WHEN I came to live in Israel, I was told to stay safe, be happy and not to visit East Jerusalem. That being the case, I hope my mother never reads this column. However, hers were not the only words of caution. Prior to my visit with newly formed NGO, Keep Jerusalem, a barrage of emails warned me, “There is heightened tension in East Jerusalem; this is a serious security warning.”
This, combined with the daily reports of violence and unrest, meant I was more than a little apprehensive about my visit. After all, I was about to venture into a place, which if the media’s to be believed, you only live if you’re a crazy, right-wing ideologue, happy to fight for your very existence in a place surrounded by Arabs and devoid of Jewish life …
In fact, I couldn’t quite figure out why we didn’t just give up the land and be done with it!
Today, there are almost a quarter of a million Jewish residents in East Jerusalem, a number close, if not equal, to the number of Arab residents. In total, there are 10 large Jewish neighbourhoods that span the area of Jerusalem that was liberated by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. On the whole, the situation is not as desperate as it might seem. There is a vital Jewish life there comprising not only people but also schools, shuls, cinemas, shopping centres, parks and playgrounds.
Most Jewish and Arab neighbourhoods are situated very close together and are completely intertwined. Further complicating the issue is the fact that the geography of the area means it is vital to Israel from a security perspective. In the past there have been shooting attacks from neighbourhoods located above schools and shopping centres. At present these areas remain part of sovereign Israel, and while the army is not always allowed access the police have been able to take action against these tragic attacks. Ideology aside, these factors alone mean that dividing Jerusalem along pre-1967 borders is simply not a viable solution.
In its more than 3000-year history, Jerusalem has never been a divided city except for a brief period under Jordanian occupation from 1948-67. In 2011, Jewish and Arab residents live and work freely on both sides of Jerusalem. This mutually beneficial arrangement would be difficult if not impossible in a divided city. East Jerusalem’s quarter of a million Jewish residents, some of whom live in neighbourhoods that existed prior to 1948, would have no choice but to leave their homes.
Despite this, calls for a divided Jerusalem continue to come from both within Israel and abroad. Just last month representatives from the Israeli organisation Peace Now called the building of 1400 homes in Gilo, “the death of the peace process”. Gilo is a town of approximately 40,000 people with 35 shuls and several schools, including those for disabled and autistic children. It existed prior to 1948 and has provided a home to many new Jewish immigrants from around the world.
In nearby Pisgat Zev, there are 50,000 Jewish residents, 22 synagogues and 58 kindergartens. The people are a diverse mix of religious and secular, Sephardi and Ashkenazi. Most are immigrants who sought cheaper housing for their expanding families.
Unquestionably we must be careful to protect the rights of Arab-Israelis living in East Jerusalem. They too make their homes in the region. However, Jewish people building homes in municipal Jerusalem should not mean the “death of the peace process”. If that is the case, it’s a sign we need to re-think the process, not the building.
Today, we should ask not how we can divide but rather how we can meet the challenge of sharing Jerusalem. For only with Jerusalem as the united capital of Israel can we ensure democracy, freedom of speech, safety and access to holy sites for all people. Only with Jerusalem as the united capital of Israel can we ensure that no people, Jewish or Arab, are torn from their homes in the name of “peace”.
Sadly, misconceptions about the situation on the ground are creating complacency amongst Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora about the importance of maintaining a united Jerusalem. While there are many organisations actively lobbying for dividing Jerusalem, there is little or no effort to educate people about the importance of East Jerusalem and the extent of Jewish life there. One exception is Keep Jerusalem. This newly formed organisation was founded to educate Jews and non-Jews alike about Jewish life in East Jerusalem and the benefits of a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty. I strongly recommend taking their tour, as the old adage goes – seeing is believing. It turns out it’s not as scary as you might think.
Jaimi Primrose-Levi is a communications professional from Sydney currently living in Jerusalem.