Why Gideon Levy Can't Stand Jerusalem

If Levy so detests Jerusalem, how does he envisage life in the single state that he endorses?

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Fireworks explode over Jerusalem's Old City as Israelis mark the start of Israel's 70th Independence Day, Jerusalem, April 19, 2018.
Fireworks explode over Jerusalem's Old City as Israelis mark the start of Israel's 70th Independence Day, Jerusalem, April 19, 2018.Credit: THOMAS COEX/AFP
Yehudit Oppenheimer
Yehudit Oppenheimer

On Independence Day eve, I was returning from an alternative torchlighting ceremony held by the anti-occupation organization Yesh Gvul. Night had already fallen but the fireworks display ending the official ceremony, on nearby Mount Herzl, had not yet begun. The No. 14 bus I was on was half-empty. The Arab-speaking driver was evidently unfamiliar with its winding route; at every intersection he turned to passengers, who calmly guided him to the next turn, stop by stop.

This scene, so moving in many ways, rekindled the funk I had felt that morning while reading Gideon Levy’s list of 67 things he loves about Israel. The journalist, whom I usually respect highly, sums up his attitude to Jerusalem by saying the best thing about the city is the highway to Tel Aviv. What did I expect? After all, Levy is a part of his surroundings. The map of his likes and dislikes frames the shape of his native social and sexual landscape: “Old” Ramat Aviv (he stresses the “Old”).

One-tenth of Israel’s population lives in Jerusalem, which is a mirror that Israelis — even Levy — hate to look at. Forty percent of its residents are Palestinians, noncitizens living under occupation. The other 60 percent are all the rest: Haredim, Mizrahim, religious and secular, and nearly all earn below the national average. This impossible situation was forced on Jerusalemites, not chosen by them, the result of the refusal of all Israelis to reach a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians. If this situation somehow holds together, it is despite, not on account of, the people of Jerusalem.

While jaded Tel Aviv surrounds itself with invisible fences, divided and fenced Jerusalem is busy building bridges — out of necessity. Each day in the city is composed of endless, quotidian interactions that cut across borders and populations and which would be impossible but for the street smarts of its residents. Thousands of Jerusalemites from throughout the city meet daily at work, in malls, on the light-rail, in cafés, gyms and parks.

Jerusalem has a vibrant secular-religious civil society that works to counter religious coercion and the exclusion of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, as well as racism and the exclusion of Palestinians from public spaces. Activists in these groups confront activists from the far-right group Lehava in the city’s squares almost weekly, often suffering physical abuse. When Zionist Union, followed by Likud and Habayit Hayehudi, came out with plans to unilaterally remove a number of Palestinian neighborhoods from the city’s jurisdiction — a de facto transfer of one-third of the population of East Jerusalem — a West Jerusalem coalition spanning the political spectrum was formed to thwart the proposals.

Jerusalem is not an idyllic place, but in an era of political escalation, in which the government daily incites communities against each other, Jerusalemites’ ability to manage their chaotic environment with minimal damages and mutual recognition is not something to be taken for granted.

Anyone who claims that the two-state solution is dead should drive eastward on Highway 1 and visit Jerusalem. For better or worse, this is a place in which two large populations, Israeli and Palestinian, live in a common, if patently inequitable, urban political space. If Levy so detests Jerusalem, how does he envisage life in the single state that he endorses?

The future will presumably demand from us creative solutions, whether temporary or permanent, based on flexible sovereignty and common spaces of one kind or another. In any political constellation, two nations will live side by side in Jerusalem. Common life experiences, with all their complexities, can and should contribute to a just and lasting solution. Until that day, we can do only continue to tread cautiously, feeling our way together from stop to stop. In the meantime, the residents of “Old” Ramat Aviv will presumably continue to vote for Zionist Union or Yesh Atid, to put up higher fences and to raise fighter pilots.

Yehudit Oppenheimer is the executive director of Ir Amim, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the establishment of an egalitarian and stable Jerusalem with a negotiated political future.

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