Jewish-Arab Ties in Jerusalem Have Ruptured, Except for Rare Islands of Coexistence

Jerusalem, the most diverse city between the Jordan River and the sea, is also the most segregated city in Israel. In the wake of rekindled tensions, one Al Quds professor says, 'I’m optimistic, even if there’s a long way to go'

Ulla Badarna-Zahalka at a Jewish-Muslim demonstration in the French Hill neighborhood in Jerusalem.
Ulla Badarna-Zahalka at a Jewish-Muslim demonstration in the French Hill neighborhood in Jerusalem. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Ten days ago the social media called for a Palestinian general strike – “from the river to the sea,” in protest of the Israeli strikes on Palestinians in Gaza and the actions against Palestinians in Al-Aqsa Mosque and Sheikh Jarrah.

Mobilization for the strike was considerable in the Arab community in Israel and in Jerusalem as well.

Many Palestinian students at Hebrew University joined the strike and did not study that day, and most of the lecturers respected it. But one lecturer on the Mount Scopus campus chose to deny the request of the Arab students in her course not to study on the day of the strike. Students said she threatened that if they didn’t attend her lecture they would receive a grade of zero in her course. The students conceded and instead of striking, they attended the lecture on Zoom with a red profile picture in protest. They said the lecturer, in response, excluded them from the lecture meeting until they changed the picture.

“We felt humiliated and that our basic right to express our opinion had been denied,” said one student, who asked to remain anonymous.

The lecturer dismissed the claim, saying she only asked the students to refrain from making political declarations. But this incident illustrates the rekindled tension between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem.

A man walks past closed shops during a general strike called by Palestinians over Israel-Gaza fighting, at a market in Jerusalem's Old City, two weeks agoCredit: AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

Hebrew University, particularly the Mount Scopus campus, constitute a meeting point between Jewish and Arab students. In recent years the number of Palestinian students from Jerusalem has steadily increased on campus. This trend is part of deep changes in Palestinian society of East Jerusalem, beginning with the physical severance between Jerusalem and the West Bank caused by the separation wall some 15 years ago, and continuing with the alterations in the eastern city’s education system.

Most of the time the university is seen more or less as a neutral space, where Jerusalem’s communities meet on a relatively equal basis. But the last weeks’ events have increased tension even on this campus, which is cut off from the city.

On May 9, a day before the Jerusalem Day that marked the most violent cashes between Palestinians and police in the city, explosions were heard on campus as well. A group of men looking like “hilltop youth” came to the campus gate and clashed with youngsters from neighboring Isawiyah. Police troops arrived with stun grenades and made arrests. Dozens of students remained besieged on campus. In the next few days the campus emptied of students almost completely and the few courses that resumed did so on Zoom.

“I work on campus, and have continued to throughout most of the recent period. The campus has been really empty of students. As one who has been far from the conflict all my life, suddenly I had to deal with difficulties from several angles – my family under rocket attacks, Jewish friends from Acre and Jaffa whose streets had become war zones, and for the first time in my life I understood what my Palestinian friends have had to deal with in this terribly complicated period,” says Dari Nof, a law student on the Mount Scopus campus.

Damascus Gate last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“I’ve only returned to the campus this week, but during the war and the [Jewish-Arab clashes in Israel] I was at home, where I encountered numerous racist reactions. Since my return to campus, I’m happy to say I haven’t encountered any racist incident, but the statements still stayed in my head. I asked myself every time I met or spoke to someone Jewish if they could have written or sympathized with the statements I read and that were directed against me,” says student Shiffa Ghazalin.

“In a crisis everyone shuts herself or himself up in their own identity and fears. It’s natural for our students, who are very political and social, to be cloistered in their own groups,” says Michal Barak, director of the university’s diversity department. “I hope our students are capable of listening to each other’s fears and experiences. We’re a community that will go on studying and working together after these difficult times and the challenge is to enable everyone to be themselves. It’s not simple.”

Jerusalem is deceptive. On the one hand it’s the most diverse city between the Jordan River and the sea – 40 percent of its residents are Palestinians, most of whom are not Israeli citizens. On the other hand, it’s also the most segregated city in Israel.

A few years ago, Yair Assaf Shapira, of the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, calculated the urban dissimilarity index, which determines the percentage of residents that would have to change their place of residence for the ratio between the groups in each area to be identical to the ratio in the city as a whole. He found that Jerusalem is the most segregated city – 96 percent compared to 73 percent in Lod and 82 percent in Jaffa. But despite the disconnect and the gaps between the city’s two parts, islands of shared spaces have been created in recent years.

Along the seam line, at work places, shopping malls, colleges, the university and the light rail, Israeli Jews and Arabs and Palestinians meet each other. In many cases the meeting is not between employer and employee or lecturer and student, but between people of equal status, such as students in the same classroom. These islands have also been shaken in the recent crisis.

Beit Safafa in south Jerusalem is seen as the seam line’s most peaceful neighborhood. The bakery at the village center is a popular site known to every Jerusalem resident year round, but especially during Passover. The pharmacy at the village entrance is the go-to place for anyone who needs medicine on Saturday. In the last few days the number of Jewish customers has sharply dwindled. “We’ve taken a real blow in the recent weeks and the goings on in Jerusalem and Gaza have affected us as well,” says the bakery owner in view of the diminishing Jewish customers in the past two weeks.

A Bakery at Beit Safafa, last month.Credit: Emil Salman

The one-day strike was a turning point in the city’s workplaces. The human rights clinic at Hebrew University has received no less than 16 complaints by Palestinians whose employers threatened to fire them because they didn’t come to work on the strike day, or due to their social media posts. One employee was threatened with dismissal because he replaced his profile pictures on WhatsApp with a map of Palestine, another employee for a Facebook status supporting Gaza.

“Lower paid employees – workers at gas stations, bakeries, laundries and auxiliary staff – were hit the hardest,” says clinic director lawyer Nassrin Alian.

Kav La’Oved (Workers Hotline) has also received complaints from people who were dismissed for taking part in the strike, or for putting up social media posts that employers saw as inciting. Extreme rightist activists identified with Lehava and other groups called to fire Arab workers in statements with headlines such as “Fire tomorrow’s terrorist.”

Ultimately, though, most employees were not fired. “Generally speaking, workplaces are the last to be affected when there’s tension and the first to resume activity,” says Dr. Marik Stern, who has studied Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem. “These are economic relations and the interest of both sides, the employer and employee, is to return to the routine. It’s also more legitimate from the Palestinians’ point of view. Social and cultural interactions are the first to go and the last to come back.”

Closed East Jerusalem shops during the Palestinian general strike, two weeks ago. Credit: Emil Salman

The French Hill neighborhood on the other side of the city is another anomaly. About a fifth of its residents are Arab. Most of them are not Jerusalem Palestinians but Israeli citizens who moved to the capital from the Galilee or the Triangle near the Green Line in the eastern Sharon. Over the years the two communities have formed extraordinary relations. Most of the Arab children go to neighborhood schools, a joint Iftar meal is held annually and everyone meets in the community pub operating in the shelter under the commercial center.

“When the children grow up together they don’t distinguish between Jew and Arab. Each one keeps their identity, but it’s not something that preoccupies them. My daughter holds pajama parties and it’s very natural and spontaneous to have Jewish girlfriends over. Sometimes I think I’m raising them in a bubble to a certain extent,” says Ulla Badarna-Zahalka, a resident of the neighborhood.

Ulla Badarna-Zahalka at a Jewish-Muslim demonstration in the French Hill neighborhood in Jerusalem. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The bubble on French Hill has endured while the rest of the Jewish-Arab bubbles burst one by one. The Jewish and Muslim residents gathered at the center every few days to demonstrate under the slogan “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.” Residents say the relations in the neighborhood have been preserved. But they admit the neighborhood has two advantages compared to other mixed communities. The first is that the residents are relatively wealthy. The second is that they face a “joint enemy” – the fear of the neighborhood becoming strictly religious due to the ultra-Orthodox families who recently moved in.

“I believe the demands of everyday life and work relations will return to normal, even without going into politics,” says Dr. Omar Yousef, a lecturer at Al Quds University. “The difference is in the Palestinians’ enhanced awareness of their rights and the pride in their ability to deter [Israel’s use of force] following this uprising, and in the level of the Palestinian response. It’s an energy that can generate new momentum among Palestinians, each according to their expertise and position, but also among Israelis, because it can increase the number of those who understand the absurdity of remaining in this situation, in contrast to the incitement of the national religious Israelis and Jewish West Bank settlers, which Netanyahu and his coalition have created and encouraged. I’m optimistic, even if there’s a long way to go.”