Those who know Israel solely through a media that has pieced together an image of the country out of countless newsflashes of suicide bombings, intifadas, missile attacks, border conflicts, and failed peace negotiations, may very well be inclined to see only irony in this designation of the Jewish state’s disputed capital.
However, because irony within a society can be defined by the regular occurrence of what is utterly contrary to what so many people incessantly claim, it tends to be no more than a consequence of hypocrisy. And both the Arab and Western worlds – who, in the manner of individuals, can often only understand others insofar as they can project onto them an understanding of themselves – would be surprised (or more accurately, disappointed) to find out that Jerusalem is not a place of hypocrisy but of contradictions.
In other words, rather than an area where a great deal takes place under the pretense of what is entirely different – as seems to be the case with so much of the modern world – Jerusalem is largely a city where opposites coexist. Consequently, one cannot be in Jerusalem without experiencing the extraordinary madness of a genuine order of peace within an undeniable state of war.
Even during prolonged periods of calm, when there are no suicide bombings or other political attacks within Jerusalem, it is difficult to forget the war; for it remains openly scattered throughout the city by the presence of those who constantly prepare for it. The entrance to every large public building, every bank, indoor bus and train station, museum, theater, library, hospital, school, shopping mall, grocery store, and pharmacy is posted with a guard who kneads the outside of every civilian bag with the hand that is not wielding a security wand as he looks inside and asks whomever wishes to enter about weapons possession before allowing him or her to pass through the metal detector.
Meanwhile, nearly every Israeli citizen not long out of high school is pronounced among the crowds of locals, immigrants, and sightseers by khaki green fatigues and an assault rifle hanging crosswise from a shoulder.
Yet there is an equally ubiquitous presence in Jerusalem of those people whom the Jews are trying to protect themselves from, i.e., the Muslims, who can usually be distinguished from the Jewish people by an Arabic tongue or accent and colorful scarves differing from the swirled headdresses of the Orthodox Jewish women in that they drape over the hair like a bell while leaving but a hole for the protrusion of the face.
Although there is not much in the way of actual friendship between the Jews and Muslims of Jerusalem, the Muslims are, nevertheless, an integral part of its society. Though they remain ideologically apart, the Muslims and Jews can be seen physically together as both groups carry on with their daily lives. Together they animate the outdoors as they jostle through the rolling streets, linger about the shopping centers, crowd into the public buses and light rail cars, and sit among the neo-modernist sculptures in the parks. Together they work, stocking shelves at the supermarkets, taking orders at the restaurants and coffee shops, erecting steel beams at construction sites, driving buses and taxis, filling prescriptions at the pharmacies, and treating patients at the clinics and hospitals. And together they study, sitting beside each other in classrooms and passing each other in the hallways of Hebrew University.
All the while, the Israeli soldiers can be seen laughing at the new text messages that have been sent to their cell phones, holding up compact mirrors to retouch the makeup on their teenage faces, holding and kissing their lovers in the public squares, and even dancing and singing in a circle within the crowded Mahane Yehuda marketplace.
Heightened security, lack of crimeAddressing the Knesset in 1977 over the conflict between Israel and Egypt, the new prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, famously stated, “It is peace that is inevitable” – a sentiment which has been more recently echoed by President Shimon Peres in regards to the relationship between the Israelis and Palestinians. However, genuine perceptions of inevitability are always rooted in observations of the past. And everywhere in Jerusalem, a city puzzled together with the limestone remnants of every successive reign, the past is not only strikingly apparent but blatantly revealing of a spirit of warfare that has haunted the area for thousands of years.
Thus, the sum of all the city’s diverse parts – the ancient Jewish tombs on the Mount of Olives, the Western Wall of the Roman King Herod’s rule, the Byzantine Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the gilded Dome of the Rock constructed under the Caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, the citadels of the Ottoman Turks, the baroque cathedrals in the Russian Compound, the luxury hotels of British Palestine, the synagogues, boutiques, falafel stands and sushi restaurants of today – attests to a place which has not just been recently developed, but has been for millennia razed and rebuilt over and over again.
And to wander about this Frankenstein of history, to see a city laden with both heightened security and such a lack of crime that store goods and small children can be left outside and unattended, to stand on the Israeli-constructed promenade overlooking the Kidron Valley and hear the Islamic call to prayer echoing through the gleaming tiers of the white stone buildings as the sunset gradually blushes away the light from the West Bank barrier, to sit on a bus beside a young soldier whose cropped head falls limp with sleep as his automatic rifle lies curled in his arms like a teddy bear, is to bear witness to a Jerusalem whose latest reincarnation into a place of contradictions has appeased its ancient and belligerent zeitgeist insofar as it has become a city that is at peace with war.