In 2006, I received a Fulbright Research Scholarship to study Israeli housing markets. I was fascinated by the high density levels in which Jerusalemites lived and thought that knowing more about the ideologies promoting housing density would be a great intellectual contribution to fighting sprawl and the American curse of lauding low density single family homes.
Yet as a nice Jewish girl growing up on the south side of Chicago, all I knew about Jerusalem was that that it was evoked in many prayers. To me, Jerusalem was more a mantra than a place but I needed a change of scenery and thought Jerusalem seemed like a good a place as anywhere else. I got an appointment in the Geography Department at the Hebrew University and off I went.
Yes, I epitomized naiveté, in fact, so naïve that I learned later that people predicted that I would go over to the dark side, one always framed as the opposite side from the one they were on. My absence of a position on the conflict seemed dangerous to some. But as a scholar trained in the positivist tradition, how could I take a position on something I knew nothing about?
So I set about studying Jerusalem in the way I knew best: reading. One day, as I sat in my apartment, I read an article about the Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem after the 1967 war. East Jerusalem, acquired by Jordan in the 1948 War, was now part of Israel. A major post-1967 goal was what was called the “unification of Jerusalem.” To unify Jerusalem, Israel devoted most of its public housing resources to developing what it called “new neighborhoods.” These new neighborhoods housed Jews, not Palestinians and were part of a political process to solidify Israeli control over all of Jerusalem.
While Israeli planners called these places neighborhoods, the international community called them illegally occupied territory, in short, settlements. One of these new neighborhoods/settlements was French Hill (Gvat Savratit) – the very place I lived and sat while reading this article. Alarmed, I asked the question, “where am I?” Call it an epiphany or just waking up to reality. My mission was clear. I had to go find what is Jerusalem? And I could not do it alone. I put out a call for someone, anyone, to drive me around Jerusalem and talk to me about it.
Two days later, then graduate student (now lecturer at Hebrew University) Dr. Gillad Rosen showed up at my office and we joined forces in looking for Jerusalem. Within a short amount of time, we realized that Jerusalem as a mantra was an ideological manifestation of shifting boundaries. Even the U.S. State Department was confused about where Jerusalem began and ended. Furthermore, confusion about Jerusalem was simply ubiquitous, based on non-fact-based ideology. This prevailed in Jewish and non-Jewish communities but was particularly consequential for the Jewish community.
With an arrogance that comes from the naiveté we brought to this project, we sought to obtain objective truths about Jerusalem – to tell a Jerusalem story that would educate, not inflame, that would be informative without arguing a particular political position. We interviewed people from all over Jerusalem and from parts of the West Bank, 90 in all over the course of eight years. Several articles later and with an entire course designed and taught about Jerusalem’s spatial politics, we were approached by Polity Press to take the plunge into writing our version of the Jerusalem story.
Our book lays out that there are basic disagreements about every aspect of Jerusalem. What is considered true for some about Jerusalem is treated as ideology and lies by others. There are no neutral questions – none. How big is Jerusalem? It depends on how you define it. It is a political question.
Who are the groups who live in Jerusalem? That depends on what one means by groups. Race? Israelis do not count race in their census taking. There are only three groups: Jews, Arab and Other. And difference among these groups do not count. This is political.
What does it mean to be a resident of Jerusalem? Palestinians living in post-1967 East Jerusalem have residency papers that can be revoked although many have lived in Jerusalem for generations. This is political.
What does it mean to be Jewish in Jerusalem? In the U.S., Jews are members of a religious/ethnic community. But in Israel, Judaism is less a religion – it is a nationality with a monopoly on Israeli citizenship. To whom does Jerusalem belong? That is the most political question of all.
In the book, the questions keep coming. And rather than definitive answers, we provide analysis based on evidence. We try to simplify understandings of Jerusalem by writing clearly and cautiously about this city and its people. And importantly as urbanists, we have attempted to treat Jerusalem as a city that is a complex physical infrastructure incredibly tied to its political and social structures. Yes, all cities connect the physical with the social and political. But Jerusalem in almost every manifestation takes this to the extreme. As much as we tried to “normalize” the Jerusalem story, it is not normal. And that is political.
With maps, photographs and more, the book’s goal was to contribute a social science analytical framework for looking at Jerusalem. It blends urban theory with a variety of methods of data collection and analysis. The chapters focus on what is Jerusalem, who is Jerusalem, resistance in Arab Jerusalem, and downtown place making and growth in Israeli Jerusalem. It ends with a guided 24 hour tour of important political landmarks, essentially concluding that clarity about Jerusalem is often illusionary.
Taking on the Jerusalem story is not for the faint of heart. And our story of Jerusalem is less what is in the book and more in the messages and ideas that people take away from the book. There is no one reading of Jerusalem but many takeaways that are personal, intellectual, and political. We would not have it any other way.
To hear how our book is read by some of the more prominent urbanists in the U.S., I created a panel for the most recent Urban Affairs Association conference. Their responses to the book reflect the complexity of Jerusalem politics, the emotionality associated with Jerusalem as an idea and a place, and the massive need for better political leadership and policy on the Jerusalem conflict. All of this and more is represented in the incredibly thoughtful comments of these scholars: Rachel Kleit (Ohio State University), Zak Neal (Michigan State University), Elena Vesselinov (CUNY Queens College) and Deirdre Oakley (Georgia State University). You will hear from all of them in future blog posts and we hope to hear from you as well.
Anne B. Shlay is a Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University.
Jerusalem: The Spatial Politics of a Divided City was reviewed for JUA by Yona Ginsberg. That review is available in Early View.