Mount of Olives panorama

Mount of Olives panorama
A panoramic view of the Mount of Olives

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Political Geography of Jerusalem

Yesterday afternoon we had our regular lecture about the political geography of Jerusalem, followed by a bus tour of some sites to see the Separation Barrier (the "Wall" as most people, at least of the Arab sector, call it here).  See the maps that I posed in last semester's blog entry.  Once again our speaker was Daniel Seidemann, a civil rights lawyer whose expertise is in Jerusalem issues, particularly maintaining the rights of both of our city's communities.  He is a self-described Zionist and Israeli patriot, but he works strenuously for the rights of Palestinians, recognizing that justice is a two-way street and that is the Two State Solution is essential for Israel's survival as a Jewish state.

This map catches the complexity of the situation, which we are in the middle of.  The BYU Jerusalem Center is just north and to the west of the orange settlement named Beit Orot.  Our immediate neighbors are Palestinians in the Es-Suwaneh neighborhood, which is the green Palestinian area immediately to the south and west of us.  From

I strongly recommend Danny's website, Terrestrial Jerusalem (as opposed to "Heavenly Jerusalem," perhaps?) to get a sense of the history of the city's political geography and to see maps and diagrams of the different national, religious, security, and political aspects of Jerusalem's geography. 

Seven Arches Overlook

After Danny's initial lecture in the Forum of the Jerusalem Center, we went to the familiar overlook spot below the Seven Arches Hotel (formerly the Jerusalem Intercontinental Hotel).  Here, with a magnificent view of the Qidron Valley, the Mount of Olives, and the Old City, Danny pointed out the complexity of the competing religious and national claims to this "spot of ground" that is holy to the three great monotheistic religions.

The Separation Barrier

We then drove over the top of the Mount of Olives to Bethphage.  When Jesus came to Jerusalem, he usually came from the east, ascending from the Jordan River Valley and coming over the Mount of Olives here.  In fact, for his Triumphal Entry at the start of the last week of his life, he left his friends' home in Bethany (today's Arab town of al-Izzariah) and then, somewhere in this area, mounted the donkey for his joyful procession into the Holy City.

Today this route is blocked by a high concrete wall that is part of the Separation Barrier that Israel began building in 2002 as a result of the suicide bombings that were the most horrendous part of the Second Intifadeh.  While this barrier, together with other measures (such as the improvement of the Palestinians' own security forces) seems to have been successful at ending that violence, it has cut Palestinians on the Israeli side of the wall off from their friends, neighbors, and family on the other.

A View of the West Bank

Our last stop was an overlook below Hebrew University, not far from our own center, that gave us a view of the Judean Wilderness.  Everything we could see is technically in the West Bank, but we could also see the large Israeli settlement of Ma`ale Adumim, as well as stretches of the separation barrier that threaten to bisect a future Palestinian state, reducing its territorial contiguity and viability.

 Human Faces

While many of the issues facing our Palestinian and Israeli friends seem intractable, two flesh-and-blood human beings with whom we spent the afternoon emphasized to me the goodness that exists on both sides of this divide.  While not all here agree with Danny's politics, it clear to me that he loves his nation and the Zionist endeavor.  But he also respects Palestinian human rights and feels strongly about the justice of their having their own homeland.

The other human face was seen in the person of our sweet, humble bus driver Sheik Ata.  Sheik Ata frequently drives for us, and he has become a good friend.  We always refer to him as sheik, because he is, in fact, an elder figure in the Muslim community.  He regularly reads the holy Qur'an at Al Aqsa.  In fact he has memorized it and is one of those who examines new readers as they finish their training.  He is also one the most godly men whom I have ever met, right up there with respected figures in the LDS community like my friends George Durrant and Mac Christensen.  He always speaks of God respectfully and genuinely.  We never part without his invoking God's blessings on me and my family.  He has told me of his mother, who told him to love and see the best in all people---Muslim, Jew, and Christian---and then maybe they will be their best.

Kent Jackson and I with our good friend Sheik Ata
The LDS Church and BYU are strictly neutral in the conflicts that we are witness to, though we love the people and pray for peace.  Personally I have come to love this Land and both of its peoples, and I pray daily to God for its peace and prosperity, as well as for security and justice for all.

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