One of the most often repeated tropes about Israel is the contrast between its two major cities. Tel Aviv is portrayed as the embodying the more cosmopolitan, secular, modern side of Israeli society, while Jerusalem embodies the parochial, religious, traditional side. There is a great deal of truth to this characterization, and the two cities definitely feel very different, but the contrast is really more complicated than people often imply. For one thing, as one of the Israelis who accompanied our group was very vocal in insisting, both cities are more diverse and complicated internally than the caricature has it. There are plenty of synagogues and religious people in Tel Aviv, and there are plenty of secular people in Jerusalem.
There is nevertheless a real difference in feel between the two, and one thing that I found somewhat surprising in visiting them was how much I preferred Jerusalem. I’m a pretty secular, modern guy, so I had kind of thought Tel Aviv would be more my kind of place than Jerusalem, but that was definitely not the case. It’s not that I disliked Tel Aviv; it’s a very pleasant city, but it’s also a very mundane city. Tel Aviv feels like a very typical European city, and this is no accident. It was deliberately founded 101 years ago by a group of Zionists who reasoned that Jews had basically always lived in cities founded by other people and who wanted to see what a city founded by Jews would look like. So they founded one, and it turns out a Jewish city looks and feels like a medium-sized European city along the Mediterranean coast. Pleasant, but not particularly distinctive. Indeed, Tel Aviv feels like it could be anywhere, and that’s sort of the point. The Zionists who started Tel Aviv were those who saw Zionism as a secular nationalist ideology, and while Palestine was the obvious place for their desired Jewish state full of Jewish cities, it was by no means necessary to them that it be there. The important thing was just that a Jewish state exist somewhere. When the British offered Herzl Uganda instead of Palestine these are the people who wanted to take it. Herzl himself was one of them, of course. Because of my lack of adherence to Zionism, I don’t have any particular love for Tel Aviv just because it’s a Jewish city, and there’s nothing else about it that would make it particularly appeal to me more than any other city.
Jerusalem, on the other hand, is amazing. Whereas Tel Aviv could be anywhere, Jerusalem couldn’t be anywhere else and it could never be mistaken for any other city. It’s unique in a way that Tel Aviv very much isn’t. Today it’s identified more with the religious portion of Israeli society, the ideological descendants of the religious Zionists who refused to accept Uganda and would settle for nothing but Palestine. Within the context of Israel, then, Jerusalem tends to stand for a religious rather than a secular outlook, and its position right on the border of the West Bank makes it an ideological flash point for more general issues of security, identity, and the peace process as well.
In a very fundamental way, however, Jerusalem is not a Jewish city the way Tel Aviv is. It’s governed and inhabited primarily by Jews today, of course, and at various times in the past it has also been primarily Jewish, but for most of its long history it has been governed and inhabited by non-Jews, and that history is very visible in the physical structure of the city as well as in the symbolism and importance it has for all sorts of people, Jewish and otherwise. Whereas Tel Aviv was founded 101 years ago as an experiment in creating a Jewish city as part of a Jewish nation-state, Jerusalem is thousands of years old, and no one knows who originally founded it, when, or why. It has passed through many hands over the millennia of its existence, some of them Jewish but most of them not. The way I see it, Jerusalem may currently be part of the State of Israel, but fundamentally it transcends that status and belongs to no one group. It is a Jewish city in some ways, but in other ways it is a Christian city and in still other ways it is a Muslim city. Overall I think it simultaneously belongs to no one and everyone. It is an international city, perhaps the only one in the world. It’s also just an amazing place to be and to explore, in a way that I can’t really articulate properly. I’m not generally inclined to agree with the idea that it’s impossible to understand a place without seeing it personally, but in the case of Jerusalem I think that may be true.
In this context, while I think the most practical path to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would involve dividing Jerusalem and letting each side use its portion as its capital, I think the idea that sometimes gets floated of having Jerusalem be part of neither state but instead be an international city controlled by the UN or some other international organization is not nearly as unrealistic as it sounds. Indeed, in many ways I think that would be the most appropriate status for Jerusalem given its history and importance. Not that it’s likely to happen, of course, but at this point a divided Jerusalem as part of a two-state solution doesn’t look all that likely in the foreseeable future either.