CELEBRATING AT THE opening the Payis Arena in Malha last week. Was the audience representative of Jerusalem?.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Last week’s gala opening of the Jerusalem Payis Arena in the capital’s Malha neighborhood was a sight to behold. The impressive structure was filled to its 11,600 basketball-seating capacity for a theme show thanking the soldiers for their efforts during Operation Protective Edge.
The audience was a mix of invited IDF units, their proud parents, high-school seniors going into the military next year, city hall’s top brass and other invitees from various crusts of Jerusalem society.
Dancers, indoor fireworks, performances by local heroes Idan Amedi, Hadag Nachash and other entertainers intertwined with patriotic speeches by Mayor Nir Barkat, Mifal Hapayis national lottery chairman Uzi Dayan and MC work from comic Eli Yatzpan. It was a real celebration for Israel’s capital and for the hometown team Hapoel Jerusalem, introducing a world class arena to the city’s cultural landscape.
However, I noticed a glaring anomaly while observing the glitz and fanfare. In the city touted as the unified capital of Israel, there didn’t seem to be any Arab participants or spectators. They make up almost 40 percent of the city’s 800,000 residents, according to figures released by the Central Bureau of Statistics ahead of last year’s Jerusalem Day.
Not only were Jerusalem’s Arabs – some of whom live a short walk away from the arena in Beit Safafa – invisible in Malha’s starting lineup or bench; they weren’t even in the arena. (Granted, there were no haredim either, but their self-segregation is an equally troubling but different feature of Jerusalem’s fractured makeup.) The existence of Jerusalem as a unified and undivided city has long been one of Barkat’s mantras. To his credit, he’s invested more in east Jerusalem development than his predecessors, and he has made overtures to the city’s Arab residents. When the capital’s Local Planning and Construction Committee recently approved a large-scale development plan for the Jebl Mukaber neighborhood, the mayor said it would “strengthen Israeli sovereignty over east Jerusalem” by curbing rampant illegal construction and upgrading the standard of living of the Arab residents of the area abutting East Talpiot.
But does Israel really have sovereignty over east Jerusalem? Just last week, a family approaching the Old City from out of town, on their way to attend an IDF ceremony involving their son, accidentally drove into the Arab neighborhood of Wadi Joz and was met with a hail of rocks and bricks that broke their windshield.
The Post’s Jerusalem correspondent Dan Eisenbud reported this week that Border Police conducted a sweep in east Jerusalem that resulted in the arrests of 26 Palestinians, including 13 minors, accused of rioting following the shooting death by police of 16-year-old Muhammad Sunuqrut, from Wadi Joz, the week before. That riot included the near-explosion of a French Hill gas station and the hurling of firebombs at Jewish residences in the mixed neighborhood of Abu Tor. Since the summer incidents beginning with the Gush Etzion terror kidnapping and murders, the subsequent kidnapping and murder in Shuafat and the onset of Operation Protective Edge, more than 700 Arab residents of Jerusalem and surrounding areas have been arrested for violent protests and rioting.
Ist Jerusalem ‘undivided’? Anyone taking a ride on the light rail or walking around downtown Jerusalem will witness a mix of Jews and Arabs in the most striking display of coexistence we’re ever likely to find. But for a city touted as unified, separation and animosity among its residents is pervasive.
Sure, in most of the world’s cosmopolitan cities, there are some neighborhoods unsafe to enter after dark, or even in broad daylight.
But how can we call Jerusalem unified if Jewish residents take their lives in their hands when they cross the street from west to east, or when Arab residents feel that all attention, funds and benefits are channeled to the Jewish population? Even if there had been Arabs at the Malha arena opening, they would have felt out of place amid the very militaristic theme for the evening and the cheers as each branch of soldiers was acknowledged amid video clips of the IDF’s military prowess. And what if a Jerusalem Arab decided to attend a Beitar Jerusalem soccer game at Teddy Stadium? Wish him luck.
Feeling like an outsider in your own city is, of course, no excuse for running rampant and wantonly attacking Jews who live nearby or mistakenly drive into an “unsafe” neighborhood. But as long as opportunities for making the Malha arena a Jewish-Arab meeting point where politics might be left at the ticket window are lost, the charade of Jerusalem’s being an undivided city will continue.
It’s daunting to go from exclusion to inclusion, especially when some people are happy to be excluded and others are happy to continue excluding them. But it’s up to Barkat to go beyond talk of a united Jerusalem he also has to walk the walk.
Through action, investment and outreach – and some much-need tolerance and respect on both sides – Jerusalem could truly be a unified space that would serve as an example for the world.