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?

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