Braving Jerusalem’s intensity

Leading foreigners on tours of our capital is at once a challenging, inspiring and gut-wrenching experience

Over the last two years I have been hired by various organizations to conduct geopolitical tours of Jerusalem for visiting dignitaries from very diverse backgrounds: politicians, diplomats, media people, students and leaders. I wander around the hot spots that are always in  the news, and try to present the complexity of the city in two to three hours. In my semiretired existence, this is one of my favorite pastimes, as I find time and again that most people have never fully understood what lies right in front of them.

Jerusalem is intense. When trying to find any kind of regional resolution, the city comes up. My pet peeve (or, according to a New York  Times crossword puzzle hint a few days ago, my “bugaboo”) is people who have clear-cut, black-and-white solutions for the region and for Jerusalem: United (with a capital U), Divided (with a capital D), shared, joint,  Israeli, Palestinian, International, Muslim, Jewish. We all  need access; we all demand security. Have you ever thought that security and access don’t really go hand in hand? In fact, they almost contradict each other. Which is more important? And who gets to decide which is more important?

As you may have noticed, I can get carried away with questions. I can give a three-hour tour and spend most of the time asking questions instead of giving explanations.

Every single time I wandered the city with a group — and so far there have been over 100 — the visit proved challenging and new. Most people come with basic buzz-words, the most prominent with this city being East vs. West. So we go south, then north. When I present South Jerusalem, they ask if we’re in East Jerusalem. When we’re in North Jerusalem, they ask if it’s West Jerusalem. And then there’s Mount Scopus, which is in East Jerusalem. But it’s also a part of Jewish Jerusalem, and it was under Israeli rule during the divided years. So now what do you say? East or West? Jewish or Arab? Christian or Muslim? Me and my questions again.

Personal disclosure: I could never live in Jerusalem. I did so for two years in the 1980s and felt like I was in exile. I can go to Jerusalem every day, I know the city inside and out — way beyond even the people who live there — but the intensity of the city is too much for my day-to-day life.

So, having gotten past that secret of my past (and present), let’s get back to geopolitics. One thing I try to demonstrate to the various groups is the neighborhood structure of Jerusalem. Until around 15 years ago things were quite clear: a neighborhood was either Jewish or Arab, religious or secular, international or local. But as we wander the city today, we see that many of the lines have been blurred. The main question I hear is, “Does Israel have a policy to segregate who lives where in the city?” (Which is quite a horrid question to ask, when you think about it.)

Why do people live where they live? I have already mentioned that I could not live in Jerusalem all the time (a summer flat would be nice, though). In choosing where to live, we say a lot about our comfort zone: a place where we feel comfortable and safe — personally safe — with like-minded people. Those who choose to live in Jerusalem make a decision that goes, I think, far beyond selecting a good neighborhood in which to raise their kids. In Jerusalem you live with the sounds and smells of an extremely intense Middle Eastern-Western-Jewish city, which is similar to the rest of Israel but different — because of the geopolitical intensity.

Speaking of geopolitics, the locals of most cities know the “makeup” of their city. In some cities you want to live downtown, while in others downtown is the sleazy area. What is amazing to me is how people from all over the globe come with preconceptions about Jerusalem, about its diversity (or lack thereof), and about Israelis as people who can make decisions — such as where they live — from a purely political point of view.

Showing people the geopolitics of  Jerusalem is at once a challenging, inspiring and gut-wrenching experience. One view can take your breath away, but each person sees something else in this most volatile of all cities.

I look forward to my next tours of the city. If you can brave the diversity and the tensions, Jerusalem is not only eternal, but eternally fascinating.

About the Author
Miri Eisin served in the Israeli intelligence community and retired from active duty at the rank of full colonel in 2004. After retiring from the military Miri served as the Israeli Prime Minister's international media advisor from the second Lebanon war until the end of 2007. Over the last ten years Miri has been one of Israel's main presenters, speaking on regional geo-politics and security related issues in the media worldwide. She teaches at the Inter-disciplinary center in Herzeliyya, and works extensively with the media, student groups and diplomats. Miri is a senior fellow at the center for international communication at Bar Ilan University. Miri holds a BA from Tel Aviv University in Middle Eastern studies and Political Science, an MA from Haifa University in Security studies and is a graduate of the Israeli national defense college. Miri sits on the following boards: the Israeli NDU alumni; the Center of the Intelligence community; Ramat Hasharon community centers, takdim community federation.