship risk danger to themselves and to others around them. They are sinking the ship further – perhaps doing irreparable damage.

Like many others this Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, I will be singing to the Almighty, giving thanks that I have access to Judaism’s holiest sites. But I will not be singing war songs, or songs of hatred of the other, or self-congratulations and triumphant songs. I will not be marching as if I am reconquering that which should never be conquered, but only made free and accessible to all. I will not dance as if all is well.

We may have boarded the ship but we have not taken care of it. The outside paint job is good but inside, there is rot. We have not loved it and all its passengers but have simply felt pride that we have first-class cabins. Those cabins will sink, too, if the ship goes down.

About the Author
A fifth generation Australian, Peta made Aliyah in 2010. She is Senior Fellow of the Kiverstein Institute, Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute, secretary of the Jerusalem Rainbow Group for Jewish-Christian Encounter and Dialogue, a co-founder of Praying Together in Jerusalem and a teacher of Torah and Jewish History. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia and Iceland to participate in and teach inter-religious dialogue. She also broadcasts weekly on SBS radio (Australia) with the latest news from Israel. Her other passions are Scrabble and Israeli folk-dancing.
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