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Summary Report on the Symposium: Jerusalem: Imagining the Ideal City

The Jerusalem Peace Institute (JPI) held its symposium, “Jerusalem: Imagining the Ideal City,” on December 19, 2021. It was organized in partnership with The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF), Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), International Peace & Cooperation Center (IPCC), the Muslim and Christian Coalition (MCC).

In his introductory remarks, Dr. Saliba Sarsar, President & CEO of JPI, observed that the conditions on the ground in Jerusalem are difficult. This necessitates a new approach toward building an inclusive city, the Jerusalem of the future. This relates to JPI’s mission, which promotes Jerusalem as humanity’s gift to be shared and cherished by two peoples (Israelis and Palestinians) and by members of three faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). It also reflects JPI’s core values of peace, justice, equality, inclusion, economic resilience, respect for cultural heritage, and accountable leadership

Dr. Sarsar introduced each of the three panelists. He stated that the views of the speakers and questioners are their own and do not represent those of the Jerusalem Peace Institute and symposium partners.

Mr. Jonathan Kuttab, Esq., Executive Director of FOSNA, spoke first. He stated:  It is axiomatic that Jerusalem’s situation would not be a difficult problem if all the parties involved with it could overcome the tendency to make exclusive claims on the city—claims for which the rationale is often based on a concept of divine right. Furthermore, we must all keep in mind the fact that Jerusalem is a living city whose residents are dependent upon municipal services. The party in control has the obligation to address the needs of all the residents equitably. The toxic notion of exclusive ownership motivates home demolitions, selectivity in granting building permits, and the imposition of enormous fees on residents for living in their own homes. The goal of such measures is to change the demography of the city, and the overall strategy is to make life miserable for non-Jewish residents. The limit on non-Jewish residency used to be 38 percent, but it has now been reduced to 26 percent. If exclusivity can be abandoned, and if the political sovereignty can be divided into constituent parts, then the needed services can be provided for each part of the city. The key to a solution is eliminating exclusivity.

Dr. Rami Nasrallah, the Founder & Chairman of the International Peace and Cooperation Center and a member of the International Advisory Board of the Jerusalem Peace Institute, spoke second. He stated:  Jerusalem is the cultural and economic center of the Palestinian Territories. Although it contributes only slightly to the economic and technological progress of the State of Israel, Israel regards Palestinian Jerusalemites as a demographic threat. The city has undergone dramatic changes since 1993, as Israel has exploited the Oslo Accords to advance its goals. For example, the Israeli authorities require all schools to teach the Israeli curriculum. Palestinian institutions are being replaced by Israeli ones. During Barack Obama’s two terms as U.S. President, home demolitions were infrequent, but under his successor, the rate of demolition rose significantly. The U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital during the Trump years has emboldened the Israeli government. The policy of reducing the non-Jewish population to 26% is being implemented. Palestinians are leaving. The occupier has responsibility for the daily needs of the residents. The Old City should be set apart, and, in the rest of the city, political boundaries should be drawn between the Palestinian and the Israeli sections.

Prof. Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House a member of the International Advisory Board of the Jerusalem Peace Institute, spoke third. He stated:  Realities on the ground in this divided city are indeed dire. What is needed is coexistence without any exclusive claims or any notions of divine right. The actions that have been occurring in Sheikh Jarrah comprise an effort toward demographic change aimed at asserting an exclusive claim. Religious identity must be separated from politics and policymaking. Jerusalem presents a radical contrast with Tel Aviv. The latter city is wealthy, whereas Jerusalem is poor. Merchants are lacking the customers needed to maintain their businesses; moreover, there are constant attacks on Palestinian education. Human rights are violated daily, and the international community is neglecting its responsibility. Regarding the U.S. role: It is not to be expected that the U.S. Embassy would be moved back to Tel Aviv—but why hasn’t President Biden re-opened the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem? The Israeli settlers’ claims of ownership are a deliberate provocation designed to unsettle East Jerusalem. We must question Israel’s true intention in Jerusalem. Israel does not desire peace, but rather it is seeking exclusive ownership.

In response to questions from the participants, the panelists discussed the poor conditions in the Palestinian schools. While the religious schools suffer no interference and even receive a subsidy, the Palestinian public schools should be able to run the tawjihi program and receive a government subsidy. But the Israeli Supreme Court sets the policies. In the past 3-4 years, none of the new school principals have been Jerusalemites. The panelists agreed that while the issue of borders is important, the concept of thinking of Jerusalem in three sectors – East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem, and the Old City – is not a good solution. There are also holy sites outside of the Old City. Lest we forget, the Old City is not a museum because people live in it. We cannot disconnect the Old City from the rest of Jerusalem. Lastly, the panelists spoke of hope for equality in the future. The international community needs sufficient courage to speak out to Israel. Zionist Christians should remember what Jesus taught.

The three panelists shared final remarks: Mr. Kuttab: What Israel is doing is not for the purpose of security or peace, but it is for apartheid, racism, and discrimination. There is a possibility for living together if Israel will let go of such practices.

Dr. Nasrallah: Right-wing groups are acting on behalf of the Israeli government. Both the Israeli mainstream and U.S. Jews have given up on Jerusalem. All the current policies will fail, and we must return to a policy of two states, two cities.

Prof. Mekelberg: We must look at the daily hardships of the city’s residents. If Israel were to annex Jerusalem, it must give equal rights to all, but Israel engages in the distorted thinking that assumes that security is possible only through oppressing others. The international community must be reminded.

In his concluding statement, Dr. Sarsar said that the rights of individuals are paramount. Jerusalem cannot be the exclusive domain of a few. He encouraged all to explore the JPI website and Facebook page and support the JPI mission, activities, and programs.