How Jerusalem went from a land where ancient feet were reluctant to walk to a land fought over with bullet and stone

Separate and Unequal
December 15, 2000

How much do Muslims, Christians or Jews really care about Jerusalem? The Prophet Muhammad, according to tradition, did not attach supreme importance to it: "He who performs the pilgrimage to Mecca and visits my grave (in Medina) and goes forth to fight (in a holy war) and prays for me in Jerusalem - God will not ask him about what he (failed to perform of the prescriptions) imposed on him."

The Christian fathers were by no means of one mind on the issue: St Gregory of Nyssa (4th century) wrote to a disciple: "When the Lord invites the blest to their inheritance in the Kingdom of Heaven, he does not include a pilgrimage to Jerusalem among their good deeds."

As for the Jews, even the early Zionists, especially the Zionists, were as much repelled by as attracted to Jerusalem: Moshe Leib Lilienblum, writing in 1882 of the future Jewish state in Palestine, declared: "We do not need the walls of Jerusalem, nor the Jerusalem temple, nor Jerusalem itself."

If Jerusalem has an ambivalent position in Muslim, Christian and Jewish tradition, why has the city been repeatedly fought over by adherents of all three religions? The reason perhaps is that Jerusalem is less important in itself than as a symbol and a focal point of wider political ambitions.

In Separate and Unequal , Amir S. Cheshin, Bill Hutman and Avi Melamed wisely eschew the mystical, eschatological and ethereal realms to which many writers on the holy city ascend. They stick to mundane municipal detail: rubbish collection, sewage, potholes, parks and planning permissions. The authors are admirably qualified for the task. Cheshin and Melamed were former Arab affairs advisers to the city's Israeli mayor and Hutman is a former reporter for the Jerusalem Post . All three know the city intimately and have made exceptional efforts to bridge the schism that divides its Arab from its Jewish inhabitants.

Their book is an indictment of Israeli misrule in east Jerusalem. It is all the more powerful because its authors come from within the Israeli establishment and write from a Zionist standpoint. They show that, more than three decades after its supposed unification in 1967, Jerusalem is more divided than ever.

Massive efforts by Israel to change its demographic balance by implanting large numbers of Jews in new suburbs around the city's northern and southern fringes have failed: the Arab proportion of the population is higher today than in 1967. The physical wall may have gone but all Jerusalem's inhabitants are aware of an intangible barrier that divides the two ethnic groups living in separate districts of the city. Previous writers, notably Meron Benvenisti, have long argued that the Arabs of east Jerusalem have suffered systematic neglect and deliberate deprivation of municipal and governmental services; in this book we are given chapter and verse. The record of Teddy Kollek, mayor of Jerusalem from 1965 to 1993 comes in for particularly damaging criticism. His efforts to reconcile the Arab population of the city to so-called "unification" under Israeli rule are shown here to have been insubstantial and ineffective. As for his successor, Ehud Olmert, his nationalist policies, intended to seal the unity of the city, have driven its Arab and Jewish populations further apart. Judged by its administrative record since 1967, Israel neither really wants nor deserves to rule east Jerusalem.

Admirable, if depressing, as an expose, this book falls flat when it comes to prescribing a course for the future. Perhaps multiple authorship prevented unanimity and clarity of thought. On the one hand, the authors demonstrate that almost everything Israel did in east Jerusalem was inadequate, discriminatory and politically biased. But rather than grasp the nettle and address the question of Israeli rule itself, they descend into bathos and sloppy wishful thinking: "A sustained local effort to ease the tensions created by the political and religious conflict in which Jerusalem was immersed might have gone a long way." They mean a long way towards reconciling the Arab population to continued Israeli rule - but there is little evidence to support this assumption and an abundance leading to the opposite conclusion. Too often this book reads like the faded dreams and sour grapes of superannuated advisers, resentful that no notice was taken of their now-yellowing memoranda.

The failure of the Camp David summit, ostensibly on the issue of Jerusalem, placed the city's future squarely on top of the Israeli-Palestinian agenda. Diplomatic negotiation having collapsed for the time being, the parties are staking out their positions by means of stones and bullets. Yet for all their posturing and internal and external propaganda, pragmatic leaders of Israel and Palestine (and such still exist on both sides) realise that compromise over Jerusalem is the only way forward. Such compromise, bearing in mind social reality, must involve some form of redivision, though not necessarily physical partition.

Will Muhammad, St Gregory or Lilienblum turn in their graves? I think not. Nor, incidentally, will most Jerusalemites. Surveys have shown that Jewish residents are concerned primarily with retention of Jewish districts and the Western Wall; Arab residents seek sovereignty over Arab-inhabited districts and over the Haram al-Sharif, the "Noble Sanctuary" containing the great Muslim shrines. In spite of the horrors that began there on September 28 and that continue as this is written, there is still a basis for agreement on Jerusalem.

Bernard Wasserstein is professor of history, University of Glasgow.

Separate and Unequal: The Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem

Author - Amir S. Cheshin, Bill Hutman and Avi Melamed
ISBN - 0 674 80136 9
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £17.50
Pages - 259

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