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CONSCIENCE AND POWER (Monday 6 February)

Posted on 03 April 2012 by admin

PREVIOUS: Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)

We met councillor Meir Margalit for an early evening coffee back in West Jerusalem, not far from the ICAHD offices and the municipal government buildings. Like many progressive councillors back in the UK, he is having to implement policies he dislikes and run a kind of harm reduction strategy, but under pressures and constraints that few of us can imagine. After a political shake-up in the Jerusalem municipal government in July 2011, his party Meretz, which is on the far left of Israeli politics, has joined the municipal coalition and he has ended up with the responsibility for East Jerusalem. The dilemma of participating in government is to what extent the values of peace, justice and equality can be furthered by doing so; the active consciences of Meretz members ask them every day whether being within the coalition enables them to do good or merely makes them accomplices. Since joining the coalition, Meretz has tried to reform planning policy to make it fairer, more in accordance with the better Israeli traditions of rationality and more humane, rather as it was under the legendary Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem before 1991.

Policy on demolitions obviously causes a great deal of pain. Knowing the process from the inside is necessary to rationalise it and allow more opportunity for appeals and legal challenges, but it is a hard thing to live with. Jerusalem, as Meir confirmed, is unequal. East Jerusalem gets much less than its fair share of municipal spending – about 8-9 per cent compared to around 37 per cent of population and a rather higher (we were quoted the figure 43 per cent elsewhere) contribution to the city’s revenues. East Jerusalem Palestinians pay their municipal taxes assiduously, as it is a good way of providing evidence of residency and thereby keeping the bulldozers from one’s door (see MONOPOLY JERUSALEM STYLE). The differential treatment of parts of the city is obvious from a casual inspection of the state of the streets and public services in East (outside the Old City) and West. Priority is given to connecting settlements to clean water and decent roads above any considerations shown to Palestinian neighbourhoods. There is an ideological and political purpose behind this, but it is less successful – says Margalit – than most Palestinians believe – far from driving them down to 22 per cent, the demographic planners seem to think that limiting the Palestinian share to 40 per cent is the maximum achievable restriction.

Meir Margalit’s own story is a revealing one. He grew up in Argentina, the son of Holocaust survivors, and his family wanted him to move to Israel once he had finished school; their fear of persecution had understandably come with them to the Argentina of Peron and the generals. Meir was injured in the October 1973 war and dates his political shift and his conclusion that the price of the Zionist vision was too high to that time, and he has been active with the peace movement and the political left through the 1990s. Peace-making Israelis – Rabin above all – have often come to their position via their deep understanding of the nature and meaning of war, not from armchair idealism. His political relationship with the religious element is interesting; while a secular party Meretz has been able to find some common ground on their scepticism about the Israeli state as it is constituted today, and about social issues. Finding unexpected points of contact with apparently hostile political forces is essential for a creative politician of the Israeli left. The Jerusalem coalition at least has at its head a Mayor, Nir Barkat, who is right-wing in terms of having a private sector business background rather than extreme religious views or a love of the security-industrial complex. He defeated an Orthodox candidate in the 2008 elections. Jerusalem depends on tourism and pilgrimage, and therefore on peace and co-existence, and it is a poorer city than Tel Aviv because of its much larger Palestinian population (with its high unemployment levels) and Orthodox community (because of their non-participation in the labour market and the state).

There is a common interest in peace, development and balancing the budget. Demolishing houses can be expensive, while legalising them is pretty cheap.  Jerusalem’s mayor has more in common with the embattled but creative Palestinian mayor of Hebron  than he may imagine. The linkage between justice for each community, peace and social justice is inescapable in Jerusalem, in a way that may not appear obvious in the less problematic, more superficially liberal city of Tel Aviv. It is also in Israel’s interests. Meir’s parents wanted him to live somewhere he would be safe as a Jew. But, as he says, “the paradox is that the only place where Jews are in danger is here.”

For myself, as a selfish traveller but one with an interest in the welfare of Jerusalem, I thought about the mid-priced hotel market. According to the Palestinian hotel association, the number of Palestinian hotels operating in Jerusalem has halved since 1967, while lavish new international complexes are opened in West Jerusalem. My modest proposal to the city authorities of Jerusalem would be to produce a strategy to develop once more a flourishing East Jerusalem small hotel and tourism sector, get permissive with building and redevelopment permits, and in doing so encourage the growth of an international, pro-peace Palestinian middle class in Jerusalem. Flying to Israel used to be a difficult matter, but now Easyjet go to Tel Aviv from Luton, Jet-2 fly from Manchester and numerous airlines from Eastern Europe also make the trip. Not everyone on cheap flights will just want to go to the beach and the nightclubs of Tel Aviv. How about it?

A complicating element of Jerusalem city politics is that the main Palestinian parties are strongly against participation in city elections, because their view is that it legitimises Israeli control of East Jerusalem and those voting are collaborators with the occupation. I can understand this view, but from my foreign point of view I do not share it. There may yet emerge, in a peaceful and just settlement, a city of Jerusalem authority that has some unique bi-national or international status even if sovereignty over the city is divided. That city government will almost certainly emerge from the existing municipality, so it seems to me that in principle there are grounds for arguing that voting in city elections is not really recognising Israeli control. In terms of raw pragmatism, the argument for voting is that it could make the difference between justice and injustice for the people of East Jerusalem in the short term and between a viable Palestinian state and its failure in the longer term. If people do not vote, then it is hardly surprising that any political system (including the UK’s) does not cater adequately to their interests. Voting would probably make East Jerusalem Palestinians the largest bloc in the city, able to insist on fair treatment in both its municipal and international dimensions. Pluralists only have a narrow majority over their opponents in the city with current voting patterns, and proper political representation for East Jerusalem seems to me would solve a number of problems. And it is an issue which is in the hands of Palestinians to solve, unlike many others where the power of the Israeli state dominates the process.

I confess that I found Meir Margalit extremely likeable, a gentle and wise person with a strong moral code who has been placed in a nearly impossible position. There is still a small space in Israeli politics for people like him, who say that the military-industrial emperor has no clothes. And that, I hope, will be the narrow opening that becomes the gateway to justice and peace.

NEXT: Maps and numbers: meeting OCHA

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Posted on 03 April 2012 by admin


Jerusalem is a single-industry town. Religion (and therefore politics) suffuses the city and its life. One makes some sort of statement as soon as one says Shalom/ Salaam/ Hello to someone, and from reading a shop sign one can tell more or less where someone stands. The only exception seems to be for sellers of souvenir T-shirts, an ideologically relaxed breed in most places but here capable of selling hero-worshipping Che-style pictures of Yasser Arafat alongside T-shirts depicting machine guns and pro-Israel slogans like ‘IDF- UZI DOES IT!’ and ‘GUNS AND MOSES’.

The souvenir trade here seems to be capable of accommodating the extreme and inconsistent, but not to deal much with the middle ground. The outline map of the area that the world recognises – an Israel vaguely shaped like an old-fashioned telephone, the West Bank between the speaker and the receiver – is a less common one than a map of Israel claiming the entire West Bank, or of the entire area painted in Palestinian colours with old cities like Jaffa present but Tel Aviv not on the map. I am not attracted to the ideological/ demographic implications of either picture, but I guess one should not seek sophisticated political analysis on T-shirts or wooden ornaments. The most attractive T-shirt banality available was Shalom/ Salaam/ Peace in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

There is a known psychiatric disorder called ‘Jerusalem syndrome’. The concentration of so many religious buildings and people, and the sense of closeness to the sublime, can trigger weird symptoms in some visitors – delusions that they are the Messiah being the most noted. It is usually temporary. It is an extreme form of a feeling that most visitors with any empathy will have. Jews are at their most Jewish here, Muslims their most Muslim, and Christians their most Christian (in a perhaps rather mystical vein of Christianity). Even so secularised, agnostic and liberal a Church of England Christian as myself feels a bit of a tug. To walk the streets where Jesus trod, to trace the Stations of the Cross, does have its emotional effect. To pray at the place that Christ was crucified (and you do pray there, even if you haven’t done so properly for years)… one does feel connected somehow.

It is not just the history and theology that makes one identify that bit more with one’s religion in Jerusalem. The very architecture of the Old City encourages a tendency to pick a team, as it is divided into the Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian Quarters, and in talking to people it is easier to smooth over the niceties of one’s belief set and accept an identity as a Christian. This was less unusual in past centuries in eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire, where religious communities had their own self-governing arrangements for civil law and were arranged into ‘Quarters’ and ghettoes – often Muslim, Orthodox, Armenian and Jewish. The fate of the latter in Europe, of course, has its importance in the broader picture of Israel and Palestine.

Jerusalem life could be made completely impossible for everyone if one tried, and even in Jerusalem nobody quite has the bloody-mindedness to try, so people are left to get on with their worship even if their beliefs completely contradict each other. The fabric of tolerance in Jerusalem frequently wears thin. Make no mistake, ‘tolerance’ does not imply approval (a common error made by visitors about the inhabitants of Amsterdam, for instance).Tolerance and strange extra-territorial arrangements have a long history in Jerusalem, hence the peculiar European war that we call ‘Crimea’ which started ostensibly over the guardianship of the Christian holy places. Ironically, the feuding Christian denominations entrust the key of the holiest site in Christendom, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with local Muslims rather than with any of their rivals. The custodianship of the Temple Mount (Haram ash-Sharif) is also, more predictably, in Muslim hands. Muslims can walk up to the focal point of the religious emotion that swirls around the place, while everyone else goes through an Israeli police security checkpoint. The catch is that unless you are an East Jerusalemite or an Israeli citizen, as a Muslim you will find it difficult to get to Jerusalem at all.

Each of the three religions’ core sites has its own particular atmosphere. The Temple Mount has an austere, geometric beauty, softened by the small formal gardens each side of the Dome of the Rock. My Muslim friends who prayed there and at Al-Aqsa found the experience profoundly moving, but the inner beauty is physically inaccessible to non-Muslims.

The Western Wall, a minimal distance (one must resist the temptation to say ‘a stone’s throw’ in these parts) from Al-Aqsa, is to religious Jews the place where the divine is most manifest on Earth, and the devotion of the faithful is at once public and utterly private and inward.

The Christian church of the Holy Sepulchre lacks any of the unity of the Dome of the Rock; reflecting the many Christian denominations who look to it, it is a melange of Byzantine, Crusader and more modern styles. It is a rambling, confusing building, perhaps a metaphor for the pluralities and contradictions of Christianity. It is the centre, but still point it is not.

The Old City is a honeycomb of a place. Streets and alleyways weave up, down and around, making it ideal for wandering around in and making one’s own discoveries. Everywhere there is something old, strange, beautiful or quirky, from ‘Mr Moustache’s Very Good Food Stand’ near Herod’s Gate, where I acquired a fresh, warm falafel (a love of falafel unites Israelis and Palestinians) to an exquisite display of spices in a Palestinian trader’s shop in the markets.

You really cannot tell where somewhere that looks like a doorway off an alley may lead – it might be another even smaller alley, or stairs up or down, or a small synagogue, a family house, an arched cellar… I looked in one such archway this morning, to see two men, one of them clutching a handgun, calmly discussing something. The number of live cats roaming the Old City suggests that curiosity can be held in check, and it duly was in my case on this occasion. Climb some anonymous-looking metal stairs, and you may find yourself on the roof, looking across the Jerusalem skyline on one side, and on the other peeking down to a main street in a Levantine market over oblivious tour groups, trinket-sellers and money changers.

NEXT: Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1)

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