Jerusalem is a place of an immense symbolic significance. When the name of this ancient city is spoken, almost everybody has some sort of image of it in his mind, even if he never visited the place. Some stress the city’s importance for one of the three major monotheistic religions. Others focus on one of the national movements and their specific readings of history that view Jerusalem as their core symbol (Gelvin, 2014, p. 6). Therefore, when one thinks about Jerusalem, it is surprisingly hard not to overemphasise the emblematic and sacred image of it.
What contributes to this feeling is that Jerusalem remains to be a city in which such groups are often spatially divided and their mutual interaction is limited. Places within the city are therefore never neutral and always seem to “belong” to a specific group or narrative (Romann, Weingrod, 2014, p. 46). Moreover, overlap and interaction of the Jewish and Palestinian population, which does take place during the day, is almost always interrupted in the evenings when the two groups return to their separate quarters (ibid, p. 49).
As Friedman and Hecht argued, these facts also shape our perception of the actions different kinds of Jerusalem’s inhabitants. According to them, one inevitably has the tendency to assign symbolic meaning to mundane actions of Jerusalemites that often exceeds its actual significance (1996, p. 3). Behaviour of specific members of an ethnic or religious group is therefore many times interpreted as a representation of that whole group’s actions from which far reaching conclusions about that specific ethnicity or religion are drawn.
Consequently, if one seeks to find images of conflict or a proof for a certain political or religious narrative, Jerusalem with its enormous symbolic value will almost certainly provide it. You can observe this activity for example when you watch a group of reporters monitoring a specific place of symbolic value in the city, waiting for the perfect image which would capture the expected representation of Jerusalem for their viewers, usually full of conflict and controversy, while the rather ordinary and routine daily life happens in the background without seeming important to the reporters. Similarly, one is sometimes baffled by the periodic discussions appearing on a Facebook page designated for foreigners in Jerusalem, in which every now and then somebody shares a post about a Palestinian man giving up his seat on the light rail for an elderly orthodox Jew (or vice versa), which inevitably initiates a long debate in the comment section including far reaching conclusions about that specific ethnic or religious group or the overall political situation in the country.
However, the advantage of living in Jerusalem for an extended period of time is that it allows for peeking through the layers of symbolism, political interpretations and religious importance. After a few months in the city, one starts to notice fragments of everyday reality which does not fit to the stereotypical image of Jerusalem as a symbol. The power of day to day life in a place such as this one lies in the fact that a major part of it is simply not about politics or religion. To see the image of Jerusalem merely through the lens of grand ideologies is greatly reducing the actual complexity and it would also be just all too easy. If a person is looking for examples of conflict, he will most certainly find them. On the other hand, it would be very limiting to judge the mosaic of life in Jerusalem only through these examples.
During one of my visits in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, I have stopped to talk with two Palestinian shop owners. One of them started to describe to me in perfect Hebrew some of the economic problems his family is facing and complained about unequal treatment and discrimination on the part of the Israeli state institutions. At the very moment, a couple of Jewish security guards accompanying a group of Jewish children from one of the settlements in the Old City appeared at the corner of the street. The shop owner saw them and elaborated in a loud voice on the difference in salaries in between him and the security guards. To my utmost surprise, both the other shop owner and the security guards seem to be amused by his speech, all four of them greeted each other in an informal and rather friendly way, after which they went their separate ways.
The existence of those very real human moments and other “mundane” aspects of the everyday life is not a solution for all the political and religious division and does not mean that this division disappeared. The fact that both Palestinian and Jewish families go to shop at the same store and buy the same item on sale does not mean that all the other differences are gone. It may come as a surprise to some, but political conflict and everyday banal interaction and coexistence can very easily exist side by side, as demonstrated by the story from the Old City. However, it would be very misleading to view life in Jerusalem based on just one of the two.
Friedland, Roger, and Richard Hecht. To Rule Jerusalem. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Gelvin, James L. The Israel-Palestine conflict: One hundred years of war. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Romann, Michael, and Alex Weingrod. Living together separately: Arabs and Jews in contemporary Jerusalem. Princeton University Press, 2014.