CITY OF HOLINESS AND HATRED

Which is the real Jerusalem? The holy city at the heart of three great religions? Or the world capital of prejudice and bigotry? By Patrick Cockburn
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The Independent Culture
THE Jewish new year that has just begun is, according to the Israeli authorities, the 3,000th in Jerusalem's history: the anniversary of the capture of the city by King David. To mark this, a 15-month festival of celebrations - Jerusalem 3,000 - began two weeks ago. Ehud Olmert, the city's right-wing mayor, said that the events would honour the city as "the eternal, united capital of the sovereign state of Israel and of the Jewish nation". They have, of course, done nothing of the kind.

Leaving aside the fact that the future shape of the Jewish state - and the destiny of its "capital" - can rarely have been less certain, the main effect of this cultural jamboree has been simply to continue Jerusalem's tradition of uncompromising rancour. The Palestinians immediately protested, pointing out that the city had flourished for 2,000 years before King David, and had later enjoyed more than 1,000 years of Islamic rule; ambassadors of EU nations boycotted the opening ceremony (the US ambassador had a "prior engagement"); and even the orthodox Jews complained, claiming that an official commemorative medal depicting the Holy City gave too much prominence to the crosses on the onion dome of the Russian Orthodox church on the Mount of Olives. In short, the festival is underlining the fact that Jerusalem is - as it always has been - one of the most divided cities in the world. It is this division that gives Jerusalem its menace and its charm.

Captured and recaptured around 11 times in its history (depending on how you calculate it), its buildings razed and its population massacred too often to recount, Jerusalem has been divided since the Middle Ages into four unequal quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian. But its divisions today are more complicated, and profound, than that. The Jewish community - some 400,000 strong - is itself split between the secular, the orthodox and the ultra-orthodox. The secular faction enjoys occasional symbolic triumphs - the opening of a non-kosher McDonald's in Shamai Street, for example - but the ultra-orthodox are increasingly the dominant, discordant voice. Most of the 130,000 Jews who left Jerusalem in 1993 were secular Jews; ultra-orthodox children under the age of 10 make up 52 per cent of the pupils in the city's Jewish schools. There is also a long history of acrimonious disputes among the 14,000 Christians. Take the new design for a fresco on the inside of the dome of the Holy Sepulchre, recently agreed by the leaders of Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian churches: it was, they announced, as if surprised by their own unanimity, "the first occasion that the three Christian leaders had agreed on the implementation of such a crucial joint activity since 1852." But it is the tension between the 167,000 Palestinians and the Israelis which dominates daily life: animosities have always been deep and have got worse since the Palestinians' Intifada (uprising) started in 1987. The 1993 Oslo peace accords have not led to increased friendliness. Outside Orient House, the main Palestinian headquarters in East Jerusalem, right-wing Israeli demonstrators shout, "Your mother is a whore" in Arabic at Palestinian children entering a nearby school. There is no curfew, but by the middle of the evening, streets in Palestinian areas are deserted.

Jerusalem is not a city in which any community will lightly make concessions or recognise the rights of others. But although there is always an undercurrent of violence (the first display cabinet in the Islamic museum by the mosque of al-Aqsa contains, not carvings and ornaments, but the bloody shirts of 22 Palestinians killed by the Israeli army in 1990), people usually just ignore each other, and divisions produce diversity more often than bloodshed. It is the diversity (and the menace) that Abbas's photographs record: the ultra-orthodox Jews in fur hats and long black coats - the dress of 18th-century Poland; the black-bearded Ethiopian monks; life in the lanes of the Old City, where the stonework of fountains built by Saladin incorporate columns from churches destroyed when he retook the city from the Crusaders.

Jerusalem's religious heritage is both its glory and its curse; its holiest places arouse the bitterest passions. By next May, at the latest, negotiations are due to start, under the 1993 Oslo agreement, on the final status of Jerusalem. The Israelis claim the whole city - eternal and undivided - as their capital; the Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as theirs. Neither side is likely to recede very far from its current stance; both sides are terrified of weakening their negotiating position. The jostlings for position, the constant attempts to alter the city's political map by altering the reality on the ground, show no signs of abating.

The thousands of tourists and pilgrims who visit the Old City every day, entranced by its charm, see the diversity of the people of Jerusalem but not the friction between them. There are other cities almost as old but few where people regard the stones holy to their particular faith with such devotion. All too often, this fanaticism has been destructive in its effects, but it is also creative, ensuring that, whatever is destroyed, somebody in Jerusalem always cares enough to rebuild it. The body of a young Palestinian shot by an Israeli private security guard is borne around the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam's holiest shrines, before burial Russian Orthodox nuns at breakfast in the convent of the Church of Ascension on the Mount of Olives. There are many Christian sects in Jerusalem, mainstream and marginal, but the city's Christian population stands at only 14,000 .Right: young Hasidic Jews study sacred texts in the Yeshiva (Talmudic school) of Hora Veyira. The school's director is Yasser Arafat's adviser on Jewish affairs. Below: members of the tiny Ahl-e-Kitabis sect of Christians look towards Jerusalem's Old City. Originally from the Ahl-e-Kitabis (Arabic for "People of the Book") adhere to a strict interpretation of the Bible that governs their diet, dress and homes - in tents in an olive grove on Mount Zion

Left: Hasidic Jews at the Damascus Gate, on their way from the Western Wall, where they have been praying, on the Sabbath. Below: a Palestinian returns with crosses that he has previously hired out for Christian pilgrims to carry along the Via Dolorosa

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