Over 35 years ago, my family and I moved into a bullet-ridden stone ruin in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem. Following the Six-Day War, and its retaking by the Israeli army, a massive building project was set up to return the area to its former glory, along with millions of dollars spent on preserving the holy sites of the Armenian, Christian and Moslem Quarters. The Arab families who had shared the dilapidated structures from which we built our house were compensated and forced to relocate to East Jerusalem. A courtyard that served as a common cooking area was covered over with an acrylic archway and became our vestibule. An extra floor was built up from one of the roofs and became our living room, which offered a spectacular view of the Wailing Wall, Dome of the Rock and Holy Sepulcher.
A year after we moved in, a Palestinian woman knocked on our door and asked my mother if she could come in and look around. It turned out that she had been one of the previous occupants, and even as she marveled at the renovations, it was clear she was resentful.
It is also clear that the Jewish family that occupied the same residence before her were also forced to relocate during the 1948 War of Independence. They, however, did not have the luxury of being able to knock on the door to their old house since, under Jordanian rule, Jews were forbidden from entering the Old City.
Today, my family still resides in the same house, and the Jewish Quarter is made up of mostly Orthodox and religious Jews. There are new schools, yeshivas, synagogues, shops, and restaurants, and the charming narrow streets are filled with tourists from every nationality and religion. The Western Wall hums with life, day and night, and has become the most recognizable symbol of the Jewish people. World dignitaries routinely stop by to tuck notes of paper with prayers of peace between the 2000-year Herodian stones, and even Bob Dylan – who’s 1983 hit song “Neighborhood Bully” is an ode to Israel’s predicament – had his son’s bar mitzvah there.
But in this highly politicized era, where a brouhaha is made every time Israel begins construction on any part of Jerusalem beyond the 1967 green line, it’s worth asking why the Jewish Quarter has been spared the same level of international criticism. After all, it’s also on the other side of the green line, and has never been recognized as part of Israel by any foreign government. In fact, the British government recently banned pictures of the Western Wall from appearing in any Israeli Tourism brochures.
So what gives? Why aren’t the Europeans and the Obama administration “strongly objecting” to the expansion of the Jewish Quarter, or stepping up to condemn the recently completed Hurva synagogue? And why do the same Israelis who boycott the settlements and sign petitions against Israeli artists performing in West Bank settlements have no problem attending a military graduation for a son or daughter at the Kotel?
Some might try to justify this double standard by the fact that Jews were the predominant residents of the Jewish Quarter, dating back to the Roman Empire. In more recent history, Jews always made up the majority of the population. If that weren’t enough, when the Jordanians did control the area, they burned down synagogues, desecrated cemeteries, used Jewish tombstones to pave sidewalks, and barred Jews from praying at the Western Wall – all, incidentally, without protest from the international community.
But if this were the measure, surely the Jewish Settlers in Hebron should be granted similar status, as they too were driven out from their homes in 1929, following a massacre that killed sixty-seven. In fact, prior to 1948, there were many Jews who lived in East Jerusalem that were eventually forced to move west, just as there were many Arabs in West Jerusalem that were forced to move east.
So, perhaps the Jewish Quarter’s exemption from criticism stems from an optimistic point of view; an understanding that when the Palestinians and Israelis finally do make peace, the Jewish Quarter will surely remain in Israel’s hands.
But here, too, this argument only plays into the settler’s hands, especially when they lobby their government to allow them to expand within present boundaries in order to keep up with natural growth. If everyone knows these settlements will eventually be annexed to Israel, what’s the harm in contained building?
So maybe it has less to do with the Jewish Quarter’s previous or future status, and more to do with the fact that in 1947, prior to the United Nations voting on the partition of Palestine, it was agreed that the Old City should be ruled by some kind of international entity and, therefore, it’s not as if the Jews actually have anyone to return the land to.
But by this line of reason, it’s hard to imagine a scenario by which any international body would grant sovereign rights to the Jews. After all, prior to 1948, despite the area being occupied predominantly by Jewish people, the properties themselves were mostly Arab-owned. Furthermore, if the United Nations was put in charge of its administration, it might not be a bad idea for the Jewish Quarter residents to start packing.
Thus, I am led to conclude that the Jewish Quarter is the “Jewish Quarter” because it’s called the Jewish Quarter. Change it to Har-Homa or Silwan, and more likely than not, Obama, Merkel, and Sarkozy would be on the phone with Netanyahu every time someone lifted a stone.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Jewish Quarter is home to the Western Wall, for if the Judeo-Christian countries of the western world were to push Israel into relinquishing control of the Jewish Quarter, logic would have it that the Christian Quarter – along with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – would also return to Arab sovereignty. And let’s just say the Christians didn’t fare much better than the Jews under Muslim rule.