Thursday, October 15, 2009

Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY)

One of the challenges of being an idea person is having to face up to the consequences of your ideas becoming real. In my first job of graduate school, I brought my newly printed Master’s of Law and Diplomacy to a Pentagon office staffed by Special Operations officers. These experienced SEALS and Rangers made it abundantly clear to me that whatever fuzzy, liberal change-the-world scheme my egghead friends and I might come up with, they were the guys who would have to carry it out. They proudly called themselves “the pointy end of the spear,” and they had no patience for Clinton administration folk who wondered what good it was having the best army in the world if you couldn’t use it. (As it turned out, this problem was not limited to liberals, and the Bush-era civilian leadership in the Pentagon became known as “chicken-hawks.”)

In the Middle East, while one’s personal stakes certainly shape one’s point of view, it is unlikely that a sudden confrontation with the reality of the situation will lead to a change of heart. Israeli kids facing army service, Palestinians who have to cross checkpoints, and evacuees from Gaza all are influenced by their ongoing experiences, but my friend Gila, who was seriously injured in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem, seems to have kept her middle-of-the-road, cynical viewpoint, and left-wing activist Michael Lerner wrote a column in 1991 explaining why having his car pelted with stones by Palestinian youths did not change his views one bit.

Can I continue to be a vocal advocate for a two-state solution if it means having a border in my backyard? Looking at maps, it seems challenging to slice the sliver of land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean into even smaller slivers. Here in Abu Tor, it means wondering what would become of a particular traffic intersection and realizing that I couldn’t take the shortcut to visit my uncle. It also could mean having a border in my backyard.

The Geneva Initiative recently published a detailed set of annexes to the unofficial Israeli-Palestinian peace accord they hammered out in 2003. They examine the minutiae of implementing an agreement, including suggesting where and how the border should be drawn in the urban landscape of Jerusalem. One of their proposals puts the border maybe 50 yards away from my building.

I think I could live with it. The truth is that my neighborhood is known as a mixed neighborhood, but Jews and Arabs live in distinct parts of the neighborhood, and at least in my experience have little contact. I nod politely at the ladies and look warily at the young men as they walk up the hill from the original Arab village at the base of my street to the main thoroughfare at the top. For the most part, we don’t send our kids to the same schools or use the same public transportation. We probably shop in the same big supermarket but use different corner grocers. Putting in a border would have very little concrete impact on my life.

Would it have a symbolic impact? Would I develop a yearning for the land that I can see out my window if I were forbidden to go there? One of my favorite things about my home is its location at the beginning of the Sherover Promenade (the “Tayelet”), which offers winding paths bordered by fragrant rosemary and lavender and a green space in the middle of the city. Legend has it that the promenade runs along the ridge from which Abraham first spotted Mt. Moriah on his way to sacrifice Isaac. When I walk there at sunset, I too can look across to the Temple Mount. The sunlight slanting on the pale stones, the sounds of the muezzin rising from the valley between the ridge and the mount, and the mixed population strolling on the path make me feel that I am having the ultimate Jerusalem experience.

However, I have never gone down from the ridge into Arab neighborhood of Silwan in the valley. As long as I could still walk on the promenade and enjoy the view, I would not feel much of a loss. The Geneva Plan envisions an arrangement in which this would be possible. Luckily for me, the promenade would be on the Israeli side of the border, and the views would be carefully preserved. In a less ideal arrangement, the promenade might be taken over by a security fence and my view marred by barbed wire. My ability to feel the “Jerusalemness” that I love would depend heavily on the details of the agreement.

Would I feel less safe living on the border? Most likely. It’s one thing to theorize about how land is an irrelevant security asset in the age of surface-to-surface missiles. It’s quite another to live not only within missile range of the enemy, but within mortar range and sniper range. If war broke out, I might go stay with relatives, even at the risk of incurring the contempt of newscasters who would bemoan the weak wills of Jerusalemites.

The division of Jerusalem is still only an idea, but I am still ready to speak out for it, even in my backyard.

1 comment:

NachumNorman said...


I'll address two issues. The Holocaust was a seminal event in Jewish/Israeli history no less than Moses talking with God on Mount Sinai or Abrham's journey to Mount Moriah. That event is much more than what you see and describe, and certainly more impactful for the generations whose lives were touched by it. Yet equally important for the narrative of our people as its history unfolds today in the furnaces, the crematoria if you will, of conflicts designed to destroy us.

Dealing with the life you chose to lead and the spot in which you chose to lead it, mandates an awareness of the impact that you have on the future, not only of your small family, but on the future of your People and the Palestinian People. I look forward to how you will address the conflict as it affects your daily life and the lives of those around you; Jew and Arab.


Nachum - November 14, 2009