The sense of constriction, anxiety, and suffocation starts before I have even packed my bags for a trip to Jerusalem. Invited to participate in an interdisciplinary workshop on mixed cities in Israel, I am eager to go, to see old friends and colleagues, meet Israeli and Palestinian scholars whose work I have long admired, and participate in creating a book with fellow anthropologists, social historians, urban geographers, and educators. We have been working on this project for a year, and all of us are excited by the fact that our discussions and debates have pushed the boundaries of conventional assumptions, hinting at openings, possibilities, and horizons that may be of more than academic interest. Maybe our work will help, in some small way, at some future date, in identifying escape routes for Israelis and Palestinians trapped in a descending spiral of vengeful bloodletting.
But should I go, when buses are exploding almost everyday in Jerusalem? Can I go, when activists and journalists who challenge or critique official Israeli discourses are being refused entry to the country — or worse, being killed in cold blood?
Is it wise to visit Jerusalem this week, just after a Belgian appeals court has decided that a case I have assisted with, lodged by 23 survivors of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, can go ahead to trial stage and inquire into the actions of top Israeli military officials 21 years ago in Lebanon?
“You are wasting your time. You’ll get to Ben Gurion airport, they’ll see your name, realize you’re the nut who’s trying to bring war crimes charges against their prime minister, and they’ll send you right back out on the next flight,” my husband says, shaking his head at my naivete.
Despite uncertainties, I go to the airport, board the plane, and chat with the people sitting next to me.
“Where are you going? London?”
“Oh, my God! Aren’t you scared?”
Yes, I am scared. Not so much for myself as for what Jerusalem and Israel/Palestine have now become. A political freak show. Obscene deaths. Daily funerals. Unjust suffering. Childhoods destroyed. Futures poisoned. People twisted. Parents bereaved. I don’t suppose the madness will take a holiday just because some pampered academics are attending a workshop. And I am, alas, correct.
Arriving in Tel Aviv, I’m relieved that the workshop organizers’ efforts to ensure a smooth entry for all participants (even “dangerous activists” like me), has worked beautifully. Upon entering I always indicate that I do not want my passport stamped. This is usually followed by an obligatory chat with two or more security personnel about where else I travel in the Middle East and why. But not a single question this time. Just a perfunctory “Welcome to Israel. Enjoy your stay.”
I meet my colleague, an Israeli anthropologist and one of the workshop coordinators, at arrivals. “You heard about the bus bombing, of course,” he says as he helps me with my suitcase. “No, what happened?” I asked, inwardly relieved that I did not tell my parents where I was going. “Not far from your hotel in West Jerusalem, on Jaffa road. Probably about 18 to 20 people were killed.”
I wonder if this will prevent any Palestinian workshop participants from coming from the West Bank or abroad, or if Israeli colleagues from Haifa or the Negev will be less willing to attend. But at our first session on Friday morning, it’s clear that all have arrived, ready to engage in the project fully in the beautiful setting of the Van Leer-Jerusalem Institute. The setting is a peaceful island of critical thought and quiet reflection surrounded by an emerald garden populated by wonderous birds, including some chubby partridges who look in on us with curiosity from the branches of an arbutus tree.
In the workshop sessions, our discussions question the solidity and permanence of identity categories. Reviewing the nature of urban social life in cities such as Haifa, Nazareth, Jaffa and Jerusalem over the last century, it becomes clear that life was happier for all concerned before the steel vise of Zionism set up categories, walls, and taboos that entrapped people into separate and unequal legal, political, and subjective worlds. Israeli educators talked about teaching Palestinian history to Jewish schoolteachers and social workers, and how Israelis resist knowing the story of the other, admitting the pain of the other, seeing themselves reflected in the eyes of the other.
A historian told of a remarkable Jewish-Arab strike during the mandatory period, in which the two communities came together as equals to protest unjust British policies towards civil service salaries. He emphasized the promising emotions, alliances, and common cultural symbols that were generated, however briefly, by this experience.
A novelist reported that the colloquial Arabic spoken in Haifa is now so thoroughly peppered with Hebrew as to be a pidgin version of a new language, neither Arabic nor Hebrew, but a weaker, paler version of either. Only Palestinian citizens of Israel living in mixed cities speak this pidgin. Most Israeli Jews never learn Arabic. Palestinians in Israel know both languages, but some of the presentations at the workshop revealed that knowledge of classical Arabic is fading fast, thanks to Israeli cultural hegemony and the very poor standards of Arabic language instruction in the state of Israel.
Anthropologists told of the ironies, misunderstandings, obstacles, and challenges besetting joint projects coordinated by Israeli and Palestinian activists attempting to improve living conditions in Jaffa, pointing out that identities are undergoing unpredictable transformations and no longer accord with the flattened stereotypes of “Israeli” and “Palestinian” proffered by politicians or the popular press.
The recurring and underlying theme, though, was the inegalitarian nature of life in Israel’s mixed cities, the fact that there are two tiers of rights, life chances, education, career opportunities, mental health, commerce, and habitation: Jewish and non-Jewish. In assessing a variety of popular grassroots struggles to deal with institutionalized discrimination and racism, and in tracing its structural underpinnings to various Israeli ministries and laws, we were implicitly considering some escape routes for those who are entrapped in a crisis that is existential, not merely political. The most far-reaching proposals traced out the contours of a one-state, bi-national democracy. To my surpise and delight, no one at the workshop protested this or shut it out as “unrealistic” or “impossible.”
What became clearer and clearer during the three days of the workshop, and following two long walks through the darkened alleyways and stair cases of Jerusalem’s old city, is that not only Palestinians are desperately trapped now in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Jews are, too. Fear and anxiety are unshakeable daily companions.
The outward manifestation of this tortured mental landscape is the dozens of infrastrutural projects erupting along the seam between East and West Jerusalem. These public works projects are not about the “public”; they will not improve or enhance common spaces, but rather, will only further constrict disappearing shared space by diverting traffic, housing, commerce, and socializing according to racial distinctions. They create a permanent detour leading to injustice and anger, rendering Jerusalem a fractured and ugly city in which Israelis and Palestinians are to be kept separate at all times. The former are to receive the choicest houses, the most water, the best roads, the guarantee of rights; the latter are to stay out of the way and just keep their mouths shut.
Walls and barricades are omnipresent, marring Jerusalem’s fabled beauty and scarring its ancient soul, wounding all who see it, Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews, locals and foreigners. The new city’s streets, shops and restaurants are virtually empty. The Old City is deathly quiet and many shops remain shuttered all day long.
“Amazing; it’s reverted to a local market town, not a major pilgrimage and tourist center,” marveled a colleague from Britain, who did his doctoral research in the Old City two decades ago.
Faces are uniformly drawn, angry, and suspicious in the Old City, but they are in West Jerusalem, too. The smiles and invitations to tea from Palestinian shopkeepers that I recall from visits in the 1980s and 1990s have evaporated. The predominant color in Jerusalem is a greyish-yellow pall, like an emotional dust-storm that never ends, a soul-irritant that no one can escape, a curse that everyone hopes will soon be lifted.
In a crowded hotel elevator, two other workshop participants and I are talking in animated tones as a young orthodox Jewish couple with a baby stare at us in silence. My colleagues get off on their floor. It’s just me, the young couple, and their sleeping baby. The husband turns to me and says “There are tourists? Coming here? To this city? Now?!” He looks at me as though I am a visitor from the planet Saturn.
The last day of the workshop, I walk through the Van Leer Institute’s garden and stop in front of a large statue of Albert Einstein. In the pavement are carved some of Einstein’s philosophical musings, including one in which he declares his pride in his Jewish heritage because Jews have always emphasized social justice above all else. A Jewish colleague from the US, an anthropology professor, wryly observes that were he to visit Jeruslaem today, Einstein would be compelled to change his mind.
An Israeli colleague is taking a nap in the grass nearby. I sit down on the cool grass to chat with her. She seems really exhausted so I ask if anything is wrong. She sits up and we talk about the workshop, the city, and the overall situation. The last time I saw her, nearly ten years ago, I was about to move to Lebanon.
She asks me about my years living in Beirut, and how we managed under bombardments and during periods of stress. I tell her the worst thing was not being able to plan for the future, not knowing when the whole floor might drop out from beneath you, and the constant fear that all your hard work would then be for naught.
She takes a deep breath and waves her hands a bit in front of her tense face, like she is trying to catch her breath. “Coming to Jerusalem now, I get these waves of panic and fear. I know we can all just be blown up at any minute,” she says quietly, regaining her composure after keeping her panic down. For now.
I automatically expect her to unleash a litany of anger and invective at Hamas, Arafat, Muslims, terrorists, etc. But she surprises me. “I’m terrified when I come to Jerusalem, and although on one hand I deplore these suicide bombings, on the other hand, what else could they do? We have so trapped and hurt the Palestinians, and we’ve been so arrogant about it, so cold and insensitive to the suffering we have caused, that it probably took these horrible attacks to shake us, to make us realize we are on the wrong path. I don’t think, sadly enough, that anything else would have gotten our attention. But I am terrified, and I’m trying to learn how to live with this terror, because I don’t think it will go away anytime soon.”
Flying out of Tel Aviv the next day, I am relieved to still be in one piece, and glad I don’t have to live in a place where the walls are closing in, fear is suffocating everyone, and worse is probably yet to come. I am really looking forward to unwinding by walking along the Pacific coast back home in British Columbia. Where can Palestinians and Israelis unwind now?
Yet I feel some measure of hope in knowing that a lot of people are staring at the literal and figurative walls before them, trying to catch their breath, trying to breathe freer. I sense that many Palestinians and Israelis are starting to realize that the walls entrapping them both have to come down. I hope that rather than blowing them apart in explosions of murderous rage, they will start talking about ways to dismantle the walls, and begin taking them apart, brick by brick, together, in order to build new cities filled with shared and open spaces, cities that offer freedom, equality, and justice for all.
Laurie King-Irani is a co-founder of the Electronic Intifada. In 1991-1993, she conducted anthropological field research in Nazareth on political identity and political organizing among Palestinian citizens of Israel under a Fulbright doctoral dissertation grant. She now teaches social anthropology in Victoria, BC.