Opinion |

Why Jerusalem Would Be Better Off Divided

The desperate attempts to portray the city as united are just that – desperate. The next time a politician says they want to divide the city, they should go ahead and do it

Einat Wilf
Einat Wilf
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Israeli Border Police checking the ID of a Palestinian woman next to newly placed concrete blocks in an East Jerusalem neighborhood, October 2015.
Israeli Border Police checking the ID of a Palestinian woman next to newly placed concrete blocks in an East Jerusalem neighborhood, October 2015.Credit: AP
Einat Wilf
Einat Wilf

I was born in Jerusalem after the Six-Day War, and spent my whole life living with the lie of its unification. Growing up in the capital in the 1980s and ’90s, I knew there was no more transparent political lie than that of “the united city.” This statement may have reflected the desires of certain Jerusalemites (and of some who didn’t bother to live there), but it certainly had no relation to the reality of life.

The city was and remains divided. For us, its unification meant, at most, that – to the total consternation of our horrified parents – my girlfriends and I went into the Old City to buy sharwals. And while we did go to the “Old City” occasionally, we had absolutely no idea how to get to the Arab villages that were annexed to the city. It was also clear to everyone that these tens of villages – which hadn’t even been part of Jordanian Jerusalem – may have been under the huge jurisdiction of the Jerusalem municipality, but there certainly wasn’t any “unification” between Jerusalem as it was pre-1967 and these villages.

The desperate attempts to portray a united city were just that – desperate. The more it seemed that the last thing one could say about Jerusalem was that it was united, the more such official rhetoric escalated, and the more you saw Israeli leaders abroad shouting “And Jerusalem is ours, united for all eternity!” as the crowds cheered.

When I listened to such speeches, all I could think was: Unity? Eternity? Are you kidding me?

People sought relief from all those lofty speeches by deflating the balloon a bit. A familiar joke around town in the ’90s went: “Mayor Ehud Olmert has finally managed to realize the dream of his predecessor, Teddy Kollek, to unite the two parts of the city – now the western half is starting to look as neglected as the eastern part.”

I clearly remember Jerusalem’s descent into poverty and neglect, when the cost of maintaining the lie about unity swelled so high that it threatened to bury the city’s residents.

I remember how Jerusalem went from being a magnet to an “outlying town” in need of ever-growing assistance just to keep the lie of its failed unification from being exposed. Growing up in the Beit Hakerem neighborhood in southwest Jerusalem, I remember how the neighbors gradually started moving out to Mevasseret Zion, and later to Modi’in. They didn’t go as far as Tel Aviv. Even the massive building of new neighborhoods over the Green Line (the pre-1967 borders), and the network of roads and tunnels linking them to the western part of the city, didn’t change the situation.

The city got bigger, poorer and uglier, and remained stubbornly divided. Granted, as Jerusalemites we sustained a proud local patriotism – that was part of the job description. But as we got older, many of us left the city, never to return.

As time went by, my experience of growing up in “united” Jerusalem spawned trepidation at the possibility that this city could be taken as a symbol of the nightmarish future of Israel as a whole: I’d seen with my own eyes what happens when you annex too much territory in the name of an ideological lie. I’d seen how, partly due to this annexation, the two groups that reject Zionism – the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs – were becoming the majority, while the creative and productive Zionist forces were fleeing to places where there was more openness and freedom, and less lying. And if Jerusalemites wanting to leave the city at least had the option of Tel Aviv, what would happen if the whole country was like that?

So, in the 1996 election, I paid careful attention to the statement that “Shimon Peres will divide Jerusalem,” and wondered: Is that a threat or a promise? What’s so great about united Jerusalem that we should fear its division?

After decades of living in the “united” city, it was obvious to me that the best thing that could happen to Jerusalem would be for it to be divided. That way, the city could direct its resources toward improving its economic situation and improving conditions for residents, rather than ongoing attempts to conceal the lie about its “united” existence.

I wasn’t surprised when different groups of city planners and architects announced that, despite all the construction and tunnels, Jerusalem remains essentially divided – and that, therefore, it could be redivided into a Jewish city and Arab city, while preserving access to the Old City for anyone who wishes to go to the holy sites there.

One can actually imagine that it is possible to recreate Jerusalem anew, with its beating heart in the places that are the glory of Hebrew creation and Zionist sovereignty: the Knesset, the Supreme Court, the Israel Museum, the new National Library, the Hebrew University.

So on this Jerusalem Day, marking 50 years since the “unification” of the city, all I ask is that the next time a politician threatens to divide Jerusalem, they go ahead and do it.

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