I am always amazed at the proximity and inextricability of lives
between Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem. The rub off effect is
incredible and the acquaintanceship between the two sides would only
lead (as common sense prescribes) to mutual understanding and
eventually more tolerance. But life has taught us that the world does
not necessarily make sense or follow any logic.
When I started my work in Anadiel gallery in 1992, the time was ripe for an investigation of the possibilities of links between the two sides after a long period of bloody confrontations, in an effort to find common ground for coexistence. It was the time right after the first Gulf war, the convening of the Madrid Conference, the talks in Washington, and the uncovering of the Oslo agreement. The fading away of the fear factor for many Israelis of crossing over to the Palestinian areas led several artists and people working in the Israeli art scene to come to the gallery, curious to learn something about art in Palestine and eager to initiate some sort of working relationship. I am not going to get into what were the motives behind this interest, but what is of interest here is the fact that contacts were made and new and significant information was channelled.
There was also great interest coming our way from western art institutions and individuals, but the fact that since Israel was the only gateway to the outside world for Palestine, it was through Israeli channels that the main connections with the international art scene were made. Not to mention the emergence of a small group of young Palestinian artists who enrolled to study art at Israeli art academies and institutions. These connections were imperative to a proper representation of Palestinian art and society that reflected the complex and rich nature of our existence, cause and identity, contrary to the dreary and intimidating stereotypical image of Palestinians propagated in the media. At the same time these connections were (and are still) imperative to the enrichment of the cultural and intellectual discourse in Palestine, which, due to decades of occupation is isolated from the outside world.
Jerusalem for politicians remains the frontline, the battlefield for control, exercise of power and supremacy, and the final facedown. For its inhabitants it’s a place of intolerant co-existence, the only cohabited yet segregated place, people are alike in theory yet its systems are iniquitous and bigoted. The systematic discrimination against its Palestinian inhabitants is only part of the orchestrated effort by the Israeli government to drive away the Palestinians from the city and create a different demography; a demography of apartheid. Looked at from the art development point of view, these policies have had tremendous effects on the art scene and have caused considerable disruptions that drove several Palestinian artists and institutions away from the city and shifted the centre of life to Ramallah (20 km north of Jerusalem). Many Palestinians (having got helplessly used to being pushed around) saw the move out of the city as a practical adjustment to the new realities created and the changes being set off; but isn’t this exactly what Israel wants, to fully judaize the city and make away with any Palestinian form of activity and presence? So that “genuine interest” and intrigue by the Israelis in the Palestinian art movement was blocked by the impossibility of contact between the two sides, and as time went by and the political situation deteriorated, this interest withered.
Personally, I have decided right from the very beginning of my venture in art (some 15 years ago) to have Jerusalem as my home town and particularly the Old City as my base, which inescapably meant that I am more accessible to the Israelis who would want to cross over to the Palestinian side, while simultaneously less accessible or rather inaccessible to the Palestinian art movement – now mainly situated in Ramallah. I feel like a tiny island, an enclave within Israel, impelled into the position of a representative, a contact zone for Palestinian artists. And now with the Wall surrounding us it truly feels what I imagine it was like in West Berlin, but without the allied forces. The pressure mounts from time to time with several attempts by some people (especially from the west) to engage in joint trilateral ventures (Palestinian-Israeli-western) with all the good intentions to bring the two sides to sit together and reflect on the situation. I, on my part, try to politely excuse myself from taking part in such undertakings by trying to always remind parties involved of the unsettling situation we have at hand, lately exemplified by the people’s choice of a fundamentalist, uncompromising party (Hamas) by a resounding majority in the last parliamentary elections. It’s not that I don’t believe in negotiations and sitting and talking until our lungs are blue. It’s just that the reality on the ground and the policies of Israel do not indicate even an inkling of desire by Israel to move towards a resolution, a solution based on justice and rights.
Throughout the whole city of Jerusalem and on all seven entry points to the city, which Israel created in 1993 between Jerusalem and the West Bank, glances are exchanged, facial features and expressions are scrutinized, a plethora of body language and gestures between the commuting Palestinians and the Israeli soldiers take place on a daily basis. These are quite tense zones of contact and the influence and impact they have on people’s lives and psyche are immense. These are negative zones of contact. Yet these checkpoints and entry points are relatively recent. In the past the situation was different and the whole approach was different. There was actually a different strategy adopted right after the 1967 war of integration and dissolution of the Palestinian society. Starting with Moshe Dayan (then Israel’s Minister of Defence), the directives were to allow the cheap Palestinian labour force into Israel thus enjoying the unbeatable low prices in the Palestinian markets. At the same time it was absolutely forbidden to express or exhibit any form of Palestinian identity, insisting, as Golda Meir infamously stated, “There were no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? It was either southern Syria before the First World War, and then it was a Palestine including Jordan. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” There was a deliberate effort to wipe out any zones or borders or lines of division between the two sides in an attempt to control the whole land and obliterate any sign of, and eventually any claim to, the Palestinian right to self determination, independence and statehood. So even though on a daily basis an unsettling normalcy was visible – people moving back and forth, doing business, trying to get by with the Israeli military “civil” administration – deep within the two societies there was/is an ongoing existential struggle with a particular emphasis on the assertion of identity and the claim to the land. This is manifest in so many ways among which a boycott of Israeli cultural institutions by Palestinians with an abstention from any cooperation in the cultural field was and still is prevalent until today.
As mind-boggling as this entangled relationship between the two sides is, one thing is clear. When Palestinians are given the choice and can afford to choose between being in contact with the Israelis or not, they opt for disassociation. Hence, when they’re forced into these zones of contact (the checkpoints) they’re apprehensive, frightened, and concerned of what it is going to be like this time. Israelis have also come to realize that the idea of integration and dissolution of the Palestinian society within the greater Israel is no more possible especially with the first Intifada’s assertion of the Palestinian resentment and refusal of Israel’s continued occupation and domination of their lives and land. Israelis started limiting the movement of Palestinians, confining them to small detached geographical areas (thanks to the Oslo Accords), all under the pretext of security, trying to eventually disassociate themselves from any responsibility of having had occupied this nation for decades, muddled in its people’s lives, changed all the working relationships in that society, stole its resources, denied it the natural growth and transformation from a nation under the Ottoman empire for hundreds of years to a nation state. People on each side now live in separate and segregate spaces, even though the Israelis are free to move in some 88% of the land (the historical land of Palestine) and the Palestinians have 12% of disconnected and detached pockets of land to move within but not amongst. Hatred and animosity characterize the relationship now, each side feeling frustrated for having not been able to realize their dream because of the other.
In Jerusalem, as a Palestinian you see almost everything going against you. There are books, articles, reports and what-have-you written about the discrimination and injustice against Palestinians in Jerusalem. Yet I would like to refer to three points so as to put my whole argument in context.
1) The law. Any Jew from anywhere on this earth can come, reside in Jerusalem and become a citizen of the State, while if the indigenous non-Jewish inhabitants of the city moved out of the city for any reason (except for study and for a limited period) for more than three years they’ll never be able to go back and reside there. The only way they would be permitted to come back is as tourists, that is if given a visa. We are technically permanent residents of our own birthplace, our own hometown, our own piece of land and property until further notice. There is a stranglehold on building permits on the Palestinian side of the city with vast areas designated as either a ‘green zone’ or not part of the planning zone, not to mention of course the extremely costly process of construction on the Palestinian side in contrast with the readily available government sponsored housing on the Jewish side.
2) The economy. The closure of Jerusalem has left its Palestinian inhabitants in dire straits, since they’re totally tied to the Palestinian standard of living of the West Bank, which stands at around $3,000 per capita income, on the one hand, and the fact that they’re completely entrapped by the Israeli economy, which stands at around $20,000 per capita income, on the other. Since more than ten years ago Israel has become the only supplier of goods and services to the Palestinian residents of the city, which means very low income linked to the Palestinian economy in comparison to very high prices linked to the Israeli standard of living. In addition to that, the scarcity of jobs in the city coupled with the imposed closure and the fear of losing one’s resident status if a move out of the city in pursuit of a job is opted for, is creating a desperate dead end and a kind of “you’re-better-off-if-you-leave” situation especially for the future of one’s kids. Well yes, this might be true. What kind of jobs are there for the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem? Not being able to work in the Palestinian territories and not able to get integrated into the Israeli system – not being a citizen and not having served in the army (which is clearly unthinkable) make it impossible to get into the system. The jobs that are available are very few and hardly ever inspiring (working for foreign aid or diplomatic missions as a driver, security personnel or clerk) or the easiest, least demanding of jobs: a taxi driver, a cleaner in west Jerusalem or tending a falafel stand.
3) Society. The divide is so deep and the differences are so rooted that it is impossible to imagine that there could ever be any kind of social integration between the two sides. Israel was established as an extension of Europe and the Palestinians are part of the Middle Eastern culture. The Israelis saw, and up till now many see, that all the people from the third world, so to speak, are culturally inferior to them. Israel was since its establishment and for many years dominated and controlled by Ashkenazi Jews who defined the cultural face of Israel as Euro-western and obstructed any other form of cultural expression, particularly that from Arab/Middle Eastern/North African origins. Until the late seventies no oriental music would be heard on Israel’s radio or TV. Amy Horowitz who studied Israeli oriental music’s emergence and proliferation dubbed it “bus station music,” for only there, in bus stations, where workers and the lower middle class met, their kind of music was played, and not on the elite state-sanctioned airwaves, which in a way dictated the kind of music people should listen to and that which reflects Israel’s cultural identity and origins. No need to go further down this track. All I want to say is that Israel knew from the beginning the kind of society it wanted to be, and more-or-less the kind of mix between cultures it would tolerate. One thing is clear, and will be as long as Israel exists: its Jewish exclusivity.
Palestine, on the other hand, is a mixture of backgrounds of those who happen to be there and/or want to be there. It does not prefer any religion over another and would rather be inclusive of all. Exclusivity is nice and has its advantages, but on the long run it is prone to deficiencies and breakdown. Rather than be left to the very end of negotiations, Jerusalem at this difficult moment in time can set an example for coexistence. Its liminal position can be transformed to an archetypal zone of tolerance.
Jack Persekian is the director of Anadiel Gallery and Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art in Jerusalem’s Old City. He was the Head Curator of the Sharjah Biennial (an international art exhibition in the U.A.E.) in 2005 and will be its Artistic Director in 2007. He can be reached at email@example.com.