At Marie van der Zyl’s pressure for Truss to make the Trumpian decision to move the Israeli embassy from the UK to Jerusalem was not only misguided and potentially dangerousbut also highlighted the distorted perception of our community of Jerusalem as a uniquely Jewish city.
When we travel to the city, many of us only visit Jewish Jerusalem. I know from experience that even when we see Palestinian neighborhoods – perhaps when we stand on the Tayelet (promenade) in Talpiot and look towards the old city – our eyes tend to cover them up, refusing to recognize that there is another Jerusalem: the Palestinian Jerusalem.
Having spent many family vacations and my gap year in Jerusalem, I naively thought I knew the city. I knew the cafes of Emek Refaim, the bars of the Russian enclosure and the shops of Malcha Mall; I played football at Gan Sacher, shopped at Machane Yehuda, ate frozen yogurt at Ben Yehuda and headed to Mea Sharim for sefarim and (strangely) cheap designer underwear. I visited friends who were studying at Har Nof Seminary or the Hebrew University of Mount Scopus, and stayed with my family in Ramot. The old city was intended for praying at the Kotel, entering through the Zion Gate and passing only through the Jewish quarter.
It was only one day, about ten years ago, when I wondered what was in an alley at the back of Kotel Square, and then found myself in a city lively Arabic, that I understood that there was another Jerusalem.
Of course, I knew there were Arabs in Jerusalem. But I hadn’t understood that Jerusalem is an Arab-Palestinian city, no less than it is a Jewish city.
In the years that followed, I began to explore and learn more about Palestinian Jerusalem. Initially, I stuck to the old town: taking guided tours of the Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters; sip a coffee on the terrace of the Austrian Hospice or a sweet tea on a stool in a quiet passageway; buy spices, dates or tamarind juice from the merchants in the old town. I visited the Temple Mount on a double narrative tour and understood its importance not only as a religious site, but as an oasis in the Palestinian space.
I began to understand that while Jerusalem is at the center of Jewish history, the history of Jerusalem is much broader.
Over time, I ventured further: to the bustling Salah Ad-din street, which starts from the Damascus Gate, with its many shops and street vendors, and the famous Educational library; beyond the seemingly displaced St George’s Anglican Cathedral; and for afternoon tea at the American Colony Hotel, or to sample Palestinian cuisine at restaurants like Azzahra. This year, I joined joyful crowds in the alleyways of the Muslim Quarter and outside Damascus Gate as they celebrated the nights of Ramadan with food, music, lights and laughter.
A few minutes’ walk from my old haunts was a Jerusalem of which I had been utterly ignorant: a Jerusalem that is unmistakably, profoundly, Palestinian. It was like crossing a border, but the border was reversed in 1967.
However, the absence of borders has not, despite Israeli slogans, united Jerusalem. The city remains divided and deeply unequal. Israel annexed the 70 square kilometers of the West Bank now known as East Jerusalem after 1967, but did not grant citizenship to residents of the area or treat them equally. On the contrary, its policies aim to pressure Palestinians to leave the city.
I began to visit neighborhoods beyond the tourist trail and learn more about the reality of Israeli control over the Palestinians of Jerusalem.
In Silwan, in the valley east of the Old City, I saw unpaved and littered streets: a stark contrast to Jewish Jerusalem. I visited the Sumreen family who face eviction from their home due to state exploitation of archaic Absentee Property Act 1950; I saw the settlers who since the 1990s have increasingly taken over parts of the neighborhood and whose aggressive presence is making life even more difficult for the Palestinian residents of Silwan.
In Sheikh Jarrah, north of the Old City, I visited the Shamasneh family who were facing eviction from their home under a discriminatory 1970 law that only allows Jews to recover their pre-1948 property, and protested outside their home after triumphant settlers moved in under police protection. I have returned there several times for the weekly joint Palestinian and Israeli protests against the ongoing evictions, and this year I was welcomed in a beautiful solidarity iftar meal. Coming home by light rail, we had caught in pepper spray as far-right Israeli Jews carried out random attacks on Palestinians in central Jerusalem, while police did nothing to stop them.
I visited Kafr Aqab, which was annexed and included in the municipality of Jerusalem, but later left on the Palestinian side of the Separation wall. Its residents have the right to reside in Jerusalem and pay municipal taxes, but must queue at checkpoints to enter other parts of the city. The municipality no longer even provides basic services such as garbage collection or the police. Since the Palestinian Authority is prohibited from operating there because Israel considers the area to be within its borders, it was abandoned in chaos.
I am aware that I have barely touched the surface. I never went to Shuafat refugee camp, built for Palestinians who fled or were expelled from West Jerusalem in 1948, then annexed by Israel after 1967 but now also on the Palestinian side of the Separation Wall, surrounded on three sides by its dystopian gray walls. I never went to Issawiya, an underprivileged Palestinian neighborhood regularly subjected to police violence. I haven’t been either al-Walajaa village on the edge of the annexed area, where 380 people face having their homes demolished because Israel has made it virtually impossible for Palestinians in Jerusalem to obtain building permits.
Yet even my limited explorations allowed me to appreciate the vibrancy, history, and joy of Palestinian Jerusalem, as well as its oppression, inequality, and neglect under Israeli control. Promoting the transfer of the British Embassy from Israel to Jerusalem negates the former while sanctioning the latter.
If our community discovered and visited Palestinian Jerusalem, perhaps our community leaders would think before pushing for policies that support and promote a distorted view of the city as exclusively Jewish.
For anyone wishing to visit Palestinian Jerusalem, Mejdi Tours Old Town Double Narrative Tour or a tour with an NGO Ir Amim is an excellent starting point. For those not heading to town, Matthew Teller’s new book “Nine neighborhoods of Jerusalemoffers a very readable overview of the historical and cultural diversity of Jerusalem.
Anna Roiser is a lawyer who recently completed a master’s degree in Israel Studies. She spent time living in Jerusalem and campaigned against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.