O Jerusalem, Israelis Have Already Forgotten Thee

Tel Aviv isn’t beautiful, yet it is loved. But a secular, liberal and humanist Israeli cannot love Jerusalem – you can’t love a city that's immoral.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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An Israeli policeman stands guard on the top of a building in front of the Dome of the Rock, in Jerusalem. July 4, 2014.
An Israeli policeman stands guard on the top of a building in front of the Dome of the Rock, in Jerusalem. July 4, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

I don’t like Jerusalem. The truth is, I hate it. I try to go there as little as possible and leave as quickly as possible. For the most part, it’s an ugly and infuriating city.

The Jewish part has some charming spots, all in the old neighborhoods. The Old City, which is in the Palestinian part, is of course spectacular in its beauty and history. All the rest: ugliness.

The new settler neighborhoods are ugly, as are the Palestinian neighborhoods, which are filthy and neglected, as is the city center. Even the Old City’s beauty has long been erased – an occupied city is always frighteningly ugly.

But a city doesn’t have to be beautiful to be loved. Tel Aviv isn’t beautiful, yet it is loved. A secular, liberal and humanist Israeli cannot love Jerusalem – you can’t love a city when it's immoral. Its sanctity cannot speak to a secular person; such a person can’t accept the false political premises stemming from this sanctity.

Such Israelis should stand up against the religious-nationalist brainwashing campaign all around Jerusalem. This isn’t their campaign.

This campaign began the morning after the city’s conquest and has only grown stronger. At the end of the 1967 war, while I was still a boy, I too fell prey to the orgy of the return to holy Zion, as did my whole generation. I was thrilled to tears at the sight of the Western Wall, as I was at Rachel’s Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs just days after the conquest. We didn’t see what was going on around them.

Then came the years of romance, no less blind and steeped in denial: the night tours of the Old City, the humus, the young women students in their embroidered dresses from the market, the wine from the nearby Cremisan Monastery, the copper tables in every living room.

We loved Jerusalem. We loved it mainly because a trip there was a trip to another country, and in those days such trips were rare. We felt like we were abroad in Jerusalem; we didn’t feel sanctity or Judaism.

A few friends rented rooms in a monastery in the eastern part of the city. We were secular, we were like dreamers. We loved Jerusalem and we thought that since the Knesset had passed a law, Jerusalem would remain occupied — “united forever” in the whitewashed terminology of the occupation.

We thought it was enough that Jerusalem had a mayor who spoke with a Viennese accent, was considered a Central European liberal, and was a friend of international celebrities. We thought this was enough to obscure the crimes of the occupation and the settlements for which he, Teddy Kollek, was responsible from the first day.

The sobering up came, of course, only with the uprising. The first intifada reminded Israelis that the situation could not endure forever, not in the West Bank, not in the Gaza Strip and not in the capital forever and for all eternity. The occupation responded in the usual manner – it tightened its violent grip.

In the second intifada the occupation even added another wall to the city, which tore its eastern part to shreds. At least the mask came off: Secular Israelis no longer traveled in the middle of the night to eat salted round bread in the Old City. The sanctity remained the province of the believers and the zealots.

But here’s the amazing thing: “United” Jerusalem remained in the consensus, as if nothing had happened. As if secular Israelis had not long stopped going to the Old City, as if many secular people had not abandoned the western part, as if there had been no talk that the eastern part was occupied territory, just like Qalqilyah and Tul Karm.

But to tell the truth about Jerusalem, we need courageous leaders, who of course are lacking. The truth is, no country in the world recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It has been destroyed by the occupation. It is divided, torn and scarred.

Its sanctity is a matter for believers only — and in any case there’s no connection between this and sovereignty. Its division into two capitals or its morphing into the capital of one state will be much less of a disaster than continuing its occupation.

Meanwhile, we can only stay away from it, as much as possible.

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