Letter From Jerusalem

Letter From Jerusalem

This was always a divided city, even before the wall against peace.


Yoav Weiss is an Israeli artist with a moneymaking idea. That is, his idea will make money when the time comes, if the time should ever come. Weiss has gone around Jerusalem with a couple of cans of spray paint and a few stencils, marking off some sections of the monolithic separation wall that the Israelis have constructed around and through the city. But Weiss is not like some people, who’ve painted such slogans as FROM THE WARSAW GHETTO TO THE ABU DIS GHETTO or THIS WALL WILL SOON FALL. His work is not predictive or sentimental or strident.

Instead, Weiss has outlined curving sections of the wall, gentle organic shapes that have nothing to do with its gigantic, harsh geometry. He’s numbered them and has created a website on which he’s selling off the pieces to an international market. So far he’s sold about fifteen sections, at about $5 per square meter. “It’s pretty cheap for what they are getting,” Weiss says. “For example, your piece could be used as furniture. If you attach legs to your section, you can make a very impressive coffee table. Or, if you reserve a few sections, you can build a wall for yourself in your garden, say, as a conversation piece, or if you have a disagreement with your neighbor.”

I ask him if he’s speaking ironically. He says no.

“You can say the wall is repugnant, if you look at it from a moral point of view,” Weiss says. “But if you look at it as an artwork, it’s impressive. Like Richard Serra or Christo, or the Great Wall of China. As a piece of sculpture, it has quite an impact, beyond the moral, human and environmental impact. I’m not trying to make a political statement. I’m just trying to make a buck.” Yoav’s work is charming and whimsical, yet he would be the first to agree: Across the barrier, on the other side, whimsy is not an element in people’s approach to the wall.

The city has been dark this winter. During the past four years, as people like Weiss have abandoned Jerusalem for less besieged parts, the city’s religious quarters have expanded in all directions. Streimels, the holiday hats worn by ultra-Orthodox Jews, bob like flying saucers down the avenues. Tire-burning demonstrations of angry settlers close important arteries; the town’s circulation is blocked. Downtown, outside a mall and office complex on King George Street, the public clock is six hours ahead of the correct time, or, as an Israeli friend of mine says, you could see it as six hours behind.

Female yeshiva students walk purposefully through the streets in their long skirts and severe shoes, the boys in their too-short pants, playing with their sidecurls. Stores run by women stay open late into the evening, fluorescent lights beckoning. The city’s back is up, even though the second intifada is over, and even though in Ramallah, twenty minutes away, the body of Yasir Arafat lies under scores of brightly colored wreaths sent by the international community.

Yes, he’s dead, finally, but Jerusalem–pardon me, “Jerusalem, the eternal and undivided capital of Israel”–is prepared and still preparing for the worst. The worst is something it is familiar with. Peace, it is not familiar with.

In Jerusalem these days, grand political statements are left to the writers, while the politicians squabble over strategy and minutiae, both political and military. The Jerusalem International Book Fair opened this winter with a speech by David Grossman, one of the half-dozen or so Israeli writers, intellectuals and political figures who worked with Palestinian counterparts on the Geneva Accord of 2003; one of those who courageously, stubbornly advocated peace in the midst of the most bitter violence.

“You still remember, dimly, distantly,” Grossman said to his audience, “that you aren’t living the life you would have liked to live…. You still remember it, but there are many moments when, out of despair and fear, you start to believe that this madness is the real life…. In this situation, so many Israelis and Palestinians persuade themselves that the people standing before them are evil by nature and evil in essence, a sort of existential, almost cosmic evil, which turns against them out of a pure malice which has no rational justification…. We are so mired in the distortion that we almost do not really register the actual price we are paying for living through four generations now, in a life parallel to the life we could have lived, the life we deserve.”

What can writers do? Grossman says that the very act of writing, especially writing fiction, constitutes a rejection of the stupidity and despair of the situation and is a “tiny act of protest, of defiance.” Possibly he is right; certainly “tiny” is the notable word. In any case, an event for the book fair called Voices From Two Sides of the Bridge turned out to have many of the qualities of good fiction: It was super-real, its development was inexorable and it ended with the kind of finality that gave it meaning and truth.

Planned by the energetic Israeli literary agent Deborah Harris, Bridge Day was to be a historic occasion, with Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab writers meeting at the neutral territory of the Sheikh Hussein Bridge, which connects Jordan and Israel up near the Galilee, and engaging in a sort of colloquium that would show that writers, at least, can rise above. The trip from Jerusalem to the bridge had the feel of a lovely holiday outing. At the bridge, small, unassuming signs read TO JORDAN. There was also a large duty-free shop and a Best Buy. In the language of the region, these felt very “normalizing.”

In the excitement of the historical moment, many Palestinian writers, as well as writers from Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia and Egypt, had said yes to Harris’s bridge invitation. But as reality approached, one by one they called to say they were not coming and to offer their excuses. Apart from the Israelis and three lone Palestinians from the territories, only Palestinian Israelis and Europe-based Arab writers showed up.

“Many of our participants,” Harris said, “have come down with an illness.” Although the flu was going around, that did not appear to be the illness she was talking about. The illness was fear: fear of being taken for a collaborator, fear of political repercussions in their home countries, fear of some ruse on the part of the Israelis that would humiliate them, fear of being photographed with Israelis. As the Arab-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua said to the audience, “It is not easy to come to such a place and shake the hand of the conqueror when you have been defeated.” He said he often wondered whether “my writing is just part of the maneuvering, whether my place is just the place the Israelis have designated for me.”

There is another bus tour you can take from Jerusalem. It’s Ir Amim’s tour of the wall, which Israel has been constructing over the past three years for a multitude of reasons, the most often cited one being security–to keep Palestinians out. But the wall is like a narrative of the Israeli psyche: It’s there to keep the Other out, to keep the Jews in, to protect, to secure, to stop terror, to isolate and humiliate the enemy; it’s there to grab land and to establish borders unilaterally; it’s there to keep the demographic ratio acceptable to the Jewish state. In some ways, the wall can be seen as yet another Israeli military incursion into the West Bank. The one good thing about it is that like any other wall, it can come down.

Ir Amim, which means the People’s City, is a pro-peace Israeli group that monitors events in the city with an eye toward keeping a two-state solution to the conflict plausible. The tour leader is Amos Gil, executive director of Ir Amim and a well-known Israeli civil and human rights advocate.

Gil says his group is not political, but then he explains the day’s itinerary: “We will not leave ‘the eternal and undivided capital of Israel’ today, but we will visit places 90 percent of Israelis never imagine and never visit.” He agrees that he is speaking ironically. What he means by this is that Jerusalem is already very much a divided city, in which the Jewish citizens do not live in or visit or even imagine the Arab side, and the Arabs–except for those lucky enough to be able to find and keep work across the way, in more peaceful times–do not live in or visit or even imagine the Jewish side. Two countries, you might say, after having been to both sides.

The wall could cut off 50,000 East Jerusalem residents from the rest of the city, isolating five Palestinian villages and towns at the northeastern edge simply by encircling them and cutting them off totally from their surroundings. Kafr Aqab, a village at the city’s north end, has already been cut off by the wall. The West Bank town of Sheikh Sa’ad was to be utterly sealed off from Jerusalem, which is its only egress, but legal action on the part of Sheikh Sa’ad residents has temporarily delayed construction. One remedy the Israeli authorities contemplated for its 4,000 Palestinian villagers was to put a checkpoint in the wall, which could be open to Jerusalem for forty-five minutes in the morning and forty-five minutes in the evening, a laughably insulting and unworkable suggestion. As it is, almost every Palestinian coming into Jerusalem from elsewhere must already wait longer than that to get in.

The Israelis have come up with many eccentric plans concerning the wall. At the northern edge of the West Bank city of Bethlehem sits Rachel’s Tomb, which Moshe Dayan, a secular Jew, did not want after the 1967 war. Idea rejected, with a wave of his imperious hand. But times have changed, and now the wall has been designed to enter Bethlehem and encircle the tomb for the Israeli side because it is a sacrosanct spot to Orthodox Jewry, a force much more powerful in Israeli politics now than it was in Dayan’s day. The extension was immediately disputed, and so nothing was erected in the area, leaving a security hole through which a suicide bomber passed in 2004, blowing up a bus in the wealthy, secular Rehavia district of West Jerusalem, killing eleven. Thus, within Israel, the ambitions of the religious conspired, at least in this instance, to permit the killing of the secular.

Or that’s how some see it. Laughing in an Israeli way, which means with a dismissive shrug, Gil says it works like this: Every sector has its own suicide bombing. In two attacks less than two weeks apart, commuters and working stiffs, including soldiers, got theirs in the early-morning bus bombings on Jaffa Street in 1996, with forty-five dead. The religious Jews got theirs at a bar mitzvah celebration up in the religious quarter of Beit Yisrael in 2002, with eleven killed. The media elite got it at Cafe Moment in 2002, with twelve killed. The moms and babies and tourists and average people got it at Sbarro’s Pizza, at the busy intersection of King George and Jaffa streets, and at the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, in 2001, with a combined twenty-six killed. And each side holds up its own suicide bombings against the others, as if they were part of a fight among Jewish Jerusalemites instead of a running Palestinian commentary on the illegitimacy of the occupation. In the recent Friday night Tel Aviv bombing at the Stage nightclub, as in the 2001 Friday night Tel Aviv bombing at the Dolphinarium disco, secular Jews who were not observing religious Sabbath laws were killed and wounded. At least, that’s how very religious Israeli Jews might view it. To the Palestinian bombers, all the targets are simply this: Israeli, and vulnerable.

Rachel’s Tomb is not the only tomb of interest in the area. Another is Arafat’s, up in Ramallah. Of course, he wanted to be buried in Jerusalem, but the Israelis nixed that. I meet my friend Hani up at the Kalandia checkpoint. As depressing spots go in the vicinity of Jerusalem, this is a major one. It’s dusty and littered, full of idling traffic and waiting taxis. Mothers, children, babies at the breast, old men with walking sticks, doctors, lawyers–all move through a long, fenced-in corridor past young Israeli soldiers who check their papers and bags. A makeshift watchtower sits above the checkpoint, draped in camouflage netting. At the base of the wall on the West Bank side are vegetable stands and trinket stalls. Tea vendors pass by, and peddlers sell clothes, snacks and herbs from strategic positions on the ground. A lot of Palestinian life is lived right here at the checkpoint, as–for long hours–people wait to cross. What is clear is that, with the wall, Israel has effectively Gazafied the West Bank.

Hani takes me over to the Chairman’s burial place in Ramallah, inside the Muqata, the headquarters where Arafat had been virtually imprisoned for three years before his unceremonious airlift to a deathbed at a military hospital near Paris. The Muqata, which was shattered by Israeli tank fire in 2001, has been cleaned up substantially since Arafat’s death, with a new, glassed-in structure built for the tomb.

At the head of the tomb is a photograph of Arafat with a kaffiyeh draped over it. At the foot is inscribed, in Arabic and English, THE TOMB OF THE LEADER YASIR ARAFAT. I say nothing as we walk away, but Hani turns to me and says, apologizing yet explaining, “All men do wrong in their lives.” He voted for Mahmoud Abbas for president in January, and he shows me the ink stain that remains on his thumb from election day. Hani turns his head slightly to one side. “Maybe there will be change,” he says. “And maybe it will be good. We can hope…”

Hope is one thing. But an analysis I’ve heard from a veteran Palestinian observer of the political scene predicts that without substantial and continuous shoring up from the United States and the international community, and visible, palpable, immediate Israeli-inspired improvements in the lives of the Palestinian population, Abbas–cornered politically by corrupt backers and rogue security forces–will fall within the year. His rule is far from secure, and Hamas is expected to do very well in this summer’s parliamentary elections. There is a rumor that both the Israelis and the Americans are already holding private talks with Hamas leaders–those who remain, that is, after the 2004 Israeli assassinations of Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi.

Ramallah itself has little to do with Hamas. It’s a Fatah bastion. Hani drives slowly through the bustling center. On the road in and out and in every neighborhood is the campaign poster of the cheerfully smiling Abbas. In a few posters, he is pictured in his suit shoulder to shoulder with the kaffiyeh-crowned Arafat, but more often he isn’t. Because a great deal of Abbas’s charm for the Palestinian electorate is that he was Arafat’s close associate. And a great deal of his appeal for them is also that he is not Arafat.

I drove up to Ma’ale Adumim on a road that is strictly for Israelis. Ma’ale Adumim is a huge suburban settlement a few miles outside Jerusalem. With the construction of the wall, it will soon be inside Jerusalem, surrounded by what is known in wallspeak as the Ma’ale Adumim “bubble.” It’s another charm added to the bracelet encircling the city, and, with a population of more than 25,000, it is the largest settlement in the occupied territories. With its red tiled roofs and stacked two- and three-story houses, its mall plazas and green roundabouts, Ma’ale Adumim is a typical Israeli suburb, except for its dramatic, windswept, isolated, vertiginous location, from which it looks out over a wide expanse of the West Bank.

At the westernmost edges of Ma’ale Adumim I saw at least four cranes at work on further construction. Recently, to the outrage of Palestinians, the Sharon government announced plans to construct another 3,500 units. If the settlement expands, it will split the West Bank into two cantons and render a geographically contiguous Palestinian state impossible–“which is the point,” Gil says. Another part of the regional plan entails the government-sponsored construction of a densely populated urban settlement that would stretch along the now virtually uninhabited land between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim. This would cut off East Jerusalem and effectively crush the possibility of East Jerusalem becoming the future capital of the Palestinian state. Along with the plan for the “bubble,” this constitutes a direct attack on the “road map” peace plan, promulgated in 2003 by the United States, the European Union, the UN and Russia; the Geneva Accord; and the two-state solution itself. Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan, strong-armed through an unusually fractious Knesset in late March, is intended to insure Israel’s security without really engaging in talks. By peeling off Gaza and all but annexing the large West Bank settlement blocs, Sharon believes, Israel’s security will be guaranteed. But will it? And for how long?

“No matter what aspect of Israeli life you look at, you will always run into the occupation,” Anat Hoffman says. She is a former Jerusalem city councilwoman and now the director of the Israel Religious Action Center, a civil rights group that advocates social justice and religious tolerance and opposes the imposition of religious goals and norms on civic life. “In part, the wall is about demographics,” she says. The Jerusalem municipality’s preferred demographic balance between Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem (the eternal and undivided capital of Israel) is 28 percent to 72 percent. But the actual figure is now 33 percent to 67 percent. If you have a blue Jerusalem identification card, which is issued by the Israeli government, it means you’ve been classified as a Palestinian Jerusalem resident (i.e., one of the lucky 33 percent). This card entitles you to pay taxes, to have municipal benefits (even though Palestinian garbage, say, is not picked up with great regularity) and to vote in municipal elections. But although a Palestinian may have a blue card, he or she is not a citizen, has no Israeli passport and cannot vote in national elections. In the old days, if a Palestinian woman with a blue Jerusalem card married a man from the West Bank, he would receive Jerusalem residence. But this is no longer the case. Jerusalemites can no longer bring in their spouses, even if there are children involved. Without the wall, the Palestinian population figure would be rising at a rate even more alarming to supporters of a Jewish Jerusalem, although one not entirely expected result of the wall’s construction is that Palestinians whose homes are outside the planned wall are rushing to move inside before construction is completed, so they can remain in the city. Not surprisingly, along the inside of the wall, housing prices are rising steeply.

When she worked as a city councilwoman, Hoffman got into everything. One of the things she was interested in was earthquakes. You would think that Jerusalemites would have enough to worry about without considering the seismic dangers, but Hoffman, who went to UCLA and has learned about earthquakes, says this would be unrealistic. “Jerusalem is due for another major quake,” she says. The last one was in 1927, and supposedly, big temblors occur here every eighty to a hundred years. According to Hoffman, Jerusalem could have as many as 100,000 fatalities in a large earthquake. “But I happen to know that there is no emergency plan in place to deal with the dead and wounded, and I happen to know that we have only 20,000 shrouds, because I ordered them,” Hoffman says.

Twenty thousand shrouds, waiting. It’s a Jerusalemite interpretation of New York City’s Central Park “Gates.” It’s the dark version of how a city welcomes its fate. The last shroud I paid attention to in Jerusalem was that of Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995 by a fanatical Israeli opponent of the Oslo Accords (not that one lacks for an opportunity to view shrouds, both ancient and contemporary, either in this city or in the occupied territories). But Rabin’s shroud, after all the suits and the handshakes, was poignant–everything at the time seemed boiled down to the simple, the essential, the obvious, the plain white cloth of human necessity. Peace was threatened; peace would triumph; peace was logical and inevitable, no matter the obstacles placed in its path. Today that is patently not the case; Jerusalem itself seems to teeter at the edge of a self-imposed, self-destructive insanity.

A wall, for example, protects you–possibly, conceivably–from human bombs, but not from rockets. A wall gives you a breathing period, but before what grand catastrophe? A wall encourages rockets, as the Israelis have already seen in the north, near the Lebanese border, and in the south, near Gaza. Soon it will be Jerusalem’s turn. The wall may prevent bloodshed, although the recent Tel Aviv suicide bombing calls that theory into question. But what a wall, a towering, blank, cement wall, signifies, in its dead heart, is that there is no more trust, that steps will be taken with no consultation, that compromise is a meaningless exercise and that the hope for peace, which Yoav has, and David Grossman has, and Hani has, and Abbas has, and Anat has, and I still have, is a hope now being pursued in the face of all evidence to the contrary. It is a desperate, necessary hope.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy