The fine line that divides us

Jerusalem’s Asa’el Street has a rich history to tell and a myriad stories to reveal.

Masses turn out to watch an IDF parade just outside Jerusalem’s Old City in honor of Independence Day in 1968. (photo credit: WERNER BRAUN/JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVES)
Masses turn out to watch an IDF parade just outside Jerusalem’s Old City in honor of Independence Day in 1968.
A Street Divided is the story of a small stretch of Jerusalem that encapsulates what divides and unites Jews and Palestinians in the city.
Author Dion Nissenbaum lived in Jerusalem’s Abu Tor neighborhood when he was the Israel correspondent for the McClatchy newspaper chain in 2006-9. He returned a few years later to glean the fascinating dramas that developed around the official- turned-unofficial border between eastern and western Jerusalem.
Asa’el Street was the border between Israel and Jordan from 1948 to 1967 and the focal point of trigger-happy border guards on both sides. Though the official dividing line disappeared long ago, the psychological differences remain.
For those who like Jerusalem lore, there’s plenty of it here. We learn of strange and sometimes comical incidents along Jerusalem’s ’48 to ’67 border. These include a nun whose dentures fell into no man’s land and a military operation to recover them; stray cattle and sheep unwittingly crossing borders; and a young love story cultivated through barbed wire.
As a microcosm of the city and the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, Asa’el Street overflows with fantastic stories – both the minutiae of daily life and the families’ ties to national events transpiring in their midst.
As such, this is a book for readers who like a good human story. We experience the ups and downs of life on Asa’el Street in readable, well-researched narratives.
The Palestinian Bazlamit family is a neighborhood mainstay. Their house was one of dozens located in no-man’s-land from 1948 to 1967. The Bazlamits risked their lives every time they went into the yard behind their house. In 1951, patriarch Hijazi was shot one afternoon while he picked fruit.
Because the family was justifiably scared that they would be shot if they rescued him, they stayed in the house, watching Hijazi bleed to death for hours and trying to coax baby Abdullah back to safety.
The family’s fate took another dark turn when Hijazi’s grandson, Jawad, was killed in riots at al-Aksa in 1996, as the family gathered to celebrate his wedding. Palestinian youth have since renamed the street “the Martyr Jawad.”
On the other side of the divide lived Haim and Rachel Machsomi, second cousins from Iran, who moved to the border shortly after Israel’s independence. Rachel grew up in an Arab town in Kurdish Iran, where they were the only Jewish family. She was used to living with Arabs, she said, and didn’t see her life on the binational street as unusual.
“Apart from the fact that it looked directly out onto no-man’s-land, it seemed like the perfect place to raise kids,” Nissenbaum paraphrased Rachel’s reflections on her home.
The year 1967 was pivotal on Asa’el Street.
With the shelling, violence and looting that accompanied the war came a burst of discovery and friendship among the neighbors who – until then – had only watched each other from afar.
The Bazlamits and Machsomis developed one of Asa’el Street’s most enduring relationships.
The Machsomis taught their neighbors Hebrew, and the Bazlamits served as their Shabbos goys, turning off their lights and doing other chores forbidden to them on Shabbat.
American-born David and Alisa Maier- Epstein represent a more recent brand of Asa’el resident – the “peacenik.” In one of the more profound chapters, the couple’s good intentions in forging neighborly relations are juxtaposed with the harsh realities of life in Jerusalem and Israel.
This chapter is hard to read because it touches on the painful aspects of our imperfect coexistence: As much as there may be goodwill, we are all essentially stuck in a tortuous conflict. Ironically, a universal issue makes them realize this: Palestinian boys on Asa’el start whistling at and eyeing their daughter Avital in inappropriate ways. David, Alisa and Avital disagree on whether this is a girl-boy problem or an Israeli-Palestinian problem.
Either way, Avital starts leaving her house from the back exit to avoid the boys – and Asa’el Street – altogether.
The incident that spurred Nissenbaum to write the book was another seemingly banal spat that he got involved in while living there, over a yapping dog.
“A very small thing that in another context wouldn’t be a big thing was very politically charged on both sides,” Nissenbaum told The Jerusalem Post in a video interview from Istanbul, where he has recently settled in as correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.
With the above exception, Nissenbaum insists on staying out of the story and tries very hard to portray both sides equally – sometimes too hard. He doesn’t always succeed.
Nissenbaum himself comes from a multicultural background. Born to a Jewish father and Christian mother, Nissenbaum married a Muslim woman and has adopted Islam.
“Ultimately, I hope that people can read the book and hear the voices of the people on the street, not my voice,” he said. “When you’re looking at it from the outside, and you’re not paying attention, all you see is the spikes of violence. I wanted to explain what was happening in between those periods of violence, to show what’s happening to the people on the ground... when they’re trying to live with these political, outside forces that are affecting their lives.”
Nissenbaum understands what makes Jerusalem tick: the constant tensions that the city subsists on; the shades of gray among its diverse population; and the fragile seam line between violence and coexistence.
Most of all, nothing is ever simple or straightforward. Every act in Jerusalem has significance.
By the time he returned to Jerusalem last year to research the book, only one Jewish house had an open entrance facing Asa’el; the other Jewish residents exit their houses on the street above them. Indeed, most of the houses on both sides are barricaded.
Despite the recent violence, Nissenbaum, who remains in contact with some of the street’s residents, said that efforts at coexistence remain.
“Asa’el Street is definitely a bellwether for what’s happening,” he said. “When you look at it there are more walls than connections right now, but that doesn’t mean that there will always be walls and that there can’t be a new era of connections.”
Residents of Asa’el not only represent the conflict, they bear the brunt of it. In that sense, the street represents our stunted ability to live side-by-side.
The book’s introduction explains it best: “We were at a stalemate... These kinds of fights happen over and over in Jerusalem.
When people can, they move on... But stalemate takes its own kind of toll. Stagnation leaves a mark. Over time, the small slights and daily frustrations build up like a pressure cooker until they explode, one way or another.”