The idea of a complex place is anathema to the current mood in America and the West, where many people seem to be regressing to a world of childhood, of heroes and monsters. As I sit here typing by a window in Jerusalem, many seem to believe that Israel is attacking Muslim worshippers at prayer and ethnically cleansing the Arab population of this city, which is more than a third of our population and growing. For years, Arabic papers have described routine visits by Jews to the Temple Mount, or Israeli policing efforts there, as Israelis “storming” the Al-Aqsa compound; this wording has now spread to the Western press.
In the spirit of 2021, exciting video clips are ripped from their context here and injected into ideological circulatory systems to prove whatever needs to be proved. Explosions in the Al-Aqsa Mosque could mean that Israeli police are firing tear gas inside, desecrating the holy site, or that Muslim rioters are shooting off the stores of fireworks they hoarded inside to use against the police, desecrating the holy site. An Israeli driver hitting a Palestinian man near Lions’ Gate on Monday might be attempted murder, or a driver losing control of his car while escaping Palestinians who were trying to kill him. A video of Israelis dancing at the Western Wall as a fire burns on the Temple Mount is evidence of satanic intent, or of the coincidence that the annual Jerusalem Day celebrations at the wall were going on at the same time that one of the firecrackers set off by Palestinian rioters ignited a tree in the mosque compound above.
The subtleties seem beside the point when the villains and the heroes are so clear. The condemnations of Israel are pouring in from the strange coalition that gathers with increasing frequency for this purpose: the Turkish authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, both of whom used the word “abhorrent” in their tweets, the dictator of Chechnya, the Saudis, the Iranians, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It’s hard to follow whether Israel is supposedly attacking Islam or attacking liberalism; in Israel’s case, the two seem to be oddly interchangeable. When some Westerners see dozens of green Hamas flags in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, they seem to perceive a civil rights protest, and when a Hamas leader calls on his people to buy “five-shekel knives” to cut off Jewish heads, demonstrating with his finger exactly how this should be done, some hear a call for social justice that Israelis should try to accommodate.
It helps that plenty of Western activists, including many who identify as journalists, have spent the past decade or so rebranding this conflict to suit the ideological fantasy world in which they operate. That fantasy world has only expanded in detail and reach with the triumph of social media, which marries elite prejudices with activist fervor and the passion of the mob. Hamas rockets are no longer being fired at Israeli civilians, as they were 20 years ago. Now they’re being fired at “Israeli apartheid.”
Being an observer in Jerusalem always means gauging two opposing forces: the one pulling the city apart, and the glue keeping it together. The former gets plenty of attention from observers, and the latter almost none, but both are always in play in this city of nearly a million people. The glue is on display in malls and taxis and hospitals, the places of no interest to journalists or politicians, where Jews and Arabs of different ideological stripes interact carefully in their daily lives to a greater extent than ever before, moving things forward to a future that’s unknowable but could be better. That has been the trend here in the past few years. But it’s the other force, the destructive one, that we’re seeing now.
Because millions of people see this place not as a real city but as a symbol, events here tend to spread far beyond the city limits. My work on this short dispatch was interrupted on Monday evening, for example, when a siren went off and I had to join my family in our apartment’s safe room, because Hamas in Gaza had pledged to protect Jerusalem and did so by firing a barrage of rockets at it. It was a good demonstration of the disconnect between the expressions of support the city receives from people who aren’t from Jerusalem, and the way those people’s actions—and I’m not referring only to the Arab side—disregard the actual human beings who must find a way to live together.
The immediate causes of the current flare-up are numerous, and the ones you choose depend on the case you’re trying to make. There were the gleeful TikTok videos of Palestinian teenagers assaulting ultra-Orthodox Jews on public transportation a few weeks ago, which circulated on everyone’s smartphones. There were provocations by Israel’s own homegrown hooligans, including the new Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir, elected in a sordid deal engineered as part of the survival strategy of Benjamin Netanyahu. (Like many of the Jerusalem provocateurs on both sides, Ben-Gvir doesn’t live here, but rather stirs things up and then goes home.)
There’s the eviction case pursued by a settler organization against several Palestinian families living on property taken from Jewish families in 1948 in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, near the tomb of Simon the Righteous, and later reclaimed through Israel’s legal system—which offers no parallel means for Palestinians to reclaim their own property in West Jerusalem from before 1948. The evictions are unjust and inflammatory, and Israel needs these properties like a hole in the head. But the case has been moving through the courts for years, and was about to be decided in the Supreme Court when the hearing was postponed at the last minute because the government—distracted by the political infighting that has paralyzed the country for the past two years, and by the possibility that Netanyahu is about to lose power—belatedly realized things were spinning out of control.
There’s the Palestinian election, the first in 15 years, which was recently called off by the Palestinians’ perpetual president, Mahmoud Abbas, when he understood that his Fatah party was probably going to lose to Hamas, just like it did the last time an election was actually held. Hamas is the key player here. Without an election to win, it needs a way to demonstrate that it, not Fatah, is the real leader of the Palestinians and the real threat to Israel. It must show that its ideology of perpetual religious war is the way forward not just here but across the Middle East, as opposed to the path of compromise and normalization that we’ve seen in parts of the Sunni Arab world over the past year. For Hamas, the brave new world of Israeli bridal parties in Abu Dhabi can potentially be undone by an ugly round of violence that galvanizes Muslim sentiment. All of those reasons lie behind the launch of hundreds of rockets into Israel since yesterday.
There’s Jerusalem Day, marked on Monday, which used to be a happy way of celebrating the reunification of this city under Israeli control in 1967, but which has become a festival important to the religious right and avoided by nearly everyone else. There’s the fact that many of my neighbors in this city, the Palestinian ones, have been in legal limbo for 54 years, residents but not citizens, caught in a conflict beyond their control. There’s the fact, never easy to swallow, that an important Muslim site, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, is under the security control of Jews. Hovering over all of this is the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, with more than a third of the city fasting in the heat, religious consciousness elevated and national fervor sharpened.
The forces of disintegration, the ones pushing us backward, are strong, and not confined to the limits of Jerusalem. When this latest round of violence began, a new Israeli government coalition appeared to be in the process of formation, one that would rely on the votes not just of an Arab party, but of the Islamic Movement. That would have been a remarkable step forward, one reflecting the welcome trends many of us see on the ground in Jerusalem, in Arab communities across Israel, and in countries like Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. Now the violence has frozen the coalition talks. For progress to happen and take root, the glue of daily life needs to hold. Right now, a lot of people are doing their best to make sure it won’t.