Sunday, May 31, 2009

Urban crisis or opportunity?

The city is in crisis. It has been for a while. I don't mean Jerusalem alone, which through a number of unfortunate measures has been turned into a sprawling ugly duckling. But it may be useful to see Jerusalem's urban crisis not just in the terms of the political conflict between Israel and the Palestinians but in terms that lend themselves to comparison with other urban centers in crisis. Having just returned from a trip to Paris, it became clear to me that Jerusalem is not the only city that struggles with issues of planning, governance and representation, civility, equity, services, education, transportation, sanitation, and other issues of concern to every city, though aggravated where national and municipal concerns intersect and overlap. Jerusalem is a capital city and also the largest urban center within the state. The same is true of Paris, Berlin, and Cairo, for example. Like Paris and Berlin, Jerusalem suffers from sharp ethnic divisions. Unlike Paris, Berlin, or Cairo, however, Jerusalem is a religiously divided capital and urban center, which makes cooperation and commonality of purpose among all of its inhabitants even more difficult to achieve. (Cairo, as swine flu related events reminded us, also continues to harbor an ancient religious divide between Christians and Muslims.)

In the case of Jerusalem, interests of state often interfere with the interests of viable urban development. But is this not also true in the erstwhile capitals of empires that have been confronted with large minorities of people who have every right to live and thrive among the historic majority, and for understandable reasons refuse to assimilate or integrate nationally, ethnically, or linguistically? Many cities around the world face similar problems in this post-colonial age.

There is an almost universal change in the role and character of cities: cities have become the location of civilizational conflict; they are the places where post-colonial societies struggle to find peaceful ways of coexistence. There are interesting medieval models that suggest that different religious and ethnic groups can get along just fine, as long as that is the goal of a central government or power. Meanwhile, the age of nationalism has given us models that are definitely not to be emulated further. The nation state with its endemic desire for homogeneity cannot help resolve the modern urban crisis because it produced it.

Jerusalem's place as world heritage site and as a city holy to the three Abrahamic traditions should be a testing ground for creative and innovative solutions. Its diverse populations should be encouraged to participate in cooperative and constructive ways of achieving a modus vivendi that is favorable to all without favoring any. Where else but in Jerusalem, where all of us feel responsible, should we expect to make significant progress on how to build the new city, a place where plurality can be an asset rather than a liability? Wouldn't this be in the spirit of our religious traditions, too?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Is Compromise on Jerusalem good for everyone or only for the Palestinians?

In a comment, reported in today's Haaretz, Abbas Zaki, the Palestinian Authority's ambassador to Lebanon, is quoted as saying that a compromise on Jerusalem and settlements in Judea and Samaria would amount to a demise of Zionism's "dream." Verbatim: "With the two-state solution, in my opinion, Israel will collapse, because if they get out of Jerusalem, what will become of all the talk about the Promised Land and the Chosen People?"

This is a very puzzling thing for a Palestinian statesman to say. Though he might think so, clearly, saying it in public amounts to providing ideological support to the hardliners in Israel.

Setting aside for now who said it and why, Zaki's musings raise a profound question, namely, whether compromise on the question of sovereignty over the Holy City can be a good thing not just for the Palestinians but also for the Israelis.

Some may remember the dictum by Moshe Dayan who, in June 1967, famously dismissed the Old City, just captured from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, by asking "What good is this whole Vatican?" (Sounds better in Hebrew, but the meaning is clear.) Israel existed for two decades before East Jerusalem was captured. While West Bank, Sinai, and the Golan Heights all had strategic importance (security, bargaining chips), Jerusalem had important symbolic importance. Gaza only constituted a headache and no one in Israel (or in Egypt) wanted to hold on to one of the most densely populated Arab areas of Palestine anyway. It never was part of the vision of a Greater Israel, even among those who, like Menachem Begin and his ideological heirs, were interested in holding on to the West Bank areas forever.

What I am saying is that Mr. Zaki is wrong. If a reasonable compromise can be achieved between all parties and once security is no longer an issue, then of course Israel, a Jewish state with or without a significant Arab minority, neither needs to control the West Bank nor exert sovereignty over East Jerusalem. It existed without it before and it can exist without it again in the future. Any negotiated settlement would need to include free Jewish access to the Western Wall and control of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, but neither Zionism, nor the idea of a Jewish state, nor Israel's flourishing in cultural, economic, social and political terms depend on Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount/Haram ash-Sharif or even on whether or not all of the village of Silwan is turned into a Jewish history museum. None of this really matters. While maximal and total control of what two thousand years ago may have been the gem of Jewish life seems desirable and legitimate to some, Zionism does not necessarily consist in a striving to restore the ancient system of priestly rule and biblical sacrifices. In fact, this is a distortion of Zionism's original goals. There are different Zionisms. The vision of a restoration of the ancient Jewish way of life is odious to many Jews and Israelis. It is an absurd and dangerous religious idea, which should be resisted not just by Palestinians but by all reasonable people.

But make no mistake, Mr. Zaki. Even seventy years after Reichskristallnacht, we are not likely to give an inch when it comes to the right and legitimacy of a Jewish state. We will defend it with our blood.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Netanyahu: "Jerusalem was always ours and will always be ours"

Now that's a sentence that needs parsing! (For background see here.)

The season: According to the official calendar of the State of Israel (a combination of Jewish tradition, based on a Babylonian calendar, rabbinic clarifications based on biblical notions, and modern Zionist lore) it was "Jerusalem Day," i.e., time to commemorate the June 1967 war, in the course of which East Jerusalem was taken from the Jordanians and subsequently annexed by the State of Israel (in contrast to West Bank and Gaza, which were merely brought under Israeli military occupation).

The cause: Prime Minister Netanyahu reaffirms the government of Israel's resolve to hold on to Jerusalem as the "eternally united capital of Israel," as stated in the "Jerusalem Law" of 1980.

The audience: 1,000 ultraorthodox Jews and religious Zionists assembled at the "Merkaz Harav," spiritual center of the movement founded by the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of, then, Palestine ("chief rabbi" like "grand mufti" being an office created by the British), Rav Kook, and much enhanced by his son, who saw the 1967 conquest of East Jerusalem as a providential act, bringing us nearer the messianic age.

The reason (in my humble opinion): Israel's government has been (and will be) compelled to make concessions on rogue West-Bank settlements, so at least Israel's newly elected and installed right wing prime minister Netanyahu, bullied by the Obama administration, must emphasize that he won't give an inch on the question of sharing sovereignty over Jerusalem.

The claim: "Jerusalem was always ours and will always be ours."

The fallacy: Jerusalem, i.e., the municipal boundaries that constitute the current municipality of the city of Jerusalem vastly extend beyond the historical boundaries of the city. This Jerusalem is unprecedented; before 1967 and subsequent laws extending the municipal boundaries, the area now included in the city never constituted "Jerusalem." Furthermore, the notion that Jerusalem "was always ours" may be true in certain Jewish fantasies pertaining to property rights extended by divine fiat, but is certainly not true in terms of actual ownership by common political standards. The Jewish people lost sovereignty over the city to the Romans (in stages between 63 BCE to 70 CE, and completely after 135 CE), and never held sway in political terms until the modern era, and not over East Jerusalem until 1967. Even this claim of sovereignty has been internationally contested and has not been recognized by a single nation.

In short: Prime Minister Netanyahu is pandering to the religious zealots who are bound to be hit by the concessions on settlements in the West Bank that will most likely result from a strong US involvement in Middle East negotiations. To compensate for showing flexibility on settlements Netanyahu is digging in his (rhetorical) heels in the question of Jewish sovereignty over all of Jerusalem. Nothing less was to be expected.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Have we lost our sense of humor?

In a recent blog, Richard Silverstein (at tikkun-olam, May 13, 2009) points out that people on the extreme left and the extreme right have lost their sense of humor. They cannot take a joke, or rather they read nefarious intentions into expressions of artistic wit. The occasion for these musings was the publication of a map in which Palestine appears as an archipelago surrounded by water. The map L’archipel de Palestine orientale (‘The Archipelago of Eastern Palestine’) was made by French cartographer Julien Busac. If first appeared at with comments by the editors and the artist. (For further discussion see Robert Mackey's post on The Ledge.)

Perhaps it is not just people on the extremes who have lost their sense of humor, and perhaps it is not "the situation" that has caused us to lose our sense of humor. Hermann Cohen famously points out (as recently reiterated in a book by Myriam Bienenstock) that the God of monotheism leaves no room for irony. That may be the real problem.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Realism or idealism

None of us know exactly where we ought to stand on the question of realism or idealism. Realism means to embrace policies for reasons of state. Idealism means to embrace policies because they increase the good in the world. But what if the two conflict with one another? What if, say, what is conducive to the increase of power and safety of one party in a struggle for dominance is detrimental to another party? For reasons of state you would say, whatever is conducive to the increase of power and security of your own kith and kin is right, even if it is at the expense of the well-being of others. Idealism means you strive to minimize the damage to others that is incurred by striving for the well-being and safety of your own, because, in a final analysis, we both ought to live in safety, security, and dignity. The ultimate division is not between us and them but between humanity and inhumanity. When it comes to Jerusalem, there is a conflict not so much between Jews and Arabs or Muslims but rather between those who would settle the conflict on the basis of equity and security for all and those who insist on the legitimacy of their claim to ownership, even at the expense of others. Where do you stand?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ill prepared, unscripted: quo vadis, papa?

The Catholic Church is one of the largest and best established multinational religious organizations with followers across the world who revere their leader, the bishop of Rome, as the vicar of Christ on earth. This explains why even non-Catholics look up to this man. What he says matters. What he fails to say or to perceive or to prepare for also matters.

Previous blunders of this Pope have already been widely noted. The recent rehabilitation of certain renegade priests consciously or inadvertently overlooked that a significant element of the opposition to Vatican II, the reform council that did away with the millennial curse on the Jews as Christ-killers, was rooted in anti-Semitism. The recent papal visit to Yad Vashem is not likely to make up for this oversight, especially since the Pope eschewed any language that would have hinted at what really matters about the destruction of European Jewry, what sets it apart from other mass atrocities committed in recent memory. What matters is the intentionality and method of the mass annihilation, not its scale or the human tragedies it brought about. By focusing on human tragedy, the Pope sentimentalized rather than directly addressed the complexity of the Holocaust. He catered to what he presumed to be the common humanity between the former German Hitlerjunge and the survivors and descendents of genocide. There is a common humanity here, which is worth emphasizing. But it is not what the Pope as Pope should have focused on.

What followed was an interfaith meeting, disrupted by a known hatemonger. Again, the Pope or his handlers were ill prepared. They did not anticipate the disruption, no interpreter was on hand to explain what this was about. Congratulations to those who thought you could expose the Pope to the actual views of unscripted individuals. Welcome to the unmitigated hatred of the Jews that is so palatable when you travel to Jerusalem.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Pope visits the Holy Land

Here are some voices from reasonable people who hope that the papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land will do some good, especially for relations between the Christian community and others. Christians are now a minority in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Middle East, mostly due to comparatively low birth rates and emigration when other communities have higher birth rates or demographic growth through immigration. Demographers speak of Christians as the "vanishing third," but perhaps that's too dramatic. If one takes the long view (say over the past two millennia), this means that Greek and Roman influence on the culture and society of the Middle East has only been fully marginalized and eclipsed through events that unfolded over the past century. The remarkable longevity of the age of Hellenism is still evident in the fact that the Greek Orthodox Church continues to be the most significant landowner in the Holy Land after the State of Israel.

A shoutout to David Satran, who opens the documentary.

Monday, May 4, 2009

60,000 soon to be homeless in East Jerusalem?

In a Washington Post Foreign Service article of May 2, 2009, which was picked up by the Boston Globe, Howard Schneider reports on a U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs study, which finds that “60,000 Palestinians Risk Eviction in East Jerusalem.” (See here.)

60,000 Palestinians are threatened with eviction from East Jerusalem? How can that be? What have so many people done to deserve to live with such a threat hanging over their heads? Are they illegal aliens, perhaps? Did they live in Jerusalem without proper papers for all these years? Have rules of residency or other regulations been tightened that would warrant such an enforced exodus?

But, wait a minute: not
from East Jerusalem, but in East Jerusalem! 60,000 Palestinians are not to be evicted from East Jerusalem but merely from their houses! So why is this? Are they squatters? Are the houses unsafe? Or is someone else to live in their homes instead? Is this an initiative to make room for more Jewish housing? No, this isn’t it either, or not immediately, since the houses are not to be used at all. The houses, not the Palestinians, are illegal since they were built without a permit. When a house is built without a permit, the state or the municipality may be legally obliged to demolish it. After all, part of orderly city development is to issue or deny permits, based on the common good of all citizens. To allow residents to build without permit means anarchy.

Now, it has long been known that many of the houses that were built in and around the very small and somewhat declining Jordanian municipality that existed from 1949 until June of 1967 were built without permit. The U.N. OCHA report mentioned in the Washington Post article finally puts a number on it. Within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, boundaries vastly extended after June 1967, 60,000 individuals are now threatened with eviction and housing demolition should the State of Israel decide to enforce its laws. Enforcement of such a draconian law is a matter of politics. It is not a matter of municipal planning, but it, like many other political issues, emanates from the government of the state. Housing policy for Jerusalem is made by the Israeli cabinet, not by the municipality. It is a matter of national interest.

It is therefore extremely disingenuous to dissimulate, claim otherwise, and blame the Arab residents of Jerusalem for their own situation, as Yigal Palmor, a Foreign Ministry spokesman quoted at the end of the Washington Post article does when he says as follows.
But it "is not part of some all-encompassing government plan to do this or that," said Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "It is municipal policy."

Arab residents of East Jerusalem traditionally have boycotted municipal elections on the grounds that they are living under an occupation. "If they are not trying to influence the municipal policy from within, which they can do," Palmor said, "then they cannot complain."
The problem is, if Arab residents (a minority of about a third of the population of Jerusalem today) decided to participate in municipal elections, they would legitimize the policies the majority imposes on the minority; they would accept the legitimacy of Israeli claims to a united Jerusalem; they would therefore merely put their signature under their eviction from their homes. At least, if they must be homeless in Jerusalem, let them keep their pride!