Dan Balilty
Jerusalem, Israel, Thursday, May 7, 2015.Dan Balilty
Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

Jerusalem, Spring 2015

What is normal here?

by
Matti Friedman
July 01, 2015
Dan Balilty
Jerusalem, Israel, Thursday, May 7, 2015.Dan Balilty

Before dawn one day early last year, I tagged along with a garbage truck picking up trash around the southern part of Jerusalem. The crew was Jewish and Arab, and so was the trash. (“Everyone eats the same potatoes,” one of the crew chiefs told me.) Spending time on the truck seemed a good way to make a point missed by most observers—that beneath the famous image of a place always on the brink, a kind of cohesion had quietly taken hold. I described that morning here.

A few months later came the events of the summer of 2014: the murder of three Jewish teenagers south of the city, the murder of a Palestinian teenager snatched from a Jerusalem street, and then rocket sirens, more attacks, and the worst spate of harassment and vandalism the city had seen in years. I had written about the growing presence of Palestinians in Jewish areas, shopping, riding the light rail from home to work; they disappeared overnight. The city’s pieces withdrew into themselves. Some predicted a new intifada.

That hasn’t happened. Things have slowly returned to normal, to the extent that “normal” could be said to describe Jerusalem. But the events of the summer and fall badly shook Jerusalemites. Past waves of violence in the city, and particularly the years of suicide bombings between 2000 and 2004, were awful, but few of the attacks were perpetrated by people from Jerusalem. This time the Jewish teenagers beating up Palestinians downtown were locals. The Palestinian men crashing their cars into commuters at light rail stops were locals. The presence of these extremes on our own streets was laid bare.

There was something intimate about the violence that made it feel worse. In October, Moataz Hijazi from the neighborhood of Abu Tor approached Yehuda Glick, an activist for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, as Glick stood on a street not far from where I live. Hijazi drew a pistol and shot him four times for threatening the Islamic holy sites, but first he addressed Glick by name and apologized to him in Hebrew. It felt like an affair among neighbors.

So how do we see Jerusalem now? Is it a place headed for integration or disintegration? As someone who has lived his entire adult life here—not in a city of big ideas like “redemption” or “peace,” but in the city of supermarkets and kindergartens—and as someone with no plans to leave, I have more than a journalistic interest in the soul of Jerusalem. Talking about ordinary people in Jerusalem often feels like talking about people who work at the zoo: No one comes to see the people. They just block the view of the leopards. But daily life is important, and the social chemistry of a place is important. Since the summer I have been trying to pay closer attention to the real city inside and outside the bubble of my everyday routine. And over the last month I set out across Jerusalem from north to south, wondering what I would find.

I live in Talpiot, a quiet Jewish area of low buildings, cypress trees, and kids, near the light industrial zone in south Jerusalem. On the far edge of the city, the opposite of my neighborhood in nearly every way, is the Shuafat refugee camp, where the dominant features on the main drag are chaotic traffic, potholes, refuse, and the occasional teenage drug dealer in track pants. The neighborhood is inside Jerusalem’s municipal borders in name but not in practice, a place too dangerous for city garbage men or police. When the West Bank barrier was built a decade ago to keep out Palestinian attackers, this area was left on the other side, cut off from the city by a concrete wall and accessible through a checkpoint.

“Whoever has money leaves,” said Jamil Sanduka, a father of four and a snake-catcher by trade, who was showing me around. “We have plenty of illegal weapons, drugs, and garbage, but no roads, no services, and no future for our children.”

Sanduka maneuvered his car among girls in uniform tunics pouring from a U.N. elementary school onto the road; there are no sidewalks. We passed the Abu Obeideh mosque, a sign for the Al-Filastin Culture Festival, Tawfiq Sweets, a few cell-phone shops. We might have been in Cairo. There was no sign of Israeli sovereignty, no Hebrew. There was no law at all. Garbage burned in empty lots and along the wall. After a while it was hard even to picture the rest of the city, just a few hundred yards away.

Jerusalem, Israel, Thursday, May 7, 2015.

Jerusalem, Israel, Thursday, May 7, 2015.Dan Balilty

After the barrier went up City Hall wrote the neighborhood off, Sanduka said, along with the approximately 80,000 Palestinians with Jerusalem residency papers who were left outside. (Of Jerusalem’s 830,000 residents, just over a third are Palestinians.) “They don’t want to invest one shekel in this place,” he said.

We passed a new landmark: the building where Ibrahim al-Akari lived above a store trading in used tires. On Nov. 5, al-Akari left home in his white van, crossed the checkpoint and drove down Road 1, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. He swerved into a group of people near a light rail stop, killing a teenager, a police officer, and a 60-year-old man, before he was shot by another policeman. According to al-Akari’s family, he had been watching television and saw Israeli police enter the al-Aqsa mosque to quell a disturbance—a desecration, in his eyes. He snapped.

Isolation and neglect have put unbearable pressure on residents, Sanduka said as we passed al-Akari’s building. He believes there are at least 2,000 illegal weapons in the camp, which is increasingly run by criminals. He sees more support for Hamas these days, he said, and on Facebook has noticed growing sympathy for the Islamic State. He spoke to me in excellent Hebrew. A decade ago, exercising the right granted to East Jerusalem Palestinians, Sanduka became an Israeli citizen. More residents are doing the same, he said—it makes it easier to work and move around. Israeli citizenship, unlike the residency papers held by most of the city’s Palestinians, can’t be revoked.

I asked if his neighbors were pulled more toward Hamas or toward Israel. He shrugged: “Both,” he said. He meant not just that some people were pulled toward one or the other, but that sometimes the same people could be pulled both ways. In East Jerusalem, it is possible to apply for Israeli citizenship and learn Hebrew, adopt an outlook that sees Israel as a transient evil and a blight on the purity of the Islamic world, and have dozens of peaceful interactions with Israelis every day.

The usual way of describing this city, in binary terms—east/west, Israeli/Palestinian, peace/war—is not very helpful, and understanding things means holding contradictory ideas in your head at once. In November, for example, after two Palestinians from the neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber murdered four worshippers and a policeman at a synagogue, the wounded were rushed to hospital and treated by a Palestinian surgeon from the same neighborhood as the attackers. Yehuda Glick, shot in the name of Muhammad, survived to thank his doctors, including a Jerusalem Palestinian named Muhammad. A neighborhood near mine, Sur Baher, has a strong Hamas presence and a community center funded by Israel, inaugurated with a ceremony at which Palestinian kids in keffiyehs danced on a stage adorned with Israeli flags. Some residents tried to burn the center down. Others called the Jerusalem fire department. One resident is a Hamas leader. Another, himself a religious Muslim, is completing a doctorate at Hebrew University on Hebrew grammar in the time of the medieval Jewish sage Saadia Gaon.

The city is, in other words, a complicated place. This is something Ibrahim al-Akari would have learned had he lived long enough to know the identity of his victims. Of the three people he killed only one, the teenager, turned out to be a Jew. The policeman was a Druze Arab. The 60-year-old man al-Akari ran over was a Palestinian like him.

Jerusalemites are so used to the city’s peculiar codes that few of us notice them anymore. Palestinian residents cross into Jewish areas to work, but would not cross to eat in a restaurant. Jews don’t cross into Arab areas at all, even to take a shortcut. Palestinians ride the green city buses that everyone uses, and many of the bus drivers are Palestinians themselves. But Jews don’t ride the white-and-blue East Jerusalem buses, which travel among Arab areas and in and out of the West Bank. From my neighborhood in south Jerusalem there are, for example, no buses that go to the Old City, so getting there is inconvenient. There are East Jerusalem buses that pass every few minutes and go right there, and I have no doubt I could take them without incident. I never do.

In a Jewish area you wouldn’t expect to encounter, say, a Palestinian salesman at a jewelry store. But your plumber might be Palestinian, and also your health professionals. Two weeks ago, for example, I took a coughing 7-year-old to the clinic in our neighborhood. The male nurse who ran a blood test, a Palestinian, sent us to an X-ray technician in an Islamic headscarf named Maysa, who sent us down the hall to a Palestinian doctor named Kamel, who diagnosed pneumonia and sent us to pick up antibiotics at a nearby SuperPharm where the two pharmacists on duty were Palestinians named Musa and Mustafa. This has become ordinary. The cosmetics ladies at the SuperPharm, though, would not be Palestinians; cosmetics ladies in West Jerusalem are Israelis, often Russians.

Codes like this are familiar to residents of divided cities. Here’s how a New Yorker reporter recently described traveling through Belfast with a local:

[W]e reached a street that threaded between a Catholic neighborhood on the left and a Protestant one on the right. I noticed a Subway franchise along a strip of businesses on the Catholic side, and asked if local Protestants might cross the street to buy a sandwich.
“Not a chance,” Michael replied.

For many years city planners were content to leave Jerusalem’s parts alone, with minimal interaction among them. But in 2011 the city unveiled a light rail line that scrambled the accepted state of affairs, based on the radical idea that Jerusalem could be subjected to ordinary transportation logic: People need to get from outlying areas into the center, and then back. It has been clear since then that the light rail line is the barometer of the city’s health, or at least the health of the idea that Jerusalem can function as a single entity under Israeli control.

The line starts in the north at Pisgat Ze’ev, a neighborhood built outside the 1967 boundaries, whose Jewish population has been joined by a small but growing contingent of Arab residents. After that come stops in Beit Hanina and Shuafat, which are used only by Palestinians, and then a few stops that are shared by the Palestinians and ultra-Orthodox Jews who live on either side of Road 1. The train passes the Old City and the Jewish commercial center along Jaffa Road before terminating at Mt. Herzl, gravesite of the man who once described Jerusalem as a place where “musty deposits of two thousand years of inhumanity, intolerance, and foulness lie in reeking alleys,” and suggested that most of it be torn down.

Last summer Palestinian rioters destroyed the stops in Beit Hanina and Shuafat, which are near the spot where Mohammad Abu Khdeir, 16, was kidnapped and driven to his death in a forest outside the city in July. The riots caused nearly $4 million in damage and knocked out part of the line for three weeks. For a few months, kids in the same neighborhoods threw stones and petrol bombs at the train (which was built to withstand both), until police cracked down, arresting hundreds of minors and, controversially, imprisoning many of them for the duration of legal proceedings instead of letting them go home. Pressure from the police and Shin Bet on Arab residents, always present, was ramped up. The train now moves without incident most of the time. The effect on young teenagers of being incarcerated with adults for weeks or months will become apparent in the city, no doubt, when they’re older.

Some were quick to eulogize the light rail and what it represented. But even during the worst weeks, two-thirds of the line ran without delays. Service resumed inside Palestinian neighborhoods as soon as repairs were finished. The light rail has gone from 30,000 passengers a day at its inception less than four years ago to 140,000 a day at present, according to the company that runs the train. Between 10 percent and 20 percent are Palestinian.

One morning in March I rode down the rail park, a path for bikers and pedestrians that has replaced the defunct Turkish train line into south Jerusalem. It took 10 minutes to get from the old train station in the German Colony to the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa.

At the neighborhood community center, next to a mosque and a soccer field, I found young men and women exiting a classroom holding Hebrew textbooks. A poster on a bulletin board showed a woman in modest Islamic garb surrounded by the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Ali Ayoub, director of the community center and the man behind the Hebrew classes, sat in an office nearby.

Arab residents of Jerusalem want to make a living and educate their children, he explained, and this pushes them toward contact with Israel. On the other hand, their experience under Israeli rule is of being relentlessly squeezed—by land expropriations, by scant construction permits to allow natural growth, by routine police checks, by enclaves of Jewish settlement provocatively located inside some Palestinian areas. Residents of Beit Safafa have been particularly angered in recent years by the construction of an urban expressway, Begin South, through their neighborhood.

“I want to make clear that this is not political, it’s just life,” Ayoub said of his Hebrew classes. “Hebrew, employment, education—this all goes together. But don’t for a moment understand the fact that someone is learning Hebrew as a decision to give up on a Palestinian state, or a Palestinian identity, and accept Israel.”

One experiencedobserver of the city is Nir Hasson, the Jerusalem reporter for the daily Haaretz. For several years Hasson has been reporting the move of Arab residents toward an accommodation with Israel: increased demand for Hebrew classes like these, for example, and for Israeli citizenship and Israeli matriculation exams. Studying at Israeli colleges was once frowned upon, but there are now about 1,200 East Jerusalemites enrolled. Palestinians have traditionally avoided holding protests at City Hall, because even protesting there signaled an acceptance of Israeli authority; but this, too, has changed. The summer set things back, Hasson said, “but the process isn’t being reversed at all.”

Don’t for a moment understand the fact that someone is learning Hebrew as a decision to give up on a Palestinian state, or a Palestinian identity, and accept Israel.

The trend is not linked to love for Israel. It is social and economic, not political, in motivation. It is due, in large part, to the security barrier that severed East Jerusalem from the hinterland of the West Bank, and to the demise of any realistic hope for a peace deal that would see Palestinian sovereignty in part of the city. It is also because West Jerusalem needs workers and East Jerusalem needs work; at least 40 percent of Arab employees have jobs in Jewish areas.

From his office in Beit Safafa, Ayoub can occasionally extract a favor from City Hall, which under Mayor Nir Barkat has increased investment and involvement in East Jerusalem. He refers to the mayor as “Nir,” and showed me a letter to Barkat open on his screen. (“I drive them crazy,” he said.) But he has no real clout and is dependent on goodwill that is in short supply. This is because the neighborhood’s residents, like nearly all Arab residents, refuse to vote in municipal elections.

Barkat won the last election by a margin of just 12,000 votes, or roughly the population of Beit Safafa—meaning that Ayoub and his neighbors could wield crucial swing votes and demand concessions in return. If all the city’s Palestinians voted they would control a third of the seats on the city council, and Jerusalem would be transformed. But the taboo against participating in the enemy’s institutions remains intact. “People see voting as giving a stamp of approval to the occupation,” Ayoub said. “In the clash between the personal and the national, this takes precedence.”

The rise of Hamas, Hezbollah, and their ideological cousins across the region since the 1990s caused first the collapse of the peace process and now the collapse of the existing order in the Middle East. In turn, the rise of extremist ideology and violent armed movements throughout the region has ended any hope that Israel can safely cede control of part of the city, which leaves Arab residents in a limbo that will soon be 50 years old. The contradictions of Israeli policy are apparent, like the expectation that Palestinians will abide by the law and avoid violence while authorities go about solidifying Jewish control. It is hard to see what outcome the government expects, for example, from the pressure cooker created in a place like the Shuafat refugee camp.

The contradictions of the Palestinian position are also apparent, though they are pointed out less often. Arab Jerusalemites want to reject Israel’s sovereignty but also want Israeli authorities to treat them fairly. They want elected officials to take their desires into account, but they won’t vote in elections. They declare themselves disempowered but refuse to wield the power that is legally available to them. It is possible to sympathize with their situation without ignoring their own role in the impasse.

In the absence of any clear policy on the part of Israel or the Palestinian leadership as to what East Jerusalemites should be encouraged to do, they do what they must to get by. The trend is not toward integration, exactly, because neither side wants that, but toward what might more accurately be termed mixing. This is going on in places like the commercial area at Mamilla, outside Jaffa Gate, frequented and staffed by Jews and Arabs, or the Malha shopping center, which actively encourages Palestinian clientele, and where it is now more common to see Palestinian salespeople. When my wife went to buy jeans at an American Eagle outlet a few months ago, the three young staffers there were Palestinians—a change in the human landscape of West Jerusalem.

The process comes with hazards. “Mixing in a way that is dependent, that isn’t planned or intentional, leads to contact in a power dynamic that is unequal,” said Marik Shtern, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies who has investigated the impact of the city’s economy on its populations. “That creates frustration on the Palestinian side, because they see the gaps every day between west and east and become more aware of the glass ceiling they face.” At the same time the city’s Jewish population, which is increasingly religious and leans to the right, sees more Palestinians in Jewish areas, and discomfort with their presence can inflame anti-Arab sentiment. “Are the parks scary?” read one ominous ad from a rightist party during the last municipal election, an attempt to play on fear of Arabs.

All of this is linked to what happened here last summer and fall. What happened in Jerusalem was triggered by events of national importance, like the Gaza war, but also had to do with the greater involvement of Jews and Arabs in each other’s lives and with the attendant frustration and dependence. This drove some of the anger and also helps explain why things went no farther than they did. Arab Jerusalemites could not set the city ablaze when communal emotions were inflamed, because, as individuals, they had too much at stake. At the same time, many Jews would have liked to stop employing Arabs, if not make them vanish altogether. But without them, hospitals, sanitation, construction, transportation, and tourism—that is, the entire city—would simply cease to function.

A week or two after the rockets stopped last summer, a poster appeared at an intersection near my home with photographs of faces—a Jewish guy with a beard, an Arab guy without a beard, a young woman with light brown hair. Posters with other faces appeared all over town, all of them reading, “We are Here.” The people weren’t smiling, but it was the first glimmer of human empathy, if not quite optimism, that most of us had seen on the streets for months.

The group behind the campaign is called the Jerusalem Season of Culture, which tries to harness the city’s untapped energies in the form of art. The Season of Culture was about to launch its roster of summer programs when the first Hamas rockets fell, throwing the schedule into disarray. Karen Brunwasser, the project’s deputy director, had meetings planned in East Jerusalem, where the Season of Culture has been making careful inroads; the meetings didn’t happen by a kind of unspoken agreement, and her Palestinian contacts stopped coming to the west. Near her apartment teenagers appeared shouting “Death to Arabs.”

The staff felt something urgently needed to be done, so two local artists put the “We are Here” campaign together, and the posters went up around town. The phrase struck them not only as one of the rare statements about which most Jerusalemites could agree, but also as an answer to those who dream of making some other part of the city go away. “The real divide here is between people who reject difference and those who can tolerate, it or even appreciate it,” Brunwasser said.

In fact, Jerusalem is not a violent city.

One of the most interesting developments in West Jerusalem in the past decade has been the emergence of an alliance of activists working for a pluralistic city. Much of Jerusalem’s liberal intelligentsia and middle class has decamped for Tel Aviv, meaning that the people left tend to be here out of principle and are tougher than average. Some members of this group, like the parties Yerushalmim (“Jerusalemites”) and Hitorerut (“Awakening”), do politics. Others, like the Season of Culture, do art. The Secular Yeshiva does its own brand of Jewish learning. Singers like Rif Cohen and Neta Elkayam do music rooted in the Jewish world of the Middle East. Part of the scene is Tahrir, a bar named for the famous square in Cairo. The city now has a modern dance troupe of religious men, part of a flowering of funky Orthodoxy hard to imagine anywhere else.

Since the left’s recent defeat in yet another national election, much has been made of the failure of liberal politicians to connect with or even understand the Israeli heartland—less a locality than a state of mind informed unapologetically by Judaism and the Middle East, both of which are foreign to many of the left’s politicians and voters. Jerusalem activists don’t have that problem. When two products of this climate, Rachel Azaria and Roy Folkman, graduated from municipal politics to the Knesset in the recent election, the Jerusalem blogger Shalom Boguslavsky suggested everyone take note. “In public discourse and the media there was wall-to-wall agreement that this city is a lost cause. They didn’t pay attention, and they’re scoring success after success,” he wrote of the activists. “In 10 years’ time, public life in this country—politics, media, culture, criticism, and more—will be full of people whose key experience, and the time and place they entered public life, was Jerusalem in the first decades of the 21st century.”

Dan Balilty

The activities in West Jerusalem had been going on with little connection to the east, but last summer changed that. In January, many of the organizations met for a conference titled “East of Here,” looking for ways to engage with the Palestinian part of the city, and a course for activists interested in Arab Jerusalem just opened for registration. In the five years leading up to the Gaza war, the activists felt that Jerusalem’s civil society had made dramatic progress, said Brunwasser of the Season of Culture. But the precarious nature of everything they had done became clear, and they understood, she said, that the Arab part of the city couldn’t be ignored. “It’s not that we know exactly what to do, but we all have too much invested in the city to give up,” she said.

Predicting where all of this will lead is impossible. It is possible only to suggest a more careful and human understanding of the place, instead of the millionth iteration of a story about “tensions in the holy city.” Since last year, my awareness of the city’s fragility has increased. But so has my conviction that Jerusalem is more cosmopolitan, and more accepting, than people give it credit for.

There is a confluence of interests producing the accepted idea that this is a city of conflict and violence. On the Israeli right there is a desire to portray Arabs as a threat. Among Palestinians there is a desire to emphasize Israeli oppression and Palestinian resistance. Among journalists, there is a desire not only for a dramatic story but for the same dramatic story everyone expects to read. In fact, Jerusalem is not a violent city. I mean this not only in comparison to our neighbors, because that would be too easy, but to the places where Americans live. Police don’t release homicide numbers, but reports from Israeli and Palestinian press and human rights groups show a total of 23 instances of violent death in Jerusalem in 2014. (The number includes civilians killed in political violence, two policemen, six Palestinian assailants killed by security forces, and four apolitical homicides.) In Indianapolis, a city the same size as Jerusalem, 135 people were murdered in the same period.

Arabs feel like a beleaguered minority in Jerusalem. Jews feel like a beleaguered minority in the Middle East. Everyone is aggrieved and unsure about what lies ahead. Among their own, people think and say terrible things about each other. In the morning we brace ourselves as we leave home and make it work. People in this city are pulled apart by the forces of tribalism that are devouring our neighbors and held together by the force of normal life. Right now, normal life is stronger. ■

Dan Balilty is a Jerusalem-born photographer who lives in Tel Aviv.

Matti Friedman is a Tablet columnist and the author, most recently, of Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel.

Join Us!

All of Tablet’s latest stories—in your inbox, daily. Subscribe to our newsletter.

Please enter a valid email
Check iconSuccess! You have subscribed to the Tablet newsletter.