Where the gods live

Issa Freij on the roof of his house in the old city of Jerusalem

Issa Freij on the roof of his house in the old city of Jerusalem

Jerusalem, the “eternally united capital” of Israel, is more divided than ever: between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Christians, Jews and Muslims, the religious and the secular. Profil visited Jerusalemites who are hurt by the situation and want to change it.

Text and photos: Tessa Szyszkowitz/Jerusalem

King David, Jesus and Mohammed did it. Yassir Arafat did it and Benjamin Netanyahu still does: For the past 3000 years Middle Eastern super stars of different faiths and nations have walked along the narrow streets of the holy city. The Hebrew name “Yerushalaym” is said to come from the word for peace – “Shalom”. But in reality, the city – with the highest density of holy places in the world - has been a violent battleground for the entirety of its history.

Hatred between the different groups in Jerusalem is either politically or religiously motivated. Mostly both. Last July, 16-year old Mohammed Abu Khdeir was kidnapped in front of his family’s home by three Israeli right-wing extremists in Shuafat in East Jerusalem and burned alive. In the end of November three Palestinian terrorists entered a synagogue in Har Nof, a West Jerusalem district, and killed four praying Jews. Even in quiet weeks there are constantly incidents. A few days ago Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, personally wrestled a Palestinian attacker to the ground who had been standing, knife in hand, on the crossroads in front of the mayor’s office outside the old city of Jerusalem. The fragile co-existence in the city, which in Arabic is called al-Quds, “the holy one”, has collapsed.

Since the Israeli occupation of the Eastern part of the city in 1967 Jerusalem has become the unified capital of the Jewish state. It is not recognized as such by the international community. And in reality the city is deeply divided. There is no wall between the East and the West – the barrier which Israel built to keep Palestinian infiltrators away runs outside of the city limits, which Israel declared as municipality borders. But few Palestinians voluntarily go to the Western part of the city. Israelis on the other hand would only go to the East in their nightmares – unless they live in the settlements. In this city of extremists profil met with people who do not want to accept the situation. They want a Jerusalem for all.

Hussein Abu Khdeir, Shuafat, East Jerusalem

“This is where he was sitting”, says Hussein Abu Khdeir, pointing to the step in front of the shop where he sells phones and electrical equipment. His 16-year-old son Mohammed waited for the morning prayers to start at the crack of dawn, when a car stopped. Three Israelis jumped out, pulled the boy into their car, drove off and brutally murdered him in a nearby forest.

Mohammed’s father is the electrician for the district of Shuafat. “We always had many Jewish clients coming to my shop”, he says. That has changed. “Nobody can live with these Nazi-settlers”, he says. “The right extremist government supports the settlers and the Israeli police and the Israeli army watch this without taking action.” The murderers of his son are still not convicted.

Nobody seems to ask who started this mistrust and murder anymore. Did the three Israelis kill Mohammed as revenge for the murder of three settler kids, who were kidnapped and shot dead while hitchhiking in the Westbank in June? Partly, yes. But the hatred has also developed its own life. And in Jerusalem everything comes together: Palestinians and Israelis claim the city as the capital of their respective states. Jews, Muslims and Christians fight physically over every centimeter.

Abu Khdeir walks up the steps of his house. He points to the tiles covering the entrance. The first floor was built in 1934. His family has been living here in Jerusalem for generations. “For years I asked the municipality for the license to build one more floor. But they never gave it to me”, the 49 year old father says. “In all those years they built whole districts around us. Thousands of Jews from around the world were moved there. Why do we have less rights, do we count less than them?”

Around 900,000 people live in Jerusalem today. The structure of the population is complex. 650,000 people have an Israeli passport. Most of them are Jewish. They either live in West Jerusalem, where the Jews had been living since before Israel was founded in 1948. Or they moved to the new districts, which were built around the old holy city – partly in the occupied West bank after 1967.

Israel began its occupation of the Eastern part of the city during the Six-Day War in 1967, and after its annexation the Palestinians living there came under Israeli jurisdiction. About 230,000 Arabs live in East Jerusalem today. They have an Israeli ID and have access to privileges like Israeli health insurance. They can also apply for an Israeli passport. But for nationalist reasons, most don’t. If they need to travel abroad most Palestinians from East Jerusalem and the West bank still use their old Jordanian documents. Jordan ruled over these parts until 1967.

“It does not matter how hard Israel makes our lives”, says Hussein Abu Khdeir defiantly, “we will not give up. We will stay here.”

Osnat Kollek, Rehavia, West Jerusalem

The complicated legal situation, politics of nationalist leaderships and rising violence on both sides make life in the holy city increasingly difficult. “As an Arab in Shuafat you can only grow up with hatred of Israelis”, says Osnat Kollek. Her father, Teddy Kollek, was the legendary mayor of Jerusalem from 1965 to 1993. He wanted to build Jerusalem according to Theodor Herzl’s dream - like a Vienna of the Middle East, says his daughter: “A multi cultural, liberal and cosmopolitan city with a Jewish spiritual vision of peace.” After all, both Herzl and Kollek grew up in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century: “My father was called Teddy after Theodor Herzl.”

But today extremists are undermining Teddy’s vision for Jerusalem, she claims: The united capital of Israel was supposed to be open for all. “Instead we Israelis discriminate against the Arabs. We cannot let this happen any longer”, Kollek’s daughter says firmly. Osnat is a painter, but she spends a lot of her time involved in citizen’s initiatives and in the Labour party. She lives in the old West Jerusalem district of Rehavia, where the German Jews moved before Israel was founded in 1948, escaping the Holocaust that was inflicted on them by the German and Austrians. She takes a deep breath and says: “We behave like children who were beaten by their parents and grew up into parents who beat their children.”

The discrimination of Arab inhabitants is part of city politics. The Israeli organization “Btselem” documents every single case. Building licenses for Jewish housing projects get priority, Palestinian ones – as in the case of Hussein Abu Khdeir – are frequently blocked. The Jerusalem ID can be revoked by Israeli authorities any time. Often security concerns are cited as reason. Since 1994, it is possible for a Palestinian woman to loose her Jerusalem status simply by marrying a man who lives outside of the city limits. The Israeli Home Ministry reasons that she has her “center of life” somewhere else.

Jerusalem, therefore, has grown a lot in the past decades - but ethnically unevenly. Until 1967 there were no Jews in the Eastern part of the city. Today 40 percent are Jewish – most moved to newly built settlements like Pisgat Ze’ev and Maale Adumim.

Bashir Bashir, Rehavia, West Jerusalem

Even Palestinians with an Israeli passport suffer under the Israeli two-class-system. Some Palestinians come to Jerusalem from Arab villages and cities such as Nazareth or Haifa that, according to 1948 borders, lie within Israel. Bashir Bashir grew up in the region of Skhnin and now lives, like Osnat Kollek, in West Jerusalem’s Rehavia district.

The situation in Jerusalem became extremely hostile towards Palestinians during the Gaza war last summer, says the 38-year-old political theorist. “On the streets there was a sense of fear and terror, if you were Arab. Some of my friends cancelled all sorts of appointments including at the hospital Hadassah, if it was not that crucial. They did not want to take the risk of being attacked because they were Arabs.” Meanwhile the situation has calmed down and Bashir walks from his flat to work in the privately funded Van-Leer-Institut, where he is a research fellow.

“Despite the miserable conditions and anxieties the occupation causes the Palestinians in this deeply divided city, Jerusalem is somehow the nucleus of bi-national arrangements in Israel/Palestine, be it confederation, federation or one-state solution”, he says. Twenty one years since the failure of the Oslo peace process an increasing number of people are starting to view egalitarian, joint dwelling rather than separation and segregation as a reasonable and feasible way forward in Israel/Palestine (see profil 8/15): “Bi-nationalism as a political and moral project is our only chance”, says Bashir.

He steps out onto the balcony of Van-Leer-Institute, whose futuristic architecture looks anachronistic in a city which is so deeply stuck in the past. “Sometimes I ask myself: Why should I stay here and suffer from wretched colonial conditions when I have the theoretical and practical ability to leave? I have been working with very good institutions abroad.” He sighs and steps back into the building. “If I want to have any impact, then I need to stay.”

Not only Palestinians and Israelis fight over the holy city. Religious and secular Jews want to change the character of the town according to their respective needs. Today only 21 percent of the city call themselves secular Jews, while a third is ultra-orthodox. In between is a whole spectrum of different interpretations of religious Judaism – from traditional to very religious. In Mea Shearim, the district of the “Haredim” - the super religious Jews – images of women are forbidden from newspapers and advertisements. The most important medium is still the wall-paper on the streets.

During high holidays the rabbis of Mea Shearim have ordered the barring of women from the main road of the district. In so-called modesty-buses a special seating order has been introduced – women sit in the back of the bus, as men should not run the danger of being distracted from their religious duties. If they do not comply with these in-official rules, they face abuse or being thrown off of the bus. This is not technically allowed under Israeli law, but the radical religious like to disregard the laws of the modern Israeli state. Secular feminists are demonstrating against these sexist rules, to little avail.

Walking through the streets of the oriental city is like looking at a photo of a Polish Shtetl of the 19th century: Ultra orthodox Jews usually wear black suits and hats. Some also boast regional outfits of their country of origin – caftans, sometimes fur hats. These can be practical in the winter in Jerusalem, where it snows heavily on the Judean hills about once a year.

Racheli Ibenboim, Mea Shearim, West Jerusalem

This February Jerusalem saw a cold and snowy winter, but an otherwise hot election campaign for the upcoming parliamentary elections in March has been keeping people busy. Racheli Ibenboim, a Haredi suffragette from Mea Shearim, is in the middle of it – although as a woman she cannot be a candidate for parliament. The 29-year-old ultra orthodox feminist is heading a campaign that calls women to boycott the vote until orthodox parties like “United thora-Judaism” nominates female candidates. “We can work and earn money. Why should we not sit in parliament?”

The male establishment in the hyper religious political spectrum does not agree with her. When Racheli ran for municipal elections in 2013 her two children where expelled from their ultra religious school. Only her husband supports her. “Otherwise I could not do it”, she says. Ibenboim and her group of female and male supporters are now more cautious. They do not themselves run for seats, but are preparing the ground for future female candidates. When it comes to the political rights of Arabs in Jerusalem, she is also careful: “I am not a politician yet.” But she has no doubt about whom she considers to be true Jerusalemites: “It is very important that everyone gets a space here. Jerusalem is the pilot for the rest of Israeli society.”

As Friday afternoon Muslim prayers end on Haram al-Sharif – which is holy to the Jews as temple mount -, thousands of believers leave al-Aqsa mosque and walk over the platform to where, in ancient times, the Jewish temple stood. They pass by the golden vault of the Dome of the Rocks, from where the prophet Mohammed supposedly rode into the skies. Then the Palestinian men walk down into the narrow streets of the old city, walking up Via Dolorosa past the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus Christ was, according to Christian beliefs, buried briefly. Most of the believers then leave the old city through Damascus Gate and disappear into Arab East Jerusalem.

Issa Freij, Christian quarter, old city of Jerusalem

Issa Freij watches the mass exodus from the vaulted roof of his house in the Christian quarter of the old city. The 13,000 Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem are squeezed in between the Arab and Jewish quarters. Issa’s clan has lived in Palestine for centuries. His uncle Elias was mayor of Betlehem for many years. “I know every single nun around here”, he says. The filmmaker, photographer and musician smiles: “I even know what they wear under their frocks.” From his roof he looks at the laundry lines of the convents around him. “One of them once had red underpants.”

Risky lingerie is not the only thing that flutters in the wind over the Christian and Arab quarters. There are also Israel flags. Since the late Israeli politician Ariel Sharon bought the first house here in the 80ties on Via Dolorosa, about 3,000 Jewish families have followed him. Middle men organizations like Eldad help to buy houses from Palestinians and pass them on to new Jewish owners. There are many stories about how the Arab parts of the town are being turned into Jewish property meter by meter. Israel’s Home ministry pays for 370 security guards, who protect the Jewish settlers in the Arab districts of Abu Tor, Silwan, Ras al-Amud, A-Tur, Sheich Jarrah and the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem.

Israelis moved in next to Issa Freij, too. A few weeks ago, Issa sat on his roof, smoked and thought about his new project. Freij wants to record the sounds of Jerusalem. At a certain moment on Friday afternoon everything happens at once: Shabbat sirens signal the beginning of the Jewish weekend, the Muezzin calls Muslims to evening prayer, all accompanied by church bells. Somewhere in the cacophony, Issa says, hides the music of a city that is so unique in its mixture of cultures, religions and nations.

While he thought about all this on top of his house, a visitor arrived. The little son of his Israeli neighbors climbed over the roofs towards him. “Then we sat there and talked”, says Issa. “At least on the roof we are all the same.”

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz