I’m sitting in a coffee shop on the border of East and West Jerusalem. Behind me a Dutch Christian tour guide is animatedly explaining the stations of the cross, opposite me are two women in Hijabs speaking Arabic and reading a Hebrew newspaper. A group of Russian soldiers are queing inside to collect their coffees before heading back to their bases after the weekend and the British teenagers who I’m waiting for are slowly emerging from their beds after a night out in an Argentinian dance bar that springs up each night in the city’s food market.
This city is one giant indentity crisis. The old city is split into four- Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian- the new one that has grown up around it is split uneasily in two. Everyone’s identity is hypenated- Palestinian-Christian, Russian-Jewish, Israeli-Arab, Moroccon, Iraqi, Persian, Georgian, Yemenite, Russian, Jordanian, German, and so the list goes on. Each of these groups has their own little neighbourhood, their own foods and their own language. Accents, slang, names annd neighbourhoods become glue for mini diasporas within this strange melting pot of a city. To be a Jerusalemite in the west of the city invariably means having come from somewhere else but feeling at home. To be a Jerusalemite in the east of the city means the opposite, having come from here but without the voting rights or anything more than an ID card to prove it.
If there’s a place on earth that is a microcosm of identity play, reconstruction and shifting then to me this is it. When I’m out in the East of the city I sometimes catch myself hiding behind my Britishness, it’s a more comfortable way of being than to be there as a Jew when that part of my identity is symonymous with the oppression of others. Other times, maybe more in the towns and villages of the West Bank than here, I make a point of being there as a Jew. It’s a tiny gesture that tries to say “I see how hard things are here, we’re not all against you”.
Then I slip back into the privileged bubble of West Jerusalem and sit in an air conditioned bookstore cafe with a friendly security guard whilst the people who live in that village who left at the same time as me are still stuck at the checkpoint because the teenage soldier with an oversized gun, grumpy from a fight with his girlfriend, is being extra slow with permits today.
Back in the coffee shop I order in Hebrew and wonder what my German refugee great-grandparents, for whom this was the vocabulary of scripture and no more, would make of the crude jokes I can hear a group of young boys making in the resurrected language. I wonder what they would make of this state that bears their name, ‘Israel’, but lives and acts with few of their values. Then I sip my Sprite whilst a French family, newly arrived in Israel after the shootings at a kosher supermarket in Paris a few months ago, sit with their kippot (skullcaps) confidently on show for the first time in their lives.
My, this is a complicated place!