I used to work for a guy named Teddy Kollek. He was mayor of Jerusalem for close to three decades, keeping a cauldron of a city from boiling over until he was 82, when a future felon sent him home to his third-floor Rehavia walk-up.
Teddy liked to say that Jerusalem wasn’t a melting pot. It was a mosaic, a city of different ethnicities, religions and even religious practices. And vive la différence! Almost as an aside, he’d explain that people tended to prefer to live among their own – their own sounds, their own smells, their own pace of life. They might venture out, but it was always good to come home to what was familiar.
That sounded logical. It still does, especially in a place where we parade our distinct identities on a 24/7 basis while having to jostle if not for superiority, then just for the mere right to be ourselves. Which is why I, not much of a television watcher unless it’s about a New Jersey mafia boss juggling his families or an underpaid New Mexico chemistry teacher who sees the earnings potential in cooking crystal meth, was intrigued to read in The Jerusalem Post earlier this week about a coming series called Autonomies
THE WORD “autonomy” conjures up, at least to me, the idea of giving a distinct ethnic minority day-to-day power over its own matters within a more central form of governance that takes care of broader issues such as defense and foreign affairs. We used to hear about it in the Soviet Union, which in its heyday encompassed a vast empire that made Jerusalem’s mosaic seem by comparison a small artwork of multicolored tiles hanging on someone’s living-room wall.
But this show seems to be more a blueprint for plain and simple separation, with a line delineating one side for secular people and the other for religious.
As Post reporter Amy Spiro put it when envisioning the haredi authorities at a checkpoint on the religious side of the divide, “Children’s book? Contraband.
DVDs? Banned. Lingerie? Don’t even think about it.” She called it a “dystopian take on a future State of Israel.”
Dystopian? I think it has potential.
In fact, while people talk about a two state solution, I’d be willing to move to a three-state solution, and if I can speak for some secular Palestinians I know, a four-state solution: One for secular Jews, another for religious Jews, a third for Palestinian moderates and a fourth for Islamic fundamentalists.
Locations? Borders? Capitals? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Yet think of the beauty of separation: living as you want without interference from people with drastically different approaches to everyday life – especially those people who would very much want to foist their way of life on you.
Think of the kibbutz (at least the pre-privatization model). In return for an honest day’s work, you and your family would be provided with life’s basic commodities and even some of its more desirable amenities. No one got rich, though, and you might get to go abroad only once or twice in your life. Some of the jobs also demanded more hours in conditions that were less than optimal.
If no one wanted to do them, you might be assigned to one by a committee – you’d have no recourse and you’d get nothing extra in return.
It was socialism, but not the kind where anyone held a gun to your head.
You could leave if you didn’t like it.
More important, outsiders who weren’t interested were free to ignore these usually quaint enclaves and drive right on by. That’s because this particular model of socialism ended at the kibbutz gate.
Which is not to say that I’m looking for a kibbutz. I’m just looking to live my secular life the way I want to, with no interference from individuals, groups or authorities. So that physical line in Autonomies
that would separate me from those who want nothing to do with children’s books, DVDs or lingerie (which honestly, I have no desire to force on them) would at the same time protect me from those who would like to make sure that I can’t go down to the corner grocery on Shabbat, that I eat only matza on Passover and that my children marry only those who meet the standards of a higher authority.
The mosiac that Teddy Kollek spoke about was a collection of Jewish and Arab communities living in close proximity to one another. Of course, that proximity was only in east Jerusalem, the result of successive governments first extending the municipal boundaries there and then encircling existing Arab neighborhoods with Jewish neighborhoods, creating facts on the ground to help keep the united and enlarged capital city under Israeli control.
Teddy felt that the proximity of those neighborhoods, if handled correctly, could become a stepping stone to wider coexistence. Alas, that doesn’t seem to have happened, especially in the 25 years since he was sent packing.
It’s much the same along the religious- secular divide among Jews.
My neighborhood of Beit Hakerem, one of the last of the city’s neighborhoods deemed secular (although there’s long been more than a smattering of National Religious residents, giving it a truly harmonious mix), is hemmed in by Kiryat Moshe, Bayit Vagan and Givat Mordechai, all mostly ultra-Orthodox.
Herzl Boulevard, the main thoroughfare, is congested on Friday evenings by religious families strolling to and from Shabbat dinner in those neighborhoods.
Most walk in the unused light-rail tracks or on the sidewalks, but some make their way on the street itself – often with their children in tow – as if making a statement to the drivers who have to swerve to avoid hitting them: This, too, will someday be mine, and you and your cars won’t be able to desecrate Shabbat here anymore.
Clearly, the either/or approach envisioned by Autonomies
is insufficient, for there are many who fall between the two extremes. Which side would they live on? So far, though, it’s only television. And while I’d prefer there be no need for separation, it’s an awfully intriguing idea.