Art project: “Worlds”, by Catherine Pedersen
Technique: photography and photomanipulation
Size: 60×60 cm each
This post is part of Border Town Online, a digital complement to the Border Town Design Studio which will be on display in Detroit starting on September 21st. You can find the rest of the posts at dividedcities.com.
On the day I took this photo, I left my house, which is in West Jerusalem near the Green Line, and walked east. Ten minutes later, I’d left my neighborhood behind. After another ten minutes of walking – first through landscaped parks, then past empty fields – I was already in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, in the neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber.
The neighborhood I’d entered was nothing like the one I’d just left. My own neighborhood consists of nearly-identical, multi-storey apartment buildings arranged in straight lines. Here, the streets curved in unexpected, random-seeming ways. Low houses of one or two storeys were scattered down the hillside, each different from its neighbor. Black water tanks stood on the roofs of the houses, where in West Jerusalem they would have been hidden by the tougher building codes. The air smelled not unpleasantly of livestock – goats, donkeys, sheep. It reminded me of visits to horse stables and rural kibbutz farms. Even the light looked different, both brighter and more mellow.
I had the immediate feeling that I’d wandered into another country – which was exactly what I had in fact done. Though Jabel Mukaber is a neighborhood of Jerusalem, annexed by Israel from Jordanian occupation in 1967, under international law it is part of Palestine.
My neighborhood and Jabel Mukaber are perhaps two minutes apart by car. They are both part of the “united Jerusalem” trumpeted by the Israeli right and center politicians, and both are governed by the same city municipality. Yet as far as the inhabitants of these two neighborhoods are concerned, they might as well be on different worlds.
Jerusalem is a multicultural city.
When I write that phrase, I mean it in two different ways. First, as in all of Israel, we draw our culture from all over the world. Our #1 hits on the radio are heavily influenced not only by Western Europe and the USA, but also by the Arab world, the Balkans, Ethiopia and many more. Our cuisine and our museums are similarly diverse.
Second, Jerusalem is a city that contains many cultures. There are people of many different nationalities and backgrounds living in the city: native Jewish and Arab Israelis; immigrants from America, Russia, Ethiopia, India and more; foreign workers from the Far East; Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem; Ultra-Orthodox Jews; Armenians… The list goes on and on.
Many of these communities are fully integrated with each other. Russian and Ethiopian immigrants of Jewish descent, for example, have for the most part established themselves successfully within mainstream Israeli society. However, there are other groups that don’t tend to mingle with their neighbors. The most prominent of these in Jerusalem are the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox, and the Arabs of East Jerusalem. Both have their own neighborhoods within the city, in what amount to unofficial, stateless territorial enclaves within the “united” city of Jerusalem.
Residents of these enclaves enforce their own rules inside their neighborhoods. In some places, it’s even dangerous for outsiders to enter. Attempted lynchings take place every couple months in the Arab neighborhood of Issawiyya, on hapless Israelis who enter it by mistake. Ultra-Orthodox will sometimes use violence and stone throwing to make people who violate their modesty dress codes, or who drive on the Sabbath, to leave their neighborhoods. In both cases, the police are often helpless to protect people from locals taking the law into their own hands within the borders of these enclaves.
The difference between East and West Jerusalem is particularly pronounced. The Ultra Orthodox have considerable lobbying power within the Israeli government and receive a lot of municipal support. East Jerusalemites, on the other hand, largely consider themselves Palestinian and refuse to apply for Israeli citizenship or to exercise their right to vote, so they have little influence over those in power. Even though Israel regards this territory as annexed, eastern neighborhoods are allotted an inferior amount of municipal funds for everything from education to garbage disposal.
And as far as culture and population goes, East Jerusalem preserves its Arab Palestinian identity. Both under international law, and for most practical purposes, it is a different country altogether than West Jerusalem. In many places, the border between the neighborhoods is visible to the naked eye if you know what to look for.
It’s about these differences between the two halves of Jerusalem that I decided to do this project.
Even if you have lived in Jerusalem all your life, if you cross between one “enclave” to another, you feel like you are crossing a border into foreign territory. Going from West Jerusalem to East Jerusalem, the difference in sights and ambience is as severe as, for example, traveling by plane from Italy to Jordan. Except instead of an hours’-long plane ride, all it takes to complete this trip is to cross from one side of a street to the other.
There is nothing stopping someone from West Jerusalem going into most East Jerusalem neighborhoods, or vice versa. These are neighborhoods with no physical barriers between them, but that are separated socially and culturally from each other by collective choice.
There is a deep social divide between these different communities. It is rare to find a Jewish Israeli who has close social ties with Palestinians, or even with Arab-Israeli citizens. Jewish Israelis rarely go into Arab neighborhoods. And while East Jerusalem residents often enter West Jerusalem to work or to shop, for the most part they live within their own culture, language and communities.
Adding to the issue of the separation of these neighborhoods is the fact that it is quite hard for individuals to move their place of residence between these different cultural enclaves. A Jewish Israeli moving into an Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood would face considerable opposition from his or her neighbors. A person living a secular lifestyle – driving or playing music on Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath), hosting single people of the opposite sex, etc. – would face similar opposition if they moved into many of the Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. And while it is far simpler for a member of these minorities to move into a secular West Jerusalem neighborhood (apart from the infamously prohibitive prices), there is sometimes unspoken prejudice against Arabs or Ultra-Orthodox. Illegal, but often impossible to prove in court.
To some extent, the old city of Jerusalem is one place where all these worlds mingle.
However, it would be a mistake to consider it some kind of “solution” to the dilemma. If anything, the old city is Jerusalem’s “tourist enclave”. Most Israelis rarely go there, and if they do it’s usually to be tourists there themselves, and see the many sites there sacred to Judaism.
As a model for true integration, it’s not scalable to the entire city.
* * *
By illustrating landscapes as isolated planets, my aim was to show the reality of life in Jerusalem in a visual fashion. It’s possible to live one’s entire life in Jerusalem on one planet and within one’s own borders, never crossing over to see what might lie within other worlds contained in this city.
After a certain point, the question is unavoidable: is it truly correct to see Jerusalem as a single city? West Jerusalem undoubtedly belongs to Israel, while East Jerusalem is a part of Palestine. It’s not clear whether we should even try to integrate these two halves of this city. West and East Jerusalem belong under law to two different countries, and each have their own national and cultural identities. Attempting to enforce some sort of cultural homogeneity would be arrogant, imperialistic and wrong.
To further complicate the issue, many East Jerusalem residents would actually prefer to live under Israeli rule. Despite inequalities in municipal funding, the social and financial benefits they receive as residents in Israeli-claimed territory are far superior to those they’d get under the rule of the Palestinian Authority. Also, as a democratic state, Israel offers far more rights to its citizens than the PA does. Israeli Arabs and East Jerusalem residents have more freedoms and more rights than their kin in neighboring Arab countries. In advance of possible political unrest that could follow a Palestinian declaration of independence at the UN this fall, many East Jerusalem residents are applying now to receive Israeli citizenship. They don’t want to be “stuck” under the Palestinian Authority under any future deal between Israel and Palestine Like in any other country, most of the populace in both halves of Jerusalem just want a secure future, for themselves and for their children.
The one clear imperative in light of this situation is to treat all parts of the city of Jerusalem fairly. The inequality in funding and construction approval between Arab and Jewish areas is not only unjust, but is also illegal under Israeli law. The Israeli executive branch needs to obey the law and Supreme Court rulings on the subject, and treat all its citizens and residents equally. (It would also be a constructive step if Israel ceased settler expansion into East Jerusalem residential areas, such as Silwan. Apart from being illegal under international law, these moves cause considerable strife between population groups.)
And while it would be wrong to force one culture on another population, it is vital to promote understanding and communication between the different communities. Jews and Arabs rarely interact socially in Jerusalem. If they did, it would go a long way toward alleviating the mutual fear and distrust between them.
Whether East Jerusalem will remain part of Israel, or whether the existing de facto borders will someday become the international border between Israel or Palestine, mutual understanding will be essential someday in crafting a lasting peace between the two countries. Perhaps Jerusalem, our border town, will someday be held up as an example to both sides in the conflict to show that coexistence is in fact possible.