Saturday, October 25, 2014

Jerusalem 2014

Touchdown Tel Aviv. It’s always a bit emotional for me. So many memories from important periods and events in my life. So much recent misplaced vitriol and the frustration of not knowing how to deal with it.

While I was growing up and into my early adulthood, Israel was the darling of the world’s intellectuals across the political spectrum. This beleaguered nation built by ghetto refugees of Eastern Europe, further propelled by survivors out of the ashes of the holocaust, defying the odds to become a viable democracy and home for Jews from every corner of the globe, including 800,000 from North Africa who had been expelled from their homes. It was a heroic, romantic story of hope and achievement in the post WWII period when people were looking for a brighter future.

All this changed after the 1967 war. Suddenly, Israel’s very success in defending itself, and every success thereafter, became a cause for condemnation and vilification – not to mention wholesale historical revisionism.

I arrive soon after the latest military confrontation with Hamas – a polarizing media and maven event, but, one in which at least Israel’s public persona was clear, unapologetic and persuasive to many, though clearly not to all or even perhaps most. The disproportionate media attention, the misconceptions, the distortions, and the motivationally suspect have left a bad smell with me. What will I find this time – how will I feel?

On my second day I go on an unusual tour of Jerusalem, a tour seen from the position, first, of the security – the lives – of the people living there, and, second, from the point of view of the accurate history of the city. The tour is organized by a highly partisan  organization and the tour guide (an ex-South African who hails from my childhood city of Johannesburg) glosses over some uncomfortable details about the 1949 war and violence against the Arab population in various places. Though much of this history is still highly disputed, there seems to be little doubt that the Israeli forces were guilty of bad things. Both sides were. So he distorts this by saying that all of the Arab refugees of that period left in response to exhortations from Arab state leaders. Many did, but many were brutally driven out. That is disappointing, to say the least.

But, overall the picture he presents is undeniable and highly relevant to the debate over Jerusalem. The world media has quite simply been duped into thinking that Jerusalem was once an Arab city, important to Islam, that the Israelis appropriated, and that the moral thing to do would be to return it to its rightful owners. Not only is this false on the national level (something which Libertarians would find irrelevant and obnoxious even to say) but it is false on the individual level as well. There simply was no large Arab population that was displaced from Jerusalem. And, importantly, Arab and Israeli neighborhoods are so intricately intertwined now that it would be impossible to separate the city into Arab and Jewish sections. Here are some important facts:

Jews have been living in Jerusalem continuously for nearly two millennia. They have constituted the largest single group of inhabitants there since the 1840's. Today, the total population of Jerusalem is approximately 800,000. 

It is a popular misconception that East Jerusalem has historically been populated only by Arabs. In the mid- 1800's, the entire population of Jerusalem lived behind the Old City walls (what today would be considered part of the eastern part of the city). Later, the city began to expand beyond the walls because of population growth, and both Jews and Arabs began to build in new areas of the city. By the time of partition, a thriving Jewish community was living in the eastern part of Jerusalem, an area that included the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. This area of the city also contains many sites of importance to the Jewish religion, including the City of David, the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. In addition, major institutions such as Hebrew University and the original Hadassah Hospital are on Mount Scopus — in eastern Jerusalem. 

The only time that the eastern part of Jerusalem was exclusively Arab was between 1949 and 1967, and that was because Jordan occupied the area and forcibly expelled all the Jews.

So, to treat Jerusalem as part of the so-called “settlements” is just wrong in so many ways. The city is a modern city with a vibrant Arab and Jewish population, and some Christians, including a successful high-tech area. The attempt to make Jerusalem part of any overall settlement is a strategic ploy designed as a first step in the dismantling of the state of Israel. It is the “heart” of Israel. Destroy Jerusalem and you destroy Israel. “East Jerusalem” is not east Jerusalem – it is a ring of territory surrounding what used to be the city within the city wall. As both Arab and Jewish populations have grown the supply of housing has become an increasingly binding constraint to the point that rental prices now rival those of Manhattan.  Achieving some sort of normality in the housing market – with transparent titles and security – would lead naturally to an ordered expansion available to both Arabs and Jews – but the absence of a unifying legal structure – and some places with no structure – has meant that the situation is highly precarious and dysfunctional. The interests of the Palestinian Authority quite clearly do not match the interests of the Arabs who live in Jerusalem – Israeli citizens and, increasingly, non-citizen residents. They come to Jerusalem in large numbers for a better life under Israeli authority and they would opt to live under Israel if given the choice. Many have for generations now.

This tour saddens me but adds to my previous impressions. I try to remain optimistic and to marvel at the beauty and resilience of the city – to the seamless mixing ancient and modern in an open and vibrant market system. I am here to try to explain to Israelis the importance of economic freedom, a topic I will turn to in my next blog. 

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