On my first trip to Jerusalem, a colleague told me, “Every time you enter the Old City, bring someone with you.” He didn’t mean to travel with a buddy for safety, but rather to “carry” with you in your mind someone for whom that place carries meaning, but who is not able to go there themselves.
For some, that might mean carrying a Palestinian friend or family member living just a few kilometers away who does not have permission to travel to Jerusalem. For others it might mean carrying a Jewish ancestor who perished in the Holocaust. Others might carry their Christian godfather or godmother. Still others might carry a secular friend or colleague to be immersed in the literal layers of history, archaeology, and culture that shape the city.
I tried to remember that advice during the many times I have been privileged to live and work in Jerusalem. Everyone experiences Jerusalem differently, but for me it has always been an intriguing place because of the enmeshing of individuals and peoples, those physically living there, as well as those outside for whom the city has a meaning. It is this diversity that most defines Jerusalem.
Nearly every international peace plan for the Middle East has appreciated this diversity in some way. The 1947 United Nations Peace Plan called for Jerusalem to be an international city, while 1993’s Oslo Accords recognized that the status of Jerusalem would need to be determined in future negotiations between the parties, precisely because of its importance to both Israelis and Palestinians, as well as Jews, Christians, and Muslims around the world. Considered options have included dividing Jerusalem with West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state; a shared capital between Israelis and Palestinians; or an international status arrangement.
At present, Jerusalem is currently home to approximately 600,000 Israelis who mostly live in West Jerusalem, and approximately 300,000 Palestinians who mostly live in East Jerusalem. Israel took control of East Jerusalem in the 1967 War, and annexed it in 1980, declaring Jerusalem, “complete and united,” as the capital of Israel. This move was not recognized by the international community; U.N. Security Council Resolution 478 in 1980 rejected the annexation on the ground that East Jerusalem was occupied territory, a position affirmed in an International Court of Justice (ICJ) Advisory Opinion in 2004.
Palestinians living within Jerusalem are considered permanent residents rather than citizens of Israel, and municipal services such as education to Palestinian areas are less than half per capita as in Jewish Israeli neighborhoods. Meanwhile, since the second intifada, Palestinians living in the West Bank, some just a few kilometers outside Jerusalem’s borders, are denied access to the city without special permission from Israeli authorities.
In these ways, Israel has in fact controlled Jerusalem for decades, creating further divisions in the city it wants to “unite.” President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and beginning plans to move the embassy further entrenches the occupation and destroys any possibility for the U.S. to lead in future negotiations. Further, it endorses divisions and dismisses the very diversity that defines Jerusalem.