The Real Jerusalem by Judy Lash Balint Emunah Magazine
October 11, 2001
Come with me to the real Jerusalem—the place where an ordinary errand turns into an adventure encompassing politics, history, sociology, extraordinary physical beauty, drama and pathos.
The real Jerusalem is already a city largely divided along ethnic lines, with western Jerusalem encompassing the bulk of the Jewish population and the eastern part of the city overwhelmingly Arab in character. That’s the conventional wisdom anyway, but in fact, pockets of Jewish development are cropping up within eastern Jerusalem to ensure that Israel’s capital does stay united.
One recent late afternoon I had to deliver some papers to a colleague at Yeshivat Beit Orot, the lone Jewish presence on the Mount of Olives. The short drive from my west Jerusalem apartment to the historic slopes of ancient Jerusalem was anything but uneventful.
On Agron Street, just across from Independence Park, the security personnel of the US Consulate in west Jerusalem, dressed in their green polo shirts stare anxiously at each passing vehicle. A white Econoline mini-van with consular license plates jerks out in front of me from its parking place as I drive past. Slowing to approach the junction with King David Street, I am amazed to see the van speed up and race through the traffic light as it turned red. What urgent mission precipitated such a move, I wonder.
Turning left, I join the line of traffic inching its way up the hill to the intersection in front of the Safra Square buildings housing the Jerusalem municipality. A casual glance to the right and I’m looking toward the walls of the Old City and the jutting Jaffa Gate. To me, crossing this junction on my way east, always marks the transition point between eastern and western Jerusalem.
Stuck in the line of cars heading out of the city towards the northern Jewish suburbs on this Paratroopers Street more commonly known as Route #1, I have time to look at the people in the opposite lane. They are a crazy mix of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men heading out of their nearby Meah Shearim and Beit Yisrael neighborhoods, and sullen Arabs packed into rusty, decrepit white vans on their way home to the villages just southeast of the city.
The cars and vans jockey for position as they climb the hill past the Notre Dame hostel. Despite being the middle of the afternoon rush hour, the traffic is still much lighter than it used to be before the onset of the current violence. Then, full-sized tour buses would grind their gears up the hill and elbow out anyone in their path as they transported weary pilgrims back to their hotels after a day’s touring. Today, such a sight is a rarity.
Now, the area in front of Damascus Gate on my right is lively with commerce as the Arab stallholders hawk their wares. Across Sultan Suleiman Street, the parking lot in front of the shops and restaurants is bustling with activity. This in marked contrast to the area below Jaffa Gate on the Jewish side” of the Old City. There, a deserted, over-priced residential real estate project known as David’s Village dominates the landscape, relieved only by ugly concrete buildings across the street that house an underground municipal parking garage. There’s no living neighborhood there that can lay claim to invigorating the city.
Back on Route # 1, the four lane highway cuts through the old Morasha neighborhood, leaving a gentrified, mostly Jewish area on the west, and an almost Judenrein Arab area to the east. A few blocks north, and I pass the Museum on the Seam, the new incarnation of the venerable Tourjeman Post Museum. The place fell victim to Oslo mania as it was transformed from the one place in Jerusalem that celebrated the reunification of the city in 1967 through artifacts and photos, and morphed into a place dedicated to “dialogue, tolerance and co-existence.” The building is now totally devoid of its original function and sits forlornly, waiting for busloads of non-existent visitors.
I experience a moment of indecision as I weigh the merits of taking the shorter route to Beit Orot through Sheikh Jarrah, or by-passing the neighborhood in favor of continuing straight up Paratroopers Road and on through the Government Compound. Since it’s still fairly light, I make the right turn into Sheikh Jarrah. To my right there’s the odd spectacle of two kosher hotels, each opened some 18 months ago, and now rumored to be under risk of imminent closure, side by side with another hotel under construction.
The Royal Olive Tree Hotel offers glatt mehadrin catering and soothing, attractive décor. It now caters primarily to Israeli wedding parties and weekend guests looking for cheap Jerusalem accommodations close to Meah Shearim.
Just across the traffic circle, lies another hostelry catering to quite a different clientele. The infamous American Colony Hotel is certainly under no threat of closure. The elegant hotel festooned with brightly colored flowers and boasting quiet, shady courtyards is home to the visiting foreign press corps. Anyone with enough patience and interest can spot the big name foreign correspondents and listen in discreetly to their interviews with high-ranking Palestine Authority figures that pop in from the assorted PA offices dotted around the area. (Orient House, once the Jerusalem headquarters of the PA, is just around the corner).
In fact, as I round the bend further into Sheik Jarrah two middle-aged men dressed in dress shirts and ties holding clipboards are deep in conversation on the sidewalk. The shorter one is blond, the larger of the two is dark, his face adorned with the typical Arab moustache. With the large number of UN vehicles on the streets in this part of town, I assume the two are a UN or European Union officer and a local Arab official.
Around the next bend the name of the road changes to Derekh Har Hazeitim—Mt. of Olives Way. On my left, the Arab owned Mt. Scopus Hotel is shuttered, suffering the same fate as the Jewish hotels a few blocks away. On the right hand side of the road, I notice that the security guards watching over the Jewish reclamation project at Shimon HaTzaddik have moved their rooftop booth closer to the street. One of the heavily armed guards is languidly lounging on the roof in his bulletproof vest. A huge Israeli flag flutters from the pole on top of the synagogue in the complex that is slated for restoration to its original status as a Jewish neighborhood.
Derekh Har Hazeitim is the road where 78 doctors and nurses on their way from the city to Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus lost their lives in an Arab ambush in 1948. I pass the modest stone memorial marking the attack and drive on past the British and Turkish Consulates housed in mansions along the road.
At the next curve lies the abandoned Shepherd’s Hotel. The large property was purchased by American Jewish philanthropist Irving Moskowitz and awaits a decision as to its future. I picture a conference center, a school, perhaps a yeshiva to enliven the old walls.
Emerging from the winding road onto the main thoroughfare leading to Hebrew University, I’m relieved. Irrational, since in all my weekly trips through the area over the past three years I have never encountered any incidents.
The multi-cultural campus is quiet. Groups of students wander about in their separate groups. Arab women with their heads modestly covered; men wearing kippot; Israeli women in skimpy halter-tops and jeans. I skirt around the back of the campus straining for a view of the Old City through the trees. At the southernmost point of the university grounds, I make a sharp right turn, and then another quick right that brings me directly in front of the Jerusalem campus of Brigham Young University.
The handsome buildings and immaculately manicured grounds host some 1700 Mormon youngsters. Today, there’s a wedding taking place, and a gleaming, flower-decked Mercedes waits in the driveway. A handsome Arab couple emerges from the back seat as I drive on a few hundred yards to Beit Orot.
The hesder yeshiva founded by MK Rabbi Benny Elon and former MK Hanan Porat some 10 years ago is a thriving presence on the hill overlooking the Temple Mount. Almost 100 students live and learn in the two old buildings that house the yeshiva. Yeshiva leaders are amongst those in the forefront of the quiet efforts to reclaim property in eastern Jerusalem that once belonged to Jews but have been used by Arab squatters since the riots of the 1930s drove the Jews out.
I make my delivery and turn the car around to leave. The last rays of the sun filter through the autumn clouds, and lend a grayish light to the city below.
Back at the edge of Hebrew U, I look down over the Judean hills toward the Dead Sea. The pace of Arab construction in the village below is truly astounding. Al Zayam has spread over a couple of hills while no one was paying attention. Unoccupied multi-story villas are clearly visible from the amphitheater of the university.
Heading out of the campus, vehicular traffic is forced to take the eastern road around the perimeter of the university. Strange that one of Jerusalem’s “secret” intelligence bases sits on this road. It’s high atop a hill overlooking Izawiya, one of the Arab villages situated within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries.
Once through the campus, I wind my way back through Sheikh Jarrah and out onto Route #1. I pull up to the Route #1 junction just in front of the hotel under construction. On the median, a scruffy young Arab kid grabs his pail and squeegee and energetically begins cleaning my windshield even though I tell him clearly I don’t need his service. Completing the task in a few seconds, he imploringly puts out his hand for his tip. The cars behind me start honking as the light changes and I’m still involved in the transaction. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a lone young Hasid nervously making his way from Meah Shearim to the nearby tomb of Shimon HaTzaddik.
Eyeing the traffic going south on Route #1, I decide to take my chances with Rehov Haneviim (Street of the Prophets). I climb the short hill with some of Jerusalem’s most picturesque architecture on the left hand side. Turning into the area known as the Russian Compound, I remember the recent car bomb explosions here that have succeeded in keeping people away from the nightclubs and restaurants dotted throughout the narrow streets. Yet the streets are filled with cars driven by young Arab men. They’re easy to spot since they tend to favor 10-year-old Subaru sedans, adorned with curtains on the back windows and a red Nike swoosh sticker somewhere in the back window.
In front of me is the Russian Orthodox Church with its distinctive onion-dome roof. To the right is the police detention facility known as the Russian Compound. It’s single story structure dates back to pre-State days, and the place has housed some of Israel’s most notorious criminals and foes.
The road leading up to the compound is Moscow Road. Just down below, Jaffa Road has been temporarily renamed New York Road in honor of those who perished in the September 11 terror attack.
Neither Moscow nor New York offers the complexity, beauty and mystery encompassed by Jerusalem in the space of just a few square miles.
Crossing from west to east and back again, the soft underbelly of the real Jerusalem is exposed.