06 July 2007

06 July 2007 - The integration of West Jerusalem

An odd, unintended but (in retrospect) entirely predictable consequence of the security barrier is that more and more Arabs have been moving to traditionally-Jewish West Jerusalem. This is because apartments in East Jerusalem on the Israeli side of the wall (in Jerusalem it actually is a wall) have become so expensive that it is cheaper for young, working families to settle in Jewish neighborhoods.

And so amongst all the American tourists and Haredi students and bored soldiers milling about on Ben-Yehuda street, one encounters young Arab couples as well, holding hands or pushing baby carriages. And it’s great. People greet each other, speak to each other, exchange glances without suspicion. The so-called “apartheid wall” is actually promoting the long-delayed integration of West Jerusalem.

I’ve started taking Arabic lessons from a young Arab woman who moved here from Akko to study at the Hebrew University and to enjoy the freedom of Israeli life in the city, away from the stifling embrace of family expectations. Meanwhile, there are more and more Arabs taking Hebrew classes in ulpan, eagerly outshining their hapless European and North American candidates in their eagerness to learn.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell who is Arab and who is Jewish—except for the women in hijab, who are Arabs (religious Jewish women prefer hats, or scarves that don’t tuck into their blouses), and the black people, who are almost always Jews. Everyone seems to feel safe with each other, because the wall keeps the crazies out and the security guards on every bus and at every café keep a close eye on what’s going on.

Undoubtedly, the barrier has had many negative effects—no one wants to be living in miserable East-East Jerusalem anymore. And there are lots of reports that West Jerusalem, in addition to becoming more Arab, is also becoming poorer and more ultra-Orthodox. This is supposed to lead to more crime and more social tension. I don’t know—I haven’t seen the numbers or done the research, so I can’t comment.

There are also those who worry, as they always have, that the overall Jewish majority in Jerusalem might also be threatened. I don’t believe Jews will ever again be a minority here—and if such a possibility is hovering, all the more reason to reach a deal that gives Palestinians a capital in East Jerusalem. Or to simply stop obsessing about it and focus on making the city work and growing its economy.

The new West Jerusalem has given me a new sense of hope that this generation has a chance to make peace, to end the conflict that made refugees of our grandparents. People are reaching out to one another, interacting with each other in a way probably not seen or felt since the heady days of reunification in 1967, and without the sense of tension and foreboding of Mandate Jerusalem in the 1930s and 1940s.

And all because of that damned wall.


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