Jerusalem Day: The Invisible and the Divisible

Forty-three years ago, in the midst of the 1967 Six Day War, Israel gained control over the Old City of Jerusalem and eastern Jerusalem. Soon after, the Chief Rabbi of Israel declared the 28th of the Hebrew month of Iyar as a religious holiday to thank God for the miraculous victory and for the ability to fulfill the two-thousand-year-old prayer of "Next Year in Jerusalem." Today, the holiday is known as Jerusalem Day and this year it falls on May 12 in the Gregorian calendar.

Just a few weeks prior to the war, Naomi Shemer's Jerusalem of Gold had been sung for the first time at a national song festival in Jerusalem. Not only did it praise the beauty of the city of Jerusalem, it also expressed the yearning (of the Jews) to return to and revive the Old City, which had been occupied by the Jordanians since 1948. The lyrics evoke something akin to an abandoned city "that sits solitary / and in its midst is a wall." Shemer goes on to describe "how the cisterns have dried," how "the market-place is empty," and how "no one frequents the Temple Mount." The words portray an absence, as if nobody lived there.

Today, more than four decades later, the population of approximately 250,000 Palestinians residing in Jerusalem is still somehow invisible. The wall that physically divided the city between 1948 and 1967 came down immediately after the war, only to be replaced by an imaginary wall that socially, economically, and emotionally separates the two populations of the city.

On Jerusalem Day last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that "Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people, a city reunified so as never again to be divided." Netanyahu and the advocates of an eternal and indivisible capital for the Jewish people tend to disregard the fact that a third of the city's residents are Palestinian, as well as the fact that the city is already de facto divided. Beyond that, they mislead the public by offering a false notion and an expired myth of the city.

First, as is well known, Jerusalem is not actually a unified city. The Jewish and Palestinian residents of the city do not consort in nearly any way. The Palestinians do not have rights equal to their Jewish counterparts (they have permanent resident status, not full citizenship). The Palestinian educational system in Jerusalem cannot compare even to the poorest Jewish neighborhoods of the city - its classrooms are crowded, public schools are limited in number, and the dereliction of the infrastructure has reached its nadir. In addition, Palestinians cannot live or build anywhere in the city, as Netanyahu and others insist, because according to Israel Lands Administration rules, non-Jewish or non-Israeli citizens cannot take ownership of the vast majority of Jerusalem homes. Moreover, the Palestinian residents live under constant risk of expulsion from or demolishment of their homes due to new legal interpretations of old property deeds and very restrictive building permits.

Furthermore, there is no will to genuinely unify the city's inhabitants. On the contrary, policies are continually promulgated that are meant to diminish the Palestinians' affinity to the city and to keep them invisible. The decades-long animosity over neighborhoods, building, and roads; the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in the city in 1948, 1967, and even today; and the looting of property that have accompanied it, are eradicated from the national discourse. Formerly Palestinian neighborhoods were even given Hebrew nationalistic names in order to becloud any memory of their pre-1948 residents. Musrara, an upper class Christian Arab neighborhood that was founded in the late 19th century, was renamed Morasha -- "heritage" in Hebrew. Talbiya, once another Christian Arab affluent neighborhood which today holds the official residences of both the President and Prime Minister of Israel, was officially renamed Komemiyut -- "independence" in Hebrew. Katmon was renamed Gonen -- "to defend" in Hebrew -- and Baka became Geulim -- "emancipated" in Hebrew.

Second, Jerusalem is divided and divisible. For hundreds of years Jerusalem's boundaries coincided with the walls of the Old City - which contain an area of less than a half of a square mile. A little more than a hundred years ago, neighborhoods were first built outside of the walls of the Old City, and by 1914, Jerusalem's boundaries still enclosed an area of less than three square miles. But the city expanded rapidly, and by 1967 West Jerusalem had reached almost 15 square miles in size.

Following the 1967 war, the city of Jerusalem nearly tripled in size as Israel annexed 28 square miles of land, forming an arch around the Old City to the east and north. Only 2.5 square miles of the annexation included the area of Jerusalem that had been under Jordanian sovereignty. The additional 25 square miles subjugated dozens of Palestinian villages, which had never before been a part of Jerusalem. Of the 28 square miles of annexed land comprising East Jerusalem, a third has since been confiscated by Israeli authorities to build Jewish neighborhoods. These neighborhoods have been built continuously and persistently, amid Palestinian neighborhoods, in order to create "facts on the ground" and make it enormously difficult to change the status quo.

Moreover, through zealous rhetoric and ardent support of expansionist policies, adherents of the "indivisible" Jerusalem create an image of a city that purportedly cannot be divided due to its sanctity. Amazingly, the divinity of the 0.4 square miles of the Old City has spread to cover the nearly 50 square miles within the newly defined borders of the city, and ostensibly cannot be re-redefined.

However, Jerusalem's borders are artificial and merely serve political aspirations. Division of the city is inevitable in order to reach any final status, as the Palestinians and international community know. Even the Israeli population's willingness to compromise is greater than what the government reflects: according to a poll conducted by Ir-Amim (an Israeli organization engaged in issues impacting on Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem) in 2008, 78% of Israelis believe that Jerusalem is de facto a divided city. Nearly two thirds are willing to compromise in order to reach an agreement, and more than half oppose settling Jews in Palestinian neighborhoods.

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After the war, Shemer added a verse to her song, depicting the return to Jerusalem: "We have returned to the cisterns / To the market and to the market-place / A shofar calls out on the Temple Mount / In the Old City." But the days of the euphoric post-war blindness to the (in)visible Palestinian population have passed and "United Jerusalem" has been an empty slogan for too long.

Jerusalem today is caught between bombastic declarations, misrepresentations, and the promise of unrealistic dreams - and a worsening urban disintegration. It is time to re-understand the borders of Jerusalem in a way that reflects its reality as a divided and divisible city. Separating the land that has come to be defined as East Jerusalem from West Jerusalem will not only advance a political agreement, but it will cultivate a genuine democratic and just characteristic for the city.