Jewish Journal

Jerusalem, 30 Years Later

by Eric Silver

Posted on Jun. 5, 1997 at 8:00 pm

I first visited Jerusalem with an invited party of foreign journalists in 1966, when it was still a divided city at the end of the line. The nearest we got to a holy or historic site was Mount Zion, an Israeli outpost on the fringe of the Old City, and a scale model of the Second Temple at the Holyland Hotel.

Teddy Kollek, in his infancy as mayor, cautiously led us on to the balcony of his bullet-scarred town hall and showed us the armed Jordanian sentries within cursing distance on the Old City wall. At the Mandelbaum Gate, the only authorized crossing point, we witnessed the Red Cross escorting a Palestinian peasant grandmother, who was trailing a bundle and a bedroll, to join her refugee family on the Arab side.

My paper sent me back a year later, 30 years ago this month, to relieve the correspondent who covered the Six-Day War. I arrived in Jerusalem one week after the cease-fire. Two memory snapshots have stayed with me.

The first is the sight from my room on the third floor of the King David Hotel of thousands of unorganized Israelis -- individuals and families, secular and religious -- trekking day and night across no-man's land, through the June heat, the dust and tattered barbed wire, to the Western Wall.

Their excitement was subdued. There was something compulsive about the pilgrimage. They had to go, to be there, to wonder. No one danced; no one waved flags. The space in front of the Wall was gritty and unpaved. Men and women stood together. Some prayed, but most just stared in silence at the massive stones.

Suddenly, a woman cried out in Hebrew: "May there be peace in the land." It was like a nail puncturing the lingering trauma of a war too close to home. "Amen," they chorused.

My second memory is of going through the Damascus Gate into the Old City the morning the military barriers came down. Only days before, Jews and Arabs had killed and died, hand-to-hand, in these same alleys.

Hundreds of Israelis streamed into the souk, with its heady scent of sheepskin and spices, poverty and bad drains, to see and to buy. At first, the Arabs hesitated. Then a few bold young sparks set out to explore the New City, to marvel at the traffic lights and movie houses. Others, older men and women, soon followed.

It was a day out of history, a day miraculously free of rancor or violence. Perhaps I was naïve, but it seemed like an opening of options.

Thirty years on, Jerusalem is both more united and more divided than ever. No one, Jew or Arab, wants to rebuild the sniper walls that once segregated the two populations. In any case, three decades of calculated construction, by Labor and Likud governments, has thrown a rampart of Jewish housing around the city so that East Jerusalem could no longer be assimilated into a Palestinian West Bank. If there is to be a sharing of control, it will have to be political rather than physical.

However, there has been no reconciliation of populations. There were attempts in the early days to create or revive friendships between people with shared memories, professions or interests. But they soon foundered. Rulers and ruled could not mix as equals. Politics colored their lives and soured the dialogue.

Arabs still cross to West Jerusalem to work and to shop. For the last 10 of the 30 years of "reunified Jerusalem," few Jews have gone the other way, into the Arab quarters. Even since the Oslo peace accords, most Israelis play safe and stay home.

Although the Palestinians complain about the "Judaization" of Jerusalem, the Arabs have not been frozen out. The city's overall population has grown by 139 percent since the Six-Day War, but the Arab community has grown more quickly than the Jewish. There are now 163 percent more Arabs to 114 percent more Jews. About 30 percent of Jerusalem's 600,000 residents are Arab.

The division is not just between Jews and Arabs. Mutual hostility between secular and religious (especially haredi) Jews is at an all-time high. As secular Israelis have become more cosmopolitan, less "Jewish," in their lifestyle, the haredim have become more entrenched in theirs -- and, with an increase in political leverage, more assertive.

The religious protest that the media mock their faith. The secular are infuriated by the "desecration" of national symbols -- haredi demonstrators stoning policemen standing to attention when the siren sounded in memory of fallen soldiers, haredi youths burning the Star of David flag on Lag B'Omer.

Jerusalem forces you to take sides. Haredim live in their neighborhoods, the rest (including the modern Orthodox) in theirs. You are instantly identifiable. Secular Israelis feel threatened by a sea of black hats, black jackets, black beards.

Yet the situation in the holy city is not as overwhelming as it seems. The author A.B. Yeshoshua argues that in the country as a whole, the secular camp is winning but doesn't realize it. In his native Jerusalem, too, the tide is not all one way.

About 30 percent of the city's Jewish population is haredi. With the high haredi birthrate, the figure is growing year by year. But the authoritative Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies projects that even by 2010, it will still be less than 40 percent. As Mayor Ehud Olmert points out, that means that more than 60 percent of Jerusalem Jews will be secular or traditional.

The danger is of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If people believe that "the religious are taking over," more secular young men and women will leave the city, fewer immigrants will choose Jerusalem and investors will look elsewhere.

Yet there is a quiet counterrevolution taking place. Ten, let alone 30, years ago, there was no entertainment on Shabbat in Jerusalem. Today, more and more restaurants are open on Friday night and Saturday. In the more popular establishments, you have to book or wait in line for a table.

Around the Russian Compound, in the center of Jewish Jerusalem and barely 10 minutes' walk from the haredi Mea She'arim, youngsters pack a dozen bars and discos till dawn. Cinemas are open and not picketed. Hundreds of locals and tourists throng the Israel Museum every Saturday. They buy their tickets from a minibus parked outside, but they buy them all the same.

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