Time Magazine’s August 13, 2012 international edition. (Photo: Oded Balilty/AP for Time)
Following Time magazine’s affable portrait of Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu published last May, the magazine’s August 13th edition features Jerusalem as a battleground. But not between Israelis and Palestinians–West Jerusalem v. East Jerusalem. Rather, Karl Vick portrays the city as the prize in a game of tug-and-war between Orthodox Jews and secular Israelis:
Since 1967, Jerusalem has become a resolutely Jewish city, so much so that the central question preoccupying residents today is not how it might be divided with Palestinians–for they are widely ignored of late–but rather just how religiously conservative the city can become while remaining a place most Israeli Jews could imagine living.
Vick’s account skips over East Jerusalem’s occupation and skyrocketing home demolitions and evictions, and goes straight to the tensions between the city’s secular and religious. This “grinding war of attrition” is then presented as the municipality’s major preoccupation, with the author’s sympathies leaning towards the vanguard, secular “New Jews” who are portrayed as resistance fighters hurling their right to exist against a movement that seeks their expulsion. The two teams, religious and secular, are respectively represented by two men situation in–
trench lines etched across leafy neighborhoods of a city divided between Jews like Gibli, who wear black fedoras and sit primly away from women on public buses, and Jews like Noam Pinchasi, who keeps a glossy of Marilyn Monroe next to the fridge.
Both men live in the West Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Yovel. But while Gibli is free to live in his gender segregated world amuck with “men in black and women in wigs pushing baby carriages,” also backed by the state’s ruling coalition, Pinchasi is under pressure from his Orthodox neighbors to leave the area. But Pinchasi is a “full on” man, and retaliates against this “secular cleansing.” At night, he dresses in dark clothing and posts sexually provocative images of women on synagogue doors and cuts down religious markers called eruv[im]:
‘Then there’s the eruv thing,’ Pinchasi says. An eruv is a boundary, a wire stretched around a Jewish town. Inside it, observant Jews are permitted to carry things–a purse, a prayer book–that they would otherwise be barred from lifting during the enforced rest of the Sabbath. There’s an eruv around the whole of Jerusalem, but newly arrived residents of Kiryat Yovel wanted their own. Without asking, they stuck poles on private property and strung wire between them. Pinchasi got a saw. The racket drew witnesses, and he spent a night in custody.’”We learned it was illegal to cut down even illegal poles,’ he says. After that he found a more discreet way to cut wood, a kind of lacerating rope–’very quiet,’ Pinchasi says–but the ultra-Orthodox answered his innovation with their own, girdling poles in steel sheaths. So Pinchasi went for the wire. To reach it, as high as a phone line, he first struggled with a Ginsu knife lashed to a stick. Then he discovered the Wolf-Garten professional tree trimmer. Made in Germany. It extends up to 4 m. 250 shekels (about $65). ‘The best of its kind,’ he says, flourishing the contraption like a saber.
The man is full on. Pinchasi parks in the shadows, pulls up the hoodie and runs in a crouch. He snips the wire at one, two, three poles, then leaves behind a sticker: pirate eruv over a skull and crossbones. One night, about 30 ultra-Orthodox youths caught him in the act and roughed up his crew, including a Hebrew University professor. ‘To Prof. Dan and Noam, the secular maniacs,’ reads graffiti on a utility box near their homes. ‘Stop. Get out of the neighborhood. You’re in our sights,’ signed “The commando of the neighborhood.’
Pinchasi drives to Gibli’s neighborhood, parks and reaches for the posters. Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus goes up on a synagogue door, then on a recycling bin directly across the street. ‘My basic assumption,’ Pinchasi says, ‘is if they feel uncomfortable, they won’t come here.’
As Vick’s narration continues, the battle between Pinchasi and Gilbli reveals itself as less of a showdown and more of scrimmage between competitors in the same sport of building unquestioned Jewish sovereignty over the divided city. Clearly Pinchasi, the archetypal secular, faces pressure from his Orthodox neighbors, but that is all it is, pressure; he is not taxed with discriminatory housing laws, his house will never be demolished and he will never have to move into a cave because there is no where else to go. Rather Pinchasi’s efforts are redoubled by other seculars who formed a house-purchasing affinity group called New Spirit. Together they benefit from the privileges bestowed upon all Jewish-Israeli citizens: the right to stay in their homes and expand their communities. Yet these same rights remain elusive for the Palestinian people.