Saturday, May 28, 2011

Let's Talk Jerusalem

Since Elie Wiesel penned his open letter on Jerusalem over a year ago, I have been doing a lot of thinking. Mr. Wiesel’s words were poignant and his obvious love for the City of Peace found a ready audience in me. Reading that the first song he heard was a lullaby from his mother about Jerusalem drove home in a very personal way the strong attachment many Jews, myself included, feel toward Jerusalem. Mr. Wiesel wrote his letter in reference to the contretemps set off by the announcement that Jerusalem’s municipal board had approved construction in  Ramat Shlomo and the Obama administration’s demand that all construction beyond the green line be frozen. In his letter, Mr. Wiesel urged that a solution to Jerusalem be addressed last among the issues between Israel and the Palestinians.

The speeches this past week by President Obama, in which he paid heed to Mr. Wiesel's advice, and by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, in which he conditioned any peace with the Palestinians on Israel retaining full sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, accelerated my thinking. Is it possible that Jerusalem could be shared with the Palestinians as part of a final peace agreement? Can our collective yearning for Jerusalem be reconciled with a division of Jerusalem? What about the call for a "united" and "eternal" Jerusalem? So I returned to take a look at the map of Jerusalem to better understand where the Palestinian neighborhoods are located and where the Jewish neighborhoods are located.  

For many years I have had some familiarity with the history of Jerusalem borders. For example, I knew that the UN partition plan set up Jerusalem as an international city. I also knew that Israel’s War of Independence ended with Israel in possession of West Jerusalem and Jordan in possession of East Jerusalem, including the Old City. Certainly I knew that after the Six Day war, Israel gained possession of East Jerusalem, reuniting the city. What else did I need to know?

In 1990, during the first Gulf War, when I was in Jerusalem apartment hunting I went to Hebrew University and pulled off a telephone number for an apartment located in Gilo. I wasn’t exactly sure where Gilo was, but I knew the rent there was lower than in other areas, like Rehavia and Beit Hakerem. So I took the No. 32 bus out to see the apartment and it was in a beautiful stone building, the flat had a marble floor and a stunning view of the terraced hills to the West. So I moved in. I remember telling some of my Israeli friends at the time that I found an apartment in Jerusalem, in Gilo. Well that’s not really Jerusalem, it’s more of a suburb they told me. But this did not bother me in the least; every morning I got up and rode the bus into the city center and walked to the court, which was then located in the Migrash HaRussim.

Eventually, a brother of one my friends said that Gilo could be considered a settlement as it was beyond the green line. I satisfied myself that it wasn’t a settlement because Israel had annexed it. (I assure you, the Palestinians do not see it this way.)

And there matters stood - until I started considering the borders in the context of a possible peace agreement and started looking at maps and doing some research. This is what I found. After the Six Day War, Israel annexed, not only Gilo and what was then East Jerusalem, but several Palestinian villages east of East Jerusalem. The size of Jerusalem had tripled and Palestinian villages never part of Jerusalem now found themselves within Jerusalem’s borders. I also learned that prior to the 1860's Jerusalem's population was confined to the Old City, and that the British during the Mandate period after World War I had drawn municipal borders for Jerusalem that included areas well outside the Old City. Take a look at the map above.

So how does an understanding of the history of Jerusalem's changing borders affect a determination about whether to give up areas of Jerusalem as part of a peace agreement?

Let's put aside for the moment that Jerusalem is already de facto a divided city, divided between Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods. Danny Seidemann, who I wrote about in a previous post, in making this point told us about "Tel Aviv tourism" and how it has become fashionable for Israelis to travel as if on an exotic safari to East Jerusalem and stay at the American Colony Hotel. That East Jerusalem's American Colony is considered by Israelis to be in a foreign land was recently confirmed for me, before I ever met Danny, by my Israeli friends, some who grew up in Jerusalem. When I told them that I would be staying at the American Colony, they laughed or gave an Israeli "oo-ah" as they told me to enjoy Palestine.You see, most Israelis understand that Jerusalem is a divided city. And they are fine with it. That's why Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak before him were ready to cede the Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as part of a final agreement. But like I said, let's put that aside.

A city is defined by its borders. Jerusalem no less. But when people speak about "an undivided eternal" Jerusalem, the underlying premise is that there is some naturally occurring physical space that is Jerusalem. And because God promised us Israel, and David made Jerusalem its capital around 1000 BCE, and Solomon built the Temple there in 957 BCE, and because Jews have maintained a continued presence ever since, Jews have eternal sovereignty over Jerusalem.

What this argument ignores, however, is that there is no naturally occurring physical space that is Jerusalem - it's a construct. While we do not have a surveyor's map of David's Jerusalem (though archaeology may one day provide one), we know that through the 1860's Jerusalem's population was confined to the Old City and the borders have been defined differently at different times, depending on the nation exercising sovereignty. We also know that the borders have grown significantly.

So when assessing our own willingness to negotiate sovereignty over some of the neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, we need to understand what Jerusalem we are talking about. Are we talking about the Jerusalem at the time of King David, the Jerusalem of the Ottoman Empire, or the British Mandate. And if we are talking about today's mega-Jerusalem, we must ask what is so sacred about the Palestinian areas in East Jerusalem, which until 1967 had never been considered part of Jerusalem, that Israel needs to retain sovereignty over them?

Perhaps I am wrong, but I believe the Jerusalem Elie Wiesel's mother sang about in the 1930's transcended borders. Certainly, Jerusalem's boundaries in Mandatory Palestine are not its boundaries today. Jewish collective spiritual attachment and claim to Jerusalem, no less than to Israel itself, cannot  be reduced to borders. And it would be more than folly to try to align our spiritual attachment to Jerusalem with its present day borders; it would be impossible. They simply do not align.

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