On his first day as Prime Minister-elect in 2001, Ariel Sharon visited the Western Wall and declared that Jerusalem was “the capital of the Jewish people for the past 3,000 years, and the eternal and indivisible capital of Israel”. It was a mantra he repeated at every opportunity throughout his premiership, and many Israelis and diaspora Jews believed this would be the staunch policy of every right-wing government.
So when Vice-Premier Haim Ramon floated the idea of giving up Jerusalem’s Arab neighbourhoods last month, apparently at the behest of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the Jewish world reacted with shock. As Annapolis drew closer, it was not settlements; not the Palestinian state; not the right of return of refugees; but the issue of Jerusalem which most agitated our leaders.
In Israel, Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski described intentions to divide the city as “removing [its] intestines” and announced a NIS 200 million (£25m) plan to develop Arab East Jerusalem. The One Jerusalem organisation launched a multi-million-dollar campaign headlined by heavyweights such as former refusenik Natan Sharanksy and former IDF chief-of-staff Moshe Yaalon. In the diaspora, meanwhile, several American Jewish organisations, such as the influential Orthodox Union, questioned Olmert’s right to discuss giving up parts of Jerusalem, sparking a rare row with the Israeli prime minister, who bluntly told them to stop interfering in Israeli government business.
Clearly, the issue of Jerusalem is extremely emotive and any attempt at compromise will provoke the kind of political firestorm which will make the evacuation of Gaza in 2005 seem tame. But is this a cause we should really be getting behind? Tune out the rhetoric, and — let’s be truthful — which of us really cares about Arab East Jerusalem?
According to the Statistical Yearbook of Jerusalem 2006/7, there were 242,000 Arab residents of the eastern side of the city, in neighbourhoods such as Shuafat, Beit Hanina, Jabal Mukaber and Ras al-Amud.
Not familiar with those areas? Neither are most Israelis. The sad truth is that, after 40 years of a supposedly united city, the division between the Arab and Jewish areas remains absolute. Wander into Arab East Jerusalem and you might as well be in Amman or Cairo. Jews do not live there; businesses are mostly signposted in Arabic and English; you will only rarely hear Hebrew spoken on the streets.
As Lupolianski’s emergency plan to invest in East Jerusalem shows only too clearly, the municipality has always treated the Arab neighbourhoods as separate entities, discriminating against them in terms of infrastructure, roads, rubbish collection and housing. These run-down neighbourhoods look and feel completely different to the more modern, Western side of the city. In fact, it’s hard to call it one city in anything more than name.
I would love to see a survey showing how many Israelis have ever ventured into Arab East Jerusalem. I would guess not that many (there are still many Israelis who won’t even go to West Jerusalem, believing it is “dangerous”). I lived in West Jerusalem for 12 years and only crossed the line twice, including once by mistake. On both occasions, I felt completely isolated in an Arab environment and felt very unsafe.
As for diaspora Jewry, how would most British Jews react were they told that, this half-term, the King David and Inbal hotels were full and the only spare rooms were in the American Colony hotel in East Jerusalem? How many would make the booking? Despite paying lip-service to a “united” city, we all instinctively know that the Arab neighbourhoods are not what we come to Jerusalem for, nor do they feel like “ours”.
So why is everyone getting so het-up over the prospect of losing them? First, when it comes to our holy city, the one we have been yearning for and praying towards for 2,000 years, rationality doesn’t come into it. The very word “Jerusalem” is enough to induce near-hysteria — although East Jerusalem, like every part of Jerusalem outside the Old City walls (which were themselves built only in 1538), is an entirely modern construct, which bears no relation to the biblical borders of Jerusalem. It is safe to say that when our ancestors vowed never to forget Jerusalem, they were not talking about Shuafat.
Second, Jerusalem is an overwhelming symbol of the Jewish connection to Eretz Yisrael. To give up sovereignty of even part of it to another nation is, we are afraid, to concede our unique claim to the land as a whole.
Third, Judaism has always accepted that other religions have ties to Jerusalem, but our custodianship of this holy city has reinforced our belief that our claim — and thus our religion — has more merit. Perhaps we are afraid that allowing another faith to share equal status in Jerusalem will confer a legitimacy, and an equality, on that religion which we do not wish to give it.
These are deep-seated fears to which I am sympathetic, but they are in truth symptoms of status anxiety and insecurity rather than significant reasons to hold on to Arab East Jerusalem — provided we are offered genuine peace in return. It is by no means clear that this will happen any time soon, if ever. But even if we hold on to East Jerusalem for some time yet, we must start coming round to the idea that handing over the responsibility for rubbish collection in Salah-a-Din street to the Palestinian Authority would not be a tragedy for the Jews.
Miriam Shaviv is the JC’s Comment editor
|© 2010 Miriam Shaviv | Design by Danny Bermant|