From Jerusalem to Belfast and Back
Galit Raz-Dror, deputy CEO of the Institute | September 2019
From Jerusalem to Belfast and Back
In the time that has passed since the tour of Belfast, I tried to write about it. I thought about it, wrote and erased over and over again. In all these attempts, the reality outside my head continued unabated, making it very hard to think, write, and imagine shared spaces, especially on election season, but not only because of it.
Belfast: How Life Looks After Peace
As Israelis, we had various conceptions regarding the conflict in Northern Ireland. We set out on the tour with the mindset that we are visiting a ‘post-conflict’ society, from which we can learn about how to arrive at an agreement and live together in one urban space. We imagined a shared, utopian society, which would inspire us with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a model of living together after conflict. These thoughts were shattered rather quickly. From the first activist through everyone we met in the four days we spent in Belfast, we understood that the locals viewed the peace agreement not as a symbol of arriving at a destination but rather as a milestone.
At first, this understanding was frustrating for us. However, as we dug deeper, we understood that the decision made in Northern Ireland 21 years ago was very powerful. The same people that were killing each other in the name of their group identity made a common decision to disarm all the armed groups and end the violence. They understood that only after leaving the circle of mutual slaughter would they be able to stand straight and imagine for themselves something different.
Different Narratives in the Urban Space
The most significant component that we encountered—which for me is the reason why every Israeli should come to Belfast—was the legitimacy of the existence of different narratives in the urban space. After several discussions and tours, it is possible to quite easily understand which concepts are sensitive when talking about the conflict and the Agreement: Many of the concepts have a common expression for Catholic speakers and a different one for Protestant speakers. The Belfast/ Good Friday Agreement; Derry/ Londonderry, and so on. It is true that these concepts immediately clarify to the listener which side the speaker belongs to, but they are still all acceptable and legitimate expressions in the Belfast space.
The legitimacy of them all is expressed in the manner of speaking: The tour was constructed and led by Gary Mason, a Protestant priest and doctor. Gary received us when we landed on the first evening. We were tired and exhausted from the long trip, and Gary asked to briefly explain in his opening words the reason for our coming to learn in Belfast. He referred to the years of violent conflict and counted the number of dead, imprisoned, and injured in mind and body, who paid the price of the struggle. It took my Israeli-Jewish ears a few seconds to understand that he was counting the injured on both sides. Twenty-one years after the fighting has ended, all those who were harmed in the conflict are counted as human beings. All of them paid the price of the war.
Murals and Graffiti: Emotional-Historical Documentation
Belfast is filled with grand memorials and murals, with a commanding presence; one cannot miss them. They include drawings that express peace and shared lives: a boy and girl from opponent sides shaking hands, next to aggressive, one-sided drawings and captions that accuse the other side and proclaim that ‘We will not forget nor forgive’.
At first, these memorials and murals made us acutely uncomfortable. It felt like the various symbols and narratives make the conflict and hostility between the two sides constantly palpable. However, after a few days with a variety of encounters and perspectives, I can say that the most powerful thing I learned in Belfast was the ability to include in a limited urban space, the stories of a conflicted past and a tense present of various groups.
Gary, the tour guide, called it “remembering forward” and explained that “when driving, 90% of the time you look forward and only 10% of the time do you glance at the rear mirror. In leading a conflicted society, the ratio is reversed: 90% of the time you look at the past and only 10% of the time do you look ahead. And even that, not always. We wish to make place for the past but to look ahead.”
Belfast does not wish to decide between narratives. It allows various groups to express themselves in the space, thereby legitimizing both sides’ pain, and also enabling people to move along.
The Pain of the Other in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
For me this was a stunning beginning of the tour. To realize a city can make room for the various populations that inhabit it, and can contain the weight of the narrative they carry through years of conflict. I have never in my life heard an Israeli or Palestinian talk this way. The words of Louie, a bereaved Palestinian father, reverberated in my head; his child was shot by the Israeli security forces when Louie took him to visit Al-Aksa on Laylat al-Qadr:
“Every day I am sadder than the previous day. I thought it would lessen but the pain only grows. There is no point in my life anymore. You live far away. You don’t feel us. You think our pain is small. But Abdallah was all my life.”
As a Jerusalemite who is used to passing by Jewish-Israeli memorials in daily space, it was difficult for me to imagine the same space with memorials for fallen Palestinians.
The Path to a Shared Story of Jerusalem Passes Through Granting Citizenship to the Residents of East Jerusalem
When Jerusalem is broken into the groups that compose it: Jewish secular, Jewish religious, Jewish ultra-orthodox, and Palestinian, you understand that no group has a dominant majority, which perforce affects the character of the spaces shared by the groups.
Belfast deals with this issue by aiming to create a new local identity. There is an impressive municipal effort to create a shared identity that is neither Catholic nor Protestant, but which is based on local assets and invites everyone to take part. This identity includes the city’s great shipping industry—the one that produced the Titanic, which is presented there with pride with the line: “She was great when she left us…”—as well as the studio where the Game of Thrones was filmed. The municipality building is decorated with beautiful stained-glass windows that depict various periods in history in which Protestants and Catholics were on the same side.
For me, this effort was linked to an article I read lately about group identities. The article explained that it is human nature to withdraw into membership groups and as a matter of course distinguish them from other groups. Since our self-conception is derived to a large extent from the groups we belong to, we are motivated to glorify them. From this motivation to the development of estrangement/contempt/hatred toward other groups—is but a short way.
Can a Shared Jerusalem Story Be Created?
At the local, Jerusalem level, I think that there is room for creating a shared story. The Jerusalem identity is very strong among the Jews and Palestinians that live in the city. Although currently it is highly divided into east and west, things are already changing, creating new combinations of these identities. Alongside the natural trends, several organizations have been established that understand that the power and charm of Jerusalem lay in its diversity, and they aim to facilitate and intensify the encounters between the various populations.
However, the effort to create a real local identity that belongs to everyone cannot be complete without coping with the issue of East Jerusalem residents. As long as these people do not enjoy the status of Israeli citizens and as long as they are receiving the message that they are second-class in the city and the country, the story of shared spaces is a privilege.
When we understand this, we understand how unique the context of our tour was: a group of Jerusalem municipality community workers, Jews and Palestinian residents of the city, in a professional group, acquiring training about shared spaces. It is not a given.
Belfast: An Optimistic or Pessimistic Situation?
When people ask me if I came back optimistic or pessimistic from the tour of Belfast, I reply that I came back very motivated. I traveled with excellent people that do professional, caring work with the various populations in Jerusalem, and who received from their managers the message that shared spaces is the banner issue that they wish to advance in the coming year.
This is how one of the managers replied when asked about giving legitimacy to the community workers to engage with the issue of shared spaces:
“We brought you here. This is a statement on our part. You are the fabric that is responsible for the resilience of the Jerusalem community. You are expected to reach all the populations of Jerusalem and along the way to refer to the relationships between the groups.”
And as one ex-convict said when he wished to break down the recipe for a shared life with conflicted groups: “It requires courage, creativity, a willingness to take risks, and leadership.”
This group brought along with it all of the components and added in the Belfast tour a deeper level of listening, caution, respect, and a willingness to embrace uncertainty.
Along with them and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, we at the Jerusalem Institute aim to continue and explore the issue of shared spaces in the coming year, in research, training, and influencing the municipal policy.
In Conclusion: Celebrating the Human Diversity of Jerusalem
When we talk of shared spaces, we do not mean creating spaces in which everybody is expected to love each other and connect as if there are no differences. We mean starting to look at the urban spaces around us in terms of identity and belonging. We should be asking ourselves if all the groups in Jerusalem can feel comfortable within the city spaces.
This examination does not end with secular Jews, ultra-orthodox Jews or Arabs. We also mean the elderly. The Russian speakers. The disabled. Parents and little children. Actually, we mean to deconstruct the conception of public space as neutral, and understand the meaning of its use for the members of groups who are not part of the dominating group. It is allowed and worthwhile to define, in this process, what spaces should remain distinct and separate: shall it be education systems, or residential areas? These should be discussed.
Later on, after our shared spaces will include the various groups and enable equal sharing of the city, it is worthwhile to exploit them in order to celebrate the human diversity that Jerusalem has to offer.
Read more about the Shared Spaces in Jerusalem