As I sat in one airport after another on my three-legged trip back to Atlanta, I thought a bit about how I spent this past week, living and breathing in Jerusalem. The city has changed much since I saw it last, 15 years ago. Yes, this is a drop of time in all its history, and as the Jerusalem’s past, present and future parade in front of me, I crane my neck to see it all.
Jewish ties to Israel go back for thousands of years. From the Babylonian exile to subsequent exiles placing us in the diaspora, Jews, though not always wanted and sometimes even persecuted, have resided in many other lands; throughout the centuries we have always, in prayer and in thought, expressed the desire to return to Jerusalem, return to Zion.
The more modern historical period of post-Ottoman British Mandatory Palestine, the Holocaust’s decimation of the world’s Jewry (almost 80 years later and we still haven’t yet reached our 1939 population numbers) and the subsequent founding of the State of Israel brought us to the formalization of a homeland for the Jews, a people without a home for centuries.
But history is not the story of only one people and Jerusalem is the home to many.
I spent this past week, within the context of the larger trip I wrote about last week, in Jerusalem, showing my fiancé the city I called my home for over a decade. We toured the Old City, visiting the Armenian, Muslim, Christian and Jewish quarters with a guide who explained the layers of history, and seeing a vibrancy of those living in the city now that surprised my fiancé and the pictures he had had in his head. We explored the city center, visited other neighborhoods as we caught up with friends and family, and walked. A lot. This was not a uniform city, but one of very different head coverings, dress, accents, foods, languages and even rooflines, representing all peoples that make up the city and the country. When we visited the Bloomfield Science Museum, I was especially impressed with their success in employing and reaching people from all sectors. I wonder why I had never taken the kids there when they were little; its exhibits were so very accessible for all ages as well.
The other part of present day Jerusalem that floored me was how much it has changed from only 15 years ago. So much new building going on (cranes are everywhere), and as I pointed out in an earlier blog, the very place in Givat Mordechai where I had lived for over a decade, is finally undergoing renovations similar to what we saw everywhere last week, promised long ago – the expansion of existing apartments as well as the addition of new floors with new homes.
One of the most amazing things I witnessed was the transformation of the city center. Laying the tracks for the light rail on Jaffa Street apparently necessitated widening the sidewalks and closing the streets to cars other that emergency and police vehicles – and this in my eyes, converted blocks upon blocks into an extension of the pedestrian areas on Ben Yehuda and Yoel Moshe Salomon Streets. We went out every night and if we weren’t there, we went to the Mahane Yehuda Shuk (market) which is transformed at night into a vibrant space offering a nightlife of coffeehouses, restaurants and bars. Everywhere we walked, we saw that nighttime didn’t only belong to teenagers and twenty-somethings but to old and young, families and singles, religious of all stripes and persuasions and secular as well. Maybe the summer vacation and the concurrent Light Festival added to the traffic, but we both couldn’t believe the sheer sizes of the crowds out late at night, eating, drinking, strolling and enjoying the city.
And what of the future?
I believe there is room for all. Jerusalem is important to Jews, Muslims, Christians. And just as six different Christian denominations figured out a way to coexist within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, so can Israelis and Palestinians figure out a way to each make Jerusalem their capital. (The United States and others moving their embassies does not preclude establishing a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem.) Typical calls for a two-state solution lean towards the West and East Jerusalem split, and that is one way. Another suggestion dating back to the 1990s and brought up again, has the Palestinian capital being located in Abu Dis.
A vibrant city for all people is what needs to be. How to get there is the issue.
As I’ve written before, I think the leadership on both sides is an obstacle. Palestinian leadership – both the PA and Hamas – do nothing to convey that they are interested in peaceful coexistence, and Israeli leadership hasn’t inspired confidence in the Palestinian public eyes’ either that they really want to change the status quo. This is an issue.
It is time to find alternative leadership (hard for the Palestinians to do if current leadership is heavy handed with opposition and will not hold elections) or alternative ideas that can appeal to the masses who can find a way to force change. In one blog I brought up a few ideas I had heard that addressed some of the unsolvable issues. Since then, I’ve read about solar fields being built to help meet Gazans’ energy needs and a way to ship goods from Cyprus to Gaza (though there is controversy in that, as it may be tied to an American Peace Deal, which Palestinians see as actually threatening their national identity and not helping them achieve statehood). Another very interesting idea has to do with creating a confederation, a kind of one-and-a-half states instead of two.
To me, what is important is actually trying to find solutions instead of digging in heels. Each people needs a home. The Jews now have Israel, with Jerusalem as its capital. And at 70 years out, it is well beyond time that Palestinians have a home of their own. In this world where creativity is crowdsourced, I think the complexity of the issues ought to be broken out and each part addressed by people who want to problem solve and move us into a future. (I kind of have the same day dream about American issues of healthcare and guns, but I digress). And I know I am really dreaming here, but if there is a way to bypass leadership to have the people drive the process – that would be amazing.
My long overdue visit to Jerusalem, the City of Gold, the city whose air is unlike any other and who is and should be a welcome place for all, moved me. Its past was tied to wars of conquest, its present is full of growth, but its future can and should be tied to peace, to shalom. As 800 Jews, Christians and Muslims recently sang so beautifully during Eid al-Fitr in the City of David under Koolulam’s latest social singing gathering, “Let’s get together and feel all right.”