A Jerusalem United by Law and Concrete Isn't United at All

Naftali Bennett’s call for Israeli schools to devote next year to the unity of the capital is nothing more than a celebration of Jewish rule.

David Rosenberg
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A rainbow over Jerusalem’s Old City, February 10, 2016.
A rainbow over Jerusalem’s Old City, February 10, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman
David Rosenberg

If Naftali Bennett sees through his plans, next year Israeli students will be devoting hours of class time to learning about united Jerusalem, in time to mark a half-century since the city was re-united after the Six Day War.

It’s hard to know where to begin to make fun of the education minister's declaration.

You might start by noting that despite devoting many more hours to them, the Israeli school system fails to teach math and reading: Israel ranks 41st and 34th in these subjects among 65 countries. Does Bennett think it will succeed in instilling Jerusalem’s unity into the brains and hearts of the country’s young? Better to tweet them 140 characters on United Jerusalem – at least that might have an impact.  

Or, you could make fun of Bennett’s arch-religious-Zionist message. “Our mission is to raise a new generation of lovers of Jerusalem in Israel a link in the Jewish chain of generations who have never ceased to pray, ‘To Jerusalem, your city, you will return in mercy’” is how he unveiled the plan. That might play well to Habayit Hayehudi voters, but what about the people who actually live in the city? A third are Palestinians and another third Haredim, neither of whom have much interest or appreciation for the Zionist enterprise. Bennett’s message of unity apparently isn’t meant for Jerusalemites.

But the most obvious silliness is that the education minister’s message of united Jerusalem comes in the midst of a wave of stabbing attacks by Palestinians.

At least Bennett recognizes that contradiction, and is offering his “Year of United Jerusalem” as a riposte. The only catch is that his message isn’t unifying at all. It simply provides yet another example of the semiofficial Israel notion of united Jerusalem: A Jewish city whose Palestinian population is at best to be tolerated and ignored and at worst browbeaten into leaving.

The wingnut element

A little more than a year from now it will be 50 years since Israel captured the eastern half of the city, meaning it has been united far longer than the 19 years it was divided. What kind of unification is it? 

Jerusalem's unification had a legal element: the borders were redrawn in 1967, annexing the enlarged city into Israel. And it had a concrete element: roads were paved and exclusively Jewish neighborhoods were built to surround the Palestinian areas, creating facts on the ground. And it has a wingnut element: Right-wing extremists who aren't satisfied with building new neighborhoods on empty land in east Jerusalem but want to insert themselves into Palestinian neighborhoods and eventually drive out the residents.

Netanyahu has portrayed this neighborhood invasion as the ordinary give and take of the real estate market. Rightists, we are supposed to believe, are moving to Silwan because they like the schools, or the excellent public services, or think it’s important that their children have Palestinian friends. Palestinians are free to live in West Jerusalem, though for some reason none do.

After a terror attack on Salah A-Din St., Jerusalem, March 8, 2016: This is not the picture of a united city.Credit: Magen David Adom

But everyone knows what is really going on: Jerusalem’s being unified away from the Palestinians

It’s the nature of a city with such a complicated history as Jerusalem to be divided. The Israeli-Palestinian divide is the deepest, but the city is sliced and diced in a score of other ways – between Haredim and other Jews, between huge gaps of wealth and poverty, between a tiny but influential population of hipsters and a more traditional majority. It has large numbers of resident foreigners, professional clergy from around the world, transient students, and tourists coming and going. There are parts of east Jerusalem where the municipal writ doesn’t extend, de facto, because city workers won’t enter them.

Palestinians at the mall

The popular perception is that the three big populations – Zionist Jews, Haredim and Palestinians – are kept apart by mutual hatred and fears.

There’s some truth to that, but it’s not the whole story. Israelis don’t enter Shuafat, a refugee camp turned neighborhood, but then again how many New Yorkers spend time in the Bronx or Parisians in the banlieues? Compared with 20 or 30 years ago, economic integration is Jerusalem in deeper, and inevitably that has quietly led to social more social integration. Palestinians shop at the Malha Mall in "Jewish Jerusalem", study at the Hebrew University and Hadassah Academic College, and work in West Jerusalem. The Light Rail, which runs through Shuafat, is famous as a flashpoint for tension but the bigger story is that it has brought Palestinians and Israelis closer together by creating a shared transportation corridor and space.

But imagine if Jerusalem’s unification had been done differently. Instead of just building new Jewish neighborhoods, Israel had built Arab neighborhoods as well, and provided social services, schools and infrastructure equally to Israeli and Palestinians. Let’s not have illusions that Jerusalem would become a happy haven of co-existence, but it would today be a lot closer to the unity Bennett fanaticizes about, and perhaps convince the world that Israel is a deserving custodian of city revered by Christian and Islam as well as Judaism.

Jerusalem’s Israeli-Palestinian divide is not unbridgeable, assuming that Israel wants it. The great majority of Jerusalem Palestinians are permanent residents, even though they have been entitled to apply for Israeli citizenship. However, more and more are doing it even though it effectively means swearing an oath of allegiance to the Jewish state. The Jerusalem Institute of Israel Studies says some 800 to 1,000 have been applying every year in recent years, up from just 114 in 2003.

They’re not doing it because they’ve become enamored of Israel but for practical reasons – better access to jobs and government services, easier travel, fear that permanent residence may be revoked.

Still, the phenomenon gives a hint of the potential to create a more united Jerusalem – not the unilateral unity Bennett talks about – but one that begins by giving Palestinians equal legal status to Israelis.  The next step would be for Israel and the municipality to devote resources to Palestinians areas and bring them up to west Jerusalem standards.

That would be the sensible thing to do, but it’s unlikely to happen. Far from encouraging Jerusalem Palestinians to seek citizenship, Israel has accepted only half the applications. The unfortunate thing for both east and west Jerusalem is that the Bennett illusion of a united city for Jews only isn’t just Habayit Hayehudi propaganda, it’s government policy.