For the last week-and-a-half I have been living in Jerusalem. In a nutshell, it has been wondrous. Wondrous in all the many ways that word can be contemplated. Living with friends of varying religions and ethnic backgrounds in various parts of the city has been illuminating. As I have begun to process my time as a whole what has become most evident is how insular one’s life can be here if one so chooses. Perhaps this is true anywhere, but it is most apparent and seems all the more significant here in Jerusalem because the relations among differing people—coexisting and conflicting—has consistently been at the forefront of the city’s character and notoriety.
Throughout its history Jerusalem has proven to be magnetic, drawing hoards of people from its surrounding regions and lands far and wide. For centuries it has been illustrated on maps as the center of the world and for generations of people it has remained at the center of the heart. These phenomena have transformed the city into one rich in culture, poor in economy, vibrant in religious fervor, and tumultuous in cross-cultural relations. This is a city where cultures, history, and religions are ever intermingling, yet rarely in friendly, interested ways. Most seem to live in parallel or in conflict. At this point in Jerusalem’s history I believe the lack of peace and increase in conflict is due in part to a lack of genuine relationships, a result of separateness.
I was amazed by questions I received this past week from both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis. “What do they say about the situation?” “What do they think of us?” These questions made such sense to me after I experienced living in three distinctly different neighborhoods. I lived separated, as they did. The neighborhoods were only a 15 to 30-minute walk from each other, but most people did not know one another or feel comfortable knowing one another. When I saw people interacting at all it was in the markets, sometimes purchasing goods, but mostly ignoring each other or glaring. As a foreigner I was mostly viewed as a tourist and thus was received as a welcome customer, sought out to be charmed into buying goods, occasionally viewed skeptically due to my camera, or ignored. When I was introduced as a friend, in each of my friends’ cultures, I was treated as an equal or with special attention. All to be expected.
In Musrara, where I first stayed, I noticed it was dominantly Jewish Orthodox, my American Christian friends were an anomaly. Most residents looked and dressed similarly. They were light skinned, had their heads and limbs covered, and only spoke Hebrew. Though, as I discovered one night, some also like to sing along to such American classics as “Lean on Me” and “My Girl”, which I heard drifting out of one kitchen window when I walked by. A few days later I moved in with friends in Arnona, a gentrifying neighborhood of mostly Jewish residents now. This was evidenced by the Israeli flags and strings of pennants proudly waving from balconies and hanging from windows. Here people appeared free to wear whatever they wanted. I spotted sleeveless shirts, leggings, and shorts, all uncommon in many areas of Jerusalem—whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. I almost felt I was back in the States and wished I were wearing a sleeveless shirt in the 85-degree weather. I felt quite free and comfortable myself, except for the flags which triggered in me the same disconcerting feelings American flags often do, bearing more an air of dominant pride than grateful celebration. Lastly, I stayed with friends in the Christian Quarter just inside New Gate within the Old City walls. In this neighborhood everyone spoke Arabic and many people wore crosses. Occasionally Jewish Israelis or soldiers would walk through, and suddenly the air would constrict and feel a bit tense.
Though living in close proximity, the people seem worlds apart. Most stay cloistered in their neighborhoods, amidst their traditions and religious practices. I think they do this out of a beautiful and honorable sense of community and family life, but also out of fear and a need for security. It only takes one incitement, one gun shot, one bomb, one knife to strengthen one’s emotional walls, confirm one’s stereotypes about the other, and in turn keep people separated. Separated, though not more secure. On a communal scale, I think it makes people more vulnerable. Separation only feeds the imagination’s refined skills in constructing an idea of the other and frustrates the hopes of genuinely coming to know the other.
As I write this I receive a text message from a contact informing me there has been a shooting at a light rail station near my friends’ home in East Jerusalem. All the streets have been closed around the Old City. I checked in with my friend and she was fine, thankfully. She said it was, “Sad but we are quite used to it. Just lots of helicopter noise and avoiding driving for a few hours.” It is all to clear incidents have become normalized. Yet, even when there is relative calm the city still does not feel at rest. You can feel the tension hanging in the air. Your spirit wonders and waits in anticipation for when the next incident will come. Then when the text message arrives or the news announcement appears confirming the terrible truth that yet another clash has occurred. Your heart sinks and at the same time some twisted desire within for drama is satisfied. It is bizzare and awful.
What to do? I can never know what it is like to feel oppressed the way a Palestinian does or fearful the way a Jewish Israeli does. I will not pretend to. However, I will seek to be open and empathetic to their stories. To be human. Which is the one way I can connect to their experiences. And, from my human experiences I have observed in order for positive change to come out of broken relationships someone must initiate communication. Someone must penetrate the separation and make a connection. It can be absolutely nerve-wracking, vulnerable, and extremely humbling. We may not be well received the first or seventy-seventh go-around, but it is worth trying, because if there is success in beginning a relationship or rekindling one that was damaged we become infused with life. We remember how good life can be. This is how we begin to heal the world.
I have noticed some Jewish Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem trying to do this. They have partnered to create organizations that provide opportunities for consistent, invested dialogue and then seek to move that dialogue into action such as Combatants for Peace, Kids4Peace, Dialogue to Action, Parent Circle Families Forum and others. Some people consider such relationship building between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis to be normalization. It is true, normalization is a risk if people aim to forge relationships, but then stop there, doing nothing to change an oppressive status quo where Palestinians remain second-class citizens. Such normalization is problematic and would perpetuate an unjust normal.
However, I think if humanity ever hopes for change on a big scale: for the occupation to end, the wall to come down, the checkpoints to be dismantled, etc., it has to start at the ground level. People have to build trust. People have to build relationships, otherwise fear will continue to reign. And, this occupation is largely fueled by fear, especially fear of the unknown other. Such is the case for most, if not all, violence and racism around the world. If people anywhere, certainly my country of the United States included, desire to end violence and live in peace we have to get to know each other. We have to be liberated from our fears and freed for life, for love, for trust, for hope, for unity. Efforts toward small and large-scale changes have to continue in tandem. It cannot be one or the other or one before the other—relationships must be built and also policies perpetuating inequity must be changed.
We have to work for a society where all people have equal rights as well as safety, security and freedom from fear. For Palestine/Israel this requires changes in policies both in the State of Israel and the United States. The U.S. needs to change the way it supports its ally, Israel. It needs to stop blindly and unconditionally giving $10.4 million a day to the country in military aid. It needs to find other ways besides military funding, which only promotes violence as a means for peace. It needs to support and protect all the residents of the region—Jew and Palestinians alike. I do not know exactly what that looks like. I know signing petitions provided by American Friends Service Committee and becoming more educated about the situation via sources such as Institute for Middle East Understanding, Jewish Voice for Peace, B'Tselem, and Breaking the Silence (to name a few) are a start. As for each of our own lives, maybe it means starting a conversation with someone outside our comfort zone.
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