Final Reflections on Jerusalem: The Spatial Politics of a Divided Metropolis

This is the fifth and final blog post in our series on the book Jerusalem: The Spatial Politics of a Divided Metropolis. The series was inspired by a panel discussion at UAA. Previous posts were written by Anne Shlay, Zachary Neal, Deirdre Oakley, and Rachel Garshick Kleit.

By Elena Vesselinov

It was a great privilege to participate in the Author Meets Critics panel about “Jerusalem: The Spatial Politics of a Divided Metropolis,” by Anne B. Shlay and Gillad Rosen, at the Urban Affairs Association meeting in San Diego. I enjoyed very much our discussion and am happy we have a chance to continue the conversation online, through this blog.

I would like to make three points here: one, as someone who has conducted comparative urban research, I would like to remind all of us that it takes real gumption to embark on a new territory – physically and intellectually. It is not easy being an outsider looking in, asking questions, always on the verge of offending someone just by being yourself.

Secondly, the book resonated with me on a very personal level, because one of the very strong messages is about the making of a place through the process of claiming it as your own. As an immigrant, I continue to struggle to find ways to fit in, often uncertain of my own rights to cities and places. After reading the book I now have a better understanding about why different groups make such vocal claims to Jerusalem as a place. The cognition of these claims is helped on theoretical level by Shlay and Rosen’s interrogation of the production of space through Lefebvre’s notion of the Rights to the City.

One prominent example of competing territorial claims in Jerusalem is The Kotel, also known as the “Wailing Wall.” This is the Western Wall (the HaKotel), a retaining wall of the temple built by Herod, located within the Old City. Between 1947-1967 it was a part of Jordan, and then Israel annexed it after the 1967 war. As one of the most significant religious and national symbols, access to The Kotel was secured by demolishing over a hundred Arab homes. “Each spatial expansion has been viewed as an incursion upon Palestinian territory, a form of Israeli imperialism akin to the occupation of the West Bank” argue Rosen and Shlay (2014).

In order to further legitimize the rights to this site, the Israeli government established a Heritage Foundation, registered as a non-profit organization in 1988. It is tasked to excavate tunnels underneath the Kotel, which tunnels are considered by some to be the holiest aspect of the Kotel. At the same time, the Israeli government left control of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif (where Islamic holy places are located, e.g. the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock) in the hands of the Wakf, the Islamic trust responsible for administering the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. This led to a divided sovereignty arrangement, although formally Israel controls the entire area. In practice, the Wakf controls the Temple Mount while the Western Wall and access to the Temple Mount is under rabbinical control. Therefore, this area appears to be a major contested ethno-national political space, claimed by Palestinians, Orthodox Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, as well as by newer organizations like Women of the Wall, seeking equality of access for men and women.

Even in this brief example, we can have a glimpse into the many competing claims – is the Kotel a historical site, operated by the Israeli government, where the national history is continuously remade with the help of archeological discoveries? Is it a religious holy site, with a determination to remain under rabbinical control? Is it a site, where perhaps new progressive claims are going to be made, of equal access to it by various social groups? Is it all of the above and more?

The growth machine framework, as also employed by Shlay and Rosen, gives us some further insight into the intense and powerful production of space in Jerusalem. And this is my third point, because in the final count most claims to places, sacred or not, are driven by a combination of political and economic interests. In the specific case of Jerusalem, the political and economic interests in urban development are interwoven with the building of the Israeli nation-state. Thus, unlike the more local presence of the urban growth coalitions in the U.S., in Israel the national government is actively involved in the redevelopment of urban and supra-urban areas. The interplay of private interests in urban growth is further transformed into ethno-national coalitions. The specificity of spatial politics notwithstanding, Shlay and Rosen also show that many common urban processes envelop everyday residential lives: urban sprawl, housing shortages, infrastructure investments, gentrification, securitization of place, which has taken place along two major pathways: through the building of security wall/barrier, as well as the proliferation of fortified, gated communities (Rosen and Grant, 2011). The book accomplishes a very important goal in revealing the constant interaction between the uniqueness of the historical ethno-national conflicts on the one hand, and the universal urban processes, on the other.

In conclusion, let me briefly recount another example from the book, the Safdie Plan, tying it back to the Rights to the City. As Shlay and Rosen point out, the Safdie plan set an urban agenda of expanding Jerusalem westward, towards lands already part of Israel, by way of new housing construction, commercial and industrial development. Undoubtedly, this decade-long urban strategizing had gone through various stages, with many political actors and groups being involved. But what stood out for me was the fact that over 16,000 objections were filed against the plan. While several environmental groups worked against the project, it also seems that in 2007 the project was cancelled because of the sustained public opposition to it. It is hard to write about Jerusalem without recognizing the increasing violence in the Middle East, related to ISIS, the threats against the Israeli state, and the continuous state of warfare. While the book does not deal with the larger quite grim geo-political context, it does provide, I think, a glimmer of hope, that in such mundane, everyday actions, as in the Safdie plan, successful peaceful coalitions could be formed – coalitions that can, perhaps only on a small scale, cut across ethnic, national and religious boundaries.

Elena Vesselinov is Associate Professor of Sociology at Queens College, City University of New York

References:

Rosen, G. and J. Grant. 2011. “Reproducing difference: Gated communities in Canada and Israel.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 35(4):778-793.

Rosen, G. and A. Shlay. 2014. “Whose Right to Jerusalem?” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38(3):935-950.

Shlay, A. and G. Rosen. 2015. Jerusalem: The Spatial Politics of a Divided Metropolis. Polity Press.

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