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Silwan 311.(Photo by: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jerusalem tourism redemption song
Tourists focus on ancient sites, do we see into under-developed east Jerusalem?
“Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower. I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period.”

“But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself.

Redemption will come only if they are told: “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important, but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

– Yehuda Amichai

TOURING CAN be a tricky mind game, where what is revealed to the eyes often goes unnoticed by the heart. “India is great, such a shame it’s full of Indians,” a rude young man once told me on his return from months of traveling. A traveler’s wide-open eyes may be fascinated by green hills, while at the same time blind to the people living among them.

Applying the same blind-eyed approach closer to home, I ask: “Jerusalem is great, but what about Jerusalemites?”

Living right  next to Mahaneh Yehuda I regularly observe visitors with cameras pointing enthusiastically at the beautiful crimson flowers blossoming above my doorstep, while the woman sitting underneath them sipping her morning coffee goes unnoticed. Groups walking through the neighborhood during the days of slihot leading to Yom Kippur must be thinking no one lives here, otherwise how could they dare scream and shout at 5 a.m.?

On Shushan Purim this year, a group of young religious men stood right outside my window and loudly chanted minha. There are three synagogues on my street, but the fellows felt like doing it outside, thinking the streets are theirs to rule.

Yehuda Amichai’s redemption song seems all the more relevant to the relationship of Jerusalemites with the city’s tourists during Pessah, which is “the time of our redemption.

This past holiday, tens of thousands of visitors flocked to the city, with Easter bringing even more from around the world. How many of them were considerate of the city’s residents? It is understandable that first-time visitors who arrive for a three-day excursion are entirely focused on the city’s astounding historical sites. But what about Israelis visiting their capital, or Jewish visitors who come here annually? Do they stop and wonder what present-day Jerusalem is all about?

ONE GOOD example is a short walk from Amichai’s Roman arch near David’s Tower. Ir David, the City of David, just outside the Old City walls, is a central archeological site visited by many wishing to understand and connect to Jewish life here some 3,000 years ago. As its Web site reads: “Deep underground, the City of David is revealing some of the most exciting archeological finds of the ancient world. While above ground, the city is a vibrant center of activity.” I’ve gone deep underground, and it’s indeed exciting.

The city above ground, tourists are told, starts and ends at the visitor’s center. Truth of the matter is that archeological finds are sprawled across an entire neighborhood. Walking through it with heavy baskets of fruit and vegetables, or sitting and sipping their morning coffee, are thousands of Palestinians living in Wadi Hilwe/Silwan.

Underneath their homes are the streets of ancient times. But do visitors see those living above-ground, do they acknowledge their existence? Several on-line accounts of the tours conducted by Ateret Cohanim in the neighborhood during Pessah draw a picture similar to Amichai’s experience, where only the dead seem alive.

Following suit with the Ir David Visitors’ Center and Ateret Cohanim is the Jerusalem Municipality. Its NIS 30 million plan for the area is crafted so every shekel will go toward Ir David tourism.  In a part of town where virtually no playground can be found, it will be turning the few available open spaces into parking lots, against the clearly stated wishes of the residents. In a neighborhood that for years has needed urgent road repairs, only those located around the Ir David Visitors’ Center will be repaired. The rest can wait.

There is no school in this neighborhood. No post office. No health-fund clinic. In the coming days the municipality will resume its reconstruction work there and invest millions, but there will still be no school, no post office, no clinic.

Future tourists will come and go while Jerusalemites living there continue to have it the hard way.

The past is part of our present, but so is the future. Ignoring the basic needs of today ensures a sorrowful tomorrow. Surely the path to redemption in Jerusalem cannot be found where negligence and discrimination lie right in front of our eyes.

The writer is a history graduate of Tel Aviv University and spokesperson for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
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