One City, Divided

Gershom Gorenberg

My cover story in the National Journal on Jerusalem is up:

On a midsummer afternoon, at the King George Street station in the center of downtown Jewish Jerusalem, I boarded one of the silver four-car trams of Jerusalem’s only light-rail line. The electric train swooshed east along Jaffa Road to the City Hall stop, just before the narrow, now-unmarked no-man’s-land that divided the city before 1967. The next stop was the Damascus Gate station, serving downtown Arab Jerusalem. From there the train headed north toward outlying Palestinian and Jewish neighborhoods.

Photo © Yasmin Gorenberg
Photo © Yasmin Gorenberg

It was a normal rush-hour trip—except that there were no Palestinians on the train. No father spoke Arabic to the son sitting next to him; no teenage girls chattered in Arabic about their purchases on Jaffa Road. The women who wore head scarves had them tied behind their necks, Orthodox Jewish style, not wrapped under their chins, Muslim style. No one got on or off at Damascus Gate. In the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat, a mourning banner with a huge picture of murdered Arab teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir hung from an apartment building facing the tracks. A sign on the ticket machine on the platform said it was out of order—as it has been since angry young residents smashed it during the violent protests that followed the murder of Abu Khdeir at the beginning of July. No one got off there or at Beit Hanina, the northernmost Palestinian neighborhood on the line.

The missing passengers weren’t participating in an organized boycott. They were simply afraid. The kidnap-murder of Abu Khdeir by Jewish terrorists was part of the wave of anti-Arab harassment and violence that erupted in Jerusalem at the end of June, after the bodies of three Jewish teens who’d been kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank were discovered. Bands of young Jewish toughs harassed and assaulted Arabs on Jaffa Road and on the light rail. The revenge attacks have now become infrequent—in part because time has passed, but in part because there are fewer Arabs in what was once shared space. “You feel you’re closed up in the train,” a Palestinian pharmacist who works at a hospital on the Jewish side of town told me. If you’re attacked, she said, you’ve got nowhere to run. A Palestinian friend who lives in Beit Hanina told me that his son used to take the train home from school in the Old City. This year, he said, he told his son to come home the slow way, on a bus line run by an Arab company. The train had become too dangerous.

When construction of the rapid-transit line began in 2002, the choice of the route fit an established trend: Major planning decisions in Jerusalem have as much to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as they do with mere urban needs. The light rail would not only cross the invisible border; it would also string together Arab neighborhoods that Israel annexed in 1967 and the Jewish neighborhoods that it has built between them. The tracks were an implied declaration in steel by the municipal and national governments that the city would never be divided. More specifically, they were a rejection of the parameters for a peace agreement that President Clinton laid out at the end of 2000, stating that Jewish-populated areas of the city should be under Israeli sovereignty and Arab-populated areas should be under Palestinian rule. The route could be read as an inscription on the tombstone of the Oslo process.

Yet the light rail had other, perhaps unintended, consequences. Arab Jerusalem can seem like a distant country for most Jewish Jerusalemites. Without the train, fewer of them would ever have seen the main street of Shuafat, much less the huge picture of Abu Khdeir now hanging there. The transit line made more visible the fact that Jerusalem straddles a cultural, religious, and ethnic border, even if the political border has been erased from Israeli maps.

Let me stress the word “straddles”: There are two Jerusalems, yet they are connected; or they are one city, riven. The city defies Israeli and Palestinian slogans—not to mention American politicians’ declarations of support for “undivided Jerusalem.” Despite the official Israeli stance that it has “unified” Jerusalem, the Arab city has never become part of Israel. To call what happens in Jerusalem coexistence would be a mistake. As one astute Israeli advocate of coexistence told me, it can’t be created “when one side rules and one is ruled over.”

Yet East Jerusalem is less separate than the standard Palestinian story claims. There are human ties across the line. There are many people—particularly Palestinians—whose lives bridge the divide. Jerusalem is fragmented, roiling, more multicultural than any other place between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. And while it is constantly described in terms of its history, its future matters more: The stunning, unrealized, possibly wasted potential of Jerusalem is to be a bridge between two societies.

Since the Oslo process began, the expectation of many, perhaps most, Israeli proponents of a two-state agreement has been that it would lead to separation of Israelis and Palestinians. That attitude is easy to take in what Israelis call the “center” of the country: Tel Aviv and its environs, the unofficial economic and cultural capital. Here in Jerusalem, however, that view never made sense. And when the peace process someday resumes—after this cruel summer, it seems very far away, but eventually it must begin again—I believe it will have to be based not on separation but on more openness, on more cross-fertilization, on more shared seminar rooms, concert halls, laboratories, and parks. These are things that can only be fairly and responsibly achieved through political division into two states—but they must be two states that are intertwined rather than coldly standing apart. …

Read the rest here.