Donald Trump’s views on Jerusalem have left many feeling all hope of peace between Israelis and Palestinians is lost. But even now powerful campaigners are breaking the divide with a different message.
US president Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital late last year reversed seven decades of American and international policy. It also served to highlight tensions in an overly spotlighted city.
The final status of this holy place has always been one of the most sensitive aspects of peace negotiations. The 1993 Oslo peace accords envisaged Jerusalem as a shared city, capital of the two sovereign states of Israel and Palestine. The current Israeli government is insistent that Jerusalem, centred on the ancient sites of the Old City and the iconic Temple Mount, is and will remain the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish people. Reality on the ground is very different.
Israeli control was limited to the western half of the city between 1948 and 1967. After its victory in the Six Day War, Israel extended its control and included 28 Palestinian villages in the municipal boundaries. Now the city has a population of more than 850,000 and, despite the government’s claim of unity, the differences between the Jewish west and Palestinian east are clear. Eastern neighbourhoods remain under-resourced in everything from sewage systems to education facilities and their Palestinian residents – 37 per cent of the city’s whole – inhabit a legal limbo, neither citizens of Israel nor Palestine.
For Israeli Jews too, Jerusalem is a divisive issue. For the secular majority Jerusalem is inextricably linked with the ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, and a stultifying combination of piety and nationalism. It’s seen as the seat of government and a realisation of the Zionist dream – not somewhere people would want to live. As a result once-secular neighbourhoods have become haredi and public spaces a battleground.
Then there are the Jerusalemites themselves – Jews, Muslims and Christians alike – who see Jerusalem as a city rather than a symbol. While any resolution to the conflict seems distant and talk of coexistence and dialogue laughably clichéd, for some just refusing to give up on the city is their own personal act of peacemaking. Over the next few pages we talk to some of the people trying to make things better.
Founded: Terrestrial Jerusalem, an NGO
Location: West Jerusalem
“One thing you learn about working in Jerusalem is that the permutations of self-delusion are almost limitless,” says Daniel Seidemann from his book-lined office in the city’s west side, days after US vice-president Mike Pence’s visit. “Israelis are in denial cultivated by well-intended friends like Pence who encourage us in our crack addiction to occupation.”
A US-born Israeli lawyer, Seide-mann has spent decades challenging that denial, as well as the government over land rights. He’s been frank with high-ranking government officials, both at home and in the US, when advising on the necessity of achieving a two-state solution. He is also “absolutely” a Zionist.
“To me Zionism is a right to self-determination for the Jewish people. The world is a dangerous place for anybody; it is triply dangerous for Jews. We need the imperfect, problematic mechanisms of statehood to navigate the dangerous waters of this world,” he says matter-of-factly. “By the way, the world is triply dangerous for Palestinians as well – and what I am entitled to, they are as well.”
Seidemann believes a two-state solution is not just the only way to achieve peace but also the only way to protect the state of Israel. “Israel cannot survive as an occupying power – it will be the end of us. Occupation ends in one way: a border.”
Yet the 66-year-old is hardly sanguine. He’s frustrated by the Israeli government and the new White House administration. “We’ve been dealt a deck of cards and periodically it is reshuffled. The deck we have now has never been worse. But it’s the only deck we’ve got and we have to work with it.”
Location: West Jerusalem
Nir Hasson, Jerusalem correspondent for the liberal Haaretz newspaper, was born and raised in Israel’s capital. But unlike the 80 per cent of his former schoolmates who left, he made the decision to stay.
The 42-year-old readily acknowledges that Jerusalem has a bad reputation among his secular country folk. “Ask Israelis who don’t live here about Jerusalem and they say, ‘It’s just a weird place for violent, fanatical Jews and Arabs who fight over some rocks,’” he says.
Hasson, who lives on a leafy street in the secular neighbourhood of Beit Hakerem with his wife and three children, admits that he is unusually optimistic about his hometown. “There’s this joke that the last secular Jew in Jerusalem should close the door on his way out. But I’ve been hearing this joke since the 1980s and it still hasn’t happened.”
The city’s divides also make it fertile ground for a journalist, especially one determined to bridge them. Hasson, who takes Arabic lessons, regularly files reports from the city’s Palestinian neighbourhoods. “I have a mission to try and explain Jerusalem to Israelis,” he says. “I don’t know how many of them know that more than 30 per cent of residents are not actually citizens.”
A long-time supporter of the two-state solution, Hasson no longer thinks this will be a likely outcome, “especially when you look at Jerusalem – it’s impossible to divide it with walls and fences and checkpoints”. Could Palestinians in East Jerusalem apply en masse for Israeli citizenship? The taboo over what used to be seen as capitulation to the occupation is fading but the process is still tortuous: about 1,000 people apply each year and about 200 succeed.
So why does Hasson stay? “It’s such a cliché to say that you love Jerusalem. The strong emotion I feel towards Jerusalem is anger. I am very angry about it and I want it to be different. I believe Jerusalemites deserve better. But, if you push me into a corner, I’ll admit that I do love it. It’s difficult for me to imagine living in a different city.”
Professions: Co-principals at Max Rayne Hand in Hand school
Location: Between the Jerusalem areas of Beit Safafa and Pat
“Every day I think I am so lucky to be here; each day I learn something new,” says Nadia Kinani, principal of the Max Rayne Hand in Hand junior school for the past seven years.
The school – dual-nationality, dual-language – is an anomaly in an education system where Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, are almost always educated separately. At Hand in Hand, which is partially funded by The Jerusalem Foundation (a non-profit that promotes the development of the city), classes have co-teachers, one Arab and one Jewish, and lessons are taught in Hebrew and Arabic. The nearly 700 students “learn, eat and play together”, says Kinani. Since the Jerusalem campus first opened in 1998, five other branches have opened in mixed areas in Israel. “This is a place where we can talk about everything and not have to agree,” says Arik Saporta, principal of the upper school. “We can know each other and not be afraid.”
“Everything we teach that’s connected to conflict has at least two narratives,” adds Kinani. “We learn about our past but we also look at what’s going on today, and the future. If we focus on history we stay stuck.”
The families who send their children to Hand in Hand are mostly secular but there are religious Jews, Muslims and Christians. The principals, both 49, have children of their own at the school. Intakes have had to deal with the waves of violence outside the school gates – the suicide bombings of the second intifada and, more recently, the stabbings of what became known as “the knife intifada” – as well as wars with Hamas-ruled Gaza. “During the wars and terror attacks – and also after Trump’s comments – we continue to talk,” says Saporta. “Some teachers and students support what Trump said, others don’t. Some are more on the political right but everyone has a desire to live together.”
Kinani has faced prejudice from her own community, including accusations she is contributing to the “normalisation” of the inequality between Jews and Palestinians. She isn’t deterred. “Arik and I invite other teachers here to show them how we solve conflict together. Not every school has to be like ours but they can learn from us.”
And Saporta says that he continues to learn too. “Even now I am still losing layer after layer of prejudice.”
Profession: Co-director, think-tank
Institute: Israel-Palestine: Creative Regional Initiatives
Location: Works from east Jerusalem
“Sometimes it feels like we’re the only ones reminding everyone about the situation,” says Nivine Sandouka, the co-director of Jerusalem’s Israel-Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives. The think-tank holds mini-forums every few weeks, bringing together Israeli and Palestinian experts who wouldn’t otherwise meet. Those conversations can be tough but are essential, says Sandouka. “This conflict is fed by stereotypes and segregation.”
Sandouka, 34, grew up in east Jerusalem and can remember the violence of the intifadas. Yet, she believes, “right now it’s worse than ever – for both sides”. She believes that the conflict in her hometown can’t be fixed without a shift from the top. “That’s why my focus is on changing policy to end occupation.” To that end she drafts policies and presents them to officials in the Israeli government or Palestinian Authority.
Every step forward seems to be followed by several back yet Sandouka is an optimist. “On both sides there are people who believe that a solution should be found. I don’t know why we’re not there yet but as long as such people exist, I’m hopeful.”
Profession: Museum director
Institute: The Museum of Islamic Art
Location: West Jerusalem
Nadim Sheiban prides himself on being a man who has transcended nationalistic and religious distinctions. The 66-year-old, who grew up in a village in northern Israel at a time when Arabs were still governed by martial law, says he did not meet a Jew until he was 18. He’s Christian by birth; his ex-wife – who’s the mother of his two children – and his current partner are Jewish and he is now the director of the Museum of Islamic Art in west Jerusalem.
“The vision when the museum was founded in 1974 was to present the richness of Islamic art and culture to Jewish people, bridging the gap between Jews and Muslims and reducing fear,” he says, acknowledging wryly that this remains something of a dream. When he took over three-and-a-half years ago the museum was a dusty backwater treated with suspicion by both Jews and Palestinians alike. In one of his first moves as director Sheiban purposely did away with the museum’s collection of Islamic weapons that had long been on display; he wanted to move the institution’s focus away from war and conflict.
Now, in addition to its rich permanent collection of pottery, jewellery, rugs and calligraphy, the museum has a flourishing educational programme for children and young people, and hosts special exhibitions ranging from contemporary Iranian graphic design to Palestinian embroidery. One of its most recent exhibits showcased contemporary interpretations of the classic arabesque form by both Israeli and Palestinian artists; Sheiban speaks with passionate detail about each of the artworks featured.
The response has been enthusiastic: visitor numbers have soared from 30,000 a year to more than 45,000. The museum, like Jerusalem itself, Sheiban believes, “should be open for all communities but truly equal. It’s our city. This is our mission. Jerusalem belongs to the people living there – not to Jews, Muslims, Christians or any other but to everyone.”
Yet he’s not blind to the challenges of that mission. “When I came here to study in 1972 I really fell in love with Jerusalem. It was peaceful, mixed, I felt I could live with both Jews and Palestinians. After two intifadas and numerous wars, and because of politics, Jerusalem has become a harsh city.
“I don’t feel personally strongly towards nationalism or religion,” says Sheiban. “I would like to see Jerusalem as above politics, as an international model for how people can live together.”
Jerusalem in numbers:
Population: more than 850,000
Percentage of the population who are Muslim: 34 per cent
Percentage of the population who are Jewish: 64 per cent
Tourists: 3.5 million a year
Walls surrounding the Old City: 4,018 metres
Historic monuments: 220