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Jerusalem, down to earth
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Jerusalem, down to earth

At the big AIPAC policy conference in Washington this week, the lobbying group’s president, Lee Rosenberg, recounted the U.S.-Israel brouhaha. The spat with Vice President Biden began, Rosenberg said, “with the announcement of a permit approval of a housing project in Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem.”

It’s the last phrase — “a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem” — that caught the eye of JTA’s Ron Kampeas. Read one way, Rosenberg was just reiterating Jewish claims on a “united Jerusalem” — i.e., it’s all Jewish.

Or perhaps, writes Kampeas, he was distinguishing between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Israelis make this distinction all the time: Even many who vigorously support a Palestinian capital in parts of predominately Arab east Jerusalem — like Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah — lay strong claims to areas contiguous with current Jewish neighborhoods like French Hill and Gilo.

Kampeas wonders if, behind closed doors, American-Jewish leaders tell Israeli officials that they are “discomfited” by the Jewish building in Arab neighborhoods.

If so, those doors are not only closed, but sound-proof. While Jerusalem is perhaps the highest hurdle in the Arab-Israeli conflict, we American Jews tend to engage in very few debates about its ultimate status. Part of that is humility, I suppose — American Jews don’t want to tell Israelis what to do. A big part is emotional: Jerusalem is at the center of so many prayers, so much history, so much longing, it is hard to think about it in terms of realpolitik.

And politics also come into it — proponents of a Greater Israel play an outsized role in the pro-Israel community. They have made “one Jerusalem” a rallying cry and ask other supporters of Israel to spend a lot of political capital in defense of building projects in Arab neighborhoods.

Last year, in its annual survey of American Jews, the American Jewish Committee announced what looked like wide consensus when it comes to Jerusalem. According to an AJC news release, “When asked whether Israel, in the framework of a permanent peace with the Palestinians, should be willing to compromise on the status of Jerusalem as a united city under Israeli jurisdiction, 37 percent are in favor, and 58 percent opposed. In 2007, 36 percent answered yes and 58 percent no.”

That would suggest that a 2-1 majority thinks there is no compromising on Jerusalem. But what does it mean to be “a united city under Israeli jurisdiction”?

Since Israel’s birth, the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem have spread inexorably and unilaterally, happily encompassing the holy sites barred to Jews under Jordanian rule and new neighborhoods in western Jerusalem and, more problematically, surrounding villages and neighborhoods where few Jews dare or care to visit. The Arab residents of these areas did not accept Israeli citizenship and essentially no longer have a choice.

It’s the rare Jew who would accept a return to the truncated, attenuated city of 1948-1967. But must that mean retaining every acre included in the ever-widening circumference drawn by Israeli mapmakers?

I suspect that many of those who support a “united Jerusalem” under “Israeli jurisdiction” would also support a Palestinian capital in parts of the city. That’s not a contradiction. They might imagine a redrawing of the map that retains the Old City under Israeli rule and keeps all of the larger Jewish neighborhoods either created or solidified since 1967. Such a plan might cede the Arab villages and neighborhoods to the Palestinian Authority, and allow Arabs access to their holy sites on the Temple Mount and elsewhere. That would only make de jure what is already de facto: With the exception of incursions by settlers and the occasional new neighborhood approved by the government, Israelis already live in a divided city, Jewish and Arab.

What if we asked the question this way: In the framework of a permanent peace with the Palestinians, would you support a division of the Jerusalem municipality that reflects the city’s demographic and geopolitical realities while securing Israel’s desire for a united city under its jurisdiction?

That question is bound to expose more rifts within the pro-Israel camp than merely asking about a “united Jerusalem.” Few other questions so divide Israelis themselves.

“An undivided Jerusalem is the best guarantee of a better life for all Jerusalemites,” writes Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.

“The only way Israel can remain a Jewish state is to seek a two-state solution based on withdrawal from the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem — which is demographically, politically, culturally, and commercially part of the West Bank,” writes Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Two think-tankers, two opinions — one more than you usually hear among top American-Jewish leaders on this subject.

In the Jewish tradition, there have always been two Jerusalems: Yerushalayim shel Mala and Yerushalayim shel Mata — the heavenly Jerusalem, and the earthly one. In reducing Jerusalem to a slogan, we have too often treated it as an abstraction. But it is a very real place. Perhaps one day we can come down to earth and talk seriously about its future.

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