Tuesday, June 23, 2009

An Undivided Capital, and a Response to Adam

I walk nearly every day from the Damascus Gate, a prominent part of East Jerusalem, to Zion Square, a landmark in West Jerusalem. Crossing onto Jaffa Road represents a multifaceted shift for the pedestrian. From one moment to another, the experience of passing the chaos of an Arab market transitions into a calm Israeli neighborhood.

Jaffa Road, while a major street, is entirely gentrified with bagel chains and an Aroma coffee shop as its major characteristics. Israelis wait patiently at the designated bus stops for their Egged buses to take them further into West Jerusalem. Orthodox Jewish parents push strollers down the sidewalk.

Damascus Gate, on the other hand, is teeming with activity. Vendors shout prices in every direction. Arab women sit on milk crates selling what looks to me as maple leafs (although I have yet to see a maple tree). Children chase one another across the street, just nearly dodging the speeding traffic. And as I have described in a previous post, the Arab buses are not orderly.

The contrast between the two areas that are separated by a 10 minute walk is striking. I feel as if I have crossed from one distinct municipality to another. The cultures that exist in each respective part of Jerusalem are representative of the populations that exist there. It will be hard to find someone to argue against the position that East Jerusalem is known as the “Arab half” of Jerusalem, whereas West Jerusalem is undoubtedly Jewish. I rode the bus down the Mount of Olives, and I could not help but notice that I was the only Jew on board.

East Jerusalem, however, remains a part of the Israeli capital. This truth was reaffirmed on June 14th in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech at Bar Ilan University. Jerusalem will remain the undivided capital of Israel.

This statement seemed to come as a surprise to many. If you live in Jerusalem, however, or have visited the city in your lifetime, you would have known this to be the truth without Bibi having to spell it out for you. The walk that I described in the early part of this post follows from Damascus Gate up to Jaffa Road. Now this walk is made to be slightly more difficult than necessary because of the exorbitant amount of construction that these roads are experiencing.

The construction is not road repair; it consists of the placement of street-car tracks that travel from East to West Jerusalem and back. The city of Jerusalem has obviously invested quite a few Israeli tax shekels into the implementation of this transport system. As I understand the project, it is to be quite extensive and allow for travel throughout the city of Jerusalem. The municipality is saying to everyone living in Jerusalem, East and West, that this is one city under Israeli control. Feel free to travel it on our Israeli street-car.

Another, more subtle indication of Israel’s intention to control the entirety of Jerusalem resides in the road signs on the highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. For those who are unaware, every street sign and road sign in Israel is written in three languages: Hebrew, English and Arabic. Throughout the ride between Israel’s two largest cities, I couldn’t help but notice that Jerusalem was spelled in Arabic as “Yerushalayim,” which is an Arabic transliteration of the Hebrew word for Jerusalem. The sign read “Jerusalem” in English.

I guess my naïveté got the better of me, and I was surprised to read “Yerushalayim” in Arabic rather than seeing the Arabic word for Jerusalem, which is “Al-Quds.” The signs are a political statement on the part of the Israelis: “We’ll accommodate your language, but this is Yerushalayim. Don’t even think about calling it Al-Quds.”

This thought brought me back to a conversation I had with my colleague yesterday in my office. We were running through the various documents that she had left for me to read in her absence, and the website for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs came up. I simply stated that I read much of the information on the website to have a leftist slant, and to be painting Israeli authorities as the aggressor.

I’m not ignorant, I know that much of the world shares this position with the UN OCHA, but I was surprised to see a UN group to maintain such bias, especially on an official website. Her response was the following; that although we would like to believe that it is possible for political neutrality to exist when it comes to the Arab/Zionist conflict, everyone will inevitably have biases. We all have thoughts and feelings about this contentious issue, and no matter how hard we try to remove ourselves from these sentiments, they will shine through nonetheless. Everything in Israel, and especially in Jerusalem, is inherently political. From the construction projects to the road signs, all things purvey partisanship.

I would like to take this moment as an opportunity to respond to Adam Greenblatt’s comment on my recent post entitled “Talkin’ Generation-X Jews: The Post-Modern Approach.” Adam brings up a great point in that as Americans, we have the unique “luxury” of looking at the Arab/Zionist conflict from the perspective of an outsider. Even as a Zionist with a predisposed bias in favor of Israel, we as Americans can still look at this issue beyond the dichotomous definition espoused by that Israeli settler who I described as “not the brightest bulb.” Our affiliations are based less on survival, and more on politics.

Also, Adam, you’re right that I should be more careful when discussing these issues. In my defense, I wasn’t targeting that man as not the “brightest bulb” because of his opinions, but more because throughout the evening, he demonstrated to me his limited intellectual capacities. However, I do agree with you that his life was shaped in a very different way than ours, one where Arabs were likely posited as the enemy. His tribal approach should be considered a product of his environment, where he was trained to maintain his way of life by seeing the world as “us” or “them.”

Please also keep in mind that “Palestinians” as a whole are not the enemy of democracy. A small group of extremists who resort to means of violence to espouse their political agenda do not represent the entirety of the Palestinian population. Most of the Palestinians I have spoken to desperately want peace and justice and democracy. The avenues for accomplishing this goal, however, are clogged by dogmatism on both sides of the conflict.

P.S. Here is a link to the UN OCHA website: http://www.ochaopt.org/

Also, check out Shai Feldman and Dr. Khalil Shikaki's essay on Obama's options regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict from the Crown Center publication: http://www.brandeis.edu/crown/publications/meb/MEB32.pdf

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