City of Everlasting Strife

Today is Jerusalem Day, the holiday commemorating the “re-unification” of the city by Israeli forces in the 1967 war with Jordan, which at the time controlled East Jerusalem. Since this year is the 40th anniversary of the war, the city is awash with festivities, including a public concert last night and a parade around the Old City today. But for all the marching bands and enforced municipal good cheer, there aren’t many people who think Jerusalem has much to celebrate.

For starters, the international community doesn’t recognize Israel’s annexation of Arab East Jerusalem, and most foreign governments don’t recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. So there were very few diplomats on hand at official ceremonies last night in the Knesset — Israel’s parliament in this city. The only countries that sent representatives were Georgia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Congo, the Ivory Coast and Honduras. Not exactly the A-Team.

Jerusalem is a touchy subject for Israelis too. Religious conservatives complain that the secular leadership which ran the country in 1967 left the job of reunifying the city incomplete. In particular, they grumble about the decision by victorious General Moshe Dayan to leave Muslims in control of the Temple Mount complex, which in ancient times held the Jewish temples of Solomon and Herod but which after the Islamic conquest became home to the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque. These Jews want to control the holy places in order to prepare for the rebuilding of the temple and the return of the Messiah. And many have been taking matters into their own hands and have built settlements in Arab neighborhoods in the Old City around the Temple Mount to make it more difficult for any future Israeli government to trade away these areas in any peace deal with the Palestinians.

More secular-minded Israelis have much to grumble about as well. They’ve been been leaving the city in droves in part to escape the rising influence of Ultra-Orthadox Jews, who have taken control of City Hall and neighborhoods all over town. Moderate Israelis complain that the ultra-Orthdox — who average about about 8 children per family — contribute little to municipal tax rolls, live on public welfare, and harass other Jerusalemites by trying to enforce their archaic moral codes which forbid revealing clothes for women and driving on Shabbat. The Ultra-Orthadox also annoy other Israelis because they don’t serve in the army and don’t believe in the State of Israel on the logic that the Zionist nation is a human rather than a divine creation.

Needless to say, Palestinian Jerusalemites don’t celebrate Jerusalem day at all. For them, 1967 represents conquest not reunification. Despite the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem, most Arabs in the city don’t have citizenship, and an International Red Cross report leaked earlier this week said that the Israeli government is violating international law by denying many Palestinians in Jerusalem the status of permanent residents. The extensive network of settlements and security barriers built by Israel is also isolating Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, cutting off friends and families from one another, and limiting access to jobs and health care. Israel systematically prevents Palestinians from building in East Jerusalem, which has led to overcrowding, according to the Red Cross.

Nevertheless, Arab population growth combined with Jewish flight is happening to such an extent that the Israeli press was filled this week with varying projections for when Jerusalem would no longer have a Jewish majority — eight, 10, or 20 years are some that I’ve seen. Either way, between Arab and Ultra-Orthadox population growth, there probably won’t be many Zionists on Mount Zion in the not so distant future.

Whatever changes demography brings, the general unhappiness in the so-called City of Peace is on a par with its entire tragic history. The city has changed hands, been fought over, and been destroyed more times than perhaps any other city on earth. As Israeli writer Amos Oz said last week at discussion about the city at the Jerusalem YMCA last week: when any one group, nationality or ideology claims Jerusalem as its own, “I can hear the stones laughing.”

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