Marie van der Zyl’s lobbying for Truss to take the Trumpian step of moving the UK’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem was not only misguided and potentially dangerous, but also highlighted our community’s distorted perception of Jerusalem as a solely Jewish city.
When we travel to the city, many of us visit only Jewish Jerusalem. I know from experience that even when we see Palestinian neighborhoods – perhaps when standing on the Tayelet (promenade) in Talpiot and looking towards the Old City – our eyes tend to gloss over them, declining to acknowledge that there is another Jerusalem: Palestinian Jerusalem.
Having spent many family holidays and my gap year in Jerusalem, I naively thought I knew the city. I knew the cafes of Emek Refaim, the bars of the Russian compound and the shops of the Malcha Mall; I played football in Gan Sacher, bought groceries at Machane Yehuda, ate frozen yoghurt on Ben Yehuda, and headed to Mea Sharim for sefarim and (oddly) cheap designer underwear. I visited friends studying at seminary in Har Nof or at Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, and stayed with family in Ramot. The Old City was for praying at the Kotel, entering by the Zion Gate and passing through only the Jewish Quarter.
It wasn’t until one day, about a decade ago, when I wondered what was down an alley at the back of the Kotel plaza, and then found myself in a bustling Arab city, that I understood there was another Jerusalem.
Of course, I was aware that there were Arabs in Jerusalem. But I hadn’t understood that Jerusalem is a Palestinian-Arab city, no less than it is a Jewish city.
In the years that followed I began to explore and learn about Palestinian Jerusalem. Initially I stuck to the Old City: taking guided tours of the Muslim, Christian and Armenian Quarters; sipping coffee on the terrace at the Austrian Hospice or sweet tea on a stool in a quiet passageway; buying spices, dates or tamarind juice from Old City merchants. I visited the Temple Mount on a dual narrative tour and understood its importance not only as a religious site, but as an oasis of Palestinian space.
I began to understand that whilst Jerusalem is central to Jewish history, Jerusalem’s history is far broader.
Over time I ventured further: into bustling Salah Ad-din Street, leading out from the Damascus Gate, with its numerous shops and street vendors, and the famous Educational Bookshop; beyond to the seemingly out-of-place Anglican St George’s Cathedral; and on to afternoon tea at the American Colony Hotel, or to enjoy Palestinian cuisine at restaurants like Azzahra. This year I joined joyful crowds in the alleys of the Muslim Quarter and outside the Damascus Gate as they celebrated Ramadan nights with food, music, lights and laughter.
Within a few minutes’ walk of my old haunts there was a Jerusalem of which I had been wholly ignorant: one that is unquestionably, deeply, Palestinian. It was like crossing a border, but the border was knocked down in 1967.
Yet the lack of border has not, despite Israeli slogans, united Jerusalem. The city remains divided and deeply unequal. Israel annexed the 70 square kilometers of the West Bank now known as East Jerusalem after 1967, but did not grant the area’s residents citizenship nor treat them equally. On the contrary, its policies have been geared towards pressurizing Palestinians to leave the city.
I began to visit neighborhoods beyond the tourist trail, and to learn about the reality of Israeli control for Jerusalem’s Palestinians.
In Silwan, in the valley to the east of the Old City, I saw unpaved, littered streets: a dramatic contrast from Jewish Jerusalem. I visited the Sumreen family who face eviction from their home due to state exploitation of the archaic Absentee Property Law 1950; I saw the settlers who since the 1990s have increasingly taken over parts of the neighborhood and whose aggressive presence makes life even tougher for Silwan’s Palestinian residents.
In Sheikh Jarrah, to the north of the Old City, I visited the Shamasneh family who faced eviction from their home under a discriminatory 1970 law which lets only Jews recover their pre-1948 property, and protested outside their home after triumphant settlers moved in with police protection. I returned many times for the weekly joint Palestinian and Israeli demonstrations against the ongoing evictions, and this year was hosted there at a beautiful solidarity Iftar meal. On our way home on the Light Rail, we got caught in pepper spray as far-right Israeli Jews carried out random attacks against Palestinians in central Jerusalem, whilst the police stood by doing nothing to stop them.
I visited Kafr Aqab, which was annexed and included in the Jerusalem municipality, but later left on the Palestinian side of the Separation Wall. Its residents have Jerusalem residency rights and pay municipal taxes, but must queue at checkpoints to enter other parts of the city. The municipality no longer provides even basic services such as rubbish collection or policing. With the Palestinian Authority prohibited from operating there as Israel considers the area to be within its borders, it has been abandoned to chaos.
I’m conscious that I’ve barely touched the surface. I’ve never been to Shuafat refugee camp, built for Palestinians who fled or were expelled from West Jerusalem in 1948, then annexed by Israel after 1967 but now also on the Palestinian side of the Separation Wall, surrounded on three sides by its dystopic gray walls. I’ve never been to Issawiya, a deprived Palestinian neighborhood regularly subjected to police violence. Nor have I been to al-Walaja, a village at the edge of the annexed area, where 380 people face having their homes demolished because Israel has made it virtually impossible for Palestinians in Jerusalem to obtain planning permission.
Yet even my limited explorations have enabled me to appreciate Palestinian Jerusalem’s vibrancy, history and joy, as well as its oppression, inequality and neglect under Israeli control. Promoting the relocation of Britain’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem denies the former while sanctioning the latter.
If our community learned about and visited Palestinian Jerusalem, perhaps our communal leaders would pause for thought before lobbying for policies upholding and promoting a distorted vision of the city as exclusively Jewish.
For anyone wanting to visit Palestinian Jerusalem, Mejdi Tours’ Dual Narrative Tour of the Old City or a tour with NGO Ir Amim is a great place to start. For those not heading to the city, Matthew Teller’s new book “Nine Quarters of Jerusalem” offers a highly readable insight into Jerusalem’s historical and cultural diversity.