The following interview was conducted before the escalation in upheaval in recent days. 

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I love Jerusalem, and my life there has come to be a central part of my identity. So much so that when I am asked if I am a Jerusalemite, I usually say that although I was not born in the city, I converted to “Jerusalemism.” My public life [as an activist, politician, etc.] began in Jerusalem, and observing the processes it is currently undergoing disturbs me. I love Jerusalem, and have dedicated many many years to it, but when it comes to observing Jerusalem Day [the Israeli national holiday commemorating the reunification of East and West Jerusalem after the 1967 war], I don’t like it at all. 

It is the unbearable gap between the celebratory declarations of eternal unification, and the non-serious and in fact non-existent way in which the official State of Israel deals with  the gift and challenge that will soon turn 54 years old. It is the attitude towards Jerusalem only as a symbol, and the disregard for the actual, concrete city itself, that gives me a sense of falseness.

Violence, again

Last month, we witnessed another reminder [of the violence that can consume Jerusalem]. The city began to burn, or at least the engines were revving up. There were a series of violent incidents from Palestinian youths beating up and humiliating ultra-Orthodox people, dubbed the “Tiktok Intifada;” then there were the violent incidents and marches by the [ultra-right wing] Lehavah organization.

And just in the past week, there was violence in Sheikh Jarrah and around the Temple Mount area. It is not clear what set the city on fire – as is well known, not much is needed. Perhaps it was the checkpoints set up at the Damascus Gate during the holy month of Ramadan, or a protest against the political rapprochement between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Israeli government, or maybe another reason entirely.

After several stormy days, the police removed the checkpoints at the Damascus Gate, which led to celebrations of joy and victory on the Arab side and criticism from some of the Jewish side. It caused me to desperately pull out my hair.  

I do not know if the checkpoints should have been put in the first place, but it certainly makes no  sense and provides no benefit to set up the checkpoints in the heart of East Jerusalem during Ramadan. To claim that this has always been the case, is to be caught lying. To stand on the sidelines as religious-looking Jews are attacked and lynched is unfolding, without any action plan to deal with the situation,to let the streets be filled with civilian clashes, and after all that only then remove the checkpoints that is how everyone loses.  

If the checkpoints are critical to security, then one should be prepared in advance for the consequences, and deal with them. And if this is not a critical security need, then there is no need to add fuel to the fire. This is not only the usual explosive nature of Jerusalem, but also the effects from the past year dealing with COVID-19 and large numbers of Jewish and Arab youth, who without any framework and context, easily join the riots.

A remote and esoteric subject

Jerusalem [as a city, a concept] is a crazy challenge, and the conduct of the last two weeks has once again demonstrated how neglected it is. When I was in the Knesset, I partnered with Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Rafi Peretz to put forth several policy changes for dealing with East Jerusalem: policy that would replace the Border Police with local/municipal police, changes in public transportation, and the regulation and transparency of the citizenship processes, etc. We had gathered all the documents and done all the preparatory work with civic bodies and research institutes, and had two excellent meetings with the Minister. And then everything fell apart.

With the Minister of Digital and Government Companies, David Amsalem, I tried to promote a bill regarding the transfer of government companies to Jerusalem. In both cases, the feeling was as if I was trying to deal with some remote and esoteric issue, rather than issues critical to the capital of Israel and the Jewish people.

A challenge for all of us together

For thousands of years the Jews prayed toward Jerusalem, sang songs about it, prophesied about the city. and suddenly, everything came true. My simplest day-to-day life as a Jerusalemite is the fulfillment of the most solemn prophecies in the Bible. 

But as with all dreams, actualizing them is incredibly complicated. This complication requires a serious and deep dealing with reality, and planning and policy-making, and an understanding of multidimensionality between social, religious, security, and economic aspects. Every step has consequences, and everything is connected to everything, and nothing is simple.

This doesn’t take away from that fact that there are also beautiful moments in the relations between East and West Jerusalem. The Facebook page 0202, which regularly translates the East Jerusalem media into Hebrew, published posts expressing joy and spite, following the stampede at Mount Meron. Following this, a number of residents of East Jerusalem reached out, claiming that this was a narrow and unrepresentative sample of the reactions on the network, and referred to responses that expressed sympathy and solidarity with the victims. As always, there is both.

Even in a number of dramatic political events in recent years, such as the announcement of the relocation of the U.S. embassy, the streets have been quiet, and calls for nonviolent protests have been heard on the network. And also during the pandemic, the level of cooperation of the East City neighborhoods with the municipality was surprisingly high. Is there anyone who is looking for ways to encourage the positive trends and fight the negative ones?

The unification of Jerusalem is a huge gift and a huge challenge. This is not a challenge at police, municipality or government level, but for everyone together. And this challenge right now is simply neglected.

Jerusalem does not need speeches, oaths and ceremonies. Jerusalem needs strategy, vision and leadership.