Monday, August 5, 2013

Jerusalem: City of wonder or blunder?

A couple of weeks ago we joined our friends on a tour of Jerusalem. The tour guide took us to see buildings that were built by the “European powers” during the 19th-20th centuries.  The Germans, the Italians, the French, the Russians and other nations rushed to purchase land in the holy city and build a church, a hospital, a school or a monument. Each nation wanted to own its own piece of heaven.

Personally, I am not that moved by visiting churches, mosques, synagogues or other places of worship. The architecture can be impressive at times, but I can’t help thinking about the wasted investment made in those buildings at times when the broader population lived in utter poverty. Schools and hospitals seem to me like a much more rational investment.
Jerusalem neighborhoods:
Blue=Jewish; Yellow=Arab

The history of each building was intriguing, typically involving a monarch wanting to leave a lasting impression – which they did. Most churches commemorate a story from the New Testament, and I was surprised how little I knew about those. I made a note to myself to read the New Testament one of these days.

A few days later, I happened to watch a TV series on National Geographic titled “Jesus rise to power”. The show referenced some of the same events commemorated by the churches I visited earlier. It attempted to answer the question: “how did a small Jewish movement evolve into the world’s most powerful religion?” The question is still open in my mind.

As we drove from one building to another, we got glimpses of Jerusalem from various angles.  One thing became very clear to me: Jerusalem is by far the most complicated city I have ever been to – and I have been to a few. The city is a tapestry of people, cultures, religions, nationalities, architectures, archeology and modernity. Israelis, Palestinians, Jews, Muslims, Christians, locals, tourists – all mixed together in a highly dense space. It is as if someone picked a sample of every extremity, shook them all together and spread them all over town. 

As I stood on a rooftop observing the city beneath me, a thought kept ringing in my mind: “What a Big F##king Mess!”

The question of Jerusalem is especially relevant now that the “peace talks” between Israelis and Palestinians resumed in Washington DC. The city is considered one of the hardest problems that need to be tackled in the peace talks. Palestinians want Jerusalem to be the capital of a Palestinian state, once it is created. The Israelis long declared the ‘united city’ as their capital. And three main religions - Christianity, Islam and Judaism each lay claims to the old city of Jerusalem. How do you solve this puzzle?

I often hear proposed solutions for the “Jerusalem problem”: let the Palestinians have ‘Eastern Jerusalem’, the Israelis can have ‘Western Jerusalem’, and put the Old City under International rule, e.g. by the United Nations.  One of my favorite quotes is: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”. H. L. Mencken. This seems to perfectly apply to the proposed solutions for Jerusalem.
Some historical context: In 1948 the city of Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan. The so called ‘Eastern’ part, including the ‘Old City’, was populated by Arabs - all Jews were deported and their property confiscated.  The ‘Western’ part was populated by a Jewish majority with some Arab residents living under Israeli rule. In 1967, Israel took over Eastern Jerusalem, driving the Jordanian army out of the West Bank and across the Jordan River.  Shortly after, Israel officially annexed the eastern part of the city and formed a ‘United Jerusalem” under Israeli rule. Over the past four and a half decades, massive construction of new Jewish housing took place. What used to ‘Arabic territory’ is now crisscrossed with Jewish neighborhoods. Take a look at the attached map, and you’ll get the general picture.
When I look at the puzzle called Jerusalem I just don’t see a simple “solution”. It is not clear to me how one can “divide” this intricate city into Palestinian, Israeli and International parts. Granted, I am not a political wizard, and my diplomatic skills are slim to none. But frankly, some of the “characters” involved in this saga - Israeli, Palestinians and Americans alike - have struggled with solving much simpler problems. So unless there is a ‘hidden genius’ among those who fill the conference rooms in Washington DC, these peace talks will end up with yet another blunder.
Jerusalem is a city of wonders, but it is also such a big f##king mess. God help us all...

No comments:

Post a Comment