Australian Jewish News, 4 December, 1998
"But you have to be nice to me and my dolly".
Thus the chatter went on the grassy knoll that lays outside my friend's house in the Katamonim, traditionally one of Jerusalem's deprived Jewish neighbourhoods. Today, this neighbourhood is showing signs of affluence with large tiled terraces and extra rooms taking up what was formerly empty yard space. Some of this building is legal, some not. Of course, there is a brand spanking new synagogue in a traditional oriental neighbourhood, where barbecues are not OK on Shabbat, but permissible on hagim.
It is just on five years since I was last in Jerusalem. The relaxed chatter was between little girls in fluent, idiomatic Hebrew. One of the little girls was of Moroccan ancestry - the traditional inhabitants of the avoiding - and the other was Beta Yisrael (Ethiopian) . All was sunny and warm and peaceful, a couple of days before the first rain (and biting hailstorms) since spring, seven months earlier.
Appearances can be deceptive of course, as many of the Ethiopian girl's cousins live down the road in mobile homes on a windy, treeless hillside, past Talpiot on the way to Bethlehem, in an isolated no-mans' land, a chain-link ghetto in the making.
The little girls are growing up in a divided city, that in the past few weeks has seen vigorous electioneering for the local council, along with the rest of the country. Ethnic and political divisions are stronger than ever.
Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri, one of the new-old breed of saints and miracle makers had endorsed the distribution of bottles of "Select Oil, for Health, Success and All Good Things" to potential voters. However, it was only effective if one signed to vote for Shas, the Sephardic political grouping led by former Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. Well, I got my bottle of oil, and I could not ignore the thousands of electoral posters plastered all over town.
So Jerusalem is further pitched to the religious and political right, with demographic demands of large, haredi families and control of the budgetary process obvious in the renovation of old housing stock, the creation of exclusive religious neighbourhoods, and accompanying schools.
Some haredim take no chances about purity. Two Christian girls who were brave enough to live in Mea Shearim had their apartment completely trashed by a haredi hit squad the week after the elections. At least the police were brave enough to make some arrests, but the police had a bad week too, beating up university students protesting against tuition costs.
Intolerance is extended to linguistic purity as well. What can be made of street signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English, where the Arabic is sprayed out? (Of course, in the Old City, street name tiles have been chiselled out for years by both sides).
But equally, a visit to Bethlehem, under the control of the Palestinians since 1995 shows just how difficult the reality of government is for Palestinians. Manger Square, the heart of Bethlehem, in front of the Church of the Nativity, is a messy building site, and it will be miracle if it is finished before Christmas. With the rains of the way, Bethlehem will be a sea of mud, unable to cater to pilgrims.
Unfortunately, the Palestinian leadership has already blown one splendid opportunity to buck the system in Jerusalem. They displayed bad judgement by not participating in the Council elections: if the Jewish religious and secular right (including religious anti-Zionists) can get into local government through the ballot box, the Palestinian leadership should equally have set up a legislative bloc in the Jerusalem council to protect its community's interests.
Yet not all appears bad for Palestinians, despite the crisis of self-governance.
Many beautiful old stone fašades, particularly from the Mamluke period, are being refurbished. The beauty of Arabic epigraphy, as striking as that of classical antiquity, can now be fully appreciated in many streets in the old city. Restorations to the Holy Sepulchre make the rotunda a magnificent example of Byzantine and Crusader architecture, with an inspiring internal golden dome. Yet many Christian shops are closed, victims of migration.
However, secular Palestinian theatre appears to be thriving. There has just been a puppet festival highlighting rights for the disabled, and Carmen Palestine - a local version of the opera Carmen, is being sponsored by the French Cultural Attaché. As I walked down Salahadin Street, to do work with a French Dominican, a young proud woman marched past me with posters for the production. Her version of local embroidery, draped around her head told me that she felt that she had a future in her city, as a modern Palestinian.
How would many Jewish Jerusalemites, hardened by the divide and terror (a bomb went off at Mahane Yehuda the day I was to go shopping there) acknowledge and appreciate this young woman and her heritage?
What would they make of an Armenian photographer in the Old City now exhibiting his father's work, a record of Jews and Arabs from the 1920s to the 1940s? Remember, that Armenian survived the century's first holocaust. Is reconciliation, including the recognition that the three faiths need to share the Land for their different religious truths possible?
What struck me while I was in Jerusalem was the potential for using what has been tried and begun to succeed in Ireland to bridge the divide: dialogue, reconciliation, and accommodation. Ireland has had nearly 400 years of division, and terrorism: in real terms, Israel and the Palestinians have only had four generations of terror and hatred. Change is possible.
I kid you not - we need the luck of the Irish: perhaps, for once, the British should be brought back to the Land to help with the healing, and those old red post boxes that have the Crown and G(eorge) R(ex) won't seem so much out of place any more. The UK government has achieved miracles: perhaps they can achieve a nes gadol ( a great miracle), beginning this Hanukkah.