The Real Jerusalem

In the end, there is Jerusalem. At the heart of the city--through a maze of alleys, past falafel shops and a run-down Turkish palace, at the outlet of a dark and musty corridor covered by a stone archway--is the home of Issa Muhammad al-Sharawneh and his wife, Sabha. Their home faces the House of God. As they come and go, they pass by His wall. The stones have been smoothed by centuries of reverent touching, and tufts of grass grow out of its jagged crevices, seeking sunlight. It should be a splendid place to live. Yet the Sharawnehs are Muslim, and God, in this case, is Jewish.

The wall is a small part of the ruins of the Herodian-era Jewish Temple, destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. For two years now, a group of ultra-Orthodox Israelis have come here every day to pray and chant and boisterously debate Talmudic interpretations. They believe the area beyond the wall is the center of the cosmos. According to Jewish tradition, it was there that God collected the dust to make Adam, where Cain killed Abel, where Abraham agreed to sacrifice Isaac. The presence of God is so strong that according to Jewish halacha (law), human beings are too impure to tread atop the Temple Mount--until, that is, the End of Days and the coming of the Messiah. So the devout go to the large Western Wall of the Temple, and to this place, the Kotel ha-Katan, or Little Wall. "They are very loud and have little respect for our privacy," complains Issa Muhammad, 52, whose family has lived in the Old City for generations. His wife is more bitter. "The Jews have no place here," she insists. "This is a Muslim holy site."

And so it is. For 13 centuries, the ruins of the Temple Mount have been home to the spectacular Dome of the Rock, its gilded roof casting an ethereal light over the Old City, and Al Aqsa Mosque. Muslims call this area the "Noble Sanctuary," and regard it as the third holiest place in the world after Mecca and Medina. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have flown on a winged steed to this spot, from where he ascended to heaven. But intolerance cuts both ways. The Muslim tradition here is "nonsense," says Rabbi Joseph Laiper, who has come to pray under the Sharawnehs' window. "This is a Jewish place."

The scene at the Little Wall contains just a few of the conflicting realities of Jerusalem: the holy and the profane, the Muslim and the Jewish, the Arab and the Israeli. There are countless others. Walk the city's streets and you'll find people who seem outfitted for the 19th century and others who favor nose rings. You'll hear the peal of church bells and the call to prayer of a Muslim muezzin, or you'll catch the beat of the latest hip-hop throbbing from one of Jerusalem's nightclubs. On a bad day, you'll inhale a whiff of tear gas. On a good day, you might spot Palestinians and Israelis doing business together or sharing a laugh or even a dance.

For politicians seeking peace in the Middle East, the rare moments of cooperation contain a secular prophecy--a glimpse of what might be. Last week, after years of procrastination, Palestinians and Israelis began a large push to arrive at a final settlement to their long conflict. Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat joined President Bill Clinton at Camp David to try to make history. Their aim is to create two homelands from one relatively small slab of turf wedged between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Negotiators are haggling over borders for a proposed Palestinian state, to be carved out of land occupied by Israel in the 1967 war, which includes the eastern half of Jerusalem.

The dispute over the city could be the show-stopper, the insoluble riddle that brings the whole process crashing down. Barak has promised his people that "Yerushalayim" will remain the "eternal and undivided" capital of Israel; Arafat has told Clinton that he fears assassination if he turns his back on the sacred city the Arabs call Al-Quds; he demands that the capital of the Palestinian state be located there, too. Last week the issue caused the first blowup of the Camp David talks: Arafat threatened to leave after Clinton offered a proposal on Jerusalem that seemed to reflect the Israeli position (following story).

Both sides have hinted at the possibility, at least, of compromise--which would amount to something just shy of a miracle. In that case, Jerusalem could conceivably become a new symbol in this age of tribal atrocity and ethnic cleansing, a place where even the bitterest of enemies try to accommodate each other. Or it could erupt, as extremists take to the streets. There's another possibility. Negotiators may reach agreement on some outstanding issues, yet put Jerusalem off again. Peace would then remain partial, incomplete, something to be achieved another day.

Why is Jerusalem such a volatile issue? On one level, the city is just a place of limestone and concrete, glass and steel, built along craggy hills on the desert's edge. Here a diverse gathering of peoples struggle to find jobs or to ensure their kids a good education. They include bankers and computer engineers, students and soldiers. They play squash at the YMCA or catch a movie at the Gil cineplex or pick up the latest music at Tower Records. For fine cuisine, it isn't Rome or Paris or even Beirut. But you can find the world's best konafa--an exquisitely sweet Arabic treat made of syrupy pastry and soft cheese--and also a first-rate Hungarian goulash, acceptable pasta and a delightful couscous prepared by a chef who used to work in the royal palace of Morocco.

But Jerusalem is also imbued with the blood of ages, and steeped in symbol and myth. "The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams/like the air over industrial cities," wrote the poet Yehuda Amichai. "It's hard to breathe." This is the theological battleground where Jews, Muslims and Christians argue most fervently over whose God is the True God, and whose history is the legitimate one. The ground contains layer upon layer of envy and spite: Christian monks of different denominations fight like schoolyard ruffians over who gets to sweep which steps in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where they believe Christ was crucified and resurrected. Ultra-Orthodox Jews stone their secular brethren for driving by their neighborhoods on the Sabbath. Conservative Muslims try to rein in their daughters, who are sometimes attracted to the social freedom on offer in secular, mostly Jewish west Jerusalem.

Among both Israelis and Arabs, there is pervasive tension between Jerusalem as it is imagined to be and the city as it is, between the voices that rage in people's heads and the city's mute stones. Many Israelis say the city is so dear to them that no part of it can ever be relinquished, yet far more of them visited Turkey last year than ventured into Palestinian neighborhoods like Shufat and Isawiya. (For those keeping count, Jewish rule over Jerusalem covers some 600 of the past 3,000 years.) Muslims regard Jerusalem as the third holy city, yet by the middle of the 19th century, it was a neglected backwater, where Jews were a majority. Even symbols of national identity are confused. One of the most ubiquitous Zionist emblems of Jerusalem--the so-called Tower of David--is actually a 17th-century mosque and minaret. Each side takes from history what it must to justify its present demands, and its dreams.

Some of Jerusalem's residents, however, rebel against history and religion. Check out the scene, for instance, at a nightclub called The Underground. The hip-hop is deafening, the air thick with sweat. On the bar, a young Israeli wearing a black halter top, her body tattooed and pierced, writhes to the music. A black-eyed Palestinian wearing a crisp white Ralph Lauren T shirt and designer aftershave stands nearby. For the 25-year-old engineering student from the Arab side of town, this is the place to be. "You can't enjoy yourself like this in east Jerusalem," he says, pointing to his glass of whisky. Seasoned Israeli clubber Roy Bar says the hip-hop scene attracts all types: tourists, gays, soldiers, Arab-Americans, even Jews wearing colored skullcaps. "You can get lost here," says Bar. "You can be an alien. But you'll always be accepted."

For decades, Palestinians have been going to west Jerusalem to work, mainly as manual laborers or as busboys in Israeli-owned restaurants. And, as in most divided societies, there has been fruitful cooperation among Israeli and Arab criminals, particularly car-theft rings. But a growing number of wealthy, educated Palestinians are crossing the largely invisible line from east to west these days, mainly to escape the suffocating atmosphere of their own conservative neighborhoods. "I wouldn't like to be limited to [the Arab neighborhood of] Beit Hanina," says Maysa Ajlouni, hanging out at the Pizza Hut off the bustling Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall. "It's so stifling; we need to go out and breathe fresh air."

Give Jerusalem's kaleidoscope a twist, however, and another view emerges. Tsvi Rogin came to Jerusalem from Los Angeles five years ago to take in the more rarefied air atop the Temple Mount. A Hasidic Jew, Rogin is consumed with preparations to rebuild the Jewish temple. He's not terribly concerned that two of Islam's holiest mosques occupy the spot now; they will somehow disappear. (Over the years, several plots have been launched by Jewish extremists--and foiled by Israeli authorities--to destroy the mosques.) Most mornings, Rogin rises at 5 and takes a ritual bath to purify himself. By 7:20 he's first in line at the entrance to the Mount, where he's searched by an Israeli policeman.

Rogin's ritual walk is part of an elaborate and dangerous minuet between Muslim and Jew in the Old City. When Israel captured these holy places in 1967, an Israeli flag was hoisted atop the Dome of the Rock. But Moshe Dayan, the Defense minister and architect of Israel's victory, ordered that the flag immediately be removed. Perhaps out of religious respect, or simply understanding that the area was a powder keg, Dayan returned control of the site to the Muslim administration, or Waqf. Many Muslims expect that one of the plots to attack the mosques will eventually succeed; the Waqf forbids Jews to pray there. "The Jews will be asking for their end if they touch my mosque," says Abu Ali, 49, who sells incense and religious recordings in the Old City. "It will be the holy war... killing these nonbelievers is a benefit to humanity."

As he approaches the mosques, Rogin says he won't pray. But he was expelled a year ago for allegedly doing just that, so he's now flanked by an Israeli officer wearing a bulletproof vest and a Muslim Waqf official holding a walkie-talkie. When he stops for a moment, both security officials get anxious and tell him to keep moving, lest he begin to move his lips in prayer.

The conflicts between Arab and Israeli in Jerusalem sometimes obscure other tensions, like the ongoing struggle between Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jews, and their secular compatriots. The Haredi accounted for nearly a third of the Jewish population of Jerusalem in 1996 and, according to one study, is expected to reach 40 percent by 2010. (Haredi women have three times as many children as their secular counterparts.) The political clout of the ultra-Orthodox is growing apace: they now control key posts in the Jerusalem municipality, and play a pivotal role in the Knesset: two Orthodox parties recently bolted Barak's coalition to protest his peace moves.

The secular-religious divide infects all aspects of life in Jerusalem, from whether movie houses should be open on the Sabbath to whether Yeshiva students should, like everyone else, serve in the military. Many secular Israelis regard their ultrareligious compatriots, who encompass a range of political views, as strange or dangerous zealots, not much different from the Muslim fundamentalists lined up against them. "My naive heart tells me that we should maybe let the U.N. or some other international body take control of the holy sites in Jerusalem, to take them out of the hands of those who are too highly charged to contain themselves," says Meir Shalev, a novelist and columnist for Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. "In my opinion, they'll kill each other in the end."

If you accept that the finger of God will not emerge from the clouds to determine a just solution to the dispute, what should be done? Ron Pundak, one of the architects of the 1993 Oslo accords, helped draw lines of potential compromise--showing which parts of the occupied West Bank Israel might keep and which parts it might relinquish. But maps alone can't explain the complexity of Jerusalem, he says, because lines can't separate zones of reality and belief.

Israel captured the eastern half of the city in 1967, and immediately began expropriating land and building Jewish settlements there. It expanded the borders and tried to keep the Palestinian population in check by limiting Arab building permits. While many Israelis insist that their "eternal capital" cannot be broken up, many can't even recognize the names of Palestinian areas. Lately, Pundak has been taking some of them there--to see for themselves what the government might hand over, and why it wouldn't affect them: "The Israeli public at large is looking to Jerusalem as a spiritual and symbolic place without knowing or understanding that beyond the symbols, there is a huge city."

The most-talked-about solution is to expand the border of Jerusalem once again, then redivide it. The expansion would include West Bank Jewish settlements--which would eventually be incorporated into the Israeli Yerushalayim. It would also incorporate Arab villages, which would be part of the Palestinian capital, Al-Quds. The Palestinian Parliament would be situated in the neighborhood of Abu Dis, which is currently outside the city limits, but which also has a view of the holy places in the Old City.

What is clear from all of Pundak's maps is that the truly sacred parts of Jerusalem are actually quite small. They are mostly confined to the Old City, which represents less than 1 percent of Jerusalem's total area. That religious hot zone is the crux of the problem facing negotiators. It was under Arab rule before 1967. It's ruled by Israel now. And the Palestinians, not to mention other Muslims, want sovereignty over their holy places. Giving Arafat Abu Dis--a parliament with a view--will not likely solve the dispute.

Yet many Israelis, like Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, reject proposals for "sharing" sovereignty in the city. "Don't give me this crap," snaps Olmert. "It's either a divided Jerusalem or not."

In many respects, it already is divided. Down at the Little Wall, an age-old battle continues, as both sides trash each other. The Palestinians complain that Jewish worshipers purposely leave soda bottles and plastic cups strewn over the ground--"to mark this as their area," insists Sabha al-Sharawneh. The Israelis, of course, claim that Arabs have long been desecrating their wall, and continue to do so by tossing refuse at it.

After airing current complaints, both the Palestinians and the Israelis carry their arguments further--to invoke ancient myths. One tale involves a Jew's throwing garbage at the house of the Prophet Muhammad; another concerns Muslims' piling their trash against the Western Wall during the reign of a Turkish sultan. To an outsider, the stories might seem preposterous. How could anyone turn a grievance about garbage into an argument about religious strife throughout the ages? But as Arabs and Israelis try to figure out how to coexist in Jerusalem, the competing myths and beliefs of each side are critical--and far more problematic than the city's ancient, unambiguous stones.