25 July 2007

25 July 2007 - "Just Jerusalem," or just Jerusalem?

Yesterday, Jews across the world observed the fast of Tisha B’Av (Ninth of Av), commemorating the day on which both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed. Here in Jerusalem itself, the observance of the day was especially intense. Crowds walked through the streets of the Old City to pray at the Western Wall. Shops shuttered and cars disappeared for a hot, melancholy day.

When I was studying at the Pardes yeshiva in 1999, the big question was: “What is the point of mourning the destruction of Jerusalem when Jerusalem is being built all around us?” That question remains valid, I suppose, but a lot has happened to Jerusalem since then—the hundreds of dead and wounded in suicide bombings, the wall (and in Jerusalem, it is a wall for much of its length) snaking across the city’s eastern municipal boundary, dividing communities.

Today, Jerusalem’s future is in some doubt. At the Camp David talks in 2000, former (and future?) Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians a capital in East Jerusalem and sovereignty over most of the Temple Mount (Haram A-Sharif), but Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat walked away, denying Jewish historic claims and religious connections to Judaism’s holiest city.

That proposal for a shared capital—radical even at the time—is now almost a non-starter, as far as Israelis are concerned. And though Israel has always maintained, as official policy, that Jerusalem will be its “eternal, undivided capital,” it is only united on the “left” side of the wall. Its eastern suburbs and its Arab satellite towns in the West Bank are cut off; only Jewish settlements remain connected to the city.

The streets of Jerusalem today feel much safer than they did before the wall was built. And the city feels more integrated, too. Arabs move through the downtown area in greater numbers and with greater ease. But the city is apparently on an economic slide, as young professionals and businesses migrate elsewhere. And there are tensions between secular Jews and the growing ultra-Orthodox community.

Public transport is still fairly good, though the the construction of a high-speed rail line to Tel Aviv have been stalled for a while. On a weekday, it takes two-and-a-half hours to get from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv on the train—comfortable, but at least twice as long as the drive. The park system is improving, and cultural life is vibrant, but the infrastructure needs an upgrade, especially in East Jerusalem.

Into this mess wades the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is holding a “Just Jerusalem Competition”—a design contest that has invited teams to submit their visions of the city’s future in 2050. Actually, there’s more to it: the contest asks entrants to envision “what [Jerusalem] might be if justice and urban livability, rather than competing nationalist projects, were the principle points of departure.”

In other words: picture Jerusalem without Israel or Palestine. Read charitably, the MIT contest has an “internationalized” Jerusalem in mind. A less forgiving reading is that MIT is actually asking for a plan for Jerusalem in a unitary state. Looking at the contest jury, which is stacked with severe critics of Israel, the latter interpretation seems to be the correct one. Either way, the exercise is moot.

On Monday morning, I traveled to Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem to meet its president, Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, whom I am interviewing for New Society, Harvard’s new student journal on the Middle East. Nusseibeh grew up in East Jerusalem, and in his recent memoir, Once Upon a Country, he describes the changes in the city over time—how the wall in No Man’s Land fell in 1948, and today’s wall rose.

I asked him what he thought about the fact that Jews were preparing to mourn the destruction of Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago. He smiled and said that though Muslims and Jews were always trying to outdo each other in demonstrating their claims to the holy city, it was better for the peace process to give less attention to Jerusalem and more to the basic economic and security needs of both sides.

What about the barrier? I asked him. You protested—successfully—when its proposed path would have cut across your campus. Yet hasn’t it made the city safer, and more integrated, even if unintentionally so? Maybe it makes sense, from an Israeli viewpoint, he suggested. Then he walked to the window and pointed out how the path of the barrier cut off part of his Arab neighborhood from the city, while including a distant Jewish neighborhood, all along the same line of sight.

The Israelis have fallen into the fallacy of post hoc, ergo proper hoc, he said, thinking that because the suicide bombings stopped after the barrier was built, the barrier must be the reason. I thought: yes, but that applies to every other possible explanation. And of those, the security barrier is certainly the most likely cause.

No matter what the Just Jerusalem crowd proposes, the barrier will not come down within a generation at least—not until Palestinians forget to hate Israelis, and Israelis forget to be afraid. The first priority of any city must be the security of its inhabitants—which is why Suleiman re-built the walls of the Old City when he conquered it in 1517. Perhaps by 2050 things will be different. But perhaps not.

The city’s next priorities should be to repair its infrastructure, improve services (particularly in East Jerusalem), and encourage new investment that can drive economic growth. Only a prosperous city can hope to achieve greater tolerance and integration. Whatever capital is planned for the future Palestinian state will have to be outside the walls or else “extraterritorial” within Jersualem’s current map.

The city does not need elaborate new designs; it needs to get the basics of municipal government right. “Just Jerusalem”? Perhaps just Jerusalem, for now.

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