Posted by: denaroselankri | January 16, 2011

Divided City

By Yardena Lankri

The city has been ‘reunited’ since 1967, but living in Jerusalem is to live in a ‘divided city’. Divided in terms of religion, of ethnicity, of politics and belief. To get into a cab is to be inundated with political rhetoric and ideological confusion. To meet for coffee is to have your ideas challenged and to be accused of being a “smollani yefei nefesh” – a bleeding heart liberal. At Sabbath meals on a Friday night the conversation sways between political controversies, Supreme Court rulings and religious infighting. Choosing pizza toppings is fraught with conversational landmines; one minute you are dithering between sweet potato and roasted peppers and the next the guy behind the counter has moved from flirting, to relating how he hates ‘them’ – with a head jerk towards ‘Yusuf’ who’s working in the kitchen behind – ever since four friends from his army unit were killed in Gaza.

Last week I attended a conference run by the IDI on the “Rights of People with Disabilities in the Jewish and Democratic state.” Topics ranged from the history of eugenics, to societal exclusion due to a lack of army service, to an examination of rights through biblical text. Despite this breadth, it seems clear that the difficulties faced by people with disabilities mirror the wider concerns of the IDI’s research focus – the struggle of maintaining equality of rights and Israel’s democratic nature. This is not merely a matter of philosophical idealism but an issue that effects all those residing in this land on a daily basis.

Following on from the so-called ‘Loyalty Oath’ a raft of new proposed laws are chipping away at the country’s democratic nature. A recent bill has been proposed that would allow communities to reject prospective members on the basis of “the candidate’s lack of suitability for the social-cultural fabric of the community.” In an article in the daily newspaper Haaretz, the IDI’s Professor Kremnitzer resoundly criticised the proposed law, noting that it has the clear intention of attempting “to ‘Judaize’ the Negev and Galilee” by “disqualifying those who are not Zionist – in other words, Arabs.” Last week a dilapidated hotel was torn down in the predominantly Arab neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in east Jerusalem to make way for new Jewish residences, and the planning commission is expected to approve more large-scale construction beyond the Green Line.  The Knesset has set up a committee to investigate the sources funding left-wing and human rights groups. This is in keeping with Netanyahu’s cries that criticism of Israel is not genuinely based on government policy but on attempts to “delegitimise” the state’s existence. Yet, the real “delegitimisation” seems to me to be in those policies attempting to derail Israel’s democratic nature.

In some ways, it feels like Israel is becoming more entrenched in these divisions. Many commentators have argued that President Katsav’s conviction for rape and sexual assault is a boon for democracy and the independence of the courts. Yet, the Supreme Court has ruled that gender segregation on public buses is not illegal as long as it is not ‘coerced.’ After referencing Rosa Parks, Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubenstein found that as long as the segregation was ‘voluntary’ the status quo could remain and the segregated line – where women sit only in the back of the bus – could continue to run through Jerusalem. Some evenings a knock will sound at my door as I am making dinner and I will open it to a Haredi man looking for charity. He will persistently ask for my money, yet will avert his eyes because he will not look at a woman. Gender equality seems hard to come by on the streets of Jerusalem.

Last weekend I visited the Museum on the Seam on the border between east and west Jerusalem. A museum of contemporary art, it aims at “examining the social reality within our regional conflict, to advancing dialogue in the face of discord and to encouraging social responsibility that is based on what we all have in common rather than what keeps us apart.” I saw some beautiful, some confronting, and some thought-provoking artwork. Yet, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the museum is the building itself. The museum is housed in what was previously a military outpost on the seam line between Israel and Jordan, when Jerusalem was a divided city between 1948 and 1967. The building acted as the only crossing point between the two sides and bears the pockmarked scars of bullets from the war. Looking out from the museum’s roof over the vast expanse of Jerusalem, I could see heavy clouds gathering in the east and the air had that heady stillness to it. The country is waiting for the drought to end, and I cant help but feel that some of the electric tension in this city needs to be flooded with cooling rain. Something needs to break, and I am hopeful it will be the weather.


  1. You managed to put into words what I was feeling!!

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