Jerusalem: United in name only

Jerusalem: United in name only

Maya Haber (in Israel with PPI)

Reality and language are engaged in a ruthless battle in Israel. Political discourse attempts to drown reality in an Aladdin pool of fantasy. Recently reality has been popping up its head and declaring that it has not surrendered, not yet. We have heard many remarkable example during the last few days. The battle seems to encompass a diverse variety of political issues from the economy to gender equality, from ethnic relations to property rights and many others. most significantly the conflict with the Palestinians is a discursive battlefield in which language (both Hebrew and English) simply does not correspond with people’s lived experience. This blog post is the first in a series in which I will try to explore particular manifestations of this separation of language from reality.

The first and most obvious example is the status of Jerusalem. Since 1967 Israelis like me have been hearing and expressing our devotion for Jerusalem. I remember commemorating Jerusalem day at school every year, singing “Jerusalem of Gold” and listening to Moshe Dayan’s famous speech that started with the words: “This morning, the Israel Defense Forces liberated Jerusalem.” Yet 47 years after that unforgettable speech the reality of everyday life in Jerusalem questions the assertion that Jerusalem is the uncontested, undivided eternal capital of Israel.

Jerusalem is perhaps the only capital of a sovereign state that does not inhabit a single foreign embassy. Thus its status as the uncontested Israeli capital may indeed be questionable. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments in the case of Menachem Zivotofsky, a 12 year-old US citizen who demands to record his birthplace in his passport as “Jerusalem, Israel.” Though Congress passed a law in 2002 requiring the State Department to treat Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in American passports, Republican and Democrat secretary of states through the years have been refusing ever since. The U.S. does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

More importantly, people’s lived experience in Jerusalem challenges the assertion that the city has been united. Danny Seidemann, the Jerusalem expert who led our tour in the city, suggested that if we put GPS devices on every Jew in Jerusalem and then follow their movements on a map, we will clearly see the invisible border separating the east from the west. Jerusalemites don’t need a physical wall; the Jews do not wander around East Jerusalem and the Palestinians are afraid to go west. For security reasons, we could not enter most Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem. These days, parts of the eternal capital of the Jewish state are too dangerous for Jews to walk in.

Daniel Seidemann

There are many causes for the last four months of clashes, but underneath it all is the simple fact that Palestinian inhabitants of East Jerusalem are not Israeli citizens. Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, but not its inhabitants. The Israeli state applied Israeli law, jurisdiction and administration to East Jerusalem, granting it “full citizenship” status. It even guaranteed its jurisdiction over East Jerusalem by passing the ‘Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel’, making it extremely difficult for any future government to forgo territory in East Jerusalem. And yet, Israel did not grant citizenship rights to East Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents. Today, one third of Jerusalem’s residents live without citizenship, they live under a political structure that claims their land but does not accept them along with it. So Jerusalem is a united city divided by the legal status of its population.

Since reality refuses to conform to the language of unity, the Israeli right deploys heavier linguistic weapons. In the last few years there is a battle over the name of the city itself. While in English we call it Jerusalem, in Hebrew it is pronounced ״Yerushalayim״ and in Arabic “al-Quds.” But different names could imply a divided city and thus threaten the city’s sacred unity. Thus, a few years ago a ministerial committee debated a proposal to have all signs display just the transliterations of Hebrew names. In this highly Orwellian move, Israeli officials are trying to impose unity on a deeply divided city.

Perhaps we should reinterpret flying rocks and burning cars in Jerusalem as the active resistance of reality against its discursive oppression. This would explain why the Palestinians are directing their wrath at the light rail. Yudith Oppenheimer, executive director of Ir Amim recently told the Jewish Daily Forward that though the train has eased the access to the city center for residents of poorer neighborhoods like Shuafat, they consider it a threat for it will make the city harder to split under a future Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty. “It creates an illusion of a united city.”

This blogger, Maya Haber, is a recipient of the Israel Symposium 2014 Scholarship. She was born and raised in Israel. She graduated from Tel Aviv University with a B.A. in history and philosophy and earned a Ph.D. at the University of California at Los Angeles. She has written and published on healthcare and social sciences in the post-World War II Soviet Union.

By | 2014-11-14T04:14:00-05:00 November 14th, 2014|Blog, Partners for Progressive Israel, Programs, Symposium|2 Comments


  1. Yehuda Erdman November 15, 2014 at 5:45 am - Reply

    Dear Maya
    I enjoyed reading your post this morning here in London. You have summarised one of the key problems in understanding why Jerusalem remains a stumbling block on the road to peace. Both sides in this very long conflict wish the other simply to disappear. They don’t want to see them, acknowledge their rights yet alone conduct a dialogue.
    It is very depressing and as you rightly point out in your post, far removed from reality

  2. David Lev November 22, 2014 at 4:54 pm - Reply

    My understanding as to why most Arab residents of East Jerusalem are not Israeli citizens is that they had refused citizenship (due to feeling that Israel’s control over their city is illegitimate), rather than having been deliberately disenfranchised by the Israeli government. Is that not true?

Leave A Comment