Naomi Chazan
Naomi Chazan
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Daughters of Jerusalem

The women who embrace the holy city's diversity may be the only ones able to implement its legacy as a place of peace

Jerusalem madness is spiking this week. Donald Trump’s visit to the city is taking place precisely at the time that Israel is marking fifty years since the reunification of the city. All eyes are currently focused on Jerusalem: grandiose statements are coupled with magnified (hopefully only verbal) skirmishes over the state of the city and its future. Symbolic renditions of conflicting claims — from Miri Regev’s megalomaniacal attire to demonstrative assertions of historical rights on all sides — abound. Jerusalem serves as a vivid microcosm of a progressively gangrenous asymmetrical confrontation which, for the sake of all its residents, cries out for a lasting accommodation.

In this charged climate, the voices of half of the city’s residents, its women, remain predictably muted. A closer look at feminine experiences in this historically unique and sorely contested urban landscape might offer a different perspective on its spirit — and with it some hope for reconciliation in a city that everyone claims to love, but very few have taken the trouble to truly care for in all its complexity.

Jerusalem — like many other metropolises — is a gendered domain. But in this majestic and earthly city that arouses such a bevy of emotions, the foreground belongs to a struggle over the city dominated primarily by men. Women have traditionally inhabited the background, subsisting on the sidelines but nevertheless an integral part of what has become a mega-confrontation over entitlement in the city and — by extension — over its environs.

Indeed, the female inhabitants of Jerusalem embody the home ground of the city. Spread out in its many diverse enclaves, they continue to be the mainstay of its immensely diverse human tapestry. They represent the national, ethnic, religious, cultural, economic and political heterogeneity of this sprawling and seemingly disconnected metropolis. Where messianic fanaticism and nationalist extremism intermingle, many women born and bred in various parts of the city are also its often invisible yet nevertheless vibrant adhesive.

The most dominant theme in many women’s reflections on the city and in multiple renditions of their experiences is one of a frontier: an area which is replete with boundaries but always on the edge. For many of them, every aspect of life requires surmounting divisions, overcoming obstacles and evading barriers that are not only physical and cultural, but also temporal and human. Being a woman in this city is frequently all about learning how to celebrate one’s own community while simultaneously challenging the narrow frontiers of daily existence, discovering what lies beyond their confines and finding ways to connect to the possibilities they hold.

Women from all quarters of the city and from all sectors of its ethnic, national and religious mosaic have remained wedded to their communities and provide much needed stability in the midst of the city’s ongoing turmoil. But some have gone farther: they have also developed ways to bypass the impediments of daily life and to establish a web of interactions that seek to surpass its many constraints. They do so, most overtly, in the ways they move about the city — staying within their enclaves yet nimbly moving throughout the city when needed.

Their mobility is usually propelled by need: access to employment, social services, education, sustenance and medical care. Haredi women are visible in secular surroundings, in workplaces outside their own neighborhoods. Palestinian women circumvent untold impediments to reach hospitals and schools, markets and welfare centers. Secular women can be seen in the alleys of the old city, just as women of all backgrounds frequent clubs and the city’s many cafes. Restraints on mobility, however sophisticated, constantly defy female ingenuity.

Many of the women of Jerusalem — albeit not all — are acutely aware of its patchwork nature. At times, they have openly challenged the separations constructed by the patriarchal hegemonies in which they reside. This is the case of Women of the Wall, who have struggled for close to three decades against the formal gender divisions imposed in the holiest site of the Jewish people. It is also true for Palestinian women who have broken the bonds of tradition in search not only of education and new horizons, but also of basic dignity and collective justice. Residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods repeatedly push out in search of better alternatives.

Constantly struggling against inequality in their own societies, women have also been at the forefront of efforts to establish a modicum of equity in their city. Together, representatives of both major communities have tried to forge connections that would truly build bridges between the purportedly united yet hopelessly divided city. In the 1990s, the Jerusalem Link (a joint Palestinian-Israeli women’s venture for peace) assembled women from all parts of the city under the banner of “Sharing Jerusalem: Two Capitals for Two States.” In 1997, they marched together between East and West Jerusalem in an act of solidarity aimed at demonstrating the benefits of cohabitation even in an environment of increasing repression and domination.

This spirit is now being revived by Women Wage Peace, a grassroots movement determined to end the political deadlock between Palestinians and Israelis. As President Trump and his entourage arrive at the residence of Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin today, they will be greeted by a women’s vigil composed of all sectors of Israeli society which will once again demand a just and lasting negotiated settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

These women, speaking on behalf of many of their sisters involved in multiple, smaller, bridging initiatives aimed at breaking many often invisible divisions, will be giving voice to their reluctance to perpetuate a struggle for exclusive ownership in a city that has always been a meeting point of varied cultures and civilizations. By transcending the frontier mentality of a city fractured by a myriad of obstacles and communal blockades, they offer living proof that it is possible to reach beyond one’s immediate surroundings, explore new options, exercise considerable imagination and innovate even when prospects for change appear dim.

For these women of all ages, being part of Jerusalem is not about control but about cultivation; it is not about mastery but about dignified existence; it is not about proclaimed love but about constant caring. In this way, these daughters of Jerusalem are trying to resurrect the true meaning of the Jerusalem legacy: a city of peace for all its many people.

It might be useful to listen to these quiet yet powerful voices. They are embracing and egalitarian; proudly patriotic and at the same time tolerant. They seek compromise and shun coercion. They are assertive but abhor violence. And, above all, far from being monopolistic, they rejoice in the potential inherent in diversity. Jerusalem now, more than ever before, could do with just such a feminine touch.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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