Jerusalem, a City Ripping Apart

Jerusalem’s Jews and Palestinians often zigzag across the city’s political faultline. But with Netanyahu’s rabble-rousing and Jewish rioters targeting Palestinians, the divisions have become starker.

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A right-wing demonstration in central Jerusalem. July 1, 2014.
A right-wing demonstration in central Jerusalem. July 1, 2014.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg

My city is coming undone. Sometimes the ripping of Jerusalem is so loud you can hear it from blocks away. Sometimes you hear it in quiet conversations.

A friend tells me that the young Palestinian woman from East Jerusalem who works in her office stopped coming in after the funerals of Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel and the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir. She wears a hijab and dresses traditionally. To get the bus, she had to walk several blocks through a Jewish neighborhood. Quite rationally, she was afraid.

My son calls after a day of classes at Hebrew University. One of his East Jerusalem classmates told him she thinks it’s still safe for her to take the bus to Mount Scopus because the passengers are mostly students, but her parents weren't let her. Another East Jerusalem student said she's stopped taking the light rail and Jewish buses altogether. Two weeks ago, her husband was attacked by Jewish rioters outside his shop on Jaffa Road and rescued by police. He was lucky. It was the afternoon of the funerals, and there were too few police in town.

That was the afternoon my daughter called to say was having trouble getting home from a suburb west of Jerusalem. First her bus couldn't get into the city because a mob was on the road. When she finally reached the bus station and crossed to the light rail, trains weren't running, so she began walking downtown to get a bus. From her earbuds she heard the funeral. From bands of teenage boys running past her on Jaffa Road she heard shouts of "We want revenge!" Some had come prepared with stickers saying "Kahane Was Right" to plaster on lampposts. From the Mahaneh Yehudah market came the roar of a brawl; police were fighting rioters trying to get to Palestinian workers. My daughter's voice had a shell-shocked calm.

I'm not naïve about the city. I know that official slogans about unified Jerusalem are disinformation, that Palestinian parts of the city are the first circle of occupation, that most Jewish Jerusalemites would be as lost three blocks off Salah a-Din Street in East Jerusalem as they would be in the West Bank’s Jenin and would be just as scared, that urban planning here is designed to break up Palestinian areas rather than meet urban needs. I know where the invisible border lies, even if the government itself worked so hard to forget that it mistakenly declared that the city's Har Hahotzvim industrial park is over the Green Line.

The Green Line runs 370 meters east of my home in south Jerusalem. Without naiveté, I like living near an unmarked border that is also the meeting point between Israel and Palestine. When I sleep in other cities, there's a silence before dawn where a muezzin's call should be. Half of Jerusalem is under occupation, but Jews and Palestinians meet at work, in clinics, while shopping, at the zoo. On Saturday afternoons, on the promenade that crosses what was once the DMZ, Jewish and Palestinian families hang out. In Tel Aviv, people can describe a two-state outcome as, "They'll be there and we'll be here." In Jerusalem, dividing sovereignty over the city is the best bad plan for a just outcome, and keeping the city open is the best good plan for daily life.

Last Shabbat afternoon I found the promenade virtually empty. Maybe only the Ramadan fast and a recent air-raid siren were at fault. I don't think that's all.

The city is ripping apart.

You can rightly blame the kidnappers of Yiftah, Shaar and Fraenkel, whose goal was to ignite escalation and who were all too successful. You can blame the angry teens on Jaffa Road. But their anger is given direction by well-dressed politicians - not only by Knesset Member Ayelet Shaked, who on her Facebook page called for war against the Palestinian people, all of them, mothers and sons, but also by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was Netanyahu who responded to the discovery of the kidnapped boys' bodies by quoting a line from a Bialik poem out of context so that it sounded like a call for vengeance.

It was Netanyahu who went along with the initial ruse that the murder of Abu Khdeir might not be terrorism. It was Netanyahu who derisively described East Jerusalem protesters who clashed with police after the murder as people who "benefit from National Insurance payments" but don't respect the state's laws, as if East Jerusalemites were ungrateful immigrants.

The irony is that the politicians who speak in mythic phrases about a politically unified Jerusalem seem to know very little about the actual Jerusalem, messy and beautiful, where lives zigzag across the political fault line, and to care even less about how their words have helped tear it apart.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Unmaking of Israel and The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977. Follow him on Twitter @GershomG