Shattering a Jewish American Myth: Jerusalem Is No Disneyland

Most American Jewish tour groups are shown a historical-religious theme park version of a nominally 'united' Jerusalem - in which the Arabic-speaking, Palestinian east of the city and its grievances is simply invisible.

Jo-Ann Mort
Jo-Ann Mort
A view of Silwan from the City of David excavations.
A view of Silwan from the City of David excavations.Credit: Moshe Gilad
Jo-Ann Mort
Jo-Ann Mort

Imagine this is your city.

Imagine that one of its neighborhoods is Shuafat, a walled-off refugee camp with 80,000 people and no legal order or adequate city services, where zealots who recognize the rule of a Supreme Being not a Supreme Court judge, take actions that are daily heightening tensions in the city and new tenants take over the top floor of a home under the veil of darkness and proclaim that they are "Judaizing" the street of an overwhelmingly Arab neighborhood, throwing out the belongings of the family who is living there and camping on the top floor with their children, and their guns.

Welcome to Jerusalem, yes, Jerusalem. But, this isn't the Jerusalem that most tourists see. Because this reality is invisible, not least when it's unseen, it’s difficult to understand the eruption of violence that has pervaded the city since the summer.

For many American and other tourists, not least Jewish tourists, Jerusalem exists more like an historic theme park, which honestly isn't fair to this majestic city, holy to all three of the monotheistic religions. For sure, there's living history to be experienced when wandering through the Old City's Jaffa Gate, at the Kotel or in the streets of Mea Shearim. But there is also the daily reality of Jerusalem for Jews and Arabs alike, which is too often missing from the tourist itinerary.

That's because hotels in West Jerusalem are filled with like-minded tourists that welcome missions from Jewish organizations with big signs across the entrance. In the "united" Jerusalem, most Jewish tourists don’t even consider staying in similarly well-appointed hotels in East Jerusalem, at hotels that are Palestinian-run or owned. Nor do Jewish organizations book there. It's an implicit acknowledgement of an invisible border.

Tourists eat and drink in restaurants near Emek Refa’im, with the lilt of English in their ears, thanks to the number of Anglos there, permanent residents or tourists, or linger in the pleasant new restaurants amassed in the renovated train station nearby. It’s a lovely and livable neighborhood, where familiarity radiates through the white Jerusalem stone.

Indeed, it’s possible to spend days in the Western quarters of Jerusalem barely hearing Hebrew, while Arabic is nearly impossible to hear during the typical Jewish tourist itinerary – bar wandering into a restaurant kitchen, or strolling down the stone paths of the Muslim Quarter in the Old City.

The reality is that for most Jewish tourists, Jerusalem is already a divided city, even if it’s not acknowledged. The invisible seam line is in fact the very seam line that existed in 1967, now called Road 1, that meanders along the Jaffa Gate entrance to the old City, spilling out past the divide between Mea Shearim and Sheikh Jarrah, an old and elegant Palestinian neighborhood.

But one ostensibly innocent history tour does make it on to the itinerary of these tourists: a spot religious Jews call "Ir David", or City of David. Ir David increasingly has spread into Silwan, a neighborhood of 50,000 working class Palestinians and about 90 Jewish fundamentalist families (roughly equaling 500 people). That’s because it’s strategically located across the road from the holiest spot in the Holy Basin, where the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock conflates with the Temple Mount, on the biblical site of Mt. Moriah.

It's here that a small but fervent movement of Jewish zealots wants to build a Third Temple, (including Yehuda Glick, who was seriously wounded by an assailant in Jerusalem recently), based on the Biblical ritual of animal sacrifice and high priests, which disappeared 2000 ago when Judaism moved to worship in synagogues. The status quo, which had existed between Israel and the Arab world to maintain a fragile peace, has been ruptured by Knesset members, especially from the Habayit Hayehudi and Likud parties, with little regard to the consequences.

Tour guides to these tourists talk about 'Jerusalem' without delving into details like the fact that the Jewish and Arab populations are essentially separated by life, culture, fear and politics. Each population is nearly invisible even to the other. A Palestinian friend of mine who lives in East Jerusalem told me that when she sits at a cafe in West Jerusalem with her friends speaking Arabic, she is sometimes asked what language they are speaking. "I tell them French," she says, though since the violence began this past summer, she and her friends are just too afraid to travel to West Jerusalem due to anti-Arab thugs.

If you don’t travel east of Road 1, here’s what you miss. Palestinian neighborhoods overall comprise around 300,000 people without Israeli citizenship and no right to vote in any national election. While they can vote in the city elections, they choose not to, as a protest of their occupation. They do pay city taxes, yet are ill-served by the "united" municipality—though 38% of the city’s population, they receive only 12% of the budget for services like trash collection, road paving, street signs and education. They are rarely awarded permits to build new homes or additions.

Most Jewish Israelis also almost never go beyond the Old City, certainly not to the far-out areas within the municipal border—large Palestinian neighborhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah, or Beit Hanina with more than 27,000 people in it, just five kilometers from Ramallah, or the heavily populated villages like Isawiya and Silwan—whose residents carry a Jerusalem ID card but consider themselves Palestinian nationals and have no citizenship (and home to much of the recent violence).

There are two parallel downtowns in Jerusalem, east and west, with Jaffa Road a parallel thoroughfare to Saladin Street. Part of the “sovereignty” campaign waged by successive Israel Jerusalem governments has been to disallow symbols of Palestinian culture or nationhood in East Jerusalem. This has strengthened the hand of extremists and religious clerics at the expense of moderates.

Even the East Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce has had its doors on Saladin Street, the main street of the city’s Eastern portion, soldered shut by the IDF since 2001, in spite of past Israeli statements that they will reopen it. Yet, imagine instead of fighting for sovereignty, the business communities, both Jewish and Arab, could come together to create a shared city that thrives, not writhes, out of a history so precious to both peoples.

For those of us who love this city, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, secular, it’s imperative to concentrate on the reality of the daily life for residents there, instead of perpetuating narratives and claims that are simply untrue and will never bring the calm desired all around. Jerusalem must be a shared city, home to two peoples, Israel and a future Palestine. That is the only way that it can maintain a unity, a unity of purpose and a potential for a truly livable city, not one that drowns in history, but rather that thrives in a future for all.

Jo-Ann Mort is a writer and consultant. She co-authored “Our hearts invented a dream: Can kibbutzim survive in today’s Israel?” and is CEO of ChangeCommunications, a strategy firm that works with clients in the U.S., Israel and the Palestinian Authority area.

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