Borderline Views: Rethinking the future of Jerusalem

It is time for leaders of both sides to move beyond the slogans and the mantras of the past 47 years, as though the city has not changed during this period.

Jerusalem light rail (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Jerusalem light rail
Whoever organized the event which took place yesterday at the University of Brussels comparing the political and geopolitical problems of divided cities, with a focus on the cases of Brussels and Jerusalem, must have had some inside information concerning the new tensions which have emerged during the past two weeks in Jerusalem.
In a week when stones have been thrown at passengers on the Jerusalem light rail, when the government has announced its intention to go ahead with new building projects for Jewish residents in the east of the city, and when the Temple Mount was temporarily closed to Muslim worshipers, the political and religious tensions and frictions of Jerusalem have reached new heights of mutual animosity, to a degree almost unknown since 1967.
The removal of the wall dividing the city between 1948-167 has not brought about a reunification of the city. It remains as divided as ever, while the construction of the new separation wall through different parts of the city during the past decade only goes to show how vast the chasm between the Israeli slogans of a “united” city and the realities of political, ethnic , religious and functional separation.
In a brilliant parody on divided cities, an excellent short film, Le Mur, produced in Belgium in 1997, highlights the artificiality of building walls through the heart of an urban and metropolitan area. On the night of the millennium, while the inhabitants of Brussels are celebrating the new year, the politicians decide that the tensions between the French and Flemish parts of the city can not be reconciled. They decide to build a concrete wall through the heart of the city, creating two separate physical entities.
The fictional story focuses on a couple, one a Francophone and the other a Flemish speaker, residents of Brussels.
Finding himself on the wrong side of the wall following a night of partying, the French speaker attempts to return home only to find that he does not have the necessary documents to cross the new border. He is pursued by the new secret police on the Flemish side of the border because of his status as an illegal alien on the “wrong” side of the wall. When, eventually, the couple manage to escape and cross the wall to their safe haven on the other side, it is now the Flemish partner who finds herself in the same situation, lacking documents and being pursued by new police force.
The artificiality of the new wall is exposed when the couple are being pursued by the secret police. As they approach the concrete wall and are about to be captured and arrested, they come to a realization that borders are no more than social and political constructs created by politicians.
This allows them to miraculously pass through the wall as though it did not exist. The pursuing police, lacking this awareness, crash their vehicle into the concrete wall and are instantly killed.
Following the Six Day War of 1967, Israel was quick to announce that the city of Jerusalem was now a “united” city, never again to be divided, and that the wall in its heart would never be reconstructed. Nowhere was this expressed more eloquently than in the hit song of the time, “Jerusalem of Gold,” which became transformed into a second, unofficial, anthem of Israel at that time.
But ironically it has been the right-wing governments of the State of Israel which have constructed an ugly concrete wall through large parts of Jerusalem during the past decade, effectively creating a new division and separation in a city which was to be “forever united.”
The new physical border running through Jerusalem is as artificial an entity as the fictional wall in the film about Brussels. The walls in Berlin during the Cold War era, or in Nicosia since the Turkish division of Cyprus in the 1970s, are no less artificial and reflect the victory of politicians and governments over the normality of daily life where people, belonging to diverse ethnic and religious groups, seek employment, education, transportation, hospitals and a wide range of other municipal services, regardless of the language they speak, the religion they worship or the ethnic group to which they belong.
Under any future conflict resolution, a future which seems as far away as it ever has done during the past 47 years, Jerusalem must be an open city without walls or any other form of physical division. If Jews wish to reside in “east Jerusalem,” Arabs and Palestinians must equally be allowed to reside in the western parts of the city. There needs to be a single transportation system, unified electricity and joint municipal government covering both in the western and eastern parts of the rapidly growing city, and the holy sites of the Old City must be open to all, under some form of non-national and non-political supervision.
There is no reason why the State of Israel and a neighboring Palestinian state can not have their own political and administrative capitals in different parts of the same city, if that is what is required to satisfy the political and emotional demands of both sides.
It is time for leaders of both sides to move beyond the slogans and the mantras of the past 47 years, as though the city has not changed during this period. Most people residing in the city today, be they young Palestinians or young Orthodox Jews, both of whom are among the most rapidly growing communities in Israel/Palestine, were not even alive at the time of the 1967 war, and a dwindling number of residents of Jerusalem today remember the city that was divided for 19 years under Jordanian rule.
At the end of Le Mur, the couple decide that there is no future for them in a divided Brussels and they decide to leave the city altogether. At the train station, the platform manager notes the many thousands of city residents, from both communities, who have left the city since the wall was constructed, noting ironically that this is taking place in the heart of Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union, a political union which is characterized by the opening and removal of borders between the European states.
“Only here in Brussels”, he notes with sarcasm, “we still have a small problem.”
The film ends as the couple are seen dancing on the top of the wall in the moonlight, the shadows of their movement reflected on both sides of the wall.
The parody is obvious. Only in our “united” city of Jerusalem, the home of the three great monotheistic religions who should be preaching peace and brotherly love, are tensions so great.
Only in the so-called city of peace do people hate each other and contest each others’ space to an extent which seems unresolvable. The only eternal characteristic about Jerusalem today is the existence of the conflict and the impossibility of living together in a single city.
At a time of such heightened tensions, it is time to totally rethink the future of Jerusalem. Sovereignty and control are political concepts which do not reflect the unique ethnic and religious mosaic of this city. It is time to re-introduce terminologies to our political lexicon which may seem fictional to some, but which point the way forward to all those who believe that Jerusalem must function as a single, united, city with equality of access to all.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.