Honorable divorce

Last week I went on a study tour of East Jerusalem with Ir Amim:

“Ir Amim seeks to render Jerusalem a more viable and equitable city for the Israelis and Palestinians who share it.  Ir Amim envisions a city that ensures the dignity and welfare of all its residents and that safeguards their holy places, as well as their historical and cultural heritages – today, as well as in the future.  Ir Amim also aspires to a sustainable political future for Jerusalem, achievable only through a negotiated process between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Or, as our tour guide put it more succinctly, “we support an honorable divorce in the city.”

I struggled initially with the idea of re-dividing the city. I’ve been acculturated to think separate (even if “equal”) is bad; unity is the way to go. And when we first got here, I looked hard for signs of a thriving, unified city. Take the Jerusalem Light Rail, newly opened about a week before we arrived. It runs from Mount Herzl in the south west to Pisgat Ze’ev in the north east, running through both Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods. It’s fast, clean, and (at least until they get the ticketing system worked out) free. Taking Egged bus 22 followed by the light rail is the fastest way for us to get many places, and the train is usually full of all kinds of people: observant and secular Jews, Palestinians, tourists, internationals. What’s not to love?

Well, plenty, according to Ir Amim and many other groups and organizations. One concern is that the light rail route legitimizes Israeli settlements and makes them permanent. So Pisgat Ze’ev appears like just another light rail stop or neighborhood in Jerusalem, rather than one of the largest Israeli settlements, built on annexed land in East Jerusalem, in violation of international law. There have been plenty of other concerns raised about the way the train route was planned and built. On a more human level, the conflict plays out in the train with confrontations reported between Jews and Arabs, and recently the first incident of pepper spray. (I have never seen anything of the kind in central Jerusalem; up north is where things get complicated).

Learning all this makes me feel so sad and jaded, like what I had seen as a symbol of unity and progress is not that, at all. The more I learn, the deeper the psychological divisions of this city seem to be. The residential segregation is almost complete. I have seen Palestinians in our neighborhood park only twice, and we live in a relatively liberal (i.e. affluent, international, secular) part of town. For either side to rent or sell property to the other is unthinkable.

When we were planning to come here, the decision about where to live was loaded. I knew, for instance, that many NGO, consular and UN employees are required to live in East Jerusalem. Ultimately we chose to live in West Jerusalem because we wanted to be walking distance from the girls’ school. So I knew intellectually that the city was divided but nothing prepares you for the reality of it. For people looking strangely at my sister-in-law when she walks through the park carrying her Arabic language textbooks. For the fact that I can’t buy Cremisan wine or Taybeh beer (both outstanding brands from the West Bank) in my local supermarket. And the inequities between East and West are staggering. In my neighborhood, there’s a playground around every corner and a giant, amenity-laden park right next door. In East Jerusalem neighborhoods, there are no sidewalks.

To generalize wildly, as far as I can tell Jews and Palestinians do not want anything to do with each other. They certainly don’t want to be involved in my Cambridge/Amherst-liberal, kumbaya fantasty of togetherness.

Most of the people working on a “two-state solution” take this concept of an honorable divorce between Israelis and Palestinians as a starting point, and the question becomes how to execute it. I’ll blog more about those issues — and about the Ir Amim tour of what our guide called “Jerusalem’s back yard” — in the future.



About hilarymead

Taking two young kids, a great husband, and a whole lot of questions to Jerusalem for a year's sabbatical.
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