Borderline Views: The borders of Jerusalem

Jerusalem needs to be celebrated simply for being Jerusalem, not because it has been divided or united in the wars of 1948 and 1967.

The Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Tonight and tomorrow, Jerusalem Day will be celebrated. But unlike Independence Day, the commemoration of the “reunification” of the city during the Six Day War 46 years ago is only celebrated by some groups within Israel.
Jerusalem Day has become transformed into a partial festival, celebrated particularly by the official state organs and more specifically within the world of Religious Zionism. The latter view the Six Day War as having been nothing short of a miraculous victory. For them, the physical reunification of the city under Israeli rule was one more step in the process of redemption which started with the establishment of the state in 1948, and there will be many special prayer services held tonight and tomorrow morning in the synagogues and at the Western Wall.
Few of us can forget the euphoria that gripped the entire Jewish world when the Old City of Jerusalem was captured by the IDF, when the IDF chief rabbi Shlomo Goren arrived at the Wall to blow the shofar and when, just a week later, hundreds of thousands descended on the Western Wall on the night of the Shavuot festival, starting a tradition which has continued every year since.
Shortly after the war, in one of its first acts the government authorized the redrawing of the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem in such a way as to encompass the Old City, the Mount Scopus enclave and large parts of the city which had previously been under Jordanian control. The university and the Hadassah hospital which had been duplicated in the West of the city prior to 1967 were rebuilt, and new neighborhoods such as Ramat Eshkol, Ramot, Gilo and East Talpiot were all rapidly constructed in an attempt to ensure that the city would be surrounded by Jewish neighborhoods, thus, in the eyes of the policy makers, strengthening Israeli control over the entire city.
The idea that, almost 50 years later, Jerusalem would continue to be a place of contention and confrontation between Arabs and Jews, and that the city may be redivided as part of a peace agreement, was never even thought of in the immediate aftermath of the war – not even among those few groups which as far back as 1967 understood that Israel could not retain control of the entire West Bank for eternity.
But despite all the slogans and talk of the “unified” city, it has remained divided. Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods are physically segregated, the bus and taxi systems remain separate, while for over 30 years there were two electricity companies providing power to the two halves of the city. Over time, most Israelis and Palestinians stopped going into the “other” side of the city for cheaper goods (Jews) or for employment opportunities (Palestinians) as they feared for their personal safety. It didn’t need a fence or a wall to indicate to most residents of the city just where the border was, and where they felt safe or threatened.
United in name and in slogans, but divided in terms of daily life patterns and functions.
The demarcation of the municipal border is but an artificial construction. The government can, at any time, decide to redraw these borders according to changing political, functional or demographic realities and thus create the new “official” Jerusalem, just as it did in 1967. Such border changes happen in cities throughout the world as the physical configuration of the city is brought in line with the dynamics of growth and change.
Ironically, the one physical border which has been created in the heart of Jerusalem has been constructed by the Israeli government during the past decade. The separation barrier/wall/fence divides western Jewish neighborhoods from the expanding Palestinian neighborhoods of the east of the city. Nowhere is the West Bank barrier as ugly as it is in Jerusalem, more concrete wall than fence, preventing movement and contact within the wider municipal area.
Abu Dis, which falls outside the official municipal boundary, and beyond the separation wall, has been earmarked as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Based on their respective understandings of what constitutes the present-day city, Israel will argue that Abu Dis is not part of Jerusalem, while the Palestinians will say it is. If the two sides agree to disagree about the formal jurisdiction of this area, it could well be the basis for any future political compromise which has to be made.
The crux of the problem is not, however, the growing municipal area of the city within which someone has to be responsible for such mundane functions as roads, transportation, schools, hospitals, welfare services, property taxes, as in any other major metropolis in the world.
The crux of the problem is, of course, the Old City, the borders of which are not in doubt. Assuming that agreement and political compromise can be reached over the municipal areas, it is almost impossible to imagine how any form of administration or power can be shared within the Old City, perhaps the most sensitive micro-geopolitical region anywhere on the face of the earth. The idea that power should be transferred to the respective religious authorities, that no national flags or political symbols be displayed within the Old City itself may sound utopian, and even logical, to an outsider, but for Israel it is unthinkable to even consider any arrangement which will necessitate the relinquishing of control within this area.
It is unfortunate that the future of Jerusalem has become so identified with the conflict, that it has become transformed from an issue of “consensus” (as far as the Jewish population of Israel is concerned) to one which is part of the left-right, religious-secular divide in Israel. Go to Tel Aviv or most other cities in the country tomorrow and you will not find many public or community celebrations of Jerusalem Day. Many are hardly aware that it even is Jerusalem Day beyond hearing it on the early morning news, or by virtue of the Jerusalem-themed songs which are played all day on some of the radio stations.
Despite its many internal conflicts (between Jews and Jews almost as much as between Jews and Arabs) Jerusalem remains one of the most unique places in the world. For many of us, there is still a rarified and unique atmosphere beyond the mundane daily city life.
Jerusalem will remain special and unique regardless of where and how the municipal boundaries are drawn and in spite of who administers different parts of the city.
Jerusalem needs to be celebrated simply for being Jerusalem, not because it has been divided or united in the wars of 1948 and 1967. If we ever manage to remove the conflict and the nationalist sentiment from the commemoration package, there will be even more reason to reserve a day each year to celebrate this unique city.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.