Ultra-Orthodox Settlers Moving Into Heart of Palestinian East Jerusalem

As an American Jew, I would never have expected to be personally affected by the Israeli right's efforts to "Judaize" Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem in order to erase these neighborhoods' Palestinian identity. Certainly I was horrified by these efforts and was glad brave Palestinians and Israelis were fighting them on a daily basis but I didn't know the neighborhoods and couldn't personally identify with the Palestinians' loss.

But then this week, I read in Ha'aretz that the ultra-right settler group Ateret Cohanim (funded by American millionaires) is purchasing the post office on East Jerusalem's main street, Salah al-Din Street, to convert it into a residence for yeshiva students.The Ha'aretz report quotes an email which the settler organization sent to its supporters earlier this week which spells out precisely what the project is all about:

This is a call for Am Yisrael [the people of Israel] who wish to see Jerusalem remain a united city and who agree that any Jew has a right to learn and live anywhere in Jerusalem - to partake in this new project," the email reads. 'This is a chance of a lifetime to make a difference and strengthen Jewish life in the heart of Jerusalem!'

The message also notes that this is "the first acquisition of its kind, in the area, which is in the heart of the commercial Arab district of Jerusalem.... " It noted that work is "being done quietly under the radar."

The email urged that news of the yeshiva's takeover of the huge property, which is on the most trafficked corner location in East Jerusalem, be kept quiet because it is "as yet unknown to the general public or by local Arabs."

I felt shock when I read the piece and saw the photo of the post office because I lived directly across the street during my first visit to Israel in 1968. I was part of a Jewish youth group trip that arrived in Israel exactly one year after Israeli forces won East Jerusalem in the 1967 war.

We stayed in a Palestinian hotel called the Rivoli. I don't know why our group was housed in the heart of the Arab part of the city except that in those heady days, right after the war, it was believed that Jerusalem, as one city, was an evolving reality. Placing a hundred American Jewish kids in the neighborhood was a small part of the city's unification.

I loved living there. It was a short walk up the hill to Jewish West Jerusalem, a modern (by 1968 standards) town where we could revel in being Jews in the ancient Jewish capitol. But at night we would return to Salah al-Din Street where we could dutifully go to the post office to send post cards home, eat in amazing Arab restaurants and talk to the Palestinian teens and local shopkeepers. We would also walk half a block to Herod's Gate which brought us into Jerusalem's Old City, the souk or the casbah. It was the '60s and the old city was simultaneously exotic and redolent of the hashish infused American counterculture.

Over the years I have visited Israel dozens of times and I have never skipped visiting Salah al-Din Street, including during both intifadas. It never felt hostile. The reason I liked it so much was that it seemed like an Arab capital, the closest I was likely to get to Damascus or Baghdad. During the Oslo period, in fact, the neighborhood served as a quasi-official Palestinian capital, with a building known as Orient House (a few blocks from the post office) flying the Palestinian flag and hosting the offices of the PLO. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shut down Orient House in 2001 to send a signal that East Jerusalem was never going to serve as a Palestinian capital but the Palestinian nature of the neighborhood is as strong as ever, stronger than it was in 1968 when American Jewish kids were living there.

Back then the walk between Palestinian and Israeli Jerusalem was just a stroll between adjacent neighborhoods. From Salah al-Din, we would walk a few hundred feet to Sultan Suleiman Street, and walk up the hill to the heart of Jewish Jerusalem. No more. Now a superhighway designed for fast travel to West Bank settlements cuts right across Sultan Suleiman, making it as easy to cross from Arab to Jewish Jerusalem as it is to cross by foot from one side of a U.S. interstate to another.

The irony is astounding. In 1968, Jerusalem seemed, on the surface, like one city with two ethnic groups living in it. Today Arabs and Jews -- along with their homes, shops, schools, etc. -- are separated by highways (not to mention the separation barrier and checkpoints). Israeli politicians proclaim that Jerusalem must remain one city, Israel's undivided capital, while implementing policies (highways, barriers, inferior municipal services on the eastern side, public transit routes favoring the western side) that divide it. It's almost like the mystery of the Holy Trinity. The very people who proclaim that Jerusalem must be one do everything they can to make it two.

The seemingly contradictory thinking here actually isn't. In fact, Israel's policies relating to Jerusalem as to the West Bank at large, are utterly consistent. It wants the land and not the people. Although stuck with the people for now, the hope is that making their lives ever more uncomfortable will force many of them to leave.

And that is why settlers are, for the first time, moving into the commercial heart of East Jerusalem. With them will come the army (ostensibly to protect the yeshiva students) and then, as they have in secular Jewish areas of West Jerusalem, the ultra-Orthodox will work to make the rest of humanity feel like harassed and unwanted strangers.

Israelis, of course, can flee Jerusalem for Tel Aviv and other parts of Israel that are not 19th century ghettos (they are doing that all the time). But what are Palestinians supposed to do? Just accept the continuation of their forced exodus from a capital that is theirs too?

It reminds me of the poem by the African-American poet Langston Hughes:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?