Cities are places where people of different backgrounds and outlooks come together and make do with one another. Jerusalem is no different, but it is also different. Prominent groups in the population are Arabs, about 30 percent, and ultra-Orthodox Jews, about 30 percent of the Jewish population.
For Jerusalemites who are neither Arab nor ultra-Orthodox, the tensions are no greater than they are for "vanilla" residents of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington and other interesting cities. Most Arabs live in their neighborhoods and work with other Arabs. Almost all the ultra-Orthodox live in their neighborhoods, and do not work or study with the rest of us. Most Jews who are secular, Orthodox, or something else avoid Arab and ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, pretty much like vanilla residents of large American cities avoid the neighborhoods that might not welcome them or be even more troubling.
Jerusalem is different in its international constituencies. They demonstrate political and religious intensities, and demand control, ownership, or rights in ways that are louder and more troubling than anything the locals usually seek to impose on one another. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, as well as London, Paris, Madrid, Berlin and others qualify as "international cities" by virtue of their economic weight, tourism, and the importance of what happens there for people in other countries. However, none of them are in the sights of overseas activists and governments wanting to change who can call the city home, how the municipal government should be staffed, or which group within the city has a right to live in which neighborhood.
The municipality and Israeli national ministries govern Jerusalem by allowing the Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews to live their lives in their neighborhoods, not getting excited when individuals of each community decide to live alongside secular Jews, and acting only on those occasions when the behavior of Arabs or the ultra-Orthodox threaten the peace and quiet of others.
Arabs make it easy for Jewish authorities by boycotting local elections. Like Arab voters who support political parties running for the Knesset that offer nothing more than rhetoric suitable to 1948 or 1967, they give up the opportunity to influence the resources that come to them.
The ultra-Orthodox are more annoying than threatening. They may tie up traffic in response to graves found at a construction site, the sale of non-kosher meat, or some other abomination. Aside from the occasional tossing of dirty diapers at police and secular counter-demonstrators, burning trash dumpsters, and halting traffic through their neighborhoods, they cause few discomforts for the rest of us.
That changes when large numbers of ultra-Orthodox families move into a secular neighborhood. Americans familiar with "block busting" can understand the tensions. When a secular neighborhood tips toward the ultra-Orthodox, residents leave before there are demands to forbid driving on the Sabbath, the sale of mainstream newspapers, noise from television, or clothing considered immodest.
Arabs can be more violent than the ultra-Orthodox, and responses of the authorities to their commotions are also more violent than what is directed at the ultra-Orthodox. One should not overlook the possibility of another uprising with suicide attacks against buses and restaurants, but we can hope that the force directed against previous uprisings will postpone the next one. Meanwhile, the tensions are highly localized to areas that most of us avoid. Casualties resulting from intergroup violence may be no greater, and perhaps even fewer than in large cities of the United States. Officials in all such places are chary of producing statistics than allow precise comparisons of intergroup violence.
Currently the Arab-Jewish flash points in the city derive largely from the actions of intense outsiders wanting to reshape the city to their ideas of what is right.
The two greatest troublemakers for Jerusalemites who love peace and generally tolerate one another are Barack Obama and Irwin Moskowitz. It is clear which of the two is more well known. It is not clear which is the greater pain in the ---.
Obama's most prominent negative contribution was demanding a building freeze in largely Jewish areas of Jerusalem. He not only insulted the Sharkanskys and a quarter million others living in neighborhoods established for up to 40 years, but added a demand to what the Palestinians would insist upon as a condition for even beginning negotiations.
Late news is that some Palestinians officials will now agree to let Israel control the Western Wall and part of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. Even later news is that other Palestinian officials are denying that such a concession has been offered.
What other indication do we need that a people who have lost two major wars and been hurt badly as the result of other uprisings have not learned the lessons of political reality? President Obama must share some of the credit for reducing the chance of actually reaching a peace agreement from perhaps one percent to substantially less than that.
Irwin Moskowitz is a religious Jew who expresses his Zionism by living in the United States and buying properties in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem for Jews who lack his resources but share his fervor.
No one should object to Jews moving into Arab neighborhoods, just as no one should object to Arabs moving into Jewish neighborhoods. The fact is that one produces violence and the other does not. The Jewish state must defend the rights of Jews to live where they wish, but Jerusalemites (Jewish and others) can protest a lack of wisdom. Letting sleeping dogs lie is the key to governing a city that is potentially tense. Moskowitz knows that he is smoking alongside gunpowder.
Who has set back the prospects of peace in Jerusalem more? The chances of a formal agreement between Israel and Palestine were pretty slim before either Obama or Moskowitz came on the scene. Both have added to the tensions, and have caused problems for Jews as well as Arabs. The selection of one or the other as the greater curse for peace loving residents of this city is likely to reflect what one thinks about extremist Jews or extremist Democrats, rather than any precise measure of the bitterness or bloodshed traceable to one or the other.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem