On October 20, 2015, Ir Amim convened a roundtable discussion in West Jerusalem for the Palestine-Israel Journal (PIJ) issue on "Young Voices from Jerusalem." The participants were: Racheli Ibenboim, head of the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Department in the Shaharit Institute; Hagit Ofran, director of Settlement Watch, Peace Now; Einat Yiftach-El, director of Public Outreach, Ir Amim; Yossi Saidov, social entrepreneur and media consultant; Ehud Uziel, parliamentary assistant, tour guide for Ir Amim and activist in the Katamonim neighborhood; Eran Tzidkiyahu, tour guide for Ir Amim and researcher on East Jerusalem; and Hava Schwartz, tour guide for Ir Amim. The roundtable was moderated by Shalom Boguslavsky, blogger, social activist, group facilitator and Jerusalem tour guide.
Social and political activists from West Jerusalem often experience a sense of unease when asked to address Jerusalem as a political issue. National — and indeed global — politics focus on technical future solutions: maps, dividing lines, border crossings, sovereignty and the holy places. Alternatively, the discourse is one of declarations that Jerusalem will remain united and under Israeli sovereignty forever. However, life in Jerusalem teaches those who live in the city that plans that look good on a map are much harder to implement in reality. In any case, a political constellation that would allow any such solution seems a very remote prospect.
Assuming that the situation in Jerusalem will not change radically in the near future and that the activists have limited influence on national politics, our attention can shift to smaller, more pragmatic questions: How can we improve the current reality in Jerusalem? Do actions toward this goal perpetuate the status quo, or might they gradually increase the chances of securing a fair political solution? Above all — what can local activists do, given that they cannot shirk their responsibility to address everyday issues such as employment, security, culture and normal life —regardless of their position on a possible future arrangement for the city?
We invited some leading activists and attempted to clarify their thoughts about the present and the near future of Jerusalem. The following is a summary of the conversation.
The first part of the discussion focused on the participants’ feelings and insights concerning the wave of violence in Jerusalem in recent months.
Boguslavsky: I have three main feelings about what’s happening in Jerusalem just now: fear, doubts and impatience. I’ve been here since the first intifada, and I’ve noticed that I feel much more afraid now than I did when buses were exploding. I don’t remember having such an emotional reaction and feeling like I was losing it during the previous rounds of violence. Sometimes I have some very indulgent thoughts about how many good things are happening in the city — businesses and initiatives — and how this wave of violence halts it all and moves us several steps back and we have to start to climb up the ladder again. People are losing money. I’m losing money, too. There aren’t any tourists and so on. OK, I know this is Jerusalem and this is a cyclical thing, but I wish it would just be over already so that we could get on with the important stuff.
Ibenboim: I feel angry about the stereotype people stick on Jerusalem which always puts us on the front line. The flip side of this anger is that I try to carry on with my own life as usual. For example, I don’t go to [pick up] my daughter from school but let her come home on the bus, so that we stick to our normal routine. I think the challenge is that at any given point in time, no matter what’s going on around us, we need to look at reality from the same perspective. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to get thrown about into all kinds of bubbles of anxiety.
Yiftach-El: It’s kind of ironic, but in our family WhatsApp group, people write things like: “Tell her that people can’t tell that she’s a leftwinger…. She needs to watch out, it isn’t written on her forehead,” and all kinds of stuff like that. I use taxis a lot at the moment, and the taxi drivers don’t say a word so that people won’t [be able to] tell that they’re Arabs. That makes me feel bad. I feel like saying,“It’s OK, I’m on your side.” But I don’t want to seem patronizing so I don’t say anything; I just sit in silence. I’ve never had so many silent taxi rides in my life.
Tzidkiyahu: I can’t get over what happened on Hagai Street. I’ve lived in the Old City, I got to know it in depth, and I’ve spent a lot of time there over the course of my life. I felt really comfortable there. And now they murdered that Haredi guy and the rabbi there, and his wife was injured and ran along the street and the shopkeepers there spat at her and laughed and drank cola. So I think how even if I feel great while I’m walking around there, if, God forbid, something happens, people will react in the same way. This has been a really big shock for me. On the other hand, I’m constantly realizing just how deep the gulf is between us and the other side, both in attitudes and in reality. I work in an office with lots of Palestinian workers, and I can see their hysteria and how strongly the situation affects them — dozens of times more than it affects me.
Schwartz: By comparison to the previous waves of violence — the second intifada and even more so the 1990s — my feeling is there’s no “responsible adult” out there anymore. Even the government seems to be surprised by what happened and the prime minister doesn’t know what he’s doing in response to the situation. It’s as if they didn’t have the faintest idea about Jerusalem, about the different elements brewing in the city and about the meaning of this wave and the story of the Temple Mount.
Uziel: Some people wanted this to happen — they wanted to see an escalation. For a good few years now, some people have been working to create a public mood that says, “hey, let’s kill every terrorist.” They want to normalize a situation where the [Palestinian] laborers working opposite my children’s school are sent away because some hysterical parents call the municipality. It really drives me crazy.
Saidov: I’m angry at the Arabs of East Jerusalem. I think that even during periods of calm, they still focus on ethereal Jerusalem. The people who live here need to understand that there’s also an urban fabric to the city. People live here, and there’s no reason why Jews or Arabs should pay the price for this symbol of Jerusalem. Whoever has sovereignty here, it won’t be us who decide it. I feel as though they’re shutting themselves off and they don’t want to cooperate with the new community spirit that’s developing in the West [side] of the city. I can’t help comparing the situation to other struggles, so I am angry at them for not acting like Martin Luther King or Gandhi.
Ofran: I’m preoccupied by thoughts about Germany in 1933 . I’m afraid that we’ve already gone a long way down the path. But at the same time, I always have this kind of hope that the tables will turn on Netanyahu. Just like Rabin won the elections back then because of all the people who voted for Hatechiya [a right-wing party that garnered votes but failed to reach the electoral threshold] and because the public’s anger pushed them to the left. So I hope people will realize that there’s no point going on like this.
Uziel: Through all the horrors of the past few years, I can see the emergence of an avant-garde. In many ways, the public that lives in Jerusalem is more diverse and willing now and is making more of an effort. There are also lots of initiatives in Palestinian society — lots of community groups and organizations. Then these reactionary waves come along, accompanied by waves of nationalism or extremism, and all this avant-garde can’t take hold in the general public. Let’s say there are over 800,000 people living in this city. So 700,000 of them are currently in a state of hysteria: What’s going to happen to my child at the checkpoint? What’s going to happen to my child with that Arab who’s working close to his school? Then there are 50,000 or so whose approach is to exploit this hysteria and to screw the other side even more than before. But you’ve also got the 40,000 people who are making efforts in education, in cool cultural events, in community initiatives. So I ask myself how the avant-garde can win rather than the reactionaries.
Schwartz: We’re also trapped by people who can only see ethereal Jerusalem. The ones who are preoccupied by the Temple Mount and the Temple— not “speedily in our days” but right now, tomorrow. Once these people were on the margins, but now they’re deep inside the establishment. Unlike the 1990s, young people don’t see what’s happening now as the product of a conflict. There isn’t any conflict. There’s a pleasant Israeli reality. There’s basically this democratic Western country, and then people come along and disrupt this reality. People forget history and only think in terms of the “mean enemies who are coming to annihilate us.”
Yiftach-El: I liked the “40,000 principle” — but we can’t offer a “shared Jerusalem” without recognizing the inequality and lack of symmetry between us. That’s one of our challenges in the West of the city.
Saidov: I was born in Kiryat Malachi and until the age of 18, I studied in Haredi institutions. No matriculation, no nothing. I decided to leave the Haredi world. The easiest thing I could have done would have been to adopt the discourse of the Black Panthers or the Democratic Mizrachi Rainbow. I could have gotten married and raised my children like that, and I would have been absolutely right in everything I said. But I wouldn’t have given them any hope. So I totally agree that there is inequality, I totally agree that there’s an occupation, and I totally agree that the conditions are inhumane. But the way I propose is to resist through a path of hope, a path of a common future. Let’s think together whether we, as young Israelis and as young Palestinians from the East of the city, can manage to issue a call to our leaders and propose a common vision for our city.
The participants also discussed ways to improve the management of the city in the timeframe of the next few years.
Boguslavsky: I’d like us to talk about what’s next. I don’t mean the so-called “solution” — how we’d like to see the city in the long term, united or divided. I’m talking about things we think we could and should do over a timeframe of five to seven years.
Tzidkiyahu: I wonder how we can convey the insight and feeling that this is a political story. When people say “political,” we need to understand just how profound that is. It’s not about a political party or a state or whether to divide the city or not. It’s about the exclusion of an entire group that is perceived by the authorities as a problem. For genuine sovereignty, the resident must identify with the sovereign system. As long as the resident doesn’t feel that this system represents them, and as long as the system sees the resident it controls as a problem or as a threat, there won’t be meaningful sovereignty. I feel that people don’t get that at all. For example, in municipal discourse, I hear all the time comments like “let’s set aside the political story.” But that’s the heart of the problem.
Uziel: We like to moan about the way that the left describes reality while the right changes it. That’s the division, it’s as if the dogs bark but the caravan moves on. For me the goal is to completely remove the possibility of a catastrophe on all sides. We need to push all the people who long for a catastrophe back into the corner and work out how to make initiatives that focus on a happy and positive way of being Israeli and on the great thing we’ve got going here. The Palestinian side is more challenging, and I’m not even sure whether it’s our job to talk about this. But I’ve met lots of Palestinians, for example, union leaders in Koach LaOvdim [Power to the Workers], who I think in the right circumstances would be willing to take a political step within their society. I might be wrong, but I’m sure that it would be possible to create some kind of preliminary partnership with them.
Schwartz: It’s definitely true that you can’t separate the civil story from the political story. But I don’t think that means that it isn’t possible to address everyday issues, even in the event of political developments that would change the current reality of Israeli control over the Palestinians. For example, even before the municipality begins to work, we can facilitate and support Palestinian initiatives in the field of planning and education — grassroots initiatives and non-violent campaigns that have been run here but have encountered a wall of rejection. Another thing is to begin to develop a narrative of a permanent presence here in the city. No one is here by mistake or as a trespasser or because of some kind of historical accident. [To be] sure, we and the Palestinians aren’t symmetrical in this story, but I think that it’s a problem that there is a very profound level of denial on the Palestinian side concerning Jewish history and the Temple Mount.
Yiftach-El: What can we do to make sure that the creative forces overcome the destructive forces? My first thought was to ask how we can imagine the city differently, how we can start to talk “Jerusalemish” instead of only talking in the language of politics and human rights. We need to speak to the residents of East Jerusalem in “Jerusalemish.” Maybe then we’ll manage to connect them to the campaigns that are taking place at the grassroots level and to initiatives by Palestinian communities that are working with the municipality and are taking a lot of flak because of that. Those 40,000 who are the creative force in the West of the city ask, “where’s the partner?” But they need to understand that they have to play the role of the “responsible adult” a bit more. In the west of the city, on the other hand, our challenge is to understand that even if there is a partnership, it won’t take place on the terms we would like.
Ofran: I don’t understand what it means to speak “Jerusalemish.” Okay, so let’s say that the vision is that in five years there’ll be five more schools in East Jerusalem. But that doesn’t begin to answer the big question that bothers me — the reality we’re living in. I can’t really see how it’s possible even to imagine a vision of a shared city, even after what’s happening now. It’s a deep wound and it’s hard to repair it or to expect that the Palestinians will be able to feel part of something. My vision is a vision of the end of occupation.
Boguslavsky: So in your opinion, what do you think needs to happen in that direction over the next five years?
Ofran: I can’t answer that. It’s hard for me to see the immediate vision. If they made me mayor of Jerusalem today, I’d say that in the present situation it’s impossible.
Tzidkiyahu: I think the answer lies in the business model. Civil society organizations mean well, but they don’t succeed because they’re based on the nonprofit principle. We’re living in a capitalist world. People want to make profit and countries bend over backwards to help transnational corporations. The way to achieve the social and political change we want is through people who will join in because they have an economic interest in change. We need to improve businesses and encourage joint economic initiatives by Jews and Arabs where those involved will profit from their involvement. The secret to success lies in profit together with added value.
Ofran: I guess you mean settlements…
Tzidkiyahu: For example, maybe one way you could do it is by opening a school for learning Hebrew and Arabic along the seam line. After an hour and a half of studies, then the two classes — 20 students learning Arabic and 20 learning Hebrew — come together for an hour to chat freely among themselves. They pay for their studies so the teachers make a profit. The Palestinian teacher from East Jerusalem will teach Arabic, and the Israeli teacher from West Jerusalem will teach Hebrew, and there’ll also be an encounter and an exchange. Hey, here’s an idea! That’s the direction, much more than civil society, because the connection between West Jerusalem and what’s happening in East Jerusalem…it’s simply a case of parallel lines that never meet.
Saidov: My vision is that in five years, after an incident like the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, or like a murder in the Old City, we’ll see Jews and Arabs marching together on a joint route along Route 1, arm in arm: religious and secular, rabbis and sheikhs, saying no to violence. I think that would be a game-changer. And if there’s a checkpoint in Jabel Mukaber, I want to see a procession from Armon Hanatziv or from another Jewish neighborhood, and from Jabel Mukaber itself, up to the checkpoint, and then Jews and Arabs will throw flowers and candy to each other. Pictures like that can make the decision to put the wall there irrelevant.
Yiftach-El: So should we paint the barriers in Jabel Mukaber in pretty colors?
Saidov: I think it’s just part of a process. I won’t be able to root out the extremists — they’ll always make sure that we live here in this unending [cycle]of bloodshed. I’m also not fighting for the minds of the peace-lovers and the left, because it’s equally clear to me where they stand. I’m fighting for the middle ground, for the masses. I’m fighting for the 10 Knesset seats that go one way in one election and the other way the next — that’s what I’m fighting for.
Ofran: There’s a challenge here to present a vision of what it means to be Israeli, of Israeli identity, as an alternative to the Jewish identity that is dominant today. That offers a better chance [of influencing] the public.
Boguslavsky: Lastly, if you could go “Abracadabra!” and make one little thing come true, what would you choose?
Tzidkiyahu: We need to translate everything we do into education — to take control of the informal education system, to take control of the formal education system, to brainwash people wherever and however we can…. And the second thing is to create a political alternative. This whole business is basically a problem stuck in the pipeline. There’s no opposition, no alternative. Until we manage to present a political alternative, I think we’ll be fighting a rearguard battle.
Schwartz: I think the way the government is acting now is leading us to an absurd situation that would be crazily funny if it weren’t so sad. The whole idea that they’ve tried since 1967 to mix up this city so that it can never be divided, and then in one moment of panic they decide to divide it…. Maybe they’ll see that’s absurd and from that point think again about separation — not with walls and fences and not Gaza-style, because that’s a catastrophe— but [with] the realization that it’s one space and in this space we need to create the infrastructure for some kind of separation between the two communities, but it doesn’t need to be a concrete divide.
Yiftach-El: The first thing that springs to my mind is that the Arabs will feel comfortable —to bring back the sense of personal security. I’m getting right down to basics — to a moment when we can stop looking over our shoulders and Arabs can come back to the west of the city and Israelis can get in taxis with Arab drivers again.
Saidov: I think that I must expect the same thing from myself that I expect from the Palestinians: to make sure to express more meaningfully and powerfully the fact that inequality between the east and the west of the city is unacceptable. We shouldn’t talk about [it] in terms of sewage and infrastructures, but in terms of people, the future and hope.
Boguslavsky: I’m a motorbike rider, and something that’s saved my life a few times is the thing they teach you, that if you’re on the road and you find yourself on a collision course with a truck, you mustn’t look at the truck. If there’s a way out of the situation it isn’t inside that truck but somewhere outside it. So I think one of the traps that experts fall into is that they start to scrutinize that truck in higher and higher resolution. I think what we can achieve over the next five years is to create some kind of connection between the expertise of the experts and the optimism of people who aren’t such great experts. Between the political character of those who address these issues and the softer, everyday character of those who aren’t so involved in it all. If we manage to find some kind of connection between these two elements, I think we’ll have gotten our hands on something valuable.