Editor’s Note: In preparing this special issue, we asked a number of Jerusalem residents to share their thoughts about the significance of the city to them and about ways of thinking about Jerusalem’s future.
Azmi Bishara teaches philosophy at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
Jerusalem does not “mean” anything to me. I don’t like this city, although I live in it and although philosophers try to impute to life in Jerusalem a special “meaning.” The atmosphere here in the city is charged with myths overlapping myths about every piece of stone that “means” something to somebody. Stone-fetishism is practiced especially by the secular politicians, who are mainly responsible for emphasizing myths and cults long after monotheism rendered them secondary elements in its doctrines. Paul Tillich once said that all myths are myths of creation. In the case of the Jewish myth, Jerusalem allegedly is the birthplace of a Jewish nation. The Hebrew tribes under King David are retroactively rendered into the Jewish nation. In Israel, an allegedly modern country with rationalized, disenchanted sciences, there is no critical archaeology. Neither is there any critical historiography that poses questions such as who was David to begin with. These disciplines in Israel are, like theology, the handmaids of politics.
Arab scholars and politicians found themselves obliged to compete in creating myths about Jerusalem. These recall the Islamic myths about Jerusalem in the age of the Crusades, myths that later were resisted fiercely by Muslim theologians like Ibn Taymiyya in the fourteenth century. Jerusalem never played a key role in Islamic history: It was never a theological center like Cairo, nor a political center like Baghdad or Damascus, nor a religious center like Mecca.
But we can’t ignore myths. Jerusalem “means” a lot today for hundreds of millions of Muslims — exactly (or not exactly) as it does for millions of Jews, although the earthly Jerusalem (as opposed to the heavenly one) did not play a key role in the history of the scattered Jewish communities until secular Zionism emerged.
The modern Zionist myth of Jerusalem is the myth of the “united” or “reunited” Jerusalem, which grows larger every year. Nowadays it represents more than 20 percent of the West Bank. Since 1969 the “city” extended to swallow the surrounding villages which are themselves surrounded with new Jewish settlements that are considered neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Everything which is called Jerusalem becomes automatically part of the non-negotiable. Jerusalem is precisely as non-negotiable for the Arabs as it is for the Israelis. It is the same myth.
Two things must be clarified as we speak about the earthly Jerusalem (which does mean something to me). First, the mythological city is the one inside the walls. All the rest has only the name. It should be easy to negotiate about the worldly rest — the settlements Israel has been building for the last 25 years.
Second, Jerusalem nowadays is neither united nor reunited. It is occupied. Arab Jerusalem is being strangled as a ghetto in all possible ways. Some Palestinians think they can “calm” Israeli public opinion when they state that Jerusalem should remain undivided. But for Israeli public opinion, unification means the status quo. Jerusalem is divided. Unification should mean recognizing the binationality of the city, which means putting an end to occupation. Only in this context can we start talking about a solution to the heavenly Jerusalem. I don’t care if the holy places get an international status. First the problems of earthly Jerusalem should be solved.
Ornan Yakutieli is a deputy mayor of Jerusalem.
All of Israel’s conflicts find their most concentrated and distilled expression in Jerusalem. The most difficult and intensive struggles over the secular/religious character of Israeli society have taken place there. In the early 1970s, as the gaps grew between poor and wealthy neighborhoods, the explosion came in Jerusalem. The Israeli “Black Panthers” arose in the Musrara neighborhood and attracted many supporters from other poor neighborhoods. Of course, the most difficult conflict, at whose center Jerusalem is situated, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Jerusalem is the only Israeli city that for the last five years has lived through the intifada. During the first 20 years after the 1967 war, the Israeli government and the Jerusalem municipality did almost nothing to equalize the level of services to the Palestinian part.
In construction and land use planning, the discrimination against the Palestinians is striking and lamentable. In Israeli-Jewish Jerusalem, some six new neighborhoods have been added beyond the Green Line, housing some 150,000 residents. In the same period almost no opportunity has been given to Palestinian Jerusalem to establish new neighborhoods. For many years the municipality has been trying to get plans for 18,000 housing units in East Jerusalem approved, but the government remains opposed. There is a deliberate policy to push Palestinians out of the city.
As a city holy to the three monotheistic religions, Jerusalem exudes an atmosphere of stoic sanctity. Yet there is a feeling that we are living atop a barrel of gunpowder. The exciting and anxious city which I have described has always constituted a challenge to thinking about a regional peace plan. I believe two factors must be part of any acceptable solution. First, we lived for many years with a physical barrier that divided the city. Since the intifada, a spiritual wall has arisen between the two parts of the city. No one among us will agree to a wall as part of a peace settlement.
Second, any peace plan for Jerusalem must include some kind of Palestinian-Arab sovereignty over East Jerusalem. This sovereignty will create the basis for fundamental equality between the two parts of the city and the peoples who live in it, an equality on which they can build a reasonable life alongside one another.
—Translated from the Hebrew by Zachary Lockman
Moshe Amirav is a member of the Jerusalem City Council, responsible for engineering, roads and transportation.
A vast number of plans attempting to solve Jerusalem’s problems have all failed for this primary reason: They did not offer a solution based on a just compromise. They failed to challenge the most difficult and controversial issue — the concept of sovereignty, the question of to whom Jerusalem belongs. My concept assumes a two-state solution, where Jerusalem would serve as the capital for both states. The city borders could be expanded to triple the land area and even out the demographics. The city would then include about ten municipalities, half of them Jewish and half Arab. The municipalities would have some practical components of sovereignty, as well as symbolic ones such as flags, currency and stamps. Israelis and Palestinians, as well as Christians, Muslims and Jews, would be able to keep their symbols.
Authority over central planning, the judicial system, education and health would be distributed between the parties. Israelis would be citizens of Israel, live in Israeli municipalities, vote for an Israeli council and mayor, and be subject to all Israeli rights and obligations. The Palestinians would live in a Palestinian municipality, be citizens of a Palestinian state, and vote for their own council and mayor. Some institutions would have delegates from each municipality and a rotating chairman. The holy places would be managed by delegates from all three faiths.
Although it may look as if Israelis would lose half of their authority, they would actually rule over more land because of the expanded borders. They would gain, for the first time, international legitimacy for their status in the city. The Palestinians, too, can only gain from this concept.
Assia Habash is head of the Early Childhood Development Center in Jerusalem.
The names bestowed on this city — Jerusalem (City of Peace) and al-Quds (the Holy) — are semantically important. The name of a place becomes meaningful only when the people living there translate what the names signify into practice. Peace means justice, peace means equality, peace means sharing. Holy means transcending all our differences.
When I was young, I used to enjoy taking the bus from Herod’s Gate to Mamilla to see my father at work. My grandfather’s shop was across the street; my uncles’ shops were down the street. Mamilla, the heart of the commercial district of Arab Jerusalem prior to 1948, became a ghost quarter for over 20 years. Now it is being systematically demolished. The beautiful old architecture is not spared, the commercial tradition is not respected. Above all, the Palestinian owners still living in Jerusalem must witness the erasure of their history, their tradition, their culture, the very traces of their existence.
We need to look for a humane solution to the conflict, one which will achieve a just future. All Jerusalemites should be the custodians of this city’s past, present and future. Jerusalem should be an open city, shared by the people who cherish it and who enjoy equal rights to the city as a whole. All parties must accept a coexistence which transcends exclusive national claims. Only then can we resolve the complicated and outstanding claims of all concerned based on examples of other parts of the world.
Ibrahim Dakkak has been president of the West Bank Engineers Union and is a founder of the Arab Thought Forum in Jerusalem.
The inscriptions and the dates on the tombstones in Jerusalem, many of which date back centuries, and the records of the shari‘a courts or Christian church courts, reveal the intimate historical connection between the city and its Palestinian population. I was born in the Old City, like many Jerusalemites of my age. The new part of the city was at that time starting to bud around the old walls. Most of its buildings were erected either by Jerusalemites or by European immigrants, many of whom were Jews. My attachment to the new city was well grounded in my schooling, my work, and in the fact that my children were born and reared there.
My childhood and my first grades of schooling were deeply influenced by the ambiance of Jerusalem, and especially by the Haram al-Sharif [the Noble Sanctuary]. In 1969, two years after Israel occupied East Jerusalem, al-Aqsa mosque was vengefully torched. The incident left a deep scar in my heart. I became more aware of the essential geographical location of Jerusalem for the establishment of the independent Palestinian state.
There will be no easy or peaceful solution to the conflict over Jerusalem as long as the international community demonstrates indifference to Israel’s disrespect for the UN resolutions. Depoliticizing and demilitarizing Jerusalem and its environs under the terms of an international pact is an approach worth considering. The city would continue to be united with the sovereignty of the Palestinian state and that of the state of Israel, internationally recognized in their respective parts.