For its Season of Culture, the ancient capital has thrown open its rooftops to encourage residents to see beyond their blinkered boundaries. But the reality is a city where the divides are growing deeper.
“All three religions are here on this roof. It is a holy place. Sometimes I sit here and I pray to God and I feel that the angels come and sit here with me. Up here it does not matter if you are a Muslim or a Jew: we are all just human beings. Real peace will only come when we remember this. And I’m talking about real peace — not the peace that politicians speak about — and that’s why I open up my house, to bring people together with food.”
— Abu Yehia
The rooftops of Jerusalem can be deceptive. From up here, the domes and towers of the hundreds of churches, mosques and synagogues glimmer on the skyline in what seems like peaceful coexistence; the neighborhoods below come together in a unified sprawl.
But down below, it is a city defined by barriers. They may not be as tangible as the towering security wall that divides Israel and the Palestinian territories a few miles east, but they are just as divisive and inviolable. Living side by side in Jerusalem are communities who exist with no interaction with one another — kept apart by fear, nationalism and religion.
To some extent it has long been thus, and not just between Israelis and Palestinians. There is also segregation along secular and ultra-orthodox lines, and the residual hierarchy between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews that emerged when Israel was created in 1948. Of the 900,000 residents of Jerusalem, 37% are Palestinians, 32% are ultra-Orthodox Jews and the rest are made up of secular and religious nationalist Jews and the tiny Christian population.
While Israelis typically live in the west and Palestinians in the east of Jerusalem, mixed neighbourhoods do exist. In the winding alleys of the old city and the streets of downtown, the diverse inhabitants peacefully cross paths every day. Yet as rightwing nationalism seeps into the culture, and technology threatens the traditional ultra-orthodox way of life, the fractures of Jerusalem are growing deeper. Today communities live, not entwined, but in isolated parallel.
“Fear has become a fact of life here,” says Pnina Pfeufer. “There are many places in Jerusalem I know nothing about, and I’ve lived here my entire life. And I think that’s true of every person who lives here.”