Every once in a while I have to pinch myself – can it really be that I am living in Jerusalem? Sometimes it can be hard to equate this city I am living in with that same mystical city that first entered my imagination back in religious study classes at school and later became perplexed by as I became aware of its place at the epicentre of so many of the Middle East’s religious/political conundrums.
A brief trip back to the UK not so long ago coincided with onset of the Middle Eastern revolts and the downfall of Hosni Mubarak’s Egyptian own ancient regime. Whilst Jerusalem, and much of the world, remained powerless onlookers there was an undeniable fear and trepidation – “a quiet panic” – that quickly spread throughout the Israeli political and military establishment. How could and should Israel act as a stalwart of Israel’s security crumbled in front of them? With Israel’s long-term peace with Egypt (and the rest of region) up in the air yet again, journalists, politicians and experts were hauled into TV studios across Jerusalem to give their two pennies’ worth on how this will affect the most hotly contested of all conflicts. How peculiar it was to be watching events unfold on the BBC/Sky News/Al Jazeera knowing full well that we would soon be replacing the comfortable, peaceful and predictable surroundings of English suburbia for whatever the future now holds for Jerusalem, Israel…the entire Middle East no less – fear or hope?
US author James Carroll in the Boston Globe (Caught in the eye of a political storm) conjured up an apt image of what it was like in Jerusalem those first few days post-Mubarak:
As news comes of yet intensified demonstrations in Iran, Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen, a ferocious sandstorm howls through Jerusalem, a gritty fog swirling across the most contested place of all. Weather is mere nature, yet Jerusalem seems like the tranquil eye of the larger political storm. There is tension for sure. How could the tectonic plates shifting below the entire Mideast not cause tremors here.
If Jerusalem is the still quiet eye of the Arab hurricane, it is also an eye through which to view the great dilemma: Is tumultuous Mideast revolt to be seen with fear and hope?
With this month’s storms raging on the horizon, Israelis have reason for wariness, and Palestinians are right to be impatient at promises unkept. Americans are understandably alert. Yet Jerusalem itself remains the best reason for keeping an eye not on fear, on hope.
One of the saddest things about living and seeing first-hand the realties of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (albeit only from the Israeli side) is the way it gnaws away at your once (naïve) optimism and transforms it into (realistic) pessimism. As much as you may try to normalise life here (an art Israelis have learnt to perfect), the perceived peace in Jerusalem is illusory, too easily punctuated by the brutal attacks and incitement against Israelis alongside the sustained levels of oppression and dehumanisation of the Palestinians. In such an atmosphere it can be hard to continue labelling yourself as an optimist.
So while from the outside Jerusalem does look to many like the peaceful eye of this Middle Eastern storm I can’t help but think something has to give. On the streets of Tunis and Cairo oppressed populations rose up against their own oppressive ‘normalised’ state of affairs, seemingly out of the blue – could it be happening here sometime soon? Watch this space…