Eran Tzidkiyahu

Eran Tzidkiyahu
I was born and raised in East Talpiyot, known to Jerusalemites as “Armon Hanatziv”. Growing up, I knew little of the function of my neighborhood as a link in the chain of Judaizing and annexing East Jerusalem, the reigning Israeli policy. My childhood was pleasant. The surrounding Arab villages, Sur Bahar and Jabal Mukabber, were a natural part of the scenery. I perceived and even acquainted myself with some of my Arab neighbors; they were to me both visible and invisible. When the first Intifada broke out on December 1987 I was seven. I remember the changes it brought, how our Saturday visits to the neighboring Arab villages ceased and how we no longer rode camels and donkeys in Mount of Olives. With typical child-like adaptation skills, my friends and I absorbed and adopted the silent antagonism and alienation between the Arabs and us. Yet, from a child’s perspective these were not significant changes.
Life took its “regular” course as an Israeli teenager – would have made any Israeli mother proud. I graduated from the Jerusalem High School for the Arts, and on March 1999, I enlisted in the IDF. Military service brought with it a first up-close encounter with Palestinian people who share this land with us. My personal experiences and key political events got woven together in my experience of the military: retreating from Lebanon, cooperating with the Palestinians during the Oslo Accords and their devastating end with the second Intifada – all these events happened in the backdrop of my difficult daily contact with the Palestinians as a soldier. Routine interactions at the checkpoint, in the fields and villages, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, stimulated my curiosity. I began realizing that Israeli reality has a dimension I am not familiar with and don’t understand. That there is a people living right beside us, along with the various implications of that fact. I wanted to know the people better, learn their culture and language. Yet I also knew this cannot be achieved in uniform. I wanted to look Palestinians in the eye-to-eye, not through the barrel of a gun.
Not long before Operation Defensive Shield, March 2002, I completed my military service and went back home to Jerusalem. From the months leading up to my release I remember my astonishment at the sharp shift from the Hebron “war zones”, where I was stationed, to the nonchalant Jerusalem reality, a mere short bus ride away. But after my release it seemed as if the front line had followed me into Jerusalem after all. The city became a main objective for Palestinian terrorism and its public transportation suffered some 30 bombings during the second Intifada. My first civilian job was as team leader in a Jerusalem public transportation security unit. In June 2002 Rahamim (Rami) Tzidkiyahu, a bus driver, was killed in the route 32 bus bombing near the Pat intersection. Rami was my dad’s cousin and our neighbor. He drove our bus route and drove us home ever since I can remember. The conflict became an integral part of my life and I saw life, once again, through the barrel of a gun. Between my dad’s shop in the Mahane Yehuda market, and securing public transit, in those days – we were the front line.
Shortly after my release I also started studying spoken Arabic. I soon realized that the streets of Jerusalem would be the best school for me. I would attempt to speak Arabic in the markets and alleyways of the Old City. At first my broken Arabic was met with impeccable Hebrew. But slowly my language skills became adequately conversational. I learned to hear Arabs in Jerusalem, and soon I learned to listen. Then I tried to understand. My view of these people shifted, and my new lens was their language. Until then, I saw them as present-absent, simultaneously visible and invisible. I wanted to learn more about their world so I went to Hebrew University and enrolled in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. The first thing I learned was that in order to understand Islam, one must first “cover the basics”. For the first time, I learned the foundations of Judaism and Christianity. In order to master Modern Standard Arabic, I studied the principles of Hebrew. To deepen my understanding of the Palestinian national movement I read about early Zionism and Zionist thinkers. I learned that my Israeli story had a parallel in the Palestinian narrative. Without forgoing my own role in the story, I learned that both narratives exist simultaneously in consciousness, time and place.
Unsurprisingly, my studies drew me closer to Jerusalem. Alleys in the Old City, markets and holy sites all proved to be optimal laboratories for the theories I learned in class. I would habitually make my way to the Mt. Scopus campus using alternative routs: on foot through Sheikh Jarrah or Wadi Al-Joz, driving through Abu Tor or Jabal Mukabber, or taking the Arab bus that leaves Damascus Gate and drives to Al-Issawiyya through the neighboring French Hill. Through roaming I became acquainted with the separation barrier’s path, which was at the time under construction around East Jerusalem. Some days, on route to school, I would spot a Palestinian student squeezing through a gap in the concrete wall around Abu Dis (since sealed) trying to get to class on time. In the coffee shops and kiosks of Arab Jerusalem I would hear ideas, and learn about the legal status of the residents of East Jerusalem and its implications.
I eventually became a tour guide, specializing in Arab and Muslim Jerusalem, and in the geopolitical issues of East Jerusalem. I began this line of work at Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, a culture and education research institute, focusing on the history of the Land of Israel and Jerusalem. In this national institution I learned, taught and guided tours about Jerusalem. Many of my colleagues had religious-Zionist backgrounds. Working at their side, I learned about ideas and contexts far removed from my own reality. But I sought to guide tours in a framework that will enable me to exercise my knowledge of East Jerusalem, as well as my political stance and general world-views. That’s how I found myself at Ir Amim. As a tour guide at Ir Amim, I took many Israelis to Jerusalem’s backyard. As far as the stupidity and cruelty of Israeli policy in East Jerusalem goes, the Israeli public fully exercises its right not to know. Many participants of the tours saw reality in East Jerusalem for the first time. For many it was too much to bear. The tour usually begins in a rational-educational ambience in the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, such as Gilo and Har Homa. But as we progress north, into the heart of the city that was welded together, an uncharacteristic silence falls on the Israeli participants. They silently pay attention, a look of fear and frustration in their eyes. A different city is revealed before them, a city of nations [Ir Amim], the unknown Jerusalem.
Many Israelis and Jerusalemites of all ages have been on Ir Amim tours, exposed to the Arab parts of Jerusalem (you know, the “eternal and united capital of Israel”). Among the stops on the tours: Al-Issawiyya, Sur Bahar, Jabal Mukabber, Silwan, Wadi Kadum, Beit Safafa, Al Walajeh, Ras Al Amud, Abu Dis, Ath-Thori, At-Tur, Wadi Al-Joz, Sheikh Jarrah and more. These names sound foreign to most Israelis. They seem exotic and terrifying. The endnotes of the tour are usually delivered next to the concrete barrier engulfing Shu’fat, where participants often express frustration and irritation. They blame the messenger, blame the Palestinian, or blame anyone else. Some try to find logic in the insanity while others are left dumbstruck and heartbroken. They would ask: “What is the solution?” “What can we do?” Having just spent four hours going into minute details, political processes and survey data, I would answer with the following: We must internalize, in the deepest sense of the word, that Jerusalem is a shared space. Even if we build the tallest barrier, separating us and them, we will always meet in Jerusalem. Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims, religious and non-religious people, we all share one space, one complex story. Those who think that Jerusalem will all be theirs are naïve. This attitude dooms us to live and die by the sword (or gun). The only realistic way to live in peace in Jerusalem is through a deep understanding of this cosmopolitan shared space. If we just knew how to turn Jerusalem into a shared capital, the heart of the problem would become a model for a possible solution and will epitomize the words of the prophet: “Many peoples will go and say, ‘Come, let's go up to the mountain of ADONAI’… For out of Tziyon will go forth Torah, the word of ADONAI from Yerushalayim. He will judge between the nations and arbitrate for many peoples. Then they will hammer their swords into plow-blades and their spears into pruning-knives; nations will not raise swords at each other, and they will no longer learn war.”
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