Jerusalem. The Holy City. Centre of three major world religions, and surely a place that should transcend political differences, remind us of our shared humanity, and humble all who enter its ancient walls? For while I am not a member of any of the patriarchal Abrahamic faiths, it seems to me that Christianity, Judaism and Islam share a reverence for knowledge, love, and justice and their houses of worship can be experienced as imperfect shrines to these ideals. Despite the promise of interfaith harmony still faintly echoing through the lanes of the Old City, however, modern West Jerusalem is not built on any spiritual values I can recognise. The contemporary city is closer to ancient Rome – a gloating festival of Zionist triumphalism, a swaggering celebration of military might, intent on the ruthless dispossession of the indigenous population. As such, it cannot last.
But more of prophecies in a moment. First, first impressions. That would have to be the flag. I have travelled to twenty countries, and I have never seen so many national flags on display, not even in New York two months after 9/11. Here they ripple from cars, drip from balconies, march along the roofs of government buildings, and, in a special thirty-foot version, cascade down tower blocks. In East Jerusalem they festoon illegal Zionist settlements, municipal offices and five-star hotels; even the Muslim Quarter of the Old City is not free of the settlers’ standard.
Peeps: we get the picture. You are Zionists. You want to plant the Star of David in Israel’s every crevice, and in the Palestinians’ every cranny too. To me, the soft yellow star the Nazis sewed on Jews’ clothing represents the vulnerability of people chosen by their fellow human beings for centuries of persecution. In a poem I have used the Star of David as a symbol of the wandering Jew – a young Israeli woman I met in India, whose hurt beauty made a lasting impression on me. But stamped all over a city that has robbed and ghettoized its original inhabitants, the six pointed Star begins to look like a shackle to me. One that imprisons not only the Palestinians, but all Jews who cannot see that they have no monopoly on suffering.
Next, of course, the soldiers. Again, they are everywhere: fit young men and women, iPlayers slipped into their pockets, submachine guns slung casually over their olive-brown uniforms, sauntering through bus stations, lolling at street corners, patrolling Temple Mount, one of the holiest sites of the Muslim faith – which no young man from the West Bank is permitted to visit. And like the flag, their presence feels less a generally accepted aspect of nationhood than an aggressive seal on the country’s identity. The soliders who enforce Israel’s policies of racial segregation are even a prominent feature of its tourist art. In the Jewish Quarter art galleries sell prints of soliders worshipping with Rabbis at the Western Wall, arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders as if the archetype of the zealous teenage conscript had become interwoven with the very meaning of Judaism. Abroad, ‘Brand Israel’ tries to attract visitors to ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ with promises of flavourful cuisine, natural wonders and ancient sites, but on the ground Israel’s self-image betrays its political reality as a military theocracy.
But let’s talk about something nice for a change. How about the grass? Goodness, you’d never guess there was a water shortage in Israel. Or would be if Israel didn’t steal water from Palestine, to feed its obsession with greening not only the desert, but also the Jerusalem Light Railway. This new tramline connecting East and West Jerusalem performs the novel social function of mixing Arab and Jewish populations; but also, by transporting settlers to their homes in Palestinian neighbourhoods, violates the Geneva Conventions. Veolia, the private company in charge, is thus a featured target of the Palestinian-led international Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign; thanks to its unreliable ticket machines the French multinational has been making massive profits in fines, and one senses that even hardcore Zionists will be glad to see it unseated. The lines are turfed near the Old City walls: once again, overkill.
Then there’s the stone cladding. By municipal order, to retain the city’s Biblical appearance, all buildings in Jerusalem must be faced in local limestone. If Yaffa’s sanded stones looked as if they’d undergone enforced facial peels, Jerusalem’s cladding is like a thick layer of foundation make-up, that similarly paralyses history and emotion. This is not the honest civic desire to work with organic and historical elements, but a determined attempt to architecturally ‘unify’ a riven city by slathering stonework over the cracks.
And the cracks are everywhere, like shellfire wounds, into which Jerusalem’s Arab population is herded. Nestling in the slopes of the Mount Scopus, right beneath the Hebrew University, is Silwan, a Arab village trapped by its urban conquerors and afflicted with the social decay common to all Palestinian neighourhoods. Arab Israelis make up 20% of Israel’s population, but are allocated only 6% of the state’s financial resources. Lacking basic infrastructural services, Arab Israelis must burn their own rubbish in skips at night, while during the day their schools contend with shortages of teachers, classrooms, even desks. Children who respond to the occupation with stone-throwing – or who are just suspected of rebellious behavior – are subjected to terrifying night-time arrests and imprisonment in conditions tantamount to torture, including electric shock and solitary confinement. Upon release they are provided (of course) with no state-sponsored counselling. In Silwan, traumatised adolescents turn to drug abuse and prostitution; again, there are insufficient funds for the social workers required to help get them off the streets. Here, as in Sheikh Jarrah and other Arab areas, they inhabit houses under threat of demolition, confiscation or decay – improvements or extensions being banned by municipal order.
Even in death there is no respite. Mamilla Cemetery, an ancient Muslim burial ground in the heart of West Jerusalem, is currently being bulldozed in order to clear ground for a ‘Museum of Tolerance’. The cemetery is now largely a desolate sea of rubble, though an on-going campaign still seeks to halt this malevolent assault on even the rhetoric of mutual respect and co-existence.
Up in the hills, lie the remains of Deir Yassin, where in 1948, under orders from the Haganah, units of the Irgun and the Stern Gang exterminated over 100 villagers. The village school is now part of the Jewish psychiatric hospital that treats victims of ‘Jerusalem complex’ – the conviction that one is the Messiah, not uncommon in first-time visitors to the city. I wasn’t deemed insane enough to be admitted, yet, so couldn’t see the buildings, but a walk through the nearby woods revealed old terraces and stone walls that could only have been part of Deir Yassin. The memorial stones studding the road were all for fallen IDF soldiers.
This is what apartheid looks like, then: dangerous streets, damaged children, pulverised graveyards. An eyesore city planners aim to shrink by legal attrition, manipulating planning and permit regulations to suck Palestinians out of their neighbourhoods and maintain a Jewish-majority demographic. As I write, Silwan has been hit with a municipal order to demolish 1000 houses – in order to make way for a ‘Biblical garden’.
There are just too many toxic ironies. You have to stop somewhere and remind yourself that the city is more than the corrupt sum of its Emperors; that people resist these blatant injustices with their whole souls, and with their very lives. What humbles me in Jerusalem is not its holy edifices, but the activists I’ve met, both Arab and Jewish; as well as the profound sense of being here at what may prove to be a turning point for Palestinian politics: the mass hunger strike of the prisoners, which reached Day 77 while I was here.
My Jewish activists friends hate living in a ruthlessly policed Jewish state: they describe wanting to feel part of Europe’s emancipatory ideals, not a fundamentalist enclave. They work tirelessly in support of BDS and radical social justice projects, volunteering as counsellors for traumatized Palestinian children, and protesting in active defense of Palestinian land. One lefty Rabbi writes poems Allen Ginsberg would be proud to hear. The Palestinians I met are deeply involved in educational, cultural and social health projects. In East Jerusalem Palestinian booksellers are running two of the most impressive bookshops in the Middle East: The Educational Bookshop, and The Bookshop at the American Colony Hotel. The latter was recently threatened with closure when Israel refused to renew the visa of the owner, Munther Fahmi, who was born in the city, but had spent twenty years in America before returning after the Oslo Accords. Without a concerted campaign by international writers and publishers, it is doubtful Fahmi would have won his case. Down the road, the National Palestinian Theatre continues a program of drama and music, despite a recent decline in funding.
A walk through Sheikh Jarrah took me to a vigil for the hunger strikers at the UN building, where I met Yasser Qous, the Executive Director of the African Community Society, which works with Afro-Palestinian children and adults; and at the Nakba Day march I was befriended by Hikmieh, a nurse from the Galilee, who volunteers as a clown in children’s hospital wards. Despite the mounting tension as two hunger strikers prepared their last wills, these two Palestinians were amazingly positive. Hikmieh warmly and generously told me she thought things had to change because everyone was suffering – the Jews too. Yasser said he believed that grassroots strategies of non-violent resistance, BDS and cultural initatives, were the way forward for the Palestinians, and that it was clear that support for these campaigns was building. Currently, he works to educate youths about South Africa, telling me that while the argument that Israel is an apartheid state gains international traction, many children here do not know anything about the history of that monumental struggle.
May 14th, the day before Nakba Day, which commemorates the catastrophe of murder and ethnic cleansing that befell Palestinians in 1948, the hunger strikers won vital concessions from Israel. Though details are currently emerging that cast grave doubts on Israeli sincerity, the apparent victory is still the vindication of the fortitude of an entire people. For all Palestinians are imprisoned by Israeli apartheid, and the fight against it must continue until the refugees win the Right of Return, the end of the occupation, and the abolition of Israel’s discrimination against its Arab population. Such a result will undoubtedly change the character of Jerusalem, and the whole country. But whether the eventual result is two states or one, for the people here to live in democratic peace, this change is essential.
Some may say that a visit to Gaza would have shown me murals of martyrs, and crowds of women in niqabs. I remind those readers that Gaza is an open-air prison, deliberately cut off from outside cultural influence; not a nuclear state massively subsidised by America. I will also counter this false parallel with an image from Jenin. Here, the quaint displays of the Haddad Palestinian Folklore Museum gave me a moving glimpse of a past Jerusalem, a city in which members of all three Abrahamic religions lived side-by-side in harmony. The West Bank blacksmiths who built the museum on private land have seen the refugee camp in their small city come under lethal attack by the IDF. Yet they believe this vision of a truly Holy City is still possible to achieve. The Palestinians and their handful of anti-Zionist Israeli allies must not struggle alone to manifest this vision: the world must work toward it with an unflagging faith in human love, knowledge and, above all, justice at last for the refugees of 1948.