“Imagine Zion Square in the future,” the facilitator asks the group. “What is happening in your ideal square?”
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Seated at tables stocked with play dough, building blocks and Lego pieces, they shout out their answers.
“It’s filled with light and there are lots of children,” says a woman who appears to be in her 20s, in jeans and high boots.
“I hear a mishmash of languages. Yiddish, too,” says a young man in tight skinny striped pants.
“Fruit trees!” “Light and shade!” “Lots of different things happening all at once!” people call out.
“It’s a Hyde Park!” says a middle-aged-looking man in the black velvet kippah, white shirt and black pants garb of the ultra-Orthodox.
In early March, a group of 50 or so Jerusalemites of different ages, political affiliations and religious persuasions met to articulate their vision for Zion Square, the central square in downtown West Jerusalem. Uniting them is their deep commitment to the vision of Jerusalem as a thriving city that derives from its history, sanctity and modern creativity.
These activists, representing a large, loose coalition of organizations, ad hoc movements and individuals, have been meeting for informal dialogue every Thursday night in Zion Square for over a year and a half, since extremist right-wing violence began to spread through downtown Jerusalem during the days of the Israel-Gaza conflict in the summer of 2014.
In response to their activism, the Jerusalem municipality has determined that, as a major component of its call for a competition for a planned redesign of the square, Zion Square will be turned into “a place that promotes connections, tolerance and mutual respect.”
The decision to brand and design the square this way was motivated in part by the July 30 stabbing of Shira Banki, a 16-year-old Jerusalem high-school student, by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man as she walked in the annual Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade in solidarity with the LGBT community. Banki died three days later; five others were wounded in the attack.
As explained on the municipal website , “Over the past year, ever since the murder of Shira Banki, z”l ... Zion Square has become a focus for meeting and dialogue between the different and varied communities that make up the city of Jerusalem, a view of the square as a space of tolerance and inclusion of the other.”
“The experience in the square was transformative,” says Sarah Weil, 32, the project director for the Yerushalmim Movement, a grass-roots organization promoting pluralism and the status of young families in Jerusalem. “It changed my life and the lives of many people.”
‘We felt we were choking’
Stretching across half an acre, Zion Square connects two of West Jerusalem’s main thoroughfares. The area was named by the British after a large movie theater and concert hall that were once at its center. Even before the establishment of the state, Zion Square was the site of political demonstrations, and an especially favorite choice of the right wing. It has been the scene of innumerable terrorist attacks, and home to gangs of thugs.
But neither nationalist extremism nor the second intifada, nor even the construction of the light rail that almost decimated the city center ever completely tamed the square’s Jerusalem-like quirkiness and variety.
On any given day, the square hosts tourists, hipsters, trinket-sellers and musicians, Jews and Arabs, ultra-Orthodox and secular. In the evenings, Hassidic devotees try to convince secular men to put on phylacteries, beggars crowd around, street performers offer up their talents and American gap year students meet up. On Thursday nights, the Jerusalem municipality sets up a night market. On Friday evenings, Jerusalem’s students make their way through the square to the nearby pubs and clubs.
Zion Square is also a well-known haunt for drug users and prostitutes, the disaffected and homeless youth.
But by July 2014, during the heat of the Gaza war known as Operation Protective Edge, the square had been largely claimed by a right-wing extremist group, Lahava, which bills itself as the “organization for the prevention of assimilation in the Holy Land.” Dressed in black and yellow shirts, they would march repeatedly through the square, waving large flags, handing out stickers “don’t even think about a Jewish girl” in Hebrew and Arabic, and accosting anyone they perceived to be Arab, members of the LGBT community, or “leftists.”
“We realized we had to try to take back the square,” recalls Michal Shilor, 23, an activist in what was to become “Talking in the Square,” a group of volunteers operating with the support of the UJA-Federation of New York and the Jerusalem Foundation. “But we also realized that many of the kids in Lahava were alienated kids who were looking for something to belong to. So we decided to engage them.”
Facilitated by the Jerusalem Intercultural Center, “Talking in the Square” developed a routine, coming into the square on Thursday nights, a favorite night for Lahava activities, offering to engage Lahava activists – and anyone else who happened upon the square – in thoughtful dialogue. Gradually, over the year, and very much under the radar of the media, they became recognized as a permanent, and calming, feature.
But then came the murder of Shira Banki and, a day later, the firebombing of the Dawabshe family home in the West Bank village Duma, in which 18-month-old Ali Dawabshe was burned alive and both his parents died from their injuries within weeks.
“We felt we were choking,” recalled Shira Katz-Vinkler, CEO of the Yerushalmim Movement. “Something so horrific was happening in Jerusalem and in all of Israeli society, and we knew we could not continue with ‘business as usual.’”
And somehow, Katz-Vinkler continues, “we all knew that the activity had to concentrate in Zion Square. Maybe it’s a way of expressing that ‘from Zion shall go forth Torah,’” she adds, citing a phrase from the books of Isaiah and Micha.
On August 1, thousands of Jerusalemites turned out in Zion Square to a vigil, headed by President Reuven Rivlin and with the participation of prominent rabbis from all the different religious streams, including the ultra-Orthodox, representatives of the LGBT support organization Jerusalem Open House, and others.
Recalls Weil, who had been at the Pride Parade, “I came to that vigil sad, broken. Yet, strangely, I came away feeling a sense of hope, based on the recognition that we can only heal if we all come together.”
After Banki died, the Yerushalmim Movement, together with Talking in the Square, spontaneously decided to observe the traditional seven-day mourning period in the square. They have continued to be there, every Thursday night, ever since, in an effort to rebrand the square as tolerant turf.
Moments of true grace
Dina Weiner, 54, a high-school teacher, and Dani Kahn, 52, are regulars. The spouses refer to themselves as “the grandpa and grandma of the square.” Weiner heard about the activities in the square from her students and thought they might need a “responsible adult.”
Weiner and Kahn, who is an expert in the treatment of psychological trauma, began facilitating spontaneous discussion groups.
“We spread out straw mats and sat down, inviting people to join us. And people did join our circle,” says Weiner. “For the first time, ultra-Orthodox people, appalled because the murderer claimed to be speaking in their name, met people who openly identify as members of the LGBT community. For the first time, ultra-nationalists met Arabs.”
Over the past year there have been evenings when only a dozen or so people participated in the discussions (“Especially during the winter – it’s so cold!” quips Weiner); other times, hundreds crowded into the square.
There have been moments of true grace, says Kahn. He recalls an evening when a young Palestinian man sat down and spontaneously began to play a tune on his oud. “He was joined by two Yemenite-looking Jews and then some Jewish kids, and then some Arab kids, and suddenly there are some 30 or 40 people singing in Arabic in Zion Square.”
Weiner remembers an evening when two religiously-dressed girls stated that they believed that non-Jews should not be allowed into Jerusalem’s city center – and then realized that, sitting in the same circle, were two young Arab girls, about the same age. “If only for a moment,” she says, “they met each other and understood that everyone was afraid.”
“Our vision isn’t about melting pots or an ethos of ‘I don’t care what anyone else does,’” says Weil. “The real ethos of Jerusalem is that we each really, really care about what others do and learn to respect our differences.”
Serendipitously, the group discovered that the Jerusalem municipality was about to issue the call for a competition for the redesign for Zion Square. The Banki family, who have attempted to stay out of the media (and declined to be interviewed for this article), persuaded the mayor to dedicate the square to dialogue and tolerance.
“The design of the square will be a real challenge,” says Roi Lavee, an architect employed by the municipality as a planner for the city center. “On the one hand, we want the square to be comfortable for everyone – Arabs, Jews, religious, secular, young, old. It is also a commercial space, and we want it to be a space that gives expression to the arts and creativity. It’s a huge project – but I believe that Jerusalem is up for it.”