Jerusalem: A victim of historical neglect and ignorance

Arab intelligentsia’s response to a new campaign mirrors centuries-old indifference to the fate and history of Jerusalem.

Syrian actor Abbas Al Nouri, famed for his role in the historical epic Bab Al Hara, recently launched a public campaign to declare Occupied Jerusalem “the eternal capital of Arab culture.”

Al Nouri added, “Culture is non-negotiable; a weapon that cannot be disarmed!” On Friday, the petition, well into its third week on the internet, had gathered less than 100 signatures, showing that if anything, the project was not progressing as planned.

I personally signed the petition, and my number was 57. I applaud Al Nouri’s initiative, however, saying: noise is better than silence, and activism, no matter how minimal, is better than political coma.

The early results of Al Nouri’s campaign should raise more than just eyebrows in the Arab world. Passiveness does not stop there; internet-savvy Arabs have not even tried to challenge Wikipedia, which says: “[Occupied] Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and its largest city.”

Additionally, Al Nouri’s campaign went by unnoticed in many important Arab media outlets, which were too busy covering other events – like the passing away of Michael Jackson, or the political unrest in Honduras – to allocate prime time for a cause that seemingly, no longer interests Arab audiences.

Occupied Jerusalem, a city that has been besieged 23 times, captured and re-captured 44 times, still remains the topic of Arabic poetry, patriotic songs, paintings, drama, and photography.

What Arabs forget is that no matter how pro-active they are towards the city, reality within the city itself is difficult to challenge. The only people able to really preserve Occupied Jerusalem are the Palestinians of the 1948 areas.

According to a December 2007 census, conducted by Israel, the city has a population of 747,600, of which 64 per cent are Jews, 32 per cent are Muslim, and two per cent are Christian.

The same study shows that Occupied Jerusalem’s Jewish population was decreasing, because of the high Muslim birth rate, although nine per cent of the 32,488 people living in the Old City, continue to be Jewish.

That is correct, aided by the fact that many Jews leave Occupied Jerusalem for other parts of Israel because of few job opportunities, and expensive real estate, especially around religious quarters.

For example, in 2005, a total of 16,000 Jews left Occupied Jerusalem, while only 10,000 moved into it. Forty-two per cent of the city’s Arabs, however, are young, below the age of 15 and they have been strongly encouraged by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) to stay in the city to maintain the Arab identity of Occupied Jerusalem; a legacy long fought for by the late president Yasser Arafat.

Arab residents of the city – who Arafat once described as “the only Arabs left” are well aware of the political statement they make by insisting to stay in Occupied Jerusalem, despite all odds.

Presently, the city has 1,204 synagogues, 158 churches, and only 73 mosques. Israel has been slowly dotting the landscape with Jewish landmarks, like Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Occupied Jerusalem which has an estimated 100,000 books about Jewish victims of the Third Reich. The National Theater – the only Arab cultural one in the city – is nothing as impressive as the Israeli one.

We must not forget that when Occupied Jerusalem was under Arab rule, 42 years ago, it never attracted the attention now allocated to it.

The last major Arab achievement in the city, the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, were made under the Umayyad dynasty.

Following the downfall of the Umayyad Caliphate, Muslim investment purposely shifted from Damascus to Baghdad, the new Muslim capital, and Occupied Jerusalem was ignored.

Muslim sympathy towards Occupied Jerusalem was not re-awakened until the Crusaders occupied it in 1099. In 1187, Saladin recaptured the city and once again, it slipped into darkness. Its population dropped, construction projects ceased, illness increased, and sanitary conditions worsened.

The city witnessed a modernized awakening under the British, who tried marketing it as a tourist attraction. In 1948, the city came under the Arab authority of the late King Abdullah I, who insisted that Amman, rather than Occupied Jerusalem, was the principle city of the kingdom of Transjordan.

King Abdullah knew that if too much light was shed on Occupied Jerusalem, Amman would never develop into more than a middle-size town, whereas it needed money and work to be transformed into a proper Arab capital.

The Palestinian Liberation Organisation founding charter did not even mention Occupied Jerusalem and even Jamal Abdul Nasser himself, the vanguard of Arab nationalism, barely referred to it in his 16 years as president of Egypt.

Negligence and ignorance combined account for the sad fate of Occupied Jerusalem, over the centuries, and probably explain why Al Nouri’s campaign is not gaining its required momentum, among Arab intelligentsia.

Gulf News, 13 July 2009