On Jerusalem

Comparing and Contrasting Mount Zion to the Temple Mount – JICC and Window to Mount Zion, in Jerusalem Post Article

The Temple Mount and Mount Zion are two areas considered holy to a number of different groups, in relatively close proximity. Yet, we mostly hear about tensions only about the Temple Mount.


Journalist Peggy Cidor explored this question in the article that recently appeared in the Jerusalem Post, both in print and online. You can find the full text, in which she cites both our director Dr. Hagai Agmon-Snir and coordinator of the Window to Mount Zion project Merav Horovitz-Stein, below.

Despite the existence of significant religious sites for Judaism, Islam and Christianity on both Mount Zion and the Temple Mount, only one seems to periodically explode with tensions. Why?

Last Friday evening was Laylat al-Qadar, the last Friday of Ramadan – a night dedicated to special prayers and meditation. As in the last few years, it drew tens of thousands of worshipers to the Temple Mount – to Haram al-Sharif and al-Aksa Mosque.
According to Hisham, the taxi driver who drove me to the Old City the following Sunday morning, there were some 300,000 worshipers there. More official figures estimate 150,000.

“In any case,” says Ami Metav, formerly with the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), Jerusalem region, “we’re talking about an impressive number of people. Despite the tension that arose over the prior few days on the Mount [with Palestinians entrenching themselves in al-Aksa with a supply of stones and fireworks, and one person lightly wounded on June 28], it went on without even the tiniest disturbance, without any need for the police to interfere.”

Tension and friction in Jerusalem are almost a matter of routine, sometimes ending in bloodshed, other times controlled before reaching that stage. But in two particular locations, very different initiatives and activities have produced different results. While the eyes of the world are locked on Jerusalem in general and more precisely on the Temple Mount, nearby Mount Zion – which has just as many points of friction and tension among various religious factions – has managed to remain less chaotic most of the time.

One explanation is the fact that while Mount Zion has long been part of Israel proper, the Temple Mount was recaptured in 1967 during the Six Day War.

Another reason is that despite the tremendous potential for tourism and global interest, Mount Zion has never made it to the front lines of the violence, apart from sporadic incidents perpetrated by hooligans, mostly arson of Christian institutions. Although there is there a Muslim site – the Dajani Cemetery – the other parties involved are Jewish and Christian, with most of the city’s Christian community represented.

There are some obvious reasons why the situation is less explosive on Mount Zion than it is on the Temple Mount, even though both are highly significant sites for more than one religion. A source in the local security forces says that since the Christian sites on Mount Zion are mostly Catholic, it couldn’t be otherwise.

“The fact that they are Catholic sites means they belong to the Vatican. No official representing the State of Israel would want to reach a situation in which the Vatican’s interests would be harmed under our control. That’s out of the question,” he says.

And indeed, despite tough opposition by some Jewish religious, right-wing parties, the conflict between Jewish and Christian interests at King David’s Tomb – whose second story is recognized by Christians as the room in which the Last Supper was served to Jesus and his disciples (the Coenaculum), in a conflict that has reached some peaks over the last two years – nothing there can compare to the extent of the conflict experienced on the Temple Mount over the years.

As for the Greek Orthodox and Armenian sites there, while the former are rather hostile to Israeli sovereignty and the latter express no preference for either side, both avoid as much as possible calling for police intervention in cases of friction with Jewish factions on Mount Zion.

Despite repeated recommendations to do so, there is no official body responsible for keeping order on Mount Zion. For several years now, the Jerusalem Intercultural Center (JICC) there has acted as a sort of non-official volunteer agent between the parties.

“Since we are not officially on duty here,” explains center director Hagai Agmon-Snir, “our efforts to calm the situation in cases of dissent or to offer solutions to local conflicts between the parties operating here are welcome. After all, we are not identified with the authorities but we are neighbors, and we have learned to know each one of the parties.”

THE TEMPLE Mount is a totally different story. Comprising only 300 square meters of the one square kilometer of the entire Old City, the world remains focused on it. For Metav, a coordinator and facilitator for the municipality, the Jerusalem Development Authority and the East Jerusalem Development Company (PAMI), there is no corner or issue that is not familiar to him.

Metav’s daily routine takes place in the narrow streets of the Old City, wherever there is a need to listen, act, offer solutions to residents and, above all, mediate between the Arab residents and the authorities, which they avoid out of fear and lack of knowledge but also an unwillingness to “cooperate” with Israeli authorities. Infrastructure, heavy construction – nothing moves in the Old City without Metav’s being involved or at least notified.

“With regard to the Temple Mount, the situation is so fragile that at any moment things can just explode,” he concedes.

Metav recently published a book on the Old City in which one of the chapters centers on the Temple Mount.

“There is something basic that we have to understand,” he begins. “While for us, Israeli Jews, there is an understanding that protecting our country might also mean going to war and losing loved ones, for the Palestinians, saving al-Aksa or protecting it from any attempt – real or imagined – to fall into foreign hands is a good reason to die or to send one’s children to death.”

Metav adds that this is not a position of judgment but a conclusion he has reached based on facts and thousands of hours of conversations with Palestinians.

“They are incredibly sensitive to any act or step that might be interpreted as an attempt to harm their status on the Mount,” he says.

He is convinced that Jerusalem’s Palestinian sector is largely ripe for what he calls “a process of Israelization,” which he sees as irreversible. “But at the same time, this the best moment for those opposed to this move to try anything they can do to stop it – hence, the very tough reactions that are all converging on the situation on the Temple Mount.”

Metav says that what we’ve seen during last year’s High Holy Days compared to the situation during Passover this past April illustrate exactly what he is describing.

“I am not talking about our rights, but about the situation on the ground. Last Rosh Hashana and Succot, Jews were allowed to visit the Temple Mount; and since it was a holiday period, there were quite a few visitors. As a result, when Arabs arrived for their prayers, the police decided, in order to avoid any friction, to stop them and allow them to enter only a few hours later.

“For them it was clear: Sheikh Raed Salah Abu Shakra [leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, convicted among other things of funding Hamas and of assaulting a police officer] had been telling the truth. This meant al-Aksa was in danger and that the Israeli plan was to impose here what had been imposed in Hebron at the Cave of the Patriarchs – dividing the Mount area.

“This was the sign for many young adults, already incited by the imams, to launch the attacks [that kicked off a wave of Palestinian violence]. The stabbings and deaths began there.”

Asked to explain, if this is the case why police then allowed so many Jewish visitors on the Mount, Metav admits that while the police and security forces’ evaluations and recommendations are always entirely professional, the final decision is in the hands of those with the ultimate authority – the politicians, “who sometimes see a different picture.” This is a situation that does not exist on Mount Zion, where there is less political interest or impact.

“Look at what happened here this past Passover,” Metav points out. “The police didn’t impose any restriction on Arabs visiting the Mount, and as a result it all went as peacefully as possible.”

Metav clarifies that he is not suggesting that Jews should be prevented from visiting the Temple Mount, but that “these things should be done with the utmost sensitivity and caution. There is no other way to say it: It is a terribly explosive location.”

Inside the Old City, near Jaffa Gate, the newly renovated alleys and infrastructure spearheaded by the JDA and PAMI with Metav’s close involvement show what he has in mind when he talks about the need to listen to residents and provide solutions for them. Cleaning the little byways there has a wider impact than in any other place in the city; it simply means there is a possibility for some cooperation with the authorities, not just in obtaining basic services.

But all these aspects of daily life fall away as soon as al-Aksa Mosque is at stake.

“Take the cameras that King Abdullah of Jordan wanted to install on the Mount [in October 2015 for round-the-clock surveillance, in what was said to be an effort to calm tension],” continues Metav. “All the equipment had arrived here, sophisticated cameras; they were planned to be directly linked to a center in Jordan, and the Israel Police was permitted to get all the material filmed. But I was quite sure it would never happen. The worshipers adamantly refused to let anyone install them. I can understand them; it’s a severe breach of their religious privacy. And indeed, there is no indication that the cameras will be installed,” he says.

“So it’s all a matter of fragile equilibrium: Not to allow any riots or violence and, at the same time, to make it clear that there are no plans to change the situation – the famous status quo on the Mount,” concludes Metav.

BACK at Mount Zion, things are operating more on the basis of self-policed properties, with the Jerusalem Intercultural Center working with all groups – at the’ Diaspora Yeshiva and the Chamber of the Holocaust Museum; at Christian institutions such as Dormition Abbey and the Coenaculum in King David’s Tomb; and at Muslim sites such as the Dajani Cemetery.

As the JICC’s Agmon-Snir affirms, citing the example of King David’s Tomb, “Despite all these [potentially] explosive situations, we, all the parties involved, have managed to reach some kind of peaceful cooperation.

“Moreover, last week, for example, Hagihon planned a break in the water supply to the Mount. We, at the center, were the only ones aware of it, so coordinator Merav Horowitz informed all the parties [of all sectors] and forced Hagihon to inform everyone and take them into consideration. That’s how we work here.”

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Developing Deliberative Democracy in Jerusalem Neighborhoods

Over the past few months, thanks to support from the Commission on the Jewish People of the UJA – Federation of New York, we’ve been working with a number of neighborhoods in the city in order to encourage and to operate processes of community dialogue and deliberative democracy.

Together with professionals in the community centers and councils, we are planning and developing processes that are adapted to the characteristics of each neighborhood’s population and to the specific issues each neighborhood is most concerned with. Our goal is to bring all the voices of all the different identities in the community to be part of a decision-making group and to enable each resident to advance ideas and initiatives that are important to him.

In each neighborhood the process is taking on its own identity, and each neighborhood is focusing on different issues. Below are a few examples of the work we’re doing:

Creating a set space for discussion and entrepreneurship. In Givat Massua (part of the Ganim Community Council) and in Arnona (part of the Larger Baka Community Council) we hold open meetings each 5-6 weeks. In these meetings, residents and community professionals raise issues connected to the public sphere (in every field: education, culture, physical development, early childhood, youth, etc.) that they are passionate about advancing. Residents come together, hold discussions, think creatively of initiatives to address the issues, and, together with professionals who are part of the discussion and the action, advance their ideas toward implementing change.

Some of the meetings concentrate on a single issue – such as youth – and discuss a number of sub-issues connected with it. For example: informal activities for youth, education for youth, youth at risk, Parents Patrol to prevent at-risk behaviors among youth, and more.

Solving problems or resolving conflicts in the public sphere, where there is a conflict of interest between residents who live in close geographical proximity (same street, neighborhood, complex), regarding an issue affecting the joint living space. For example, disagreement regarding the use of a structure, parking arrangements, rules of conduct in a public space, and more. In this situation we bring together all the stakeholders in order to raise all the needs and interests of all the sides, and we create a process of in-depth discussion and agreed-upon alternatives to deal with the conflict. One example is the process of engaging residents in solving the problem of parking on a street in the Gilo neighborhood. There is a street where there are a lot of parking problems. Some residents wanted to dedicate the parking on the street only for residents, or for paid parking, to ease the problem. Others, who had more than the allotment of cars, didn’t want the street to be designated parking. What do we do? Do we designate the street or not? Do we designate part of the street and leave the rest untouched? Meeting of residents helped to formulate remedies that are now being implemented, with the help of professionals.

In Talpiot there is a similar type of discussion over the use of a public building. The significant community of Ethiopian Jews in the area want to make an available public building a synagogue for the Ethiopian community; others want to turn it into a youth club. In the end a compromise was reached – the Ethiopian community received permission to pray in the building, while their own synagogue is being built for them.

Planning processes or building vision – in cases in which there is a need or opportunity to bring together the community to hear the different desires, positions or needs and to galvanize positions, goals and visions for the entire community to work toward. For example, there was a need in the Baka neighborhood to create agreement between all the different stakeholders on the desired direction of the planning and physical infrastructure in drawing up a new master plan for the neighborhood. Such a process enables us to envision our ideal future and to figure out how to take steps to realize this ideal state. In the process we learn, have in-depth discussions, build agreement, think creatively and develop alternatives to dealing with conflicting desires. A similar process is beginning around planning the land use of the main entrance to the Gilo neighborhood. Here, the Municipality allocated a sum of money to plan and develop the entrance to this southern neighborhood. This is a long strip that borders the Beit Safafa neighborhood. Instead of just developing the area, the Municipality is engaged in a decision-making process with the residents, involving them in discussions and making them partners in action.

Engaging the Community Council Board in community dialogue – a series of encounters between the JICC and representatives of community council boards. These are elected representatives and we work with them to learn how deliberative democracy and representative democracy can work best together. As a part of it, we create a new model of work for such boards – based on passion and resposibility in task forces, rather than ineffective committees.

In parallel to all these processes, we are holding professional development seminars for community centers/councils professionals (community workers, planners, project coordinators, absorption coordinators, youth coordinators, and more) who work in the neighborhoods. They themselves represent the diversity of Jerusalem – Haredim, religious and secular; religious and secular who work in Haredi neighborhoods. The goal of the seminar is to contribute to their knowledge of community dialogue and deliberative democracy. We currently have 18 participants, even though we originally aimed to have 11 – 12. We’ve had 2 out of a planned 5 meetings, and it has been absolutely amazing!

In this training seminar the participants are introduced to the approach of community dialogue and to the theory of deliberative democracy, as well as to leading models and principles of community dialogue. They received tools to help them implement deliberative processes in the neighborhoods, and developed their ability to act in complex situations in the community. Throughout the program, which includes a series of meetings from May – November 2012, each participant will lead a process of community dialogue in his or her neighborhood, with our mentoring and consultation.

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Prepare Jerusalem for peace now – an Article

We just published an article at the Jerusalem Post and Search for Common Ground (SFCG) News service, focusing on the need for preparing today Jerusalem for potential peace scenarios. Here are the links and the text:

The Jerusalem Post (English).

PDF (English).

Hebrew, Arabic.


Prepare Jerusalem for peace now
June 26, 2010


Last month, a Home Front Command exercise was carried out in Israel. The emergency systems were tested for their response to various scenarios in case war breaks out. That same week, someone jokingly disseminated a message on the Internet regarding an emergency exercise that would be carried out to test responses for when peace breaks out. In this imaginary exercise, calming sirens would be sounded and the general public would be required to respond to the cheerful scenarios that may unfold in this new and unfamiliar situation.

In Jerusalem, the idea of preparing for peace should not be a topic of jokes. We are so preoccupied with the struggle over what the city would look like following a permanent status agreement that we are ignoring the fact that present-day Jerusalem is declining before our eyes, becoming a city in which life would be difficult even when peace finally arrives.

In east Jerusalem, Palestinian children suffer from a severely underfunded public education system. As a result, most will not find employment that can afford any kind of social mobility.

Health issues – such as development checkups – are often neglected, and health problems that should be addressed in childhood will become a future economic and social burden, even in times of peace.

Chaos in the material aspects of life is sorely evident in east Jerusalem, where things like dense construction around roads which preempt any future expansion and collapsing sewage systems are creating an irreversible reality on the ground. The poverty and neglect in east Jerusalem will not only cause hardship for the Palestinians living there but will also affect the Jews in west Jerusalem whether the city remains united or divided, because if the city remains united, the need to rectify these problems would affect the funding for the western neighborhoods; if it is divided, poverty and neglect in the east would quickly become fertile ground for crime and terror against the Jews in the west of the city.

In west Jerusalem, the nonharedi Jewish population is dwindling. The city does not attract an economically strong population or young people who are not haredim, as there a few job opportunities. It remains very attractive to the haredim for religious reasons, but they are economically weak. The deterioration of west Jerusalem is bad news for everyone: A Jerusalem that is home to large populations that are economically weak will be a miserable city for all those still left in it.

DESPITE ALL these threats to the future of the city, too often Jerusalem’s municipal decision-making process is shaped by considerations that contradict local interests and cater to global politics. One example is Jewish construction beyond the Green Line. The construction in Ramat Shlomo in north Jerusalem and in Gilo in the south made headlines across the world. Yet, anyone who has taken part in Israeli- Palestinian negotiations on Jerusalem knows that in any reasonable scenario, these neighborhoods will remain on the Israeli side. Moreover the construction in these neighborhoods is of high importance to the Jewish sector in the city, since construction for haredim in the north and for non- Orthodox in the south decreases the need for the haredi population to move into the secular neighborhoods in southern Jerusalem.

Reducing this pressure would strengthen west Jerusalem and this in turn, would benefit the residents in the east. Whether Jerusalem is united or divided, economic and employment cooperation between the two parts of the city keeps them intertwined and interdependent.

However, as Israel refuses to differentiate between legitimizing the building in Gilo and legitimizing the settling in the heart of the Palestinian neighborhoods, the Palestinians and the rest of the world do not make this distinction either. The world hears about Jews who enter homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood after its Palestinian inhabitants are evicted. The result: worldwide political pressure to stop the construction in Gilo and Ramat Shlomo, the same construction that can contribute to the prosperity of the city.

Israel, in response, toughens its stance on Palestinian construction in Silwan. This brings only harm to all the residents of Jerusalem Almost 800,000 people live in Jerusalem, from a variety of religions, nationalities, religious outlooks and ethnic groups. When peace comes this diversity can turn into a wonderful resource for anyone who is interested in visiting or living in Jerusalem – if only we could save the city from its current decline.

For this to happen the decision-making process on the municipal level must shift to a professionalism dedicated to improving services for all the residents of the city, one that sets aside global considerations. A greater focus on these issues at the municipal level will make Jerusalem friendlier to its inhabitants. And paradoxically, focusing on its own population’s needs can help turn Jerusalem, even in the eyes of the world, from a political burden into a universal resource.

The writer is the director of the Jerusalem Intercultural Center and can be reached at hagai@jicc.org.il. This article is published in conjunction with the Common Ground News Service and forms part of a special series on Jerusalem.

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Municipal Elections in Jerusalem!!!

Yesterday, Jerusalem’s secular mayoral candidate, Mr. Nir Barkat, won the municipal election with 52% of the vote. His ultra-orthodox opponent, Rabbi Meir Porush, was close behind with 43%. The Jerusalem Inter-Cultural Center cannot, of course, support any of the candidates, as one of our most important functions is the enabling of fair dialogue and negotiations between the many identities in the city. The members of the JICC board,  representing different groups in the city – Palestinians and Jews, ultra-orthodox and members of other religious denominations – supported various candidates.

Nevertheless, most of the 31 members of the newly elected City Council are new to their role, and they too represent many different identity groups and attitudes. It is our role to help them create effective and profound dialogue amongst themselves, as well as between them and the Jerusalem residents.

The JICC aspires to promote Jerusalem as a Culturally Competent City – and we hope to convince the new Council to adopt this approach. We will try to enhance the impact of the Jerusalem Employment Coalition on the decisionmaking process in the municipality. The municipality is a member of the coalition, which was founded and is facilitated by the JICC. In addition, the JICC has already started a dialogue process between main ultra-orthodox and non-ultra orthodox groups touching upon the issue of living together in Jerusalem. We would like the municipality to be a partner to the thinking process and to the implementation of the outcomes.

In recent years, we attempted to improve the dialogue between the municipality and the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, most of whom feel alienated from the municipality and therefore ban the elections. We hope that this dialogue will now intensify and result in better infrastructure and services in East Jerusalem.

To conclude, we see the elections’ results as an opportunity for positive change in the city, hopefully through the cooperation of the many rival groups at the City Council. To respond to these new challenges and opportunities the JICC will shortly initiate meetings with City Council members.

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