Jerusalem: For No One and For Everyone

Yesterday was the dreaded “Jerusalem Day”. Tens of thousands of belligerent right-wing settlers marched through the city, in the narrow alleys of its Old City, singing, dancing and carrying huge Israeli flags, pledging their undying loyalty to a Jewish Jerusalem. Some wore t-shirts with the words “Jerusalem Forever” embossed on them and all of them pranced through the Palestinian areas of the city pompously claiming it as their own. Unfortunate Palestinians who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time were made to stand for hours behind a police barricade as the obnoxious marchers made their way towards the western wall, taunting the Palestinians with their flags and their loud singing and just waiting to pick a fight. One did break out at Damascus Gate between settler youths and Palestinians who organized a counter demonstration with Palestinian flags. Pictures later posted on media websites show Israeli police and soldiers arresting and attacking Palestinian youths including children.

Anyway, this year was no different from the years before. The actual march is nothing more than a manifestation of Israel’s official policies in Jerusalem and its racist philosophy that Jerusalem is exclusively Jewish. This premise alone is absolutely absurd. For any faith, government or political movement to exclusively lay claim to a city like Jerusalem is not only racist, it goes against the most fundamental principles of civilized and democratic society. Jerusalem is a city that embraces so much more than just the physical representation of God’s three religions. It is a city of history, of civilizations come and gone and of peoples who have called it their home for hundreds of years.

The Old City walls tell so much. Where I live, in the African-Palestinian neighborhood of the Muslim Quarter, the very homes were used as prisons during the Ottoman Empire. The house, which is meters away from the Aqsa Mosque Compound, is the property of the Muslim Waqf and leased for extended periods to its tenants. Inside the 700 year old room originally built to house African pilgrims coming to the Aqsa, the large stone arches still show the faint indents of prison bars.

This is just one example of history in Jerusalem, which is home to a myriad of ethnicities and religions. The Armenians, one of the oldest and smallest ethnic groups of Jerusalem, have been in the city before the birth of Christ. Today, the Armenian Quarter, adjacent to what is now the Jewish quarter (previously the Moroccan quarter prior to 1967) is known by its beautiful pottery, one of the group’s most prominent trademarks.

The significance of Jerusalem lies not only in its Christian, Muslim and Jewish history but in the history of the people who have lived there for centuries. It is a city full of beauty and contradictions but if it is anything, it is universal. A cave underneath the Old City walls is reportedly used by spiritualists to meditate, a rock is revered because it is said Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven from it, another tucked away cave in a majestic church is said to be the spot where Jesus was buried and then resurrected three days later.

But Jerusalem is also the spot where my great grandfather was born and raised, in a little home in Sheikh Jarrah. It is where Abdel Qader Husseini fought for the city in the Battle of Qastal, not because he wanted to be a hero but because Jerusalem coursed through his veins. He was not fighting for an idea, for a supposed promise from God but for the land of his forefathers.

This is not to say that Jews cannot hold Jerusalem dear. Jewish history is also present in Jerusalem but what Israel must accept is that it is not only Jewish history which is valid. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday on the occasion of Jerusalem Day, “We come with a united government to a united Jerusalem.” It’s alleged ‘Jewishness’ has been accepted as fact by Israel alone, its exclusive claim to the city apparent in the policies implemented on the ground. Israel works night and day to transform Jerusalem into a purely Jewish city, hoping to change the very architecture that may point to the contrary.

What Israel does not yet realize is that people who love Jerusalem will not go down without a fight. It is not only about politics and declaring east Jerusalem and the capital of a future Palestinian state; even that is lacking in honoring the universal significance of the city. This should be a city for all to adore, to worship in and to interpret in their own way. Palestinians who were kicked out of their homes from what is now west Jerusalem will not easily forget the orange groves or the cactus plants that marked their land. The African-Palestinians will continue to pledge their loyalty to the Aqsa, which they have defended for hundreds of years, and Armenians will continue to fire up their pottery in the Old City’s ancient stoves.

Israel cannot erase that truth from the city no matter how many settler marches it hosts or how many times Netanyahu or [Avidgor] Lieberman say Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jews. Narrow minded philosophies –” regardless of the brutal measures that accompany them –” have never thrived for long. Israel’s expansionist policies in Jerusalem may continue unabated for a long time to come. But not forever.