• Sun. Sep 26th, 2021

Living in jerusalem: mind the gap


Jul 8, 2021

Jerusalem is a city divided in two, at least. A streetcar connects and divides those who ride it. Four portraits on thirteen kilometers.

Connecting and dividing. Image: Anne Fromm

An old man stands on a mountain waiting for the streetcar. He is about to break international law. He has white, light hair, a gaunt face and wears large sunglasses. Today he wants to take the streetcar to visit the Jewish settlements in the eastern part of Jerusalem.

Settlements, borders, capital. Anyone who still believes in a peaceful solution in the Middle East must get a grip on these three problems. The latest peace negotiations under John Kerry will probably also fail because of Jerusalem, since the problems in the city are multiplying. From the window of the streetcar and in every compartment, they show themselves in the smallest of spaces.

The tramway has only been ready for two years, after sixteen years of planning and countless delays in construction. Today it has 100,000 passengers a day, 30,000 more than hoped for. It connects the Jewish settlements in Palestinian East Jerusalem with the city center on the Israeli side – 23 stations, 13 kilometers, 45 minutes.

Every time the streetcar crosses the Green Line, the invisible border between Israel and Palestine near the Old City Wall, with its bells ringing, it breaks international law because Israel is not allowed to build in East Jerusalem. Thus, the streetcar is another obstacle on the road to a two-state solution. On the one hand. On the other hand, in a city where there are even two separate bus lines, it is the first unifying element.

Breaking international law: tramway in Jerusalem. Photo: Anne Fromm

Gabi Daus – the old man

Herzlberg, where Gabi Daus boards the streetcar, is the first stop on the line, but also the first stop in Israel: this is where the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, is buried. Right next to it, a few hundred meters away, Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial. The first two stations of the Israeli state: utopia and terrible occasion. Daus is on the Herzlberg to take a walk: "From here you have a beautiful view of Jerusalem."

The train rings, and Daus begins his journey through the city: a silver-gray train passes through the rendered sandstone backdrop, through West Jerusalem, where apartment buildings have peaked roofs and manicured gardens, where tennis courts border clean streets. "Here is my elementary school," he says, pointing out the window. He started school in 1944. Thirty children they were then at the whole school, which stood alone on a hill. Today, she is surrounded by the city, which continues to grow.

Gabi Daus. Image: Anne Fromm

Daus has been a Jerusalemite all his life. He was born here in 1938, the son of German Jews who fled to Palestine in 1933. His father came from Berlin-Nikolassee, his mother from a place whose name he has forgotten: "Schalke 04, what’s that called again?" His German is groping but flowery: He says his parents smelled the Hitler era. They taught him German before they could speak Hebrew themselves.

Daus has lived in the city longer than his homeland has existed. On May 14, 1948, his uncle stood in front of his parents’ house and shouted, "We have a state!" He took ten-year-old Gabi to the center of town, and together they danced in the street. The next day, the first war began, and his Arab neighbors disappeared from his neighborhood.

Today, about 800,000 people live in Jerusalem. 62 percent are Jews, 35 percent Muslims, 2 percent Christians. There are 1,200 synagogues, 158 churches and 73 mosques. The city is myth and history, and it is embattled present. Again and again Jerusalem has been occupied, destroyed and rebuilt. Christians, Muslims and Jews alike hold Jerusalem sacred: Solomon built his temple here, Jesus was crucified and buried, Mohammed ascended to heaven.

The train stops, a man’s voice from the tape announces the next stop in Hebrew, Arabic and English, the doors open. Clusters of people crowd to the doors of the incoming train. First get off, then let them on? No child has learned that here. Security men look stern, wearing bulletproof vests and a button in their ear. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews board the train. One of them sits down next to Daus, unpacks his Torah and immediately begins to read.

Daus is disturbed by the fact that Orthodox Christians have more and more influence in Jerusalem. For several years, they have been spreading into neighborhoods that were once secular. "This is Kiryat Mosque," he says, pointing out the window. He says non-believers used to live here, too, but they preferred to move to the suburbs. "They don’t want to have 80 percent Orthodox in their neighborhood. Now you can’t drive a car or play music loud here on Shabbat." Ultra-Orthodox enforced separate seating for men and women on more than 50 bus routes.

Fayrouz Sharqawi. Photo by Anne Fromm

The Supreme Court rejected gender segregation, but it continues to operate in part, on a "voluntary basis." Ultra-Orthodox also wanted such a policy for the streetcar, but could not get their way. On Friday evening, the beginning of Shabbat, when buses and streetcars are not allowed to run, the city is theirs. Then they walk on the track bed, a train had better not meet them.

At the central bus station, soldiers board the streetcar, they ride for free. Some carry only a handbag to the uniform, others a machine gun, which then touches the thigh of the seat neighbor. Sometimes a civilian with a gun gets on: settlers who have the right to arm themselves. The train is now full. Most hold on to the handles, swinging against each other in time with the train. Russian Jews read newspapers in Cyrillic script. Seculars hold cell phones in front of their mouths like walkie-talkies and shout into them. Orthodox schoolgirls sit with their long skirts and white blouses next to Muslim girls in headscarves.

The train brakes again, arriving at the Jaffa Center station, in the middle of the downtown shopping bustle. Does Daus think the streetcar will bring Israelis and Palestinians together? Or are the Palestinians annoyed because it ties up the Jewish settlements in the east of the city? "The Arabs just want to get to work or go shopping quickly. They don’t think about the settlements." "Arabs," Daus says every time, "Palestinians" he never says.

Daniel Seidemann – the lawyer

The streetcar leaves the Jaffa center and continues with Daus toward the settlement. Walking a few meters through narrow alleys between cheap shoe stores and cafe chains, you come to Daniel Seidemann’s office. He takes the streetcar to get to his clients in East Jerusalem: Palestinians who were thrown out of their homes by settlers and are now suing in Israel’s highest court. From his office on the tenth floor, he has a sweeping view over Jerusalem, across the Orthodox quarter of Mea Schearim to Ramallah. "In the second intifada, when the Israeli army shelled Arafat’s presidential palace, we had front row seats up here."

"The best thing about the view is that I don’t have to see all the crazies on the street." Seidemann himself is also bifurcated into upstairs and downstairs when he sits at his desk. A pressed, sky-blue shirt, along with serious gray hair. If you take a look under the desk, you’ll see a pair of washed-out jeans that sit a little too low for a lawyer. Seidemann props up his arms, places finger on finger. "Shoot!" he tells the guest at the beginning of the conversation with a penetrating look, but then shoots off himself: "The streetcar serves a city that doesn’t exist."

Seidemann is Jewish American, but first and foremost Jerusalemite. He moved to the city when he was 22 and never left. As a lawyer, he has founded an NGO that publishes maps of every street corner in Jerusalem and lists every new settlement. He knows all the city’s borders and walls. "Jerusalem is my job," he says.

As a young man, he lived in a settlement for a few years himself; now he’s embarrassed. But he understands the more than 200,000 Israelis now living in Arab East Jerusalem: "They’re not ideological, they’re looking for a house. In my eyes, this is not a big crime. In a peace settlement, the settlements there will become part of Israel one way or another." As a Jerusalem expert, Seidemann has been involved in all failed peace negotiations since 2001.

Despite everything, he believes in the two-state solution: "Jerusalem does not have to be divided, Jerusalem is already divided. It just needs to be codified." The West for the Israelis, the East for the Palestinians, a dividing border instead of a connecting track. And what if the two-state solution doesn’t work out? Seidemann grins a cynic’s grin, "Endless, mutual bloodshed."

He is skeptical that the streetcar will survive the next conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians: "The streetcar has not been tested in an emergency. If there’s tension again, and there definitely will be, the settlers won’t take a train that goes through the Arab neighborhood." So far, it has been mostly quiet. But, he recalls, there have been stabbings and brawls, provoked by Israelis and Palestinians.

"These are just reflections of everyday life in this city." But doesn’t the streetcar bring everyone together, soldiers, Orthodox, Palestinians and settlers? Isn’t that a reason for hope? "They also meet at McDonald’s, at the zoo, in hospitals and in the malls. Does that bring Palestinians and Israelis together? I don’t think so."

Why doesn’t he just leave? Despite everything, what does he love about this city? "This is where tectonic plates meet: the Western world and the Arab world, religions." And where tectonic plates meet, there are earthquakes: "Jerusalem is a city that breaks under the weight of its own projections."

Itamar Tovi-Bensousan – the settler

Itamar Tovi-Bensousan boards the streetcar at City Hall, just before the Green Line. He has the curious, wide-set eyes of a sociologist, eyeing the other passengers. He looks Arab, but he doesn’t go to the Palestinian neighborhoods; his home is in French Hill, a Jewish settlement in the eastern part of the city.

"When people tell me, ‘You’re a settler, get lost,’ I say, ‘Fuck off!’ I’ve lived here all my life, I even speak Arabic with my parents. I belong here.’ " Bensousan is Mizrachi, an Arab Jew. His family lived in Egypt before coming to Israel.

Bensousan was born in Jerusalem, in the settlement. His family is middle class, "thanks to the occupation," he says. They bought a cheap, subsidized house in Ma’ale Adumin, a settlement in the outskirts of Jerusalem. In the city center, only rich Israelis can afford houses, he says. He sees himself as a leftist; he wants to end the occupation. He just doesn’t want to move for it.

The train passes the Old City Wall and crosses the Green Line, the border between the Israeli state and the occupied territories. "The idea is not very popular here," says Bensousan. In fact, only the surroundings change, a new neighborhood begins. The train stops at the Damascus Gate, the entrance to the Old City and the Arab part of Jerusalem. The audience changes, Palestinians get on. Little boys ask disembarkers for their tickets to resell them. They move frantically, always keeping an eye on the security guards.

Bensousan likes to watch the people on the streetcar. A young girl in a headscarf stands in front of the ticket machine, counting her coins. A security guard asks her in English if they should try it together. When all the coins have disappeared into the slot, she is missing two shekels, forty cents. The security guard opens his wallet and pays the missing amount.

"If you watch the soldiers," Bensousan says, "you can see that they don’t feel comfortable on the streetcar." They come in from their shift at the checkpoint and then ride the streetcar with the people they just checked. "They see their enemies playing with their cell phones, talking on the phone – and they start to wonder, ‘Is he trying to kill me?’ Or is he just going out tonight?’ "

Bensousan says his childhood in Ma’ale Adumim, the Jewish settler town, was idyllic. Parks, traffic-calmed streets, lots of children. "Like Nils Holgersson," he says, which is a bold comparison on a 35-degree summer day. When the news talks about settlements, you see a few caravans and containers, but Ma’ale Adumin is a town of 35,000. An Israeli bastion in the Palestinian West Bank and at the same time a sleepy suburb of Jerusalem. As a teenager, Bensousan went with friends to the surrounding Palestinian villages, smoking hookah and speaking Arabic. "I felt like I was part of this place."

It wasn’t until his military service that Bensousan understood that the settlement was part of the occupation. He dropped out of the service earlier, having been certified as having "psychological problems."

What will happen next with Jerusalem? "Only the violent and poor stay here," he says. "All the Israelis who can, they already have a second, European passport anyway. Jerusalem will become Sodom and Gomorrah. Extreme settlers will kill Arabs, just like that." With his hand he forms a gun and goes, "Poof!"

Fayrouz Sharqawi – the Palestinian.

In the eastern part of the city, Jerusalem is unrecognizable: Garbage litter the streets next to dirty concrete buildings with garish neon signs. There are black garbage cans on the roofs of every house, and the water supply is poor. The municipality spends only 10 percent of its budget in the Palestinian neighborhoods. On her way to the streetcar, Fayrouz Sharqawi walks past large Israeli hotels that greet her with "Welcome to Israel" and blue and white flags.

Sharqawi is a Palestinian with an Israeli passport. She grew up in Israel, in an Arab village near Nazareth. She moved to Jerusalem to study, and now lives in Shuafat, a Palestinian neighborhood in the eastern part of Jerusalem. A few hundred meters from her house runs the wall that Israel built to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers, behind which lies a refugee camp.

The station where Sharqawi waits after work is called Shimon HaTzaddik: Simon the Just. Even in Arabic letters, only the Jewish name of the neighborhood is written on the signs at the stop. Sharqawi defiantly calls the station "Sheikh Jarrah," which is the name of the neighborhood in Arabic, named after an emir who was buried here in 1201. Sharqawi fumes as fast as she talks. "Palestinians are told, ‘Get out of here! Find another place to live!’ " She is loud and angry; she would like to boycott everything: The streetcar, the occupation, Israel. But boycotting is difficult when there is no alternative. Sharqawi won’t say how often she uses the streetcar herself.

She gets on and finds a seat by the window. Four small Arab boys press their noses against the glass window, gaze spellbound at the passing streets, intoxicated by the speed. Why don’t the Palestinians boycott the streetcar when it strengthens the occupation and the settlements? Sharqawi has to think for the first time before she answers: "Many have lost hope of having their own state. They have to go to the West to do shopping and go to the authorities. And here suddenly comes the streetcar, which makes it very easy."

The world has treated Palestinians like kindergarteners, Sharqawi says. "For twenty years, it was drummed into us: peace process and negotiations. But nothing has changed." Sharqawi has demands, she lists: Building permits, a settlement freeze, better roads and schools in Palestinian neighborhoods. She wants equal rights for all from a country that doesn’t recognize her.

Couldn’t the railroad be a place where Israelis and Palestinians meet? The question makes Sharqawi laugh. "Sure, it’s a nice Israeli view," she says, "but it’s also a humanitarian bubble gum bubble. Yes, I could meet an Israeli on the streetcar and we realize that we listen to the same music, like the same soccer club and go to the same bar in the evening. But what difference does it make? The occupation goes on."

Fayrouz Sharqawi talks herself into a frenzy; other passengers look at the curly-haired woman, some interested, some puzzled. "Isn’t this absurd? It’s great and special when Palestinians and Israelis meet on the streetcar as the same. Because Israelis only meet Palestinians in their city when they mop the floor or cook in the kitchen of their restaurant. That’s ridiculous."

What does she wish for? "I don’t want to be a demographic problem." Sharqawi gets out of the car in the Jewish settlement of French Hill, which is next to Shuafat. She still has to go shopping, and because it’s on the way, she does it here in the estate: empty streets, a sleepy suburb. "Occupation" can be unspectacular, with garden fences and commuters.

The train pulls into the last station, a Jewish settlement. On one of the hills, where the same apartment buildings always stand, Gabi Daus, the first passenger of the day, is standing again. Here he fought in the Six-Day War in 1967. He shows from which building the Jordanians shot and where he hid. In 1993, after the Oslo negotiations, Daus still believed in peace: "Today I think that soon we will have only one state. One that we don’t want and that the Arabs don’t want either." ‘Heil HaAvir is the name of the last stop on the streetcar. In German: Luftwaffe.

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