By Joharah Baker
Coming into work the other day, I passed by what is, to most people, a completely mundane scene – a bus stop. As uneventful as this may sound, it was the venue to which my writer’s muse decided it would visit.
For 30 seconds or so at this particular bus stop at a main Jerusalem intersection, I realized that this one small place was the microcosmic representation of all the contradictions, tensions and divisions that characterize Jerusalem. There were eight or 10 people standing there, each from a distinct walk of life, each from a distinct ethnic and national group, and each, let me add, completely polarized on one of two sides of the stand. There was no literal line delineating the border between the Palestinians and Israelis, but the split was no less distinct.
On one side, rigid and tense, two or three Israelis stood, obviously waiting for Israeli-run public transportation to one of the city’s Jewish areas such as French Hill just a few kilometers away. An Israeli soldier with his automatic machine gun slung across his shoulder stood next to a Jewish Orthodox woman in her long black skirt and covered hair. Next to them, another Israeli man, secular perhaps, waited along with them, standing just to the left of the other group of people who were waiting for different, Palestinian bus line.
Then there were the Palestinians, also a diverse group. A veiled Muslim woman with her child stood next to a young man with a baseball cap and oversized pants. Two schoolgirls in uniforms with book bags chatted and giggled nearby.
The scene would be nothing out of the ordinary in any other city. The diversity of ethnicities would not be a subject for discussion in a place such as New York or London, which are both melting pots of different backgrounds. The difference, however, is that in those places, it would not be unthinkable that the people waiting at the bus stop would engage in casual chitchat, the small talk that most strangers make just to pass the time.
In Jerusalem, thanks to the complexities of the city and the political contradictions and tensions that know no end, casual conversation between the people at the bus stop would have been shocking in the least.
I am almost certain there is no place stranger than Jerusalem. The bus stop scenario is a perfect example of this: two peoples in the same city, some living practically door to door, but virtually in two different worlds. At this bus stop, the Israelis would never use the Palestinian buses and mostly vice versa. Palestinians rarely use Israeli buses, except if they are going to an Israeli hospital or work for an Israeli employer. Other than that, the two peoples are divided by an invisible yet indelible line, each one staying on his or her side of the border, which runs from east to west.
Walking through Jerusalem, one word comes to mind: schizophrenia. Just outside the Old City’s New Gate, the main crossroads leads to Jaffa Street. Inside the ancient walls of the Old City, the sights, sounds and smells of Palestinian culture and civilization are distinct, undeniable. In these alleyways, one is in an Arab-Palestinian city, without a doubt. Then, just 30 meters away, just across the intersection onto Jaffa Street, another world materializes. Gone are the characteristics of a Palestinian city (save for the ancient Palestinian homes that were taken over by Jews in 1948) and a new, modern, European-like city begins. Wide, smoothly paved streets, kiosks with foreign food (again, save for the expropriation of the falafel sandwich) and Hebrew speaking Israelis fill the air. It is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’s "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe", crossing the threshold of some secret passageway into an entirely different world that does not and, really, cannot overlap with the other.
In Jerusalem, this rings true for reasons, other than the fact that it is not part of a fairytale. The separation between Palestinian and Israeli goes far beyond any geographic division in the city and finds itself deeply embedded in the psychology of each people. On the surface, Israelis may come to the Old City on Saturdays to shop or have an authentic falafel and hummus sandwich and some Palestinians venture to the western sector of Jerusalem to go to the more modern shopping malls, restaurants or cinemas, but that is mostly where the relationship ends. The political reality of Jerusalem in particular and Palestine in general has dichotomized these two peoples in such a way that their polarization has become the norm rather than the exception.
This only seems natural when the imbalance of Jerusalem’s eastern and western sectors is considered. East Jerusalemites basically live in a police city, with Israeli police and border guards manning almost every corner and randomly checking ID cards of passersby. Garbage builds up, especially in the city’s outskirts, because while Palestinian Jerusalemites pay city taxes just like their Israeli counterparts, they are not serviced by the municipality with the same efficiency.
Needless to say, political developments separate the two "neighbors". The recent Israeli invasion of Gaza, in which nearly 1,400 Palestinians were killed, split Palestinians and Israelis even further. Schools, organizations and businesses in Jerusalem rallied to support their people in the Strip, organizing blood drives, food and clothes donations and collecting money to buy medicines. Stickers and posters depicting bereaved families, martyrs and demolished homes were posted throughout east Jerusalem, making a clear statement on where these residents’ loyalties lie.
Hence, it is no surprise that the nameless would-be passengers at our bus stop did not mingle or even brush shoulders. The Israeli soldier was probably getting on a bus to go to a military camp or to his next checkpoint assignment. The Orthodox woman may have been waiting for the next bus to a Jewish settlement, which hypothetically, could have been built on land confiscated from, say, the village of the young Muslim woman standing just two meters away. Our young Palestinian man in the baseball cap had probably had at least one run-in with an Israeli soldier or police officer. Perhaps he had spent time in an Israeli jail. He most certainly has crossed an Israeli-manned checkpoint into Jerusalem any number of times, perhaps being checked by the very soldier standing to his left.
So there you have it. With such deep-seated complexities and enmities running along that invisible but unmistakable line, how could Jerusalem be anything but schizophrenic?
– Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at email@example.com. (Originally published in MIFTAH, www.miftah.org)