Former Jerusalemites don't just move to a new home like other people. Like converts to a new religion, they volunteer to undergo a rite of initiation: to stand before the public and deliver a speech explaining in detail their road to the light. The speech also explains why Jerusalem, which has already gone through worse experiences than a moving van headed for Tel Aviv, is simply "washed up."
Neri Livneh and I are "from the same village," as the Hebrew song goes. Like her, I also grew up in the periphery, I also settled in Jerusalem, and my children, like hers, were in the same class in Geulim Aleph Elementary School. Neri's house was around the corner, here, in the Baka neighborhood, bastion of the Jerusalem yuppies. So how is it that even today, after an endless number of converts' speeches, after even Neri Livneh has joined the ranks of writer Meir Shalev and others - how is it that I have not seen the light?
My generation started to abominate Jerusalem after the first intifada, 15 years ago. Until then we all enjoyed the orientalist intoxication of the senses: the colors, the aromas, the sights. We bought rugs and embroidered dresses, we haggled, we lived in Nahlaot and we ate hummus. We went on sunrise walks and moonlight walks, we went to see movies at the Cinematheque, and Jerusalem parties became icons of passion, of love. Even a hundred ceremonies of exorcism will not be able to erase the excitement we knew in our hearts. Edward Said hadn't yet given orientalism a bad name, and "occupation" was not yet an everyday term. We could all enjoy the beautiful city without any pangs of conscience.
And then came the first intifada and shattered the orientalist dream. Suddenly we started to find out that Jerusalem is a complex, complicated city. Too complicated. We also discovered the occupation. The Arabs were no longer enthusiastic about eating watermelons together in the lean-tos by the Damascus Gate, and watching the sun come up from the heights of the Mount of Olives became a risky experience. Suddenly we also found out that the Mizrahim, the Jews of Middle East descent, don't care for our patronizing bear hug, either, and view the well-intentioned folk as the problem, not the solution. The Haredim - the ultra-Orthodox Jews - also stopped being an anthropological object and morphed into a nuisance and a demographic threat.
But the worst was yet to come. All of a sudden we yuppies, intellectuals and devotees of cultural criticism discovered that we were in the minority. Many "Jerusalemites" began to leave Jerusalem. Most of them moved to the white, sated, self-satisfied "community" settlements around Jerusalem, where they could worship the god of the culture of abundance without interference. Some headed for Tel Aviv, to engage in cultural criticism and defense of the "Other." Every manifestation, however faint, of male chauvinism, of repressed homophobia, every attempt to remove a picture of a shaheed from an exhibition in Haifa, every dastardly act of violence at a checkpoint generated shockwaves. Totally justified shock - in my view, too.
At the same time, Jerusalem became a target for vilification. The sentimental romanticism was transformed into despicable orientalism, and the city became a symbol of the occupation, of Haredization, of dirt, poverty, bad education, a "lost city," a "washed-up city."
Nevertheless, Jerusalem remains the only place in Israel that offers a true multicultural alternative. It has Arabs and it has Mizrahim, it has secular people and religious people, and all of them have elites that write, think and create. It has more types of Christians, Jews and Muslims than any other place under the sun. It has diverse, opinionated, irritable, hate-filled and despising communities; but the cohabitation of all of them together forges something new, something different, fascinating and exciting.
In the past there were creative artists who were capable of utilizing this difference as a creative lever in literature, painting and poetry. The architects of the International Style translated the buildings of concrete and plaster into Jerusalem stone and created singular works in the city. There is no modernist architecture in stone anywhere else in the world. Not even in Tel Aviv.
These Jerusalem communities don't need the patronizing and overbearing auspices of the Tel Aviv elite. New "Others" have been formed here: strong, forceful people who are forging a new reality, different and difficult to digest. It's a multicultural reality that is challenging because it's real and it's strong and it's perhaps the only genuine alternative to the elitist alienation and insularity in Tel Aviv.
What, then, is it that makes the hatred of the Jerusalem multiculturalism so fashionable, and what makes entrenchment in supercilious white ghettos look like the "right thing"? The answer apparently has to be sought in Israeli government policy, which is trying to maintain in Jerusalem the "sacrosanct" demographic balance of 70 percent Jews and 30 percent Arabs. The act of leaving Jerusalem is perceived by many of those who move away as a declaration of defiance in the face of this stupid, racist policy.
Yet even that policy was engendered in the light of empty slogans. When did such a demographic balance ever exist in Jerusalem? Already by 1855 there were more Jews than Muslims here and that majority continued to increase during the British Mandate period. It did not stop increasing even during the tenure of the Muslim Nashashibi as mayor. The picture started to change in the period of dark nationalism under mayor Teddy Kollek and reached its peak in the period of militant nationalism under mayor Ehud Olmert. It was only then that the non-Zionist communities began to increase and the Zionist communities to dwindle.
Territorial Zionism weakened the city in the name of nationalism. It filled Jerusalem with dull housing projects, lacking in singularity and lacking in memory, which became modern slums. It made the city less attractive. Not in the eyes of the leftists - in the eyes of everyone. And the well-intentioned left repeatedly bashes the city, supposedly in the name of multiculturalism.
Jerusalem, an old and long-suffering city, has so far succeeded in holding its own against all these assaults and remains fascinating and exciting, as challenging and magical as ever. The enlightened elite sees Tel Aviv as a city of refuge, not a place of residence. The State of Tel Aviv as a substitute for the State of Israel. Regrettably, there are no such cities of refuge. The Jerusalem reality was and will continue to be the reality of the life of all of us. Tel Aviv cannot be a place of escape from Israeli multiculturalism, just as the "community" habitations, with their fences and admission committees, cannot be such an escape, either.
I sympathize with people like Neri Livneh, who have despaired of Jerusalem. People who are looking for private, personal quiet. For a refuge. Jerusalem is indeed wearying, and it's hard to be a minority. But a washed-up city?
The writer, from the Department of Geography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a historian of the Middle Ages who in recent years has also dealt with the history of urban thought and with the connection between city and memory.