Celestial Jerusalem, earthly problems

Jerusalemite Moshe Amirav proposes unconventional solutions for his beloved city.

jerusalem 88 (photo credit: )
jerusalem 88
(photo credit: )
When he was just 16, Moshe Amirav, imbued with adolescent zeal, hatched a daring plan. An avid "commander" in the Revisionist Betar movement in Netanya, he planned, together with a friend, to blow the shofar and plant the Israeli flag in front of the Western Wall at the end of the Yom Kippur fast. But it was 1961, and the wall was in Jordan, enemy territory. The boys carefully planned how they would steal across no-man's land, skirt the mine-fields, hide from the snipers and sneak past the armed guards. They even prepared sandwiches for the road. "We did think there was a chance we might get killed," he says, reminiscing with a self-mocking smile. "We thought we would die al kiddush hashem [for the sanctification of God's name]." But first they wanted to receive the blessings of Uri Tzvi Greenberg, the religious-mystical poet laureate of the Revisionist Zionist right. Excited and proud, they told him about their plan, sure he would be proud of them, too. "Are you crazy?!" the eminent poet screamed at them. "There are minefields everywhere! Go home!" "So we went home to Netanya, dejected and disgraced, but still loyal Betaris," Amirav recalls. Amirav begins the interview with this story, he says, "so that you will realize where I came from. I always believed in the Greater Land of Israel, in Jewish sovereignty, in Jewish power." He also tells the story in the book he has edited, Mr. Prime Minister: Jerusalem - Problems and Solutions, published last month by Carmel Books (in Hebrew.) He clearly enjoys the reminiscing and he enjoys the telling - perhaps because it illustrates how he has been able to change his views, a quality he is proud of. Perhaps because he believes that the story lends credence and personal legitimacy to the positions he now holds, promoting territorial compromise with the Palestinians, functional solutions in Jerusalem, and coordinated religious governance over the Temple Mount. Once a loyal member of the Herut party, in the late 1980s Amirav participated in a series of clandestine meetings with the head of the PLO in Jerusalem, the late Faisal Husseini. When the meetings became public, Amirav was ousted from the Likud in what became popularly known as "the Amirav affair." He has continued to meet with Palestinians in academic and political, clandestine and public meetings, ever since. He was an early proponent of the functional division of the city into Palestinian and Israeli municipalities. In 2000, Amirav was a consultant to then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Jerusalem affairs and he headed the team of experts that Barak appointed. He was part of the Israeli team to the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000. Amirav was born in Russia and grew up in Netanya, but when asked, he answers, "When Shai Agnon received the Nobel Prize, he said, 'I was born in Galicia, but that was only in a dream. In reality, I was born in Jerusalem and exiled by Titus.' That's true for me, too." After his aborted heroic escapade, Amirav returned to Jerusalem as a paratrooper in the Six Day War, fighting with the brigade that captured the Old City. As he passed through Herod's Gate, he was wounded in the head and evacuated to Hadassah Hospital. But when he heard on the radio that his unit was advancing in the Old City, he ran away from the hospital and joined the forces as they progressed towards the Wall. "It was all very dashing, exciting and I ran and I cried and I prayed. I put a piece of paper in the stones. It was a prayer for peace. I am a Jew and the prayer came from very deep inside me." The bullet that pierced his forehead has been melded onto the face of a heavy gold ring that he wears to this day. He stayed on in Jerusalem. When his first son was born, he named him Iri ("my city") and Uri Tzvi Greenberg held the infant at his circumcision ceremony. Amirav attended Hebrew University, then held a wide range of administrative and political positions in the city as he moved up through the ranks of the Herut, and subsequently the Likud, party. He can regale his listeners with stories about Jerusalem. He has told them before and he tells them well, with an ironic, patient, loving humor for Jerusalem's idiosyncrasies. In the 1970s, when the Hebrew University was rebuilding the Mount Scopus campus, he was administrative assistant to the project director. Asked to measure the height of all of the towers in Jerusalem he found that the tallest, the tower at Augusta Victoria, soars to 78 meters. And that is why the Hebrew University authorities decided that the Hebrew University tower would reach a height of 88 meters - just that much taller," he says ironically. Amirav was elected as a city council member and held the Roads and Transportation portfolio. In that capacity, he was responsible for the construction of Route 1. "We had to build that road, and we knew that that was the only place where the road could be built," he recalls. "Everyone knew that the road had to be built, but everyone complained. The Arabs complained that we were taking their lands. The right complained that we were redividing the city. The historians complained that we would destroy historical sights. The left complained that we were forcibly uniting the city. I just wanted to build a road." And then the construction uncovered the graves along the proposed route. "I knew we would find graves," Amirav says. After all, it's Jerusalem, there are graves everywhere." But the rabbis have ruled that there has to be air space above the graves. Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem's indomitable mayor, appointed Amirav and Rabbi Menahem Porush to come up with a creative solution. They did. "We built the smallest bridge in the world," he laughs. "It's six inches high and 80 feet long. It's the Amirav Bridge and no one can see it. "Only in Jerusalem," he sighs. "This really is a very strange city. Even the dead have a vote here." But while he was serving on the council, a friend suggested that he meet with Faisal Husseini, a venerable Jerusalemite and undisputed leader of Arabs in east Jerusalem. "I resisted those meetings," says Amirav. "I was a true ideologue and I believed in the Greater Land of Israel. I guess I agreed out of curiosity. When I met with him, I realized that he believed in the Greater Land of Palestine. "But Faisal was pragmatic and willing to compromise for the future. He never gave up on his dreams, nor did I. But both of us realized that we must be practical, too. "This is an attribute of mine that I value - my ability to change and adapt. I have started my life over in many ways, several times." He walks over to his workroom, where his military medals and decorations are prominently displayed on a shelf. Next to them, he has placed a memento from Husseini. "I was a liberator of Jerusalem. He was, too," he says simply. But the ouster from the Likud was difficult and the loss of friends and colleagues painful. His father's accusations, he says, still pained, hurt the most. "'Why are you doing this?!' he accused me. How could I explain that politics had changed, that I had changed." Today, Amirav lives in Ein Kerem, the former village on the western slopes of Jerusalem. His house, recently remodeled, is bright and airy. The scene from the small porch that overlooks the Jerusalem hills is serene, pastoral, with a quintessential view of the Jerusalem hills and their rocky, brown-green terraces. Even the sounds of construction seem distant, muted. Two years ago, together with artist David Harel and photographer Beniya Bin-Nun, he wrote a beautiful, carefully-crafted book about this neighborhood, which he loves deeply. He prepares strong coffee and drinks in the air and the view. "Ein Kerem is all that Jerusalem could be. Everything is here: Christians, Moslems and Jews. Greek Orthodox nuns and Chabad. Artists, academics, professionals, and working class people. New-age spirituality, yoga and other classes, and some very traditional, conservative people. There are old timers, new comers, and people who came in the 1950s. There are very, very wealthy people here, and there are the poorer people who live in the Yemenite Valley." The popularly-named Yemenite Valley is just below his house. He points to Zacharia's well-known donkeys, tethered to posts and the yard and braying. Amirav lives in a house that once belonged to Arabs, who fled in the 1948 war. Does he sense any contradiction between his home and his hope for territorial compromise? "No, I don't," he says firmly. "Collectively, the Jewish people and the Palestinian people have wronged each other. But individually, I purchased this home fairly, on the market." He continues, "Yes, there were Arabs here before I came. But there were Jews here long before there were Arabs." His house, he says, sits on "Hill of John the Baptist. John was a Jew, and all of his community lived here. I've come home, too. So because the Arabs fled, or were driven out, decades ago, I should lose my home? You can't make historical wrongs better by creating new ones. When the conflict is resolved, these questions will be issues of real estate, nothing more, for both Jews and Arabs." He is convinced that the conflict could be resolved quickly, and says he initiated Mr. Prime Minister: Jerusalem - Problems and Solutions because he is frustrated with the impasse. "The Camp David summit, he says, "really should have been called the Jerusalem Summit. By the third day, Jerusalem had become the central issue of contention. And it was terrible - in contrast to the Americans and the Palestinians, the Israelis were totally unprepared for any discussion of Jerusalem." Amirav contends that Barak had been unwilling to deal with the issue of Jerusalem. Fearing political repercussions, he wasn't even willing to appoint teams of experts to formulate scenarios and options until nearly the end of his administration. This, Amirav says emphatically, was wrong and short-sighted. "The public must engage in a discussion of possible solutions for the conflict in Jerusalem because, without a solution in Jerusalem, there won't be a solution anywhere." The book, a compilation of articles providing new, sometimes radical and sometimes contradictory analyses and proposals for resolution of the conflict in Jerusalem, includes contributions by Nadav Shragai, Menachem Klein, Amiram Gonen, Shlomo Hasson, Elinoar Barzaki, and Yishai Sefarim. "I myself don't agree with some of the suggestions offered in my own book," he admits. "People who read the book will have to think and form their own opinions. But they must start to think. Political solutions, he maintains, have been found and agreed on for all of the problems in Jerusalem - except the Temple Mount. After a comprehensive and in-depth review of the history of sovereignty over the Temple Mount, Amirav concludes that the only solution is a religious one. "We have to change the CD in your minds. We need a long-term interim solution. Every time we talk about sovereignty in political terms - we fail to reach an agreement. So let's give the sovereignty to God. Attempts at political solutions lead to the ridiculous suggestion that Clinton made, to split the sovereignty between 'above' and 'below.'" Practically, sovereignty could be given to God in one of two ways, either to an internationally-esteemed committee of religious representatives or to a group of eleven countries who would jointly administer the site. In the book, he details the practical implications of these suggestions. "Let's give the discussion of the maintenance of the Holy Places to the Pope, the Islamic authorities, and the Chief Rabbis. If it's good enough for them, it's good enough for me," he suggests. "We don't need flags on the Temple Mount. God doesn't need a flag. "We have to change the questions that we ask and how we define the problem," he contends. "Instead of asking, 'To whom does the Temple Mount belong?' we should be asking, 'How can we meet the needs of the believers?'" This would create a new status quo, he says, which would provide the long-term interim solution that Jerusalem needs. But would it work? It could, he says. As an example, he notes that in 1870, religious leaders came to an agreement at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. "True," he acknowledges, "every time someone moves a chair in the church there's a scandal, but basically, they don't have to move many chairs, because the agreement is comprehensive. If we can reach an agreement that lasts for 100 years - well, that's good, too." Religion can provide a solution, he insists. "But when religion is used for political purposes, as it is so often, that's when it's dangerous." He emphasizes that Israel would thus compromise over flying the flag - and gain a real presence on the Temple Mount. "We don't have sovereignty over the mountain anyway - our soldiers and police don't enforce law and order, we don't manage the construction and maintenance, the Israeli planning laws aren't applied nor are the Israeli archeology laws." Under the current situation, almost no states recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. But if a solution were reached over the Temple Mount, then the other problems in Jerusalem would be resolved, too, and Jerusalem would be recognized as Israel's rightful capital city. "Just think how wonderful it would be if there were dozens of consulates here in our city!" he enthuses. His research has shown that since 1967, successive governments, ministerial committees and ministers for Jerusalem have set five goals for Jerusalem: international legitimization; territorial control over the eastern part of the city; demographic hegemony that would guarantee a "uni-national city;" strengthening the city economically and culturally; and "Israelization of the Arab minority, similar to the model of the Arabs who are citizens of Israel." "And we haven't achieved any of these goals," he says forcefully. "Israel made a mistake after 1967, We thought we could Israelize the city, and expected that the Palestinians of east Jerusalem, whom we annexed, would become more Israeli. But they didn't." Part of the fault, he insists, rests with all of Israel's successive governments. "Politicians profess their love for the city, but the more they profess, the less they actually provide," he says. "I myself have heard government officials say, 'Why care about Jerusalem? It's filled with Arabs and haredim - 60 per cent of the city isn't even Zionist." He believes that Jerusalem will soon have a Palestinian mayor. Following the haredi model, the Palestinians of east Jerusalem will consolidate around one candidate and use their electoral power. "The candidate might be someone from the business community or from academia. As long as it's someone that the entire community would agree upon. And I predict that the Palestinian candidate won't run on a political platform. He'll run on a platform that says that he's here for the residents of Jerusalem. He won't talk about Islam, or about occupation - he'll talk about the city, about infrastructure, schools, and everyday life. "And Jews will vote for him, too." When Amirav makes predictions about Jerusalem's politics, pundits listen - Amirav was the first to publicly predict that Jerusalem would have a haredi mayor by the beginning of the 21st century. "So what if we have an Arab mayor," he challenges. "The city hasn't become haredi because it has a haredi mayor and it won't become Palestinian if it has a Palestinian mayor." Meanwhile, he continues, "Jerusalem is a very sad city. Once, Jerusalem was alive and interesting. It was a universal city, a cosmopolitan city. I helped to liberate this city for Israel, but I loved its cosmopolitanism." His son Iri, named for the city, is now grown up and lives in Tel Aviv. "As a Jerusalemite, I am sad," Amirav says, "but as a father I am happy for him. He has a great life in Tel Aviv. Almost all of his friends from high school and the army live in Tel Aviv now. "This city has never known peace. This is a sign that we should do something different. Maybe the paths of victory and conquest and monolithic sovereignty are not the right ways. Maybe this city can't accept or tolerate only one ruler, only one people. "Jerusalem demands that we create other solutions. The city demands them. We need them."