The idea of a city disappears.
The New Yorker, Issue of 2002-12-09
Posted 2002-12-02

For more than ten years, I have been taking walks along the Gabriel Sherover Promenade, an elegant stone path planted with rosemary and lavender, which was built in 1989 by the philanthropist Gita Sherover in memory of her son. The promenade follows the boundary that divided Jerusalem's Jewish and Arab populations until the Six-Day War, in 1967, and it overlooks the arid white hills of the Judean desert, the Old City, the Temple Mount, the golden Dome of the Rock, and the black dome of Al Aqsa. Bakaa, a middle-class Israeli neighborhood, is half a mile to the west; Talpiot, another middle-class Israeli neighborhood, is half a mile to the south; and Abu Tor, a Muslim community, is a few hundred yards east.

Even after the second intifada broke out, in September of 2000, Jerusalemite Jews and Jerusalemite Arabs shared the public spaces of the promenade—a playground, a kiosk, a gazebo—although they did not often interact. The promenade remained quiet until last autumn, when the kiosk and the gazebo were burned down by Palestinian teen-agers. Then, in the early afternoon of January 11th, three teen-aged gang members from Abu Tor emerged from the southern end of the promenade and stabbed a sixty-four-year-old man from North Talpiot named Henry Weil, who was walking by the gardens.

Weil was lucky—the knife missed his heart by an inch, and he survived. About a month later, on February 8th, the gang attacked Moran Amit, a twenty-five-year-old Hebrew University student who was walking with her boyfriend by the promenade, in a wooded area called the Peace Forest. Armed with knives and tear gas, the boys stabbed her numerous times, and she died within hours. (Her boyfriend escaped unharmed.) Eight Abu Tor teen-agers, arrested in connection with the arson and the stabbings, are in jail, awaiting trial.

Almost no one comes here anymore. When I say I am going for a walk, my family and friends are apprehensive. There is always the question of how far I should go. When does it become irrational? And who is that leather-jacketed guy approaching from the other end?

On a brisk afternoon in early April, Shlomo Aronson, who is Israel's leading landscape architect and who designed the promenade, walked with me. We passed through an olive grove, stopping to look at an ancient aqueduct below and at the charred remains of the gazebo. Aronson, a pensive, soft-spoken man in his mid-sixties, was distressed about what had happened to the promenade.

"For more than a decade, the concept of a cosmopolitan, worldly Jerusalem promenade did work," he said. Until two years ago, one could see black-hatted ultra-Orthodox Jews flying kites with their children, while Palestinian women strolled by in their colorful summer best. "What really gets me is that the attackers came from Abu Tor," Aronson said. "Had they come from one of the refugee camps, I would understand. But they are from here. They grew up here—they are only a bit older than the promenade itself. And they probably used to play here, on the slides and swings. I wonder whether this concept we had of a cosmopolitan, nonreligious Jerusalem was plausible at all. Perhaps it was not. Perhaps it was self-deception. Look at the promenade now—so empty and foreboding. It's a no man's land."

After a few months of relative calm, in Jerusalem if not in the rest of the country, early on the morning of Thursday, November 21st, there was another pigu'a—the Hebrew word for a terrorist attack—in the southwest quarter of the city. A bus filled with schoolchildren and commuters exploded. As the news broke, I was on my way to my favorite West Jerusalem café. I felt compelled to rush to the spot to see the carnage, something that, as a journalist, I have done several times over the past year. But then I realized that it would be futile to write another description of yet another infernal scene. Horror has become our routine here. It is almost as if, these days, people in Jerusalem are expected to die gruesome deaths.

So I went to my café and sat at the bar, watching the first live pictures of the explosion appear on the television. It occurred to me that, while people in the West watch basketball games at their local bars, what we watch here is a contest between life and death: the metal shell of the green bus lying by the side of the road, body parts scattered around it, hysterical relatives asking for their loved ones. I followed the changing numbers on the screen: three dead, then five, then eight. Nine, ten, eleven. A sixty-seven-year-old grandmother with her grandson. A forty-four-year-old mother with her son.

The politics of the Jerusalem conflict are ruthlessly simple, almost banal. After victory in the Six-Day War, Israel should not have forcibly occupied the West Bank and Gaza, where millions of Palestinians lived. It shouldn't have encircled Jerusalem with settlements, causing friction and perpetrating injustice. It shouldn't have attempted to unify the city against the will of nearly a third of its residents.

Yet this intifada started a few months after Israel offered to end the occupation, in October, 2000. It began after Ehud Barak, then the Prime Minister, agreed at the Camp David peace summit to dismantle most of the settlements and to accept a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. This time, the politics of occupation and resistance cannot provide a satisfactory explanation for the bloodshed. Mighty religious and cultural forces are at work, tearing the city apart.

Sheer demographics are endangering the Jewish democratic state. Of the one and a half million people in the Jerusalem metropolitan area, approximately forty per cent are Jews. Of the eight hundred and forty thousand people living just outside the city limits, only twenty-two per cent are Jews. Sixty-eight per cent of the city's six hundred and seventy thousand people are Jews. Among these, the secular population is shrinking fast. Since 1990, more than a hundred and forty thousand Jewish Jerusalemites, most of them young, secular, well-educated professionals, have departed. The remaining secular Jews—university professors, state employees, small-business owners—now constitute less than half the city's population, and a mere fifth of the population of the entire metropolitan area. The people who seem likely to remain are the ultra-religious, the Yeshiva students, and the poor. There is less and less to sustain Jerusalem as a vibrant Western city.

My family was one of the first Jewish families to settle in Talbiyeh, an affluent Palestinian neighborhood in Jerusalem. When my grandparents arrived, in the late nineteen-twenties, they rented rooms in a splendid villa owned by Christian Arabs, right across from where I live today. It is still a pleasant, tree-lined street, one of the most beautiful in Jerusalem.

My great-grandfather Herbert Bentwich, a lawyer from a prominent English Jewish family in Hampstead, first visited Jerusalem in April, 1897, when he was forty years old, on a pilgrimage organized by Thomas Cook Tours. The first World Zionist Congress was about to convene in Basel, and Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, expected my great-grandfather to report on his impressions of the Holy Land. Was Palestine really the land of plenty? My great-grandfather never made it to the congress, but he was mesmerized by the dream that a sovereign Jewish nation would rise again in Zion. He brought up his nine daughters and two sons as Zionists and gave them a proper English education that included Chaucer and Newton and badminton.

When my grandfather, the youngest of the eleven children, turned twenty-two, he came to Palestine with his fiancée, who was born in Jaffa. He left behind Trinity College, Cambridge, and what was to have been a brilliant career in mathematics to become a teacher and then work for the department of education in Jerusalem. My grandparents were part of a movement that believed that here, and only here, could Jews live in peace with their identity and their tortured history.

The British Mandate had begun in 1920, allowing Jews and Arabs to live side by side in Jerusalem under English rule. The mandate lasted for twenty-eight years, and the city flourished. A distinct architectural style of stone-clad buildings evolved, Hebrew University was founded, and a mosaic of different communities developed. But there were occasional upheavals. Toward the end of the summer of 1929, as my grandmother was about to give birth to my mother, a shooting occurred near the villa where they lived in Talbiyeh. Muslims and Jews had disagreed over prayer rights at the Temple Mount, and riots broke out. There were other outbursts between 1936 and 1938, and again in 1946 and 1947. People were killed, and mistrust spread.

By mid-1948, the British were gone. So were the Palestinians of West Jerusalem, including the owners of Talbiyeh's fine villas—my family's landlords and neighbors and friends. They had been scared away by armed Zionists after the Arabs rejected a United Nations partition plan for Palestine. But after the West Jerusalem experiment collapsed the question remained: Can modernity prevail in Jerusalem?

One of my neighbors in Talbiyeh, Marion Brodie, says that this question became urgent even before the suicide bombings. I sat with her one afternoon in her flat as she waited for her eleven-year-old daughter, Sian, to return from school. Marion is forty-five, short-haired, and intense. She moved here from Glasgow twenty years ago, and married Mickey Olles, a Jerusalem-born optometrist. She was enchanted with the city's village-like feel and its rich history. But these days it is too risky to visit the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, or the Temple Mount.

On a Saturday night last March, Marion's extended family went to see a ballet recital at the Music Academy. Afterward, Marion suggested that they all go out for ice cream at a nearby café called Moment, which is less than sixty yards from the Prime Minister's residence. But Marion's brother said that it was late, he was tired, there was school tomorrow. "Unwillingly, I conceded," she told me. "Half an hour later, a bomb went off. Sian heard the blast in bed." Moment had been bombed and eleven people were dead. The next day, Sian asked to see the place. Marion hesitated, but Sian was determined. "So I took her to what remained of our neighborhood café, and we stood there together and hugged, and she started crying. And all the way home, and when we got home, she wouldn't stop crying. For more than an hour, she wouldn't stop."

About that time, Sian started waking up at night. "It never happened before," Marion said. "But now every night she wakes up and comes to us and says she is scared. And she is asking about her passport. Does she have a foreign passport? she asks. And if there are no bombings in Scotland, perhaps we should move there. Perhaps the three of us should go there and make new friends and start a new life."

Until very recently, Marion was still shopping at the souk in the increasingly dangerous Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. The market—the spice stores, the smells, the people she has known for nearly twenty years—is the last bastion of things she loves about the city. "Although my friends think I'm crazy, I insist on taking my shopping cart every Thursday morning down into the alleys. But last Thursday I suddenly saw bits of bodies everywhere. It wasn't a premonition—it was rational. I could see it coming, and I felt myself blown up. I really felt it—the burning hands, the skin peeling off. And I heard the phone calls afterward. I saw Mickey and Sian sobbing at my grave. I took my empty cart and turned around and left. A day later, a suicide bomber exploded right there."

The King David Hotel, overlooking the Old City, was opened to the public in January, 1931. One of the few outstanding hotels in the Middle East, and Israel's only grand hotel for more than half a century, the King David has become a seismograph for the region.

My cousin Gideon Avrami spent ten years at the King David in a variety of jobs—as a security officer, as a chef, and, finally, as managing director. He is a tall, solid man in his early forties, who has three children.

In September, 1993, the Oslo Accords were signed and there was general euphoria. In 1994 and 1995, Avrami told me, you could actually see a new Middle East taking shape just by walking through the lobby. There were guests from the Gulf States in gold-embroidered gowns, and Hashemite guests in their red-white-and-black kaffiyehs, and C.E.O.s from almost every multinational corporation—Sony, Nokia, Mercedes.

On November 4, 1995, dozens of heads of state attending the funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stayed at the hotel: King Hussein of Jordan, President Mubarak of Egypt, former United States Presidents Bush and Carter, and many of the European leaders. Prince Charles had to take a junior suite that night, because Bill and Hillary Clinton had already reserved the royal one. It was the last time a group like this would assemble in the hotel.

Three months later, in early 1996, there was a series of bus bombings, and business fell off, but by the late nineties the climate had improved. When Barak took power, in 2000, peace seemed to be within reach. "There was a real sense of splurging again," Avrami told me. "The annual occupancy rate was eighty-five per cent. There were exquisite flower arrangements in every room and three sorts of caviar at the breakfast buffet and gourmet dinners at La Régence and lavish sunset banquets by the garden pool."

Violence erupted at the end of September, with no warning. After Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, a site holy to both Jews and Muslims, Palestinians rioted throughout the country, and within days fifty people were dead. The second intifada had begun. Over the next year, suicide bombings became a regular, if unpredictable, occurrence. "On some nights, the hotel was so empty it felt like a haunted mansion," Avrami said. By mid-December, occupancy was down to fifteen per cent. Gone were the flower arrangements, the breakfast caviar, the butler department, and the old concierge. La Régence closed the following fall. "Most difficult of all was letting the staff go, because what made the King David was its employees, many of whom had been there for thirty and forty years, and many of whom were Palestinian," Avrami said. "So at first I fired only a hundred and fifty out of four hundred and fifty devoted men and women. Then I fired another hundred and fifty. Then the board fired me."

Three border guards with automatic weapons patrolled the streets outside Gilly's Bistro, in downtown Jerusalem, when I went there last spring. Opened in 1989 by Gilly Fefferman, the restaurant served steak and good wine, and was at one time the favorite destination of the city's secular upper-middle class.

"The year 2000 was fantastic," Fefferman, a reedy, bespectacled man, said as he crossed the arched hall of his whitewashed restaurant. "People were eating and drinking and being merry, bringing profits to an all-time high. But then came our own 9/11—which preceded New York's by a year—and within a month business was halved." When the suicide bombings began and the city center collapsed altogether, business at the restaurant dropped by ninety per cent. "Friday night, we had four for dinner, yesterday three, today you are the only one. So two weeks ago I said to my wife, 'Enough is enough—I'm closing.' I feel like hell about it, but I'm closing. Next month, I won't be here."

Across the square is Isabelle, a bar owned by the same people who owned Moment. It has become a haven for many of Moment's survivors and former customers. The night I was there, a month after the bombing, Isabelle was the only bar downtown that was not ghostly empty. Outside was high alert and deep fear and foggy dark, but inside there wasn't a free barstool. "The instant before sleep, it'll always come back," Keren Elisar, who had been a bartender at Moment, said. "The step I took away from the bar for some unknown reason. Then the sound of breaking glass. The quiet. Then the horrific screaming of people dying. And Yoram Cohen, the owner, putting a hand over my eyes so I wouldn't see the torn-apart bodies. So I wouldn't see the human parts on the bar floor. And the feeling of cataclysm. As if it's all over—Moment, Jerusalem, our lives. As if the end is here."

"There were four still customers sitting by the bar," Yoram Cohen said. "So handsome they were, leaning calmly back on their barstools with their eyes wide open. As if holding on to the taste of the beer they just had. As if not yet grasping the blast that just killed them." Cohen learned from Israeli intelligence sources that a suicide bomber had been sent to Isabelle earlier this year, but was intercepted.

There is a ritual at Isabelle, and it was performed the night I was there. "Put on the pigu'a song!" people shouted. The barman, who was bald and tattooed, put on the Hebrew rock ballad that was playing when the bomb went off.

I looked around. The patrons of Isabelle were dancing.

Whenever I go to Tel Aviv to visit friends and colleagues, they ask, When are you leaving? Why are you still there? What keeps you among the ultra-Orthodox Jews and the Arabs? I, too, wonder why I stay in these arid hills, in the midst of fanaticism and conflict. It's loyalty, I suppose. Loyalty to lost causes. Loyalty to what was and what could have been. To the unique encounter that was Jerusalem.

This loyalty might one day dissolve. In every one of us here in Jerusalem, something buckles with each new scene of carnage. But, for the time being, amid the shootings and the explosions, I cling to the idea of the Jerusalem that my family came for and to the hope that it will someday be possible.

In May, Gilly Fefferman closed his bistro and moved to Tel Aviv. Gideon Avrami became the managing director of Tel Aviv's Azrieli skyscrapers, which have been threatened by Al Qaeda-like attacks. Yoram Cohen rebuilt Moment, but discovered that customers are slow to come back. People are cautiously returning to the promenade, and Shlomo Aronson is less despairing than he was in April. Marion Brodie and her family are still undecided. And I have noticed that of the twenty children and grandchildren that my grandparents had after they arrived in Jerusalem, seventy-five years ago, I am the only one still here.