Historians are fascinated with historical convergences. They like to discover how events, figures, and ideas from the past come together to illuminate a present moment in time. Sadly, I realized this when my mother passed away and Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, both within a few days of one another.
My mother, Hind (née Salti), lived in Jerusalem throughout her childhood and youth. Born in 1928, eleven years after the British ousted the Ottomans, her generation was the last to have lived in a pluralistic, multi-confessional Jerusalem. Living in the bourgeois Arab neighborhood of Upper Baqa’, she and her contemporaries were bequeathed a city shaped in the late Ottoman era. Modern state reforms and the arrival of Western cultural norms transformed Jerusalem’s Arab Muslims, Christians and Mizrahim (ethnically Arab Jews) into a common civic community. In fin de siècle Jerusalem, Arabs of these three faiths valued Western education, global commerce, and modern fashions. Muslims and Christians sent their children to the same Western schools founded by Christian missionaries, while many Jewish children attended the French-run Alliance Israelite schools. They all debated politics in the Jerusalem municipal council, and gathered in the municipal park to enjoy the city band play. Christian and Muslim children even donned costumes for Purim, a Jewish holiday. They formed, a community of “Ottoman Brothers,” as Michelle Campos describes, that jointly believed in the progress and the promise of Western modernity.
My mother and her generation were the last to share these bonds in ways that today’s Jews, Muslims and Christians in the city will never know. As a child growing up in the 1930s, the conflict between Zionism and Palestine’s Arab Christians and Muslims had intensified. As an Orthodox Christian, she attended a British school alongside girls of the city’s various religious communities. As school children, they defied the nationalist binary of “Jew vs. Arab.” Instead, they only understood one another as classmates, where they competed on the schoolyard, not the arena of nationalist politics. Many times, she boasted that she was unaware of the religion of her classmates. While they didn’t make these distinctions, the country they were growing up in would soon require them to. Although political hostilities between Arabs and Jews worsened, my mother would later attend the weddings of her Jewish friends.
But this idyllic image quickly eroded. The pluralistic city where my mother rode her bike to the YMCA collapsed during the 1948 war. Israeli forces captured her neighborhood and those who had fled were barred from returning. My mother’s family were one of a handful of Arab (and Armenian) families who remained in what became West Jerusalem. Though only briefly displaced from their home, it was a tenuous existence. Soldiers routinely raided their house, searching for young men and concealed weapons. At one point, my mother and her elder sister were sent to live in a German convent for about a year in the city’s German colony. For five years, my mother’s family lived in a state of house-arrest. After no longer being able to endure this untenable situation, the family moved to the West Bank town of Ramallah. During those five years, the Jerusalem of my mother’s youth had become a memory, a topic Issam Nassar has examined through the diary of my mother’s father.
With Israel’s capture of the city’s eastern half in 1967, came the pretense that Jerusalem had been reunited. Israel annexed the city and reduced the status of its indigenous Arabs, granting them only “residency permits,” a precarious legal status that can be revoked with the stroke of a pen. Many Palestinians refused to accept the offer of Israeli citizenship, unwilling to countenance Israel’s annexation. At the time, few countries, including the U.S., would recognize it, either. Israel set-out to alter the city’s landscape and demographics to define Jerusalem as solely Jewish, bestowed with the sobriquet “Israel’s eternal capital.” Upon occupying the city, Israel razed 165 houses and displaced 650 residents from the twelfth century Moroccan Quarter of the Old City to expand a plaza for Jews to worship at the Western Wall. Despite the illegality of Israelis moving into occupied territory, new Jewish neighborhoods arose with modern homes, well-funded schools, and vibrant commercial centers. And, to make way for the booming Jewish population, Israel has to date revoked over 14,000 of the residency permits it granted Jerusalemite Arabs.
Meanwhile, Palestinians live a Kafkaesque existence where their Arab identity is a constant legal hindrance to their everyday life, all documented in the Association for Civil Rights in Israel report (May 2015): they line up for days to apply for building permits they’ll never be granted; when they do build homes, the army demolishes them. Funding for Arab and Jewish schools rivals the unequal levels in America before Brown vs. the Board of Education. Arab neighborhoods receive one-fifth of the services of Jerusalem’s Jewish residents.
This segregation contradicts the experience of the city’s multi-religious population only a generation earlier. They encountered and engaged one another on many levels in complex ways—as neighbors; as pilgrims worshipping at shared sacred sites; as consumers and producers; and as classmates. Through his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump has endorsed Israel’s annexation and its system of religious chauvinism over what has historically been a multi-religious and multi-lingual city. My mother’s Jerusalem ended long before Trump made this announcement. It may seem nostalgic, but Jerusalem as a pluralistic city where its inhabitants existed as a civic community had once thrived. But with my mother’s death and Trump’s announcement, we buried both.