Before moving to Israel I would have been the first to say, quite forcefully, that Jerusalem should remain an undivided city belonging, exclusively, to the Israelis. However, after having spent almost a month living in East Jerusalem, working with, and meeting, prominent members of both the Israeli and Palestinian communities, I can say that my view, to an extent, has changed rather dramatically. Firstly, and this is very important, I want to distinguish between the Jerusalem divide and the issue of the Old City. Though the Old City lies in East Jerusalem, the two are not mutually exclusive, and I will treat them as entirely separate issues entirely.
A profoundly significant issue, and one that could be the deciding factor in peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, is what to do with the city of Jerusalem. On the one hand, you have Israel who wants the entirety of Jerusalem as her capital, and on the other hand, you have the Palestinians who want to establish a capital for their state in Eastern Jerusalem. As a Jew, and one who had no exposure to East Jerusalem or the Palestinian territories before this month here, I heard the words "divide Jerusalem" and immediately thought of a scenario in which I would have no access to the Old City, no rights to go and pray at the wall and my holy sites, and so on. However, after deep examination of my reservations with the so-called "divide", it is clear that they were primarily centered around the issue of the Old City, and how a split, and even possibly a shift of controlling power, would effect the status quo and harmony between the three monotheistic religions that exists within her walls. After hearing discussions from both Palestinians and Israelis, listening to roundtables, transcribing conference meetings on the issue, and, most importantly, living in the very region of contention, it has become clear to me that the two issues (Jerusalem division and Old City control) are quite separate, and shouldn't be treated as one in the same.
Since I have now divorced the two issues from exclusivity with one another, I tried to think of another reason why East Jerusalem shouldn't be a Palestinian capital, or another reason why I was uncomfortable with calling East Jerusalem a Palestinian capital, and I really couldn't find one substantial reason. As I am sitting in my office, listening to the call to prayer ring out, not seeing a Jew for miles around, hearing almost no existence of the Hebrew language, it seems so strange to me why this area is so coveted by so many Israelis. Just to gather information, I asked an Israeli friend of mine if she was for or against giving East Jerusalem to the Palestinians as the capital in their new state. She emphatically answered that she was against it, told me that there is no such thing as Palestine, and then brushed the issue aside. I then asked her if she had ever been to East Jerusalem, a place she seemed very passionate about keeping for Israel, to which she answered, "Absolutely not! I would not ever go there; it is too dangerous and scary for me." So here, we have an Israeli who will not step foot inside of East Jerusalem, but who also won't consider the issue of East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital... Something just isn't so kosher about that. The saying "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine" comes to mind here, and that is not a saying I want to associate with my beloved Israel.
The fact of the matter is really quite simple in my mind. Aside from the technical fact that East Jerusalem lies inside of Israel proper, it is not Israel. There is nothing in this whole place that feels like Israel, and aside from the settlements, which is a whole other issue that I'm extremely unhappy with, there is not a hint of Jewish identity in this whole region. I will quickly give two other examples illustrating this point. A few weeks ago I needed to come back to my apartment from West Jerusalem, and it was nighttime so naturally I planned on taking a taxi. I hailed the first cab I saw and notice that the cab driver was Jewish. I told him where I needed to go, and he refused to take me there. He said "I will not drive in that area at night". He, instead, took me to Jaffa gate of the Old City where I had to take another cab home. He wouldn't go to East Jerusalem, but I bet he would fight to not have it in Palestinian hands (this is just a guess). A final example was a story told to me by my co-intern. She said that she asked someone if they thought East Jerusalem should be a Palestinian capital, and they replied "no". She then asked if Sheikh Jarrah, or Silwan, or Wadi Al-Joz, etc. should be under Palestinian control, and the response was, "sure, what do we want with those cities"or something along those lines... I don't think people really understand that those cities and East Jerusalem are one in the same. It is hard to believe that if they truly understood this they would still be so unwilling to negotiate in terms of East Jerusalem control.
I will continue by shifting gears for a moment and talking about the Old City. I don't feel that the Old City should belong to any one group exclusively, in fact I think that the Old City under exclusive control by one group is very dangerous. This is what initially worried me about a splitting of Jerusalem. There were problems when the Jordanians controlled the Old City in terms of allowing Jews access to the wall and their holy sights, and that is something I would NEVER want to see repeated. Consequently, with the Old City exclusively under Israeli control, there are many Muslims that don't have access to Al Aqsa and their holy sights (be it for security reasons or whatever). I strongly feel that this region should remain neutral territory, and I feel that if it remains neutral, the current status quo and harmony within the city won't change. It is a brilliant model for coexistence and should not be tampered with. With that said, as long as the Old City remains a place of free access between Jews, Muslims, and Christians, I really see no good reason to prevent East Jerusalem from being the Palestinian capital and West Jerusalem from continuing to be the capital of Israel.
I am aware that I have not studied the issue at length, at least not as of this point so early in my new life here in the Middle East, but each day, as I live and breathe life on both sides of this conflict, my opinions and ideas are constantly evolving, changing, and reforming. I can't help but feeling that if other people did the same thing as me, and truly put themselves out there to experience life on both sides of the conflict, there would be so much progress forward. I am not a leftist by any means (in fact I am far from it), and I feel just as connected to my Judaism and the land of Israel as the most ultra of Orthodox Jews, but my love for a completely different culture has allowed me to break through my ignorance and lack of understanding, and really start to form opinions based more on reality than emotions. This is something you can't do unless you truly open yourself up to experiencing life on the other side, and I say this in regards to both Jews and Palestinians. Until each side can see that there is a need for both states to exist, side by side, as a partnership rather than a region of bitter enemies, there will be no peace.
I want to conclude with one last thought. With Israel and Palestine pitted against one another, there is only room for conflict, disdain, regression, and hate. However, with the two states working and existing together, finding at least a willingness to become partners rather than foes, there is an unlimited amount of possibilities to make this one of the most prosperous areas in the Middle East; a true model for peace, acceptance, coexistence, and forward progress. Though I know it is easier said than done, all we need to do is get past the centuries of hurt and anger, and find a willingness within ourselves to put our differences aside for the greater good of peace and prosperity. We don't have to love one another, we don't even have to like one another (though it would be very helpful), but we have to respect one another, and from that MUTUAL respect can come profound possibilities and results.
Stay tuned for a post on the Olive harvest in the West Bank, and an opinion on the settlements.
Until we meet again :-),