Jerusalem: City of Walls

Yudith Oppenheimer, Executive Director, Ir Amim

Ilana Sichel, Research Fellow, Ir Amim

This past Sunday, Jerusalem celebrated the opening day of "Education Transcends Walls," a week-long focus on education in honor of Jerusalem Day -- the Israeli anniversary of the "reunification" of the city following the 1967 war. The event featured a wide array of performances, concerts, and panels discussing and honoring the achievements and challenges of Jerusalem in the educational sphere.

It seemed, however, that the evening's lofty title belonged to another event altogether. It soon became evident that schools serving the Palestinian third of Jerusalem's population were conspicuously absent. It seemed, in fact, that despite the optimistically entitled event, Jerusalem's walls were strong, intact, and higher than ever.

As was apparent that evening and over the four decades of Israeli control, Jerusalem has never become a united city. East and West Jerusalem are divided along lines of both political and national aspirations, as well as by deep socioeconomic disparities. Jerusalem's population is further divided by cultural orientation: Israelis look west toward Tel Aviv while Palestinians look toward Ramallah in the West Bank. Nonetheless, both Israelis and Palestinians see Jerusalem as their capital city. Negotiation efforts have made it clear that no political resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will come to pass if it does not include a mutual resolution on Jerusalem.

Though Israeli politicians seek popularity points by accusing each other of dividing the city, Israelis themselves seem to be more sanguine about the complicated realities of Jerusalem. A public opinion poll commissioned by Ir Amim revealed that 78% of Israelis see life in the city as effectively divided. A further 65% would be willing to forego Israeli jurisdiction over Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem for the sake of a peace agreement, as long as the holy sites remained accessible. These numbers point to the need for leadership that will move toward a negotiated settlement in Jerusalem; leadership that will build a city in which both nations can live in dignity, a city which honors and protects the three religions and two national narratives within it. (See "State of Affairs: Jerusalem 2008" for analysis and research on Jerusalem life and politics.)

Meanwhile, Jerusalem's walls are being reinforced. The separation wall courses around and through the city, and cuts off Palestinian Jerusalemites from their cultural and economic environs in Ramallah, Bethlehem, and the West Bank. In some areas, the wall even cuts off Palestinian Jerusalemites from the very city in which they live, work, learn, and pay taxes. Those who remain within the walls of Jerusalem suffer from municipal neglect: they face a shortage of over 1500 classrooms and over 70 km of sewage mains. They find it nearly impossible to obtain building permits in their own city, and as residents, not citizens, know that leaving Jerusalem for the West Bank may cut them off from the city forever.

The challenge for today is to create two effective political communities in the urban space now known as Jerusalem. The answer -- a path toward a stable and secure future -- will look less like a series of performances and concerts, and more like a reckoning of the contradictory realities of Jerusalem and the city's centrality in both Palestinian and Israeli political life.

In the new political climate created by the Obama administration, the Israeli government may find itself pushed to working toward a lasting resolution. As Jerusalemites find themselves increasingly surrounded by walls, the need is more pressing than ever to transform the city into a fulcrum for the resolution of the conflict -- and not a spark toward its conflagration. It is upon us to seize this chance for the future of the city cherished by Israelis and Palestinians, and by Christians, Jews, and Muslims around the world.