Speaking in the Square has made the national news again! On March 22, the Zion Square – Tolerance Square planning meeting, which we wrote about here, was covered by the Ha’aretz national newspaper in English. Click here to access the entire article.
Here are some excerpts from the article, written by Eetta Prince-Gibson:
“Imagine Zion Square in the future,” the facilitator asks the group. “What is happening in your ideal square?”
Seated at tables stocked with play dough, building blocks and Lego pieces, they shout out their answers.
“It’s filled with light and there are lots of children,” says a woman who appears to be in her 20s, in jeans and high boots.
“I hear a mishmash of languages. Yiddish, too,” says a young man in tight skinny striped pants.
“Fruit trees!” “Light and shade!” “Lots of different things happening all at once!” people call out.
“It’s a Hyde Park!” says a middle-aged-looking man in the black velvet kippah, white shirt and black pants garb of the ultra-Orthodox.
In early March, a group of 50 or so Jerusalemites of different ages, political affiliations and religious persuasions met to articulate their vision for Zion Square, the central square in downtown West Jerusalem. Uniting them is their deep commitment to the vision of Jerusalem as a thriving city that derives from its history, sanctity and modern creativity.
These activists, representing a large, loose coalition of organizations, ad hoc movements and individuals, have been meeting for informal dialogue every Thursday night in Zion Square for over a year and a half, since extremist right-wing violence began to spread through downtown Jerusalem during the days of the Israel-Gaza conflict in the summer of 2014.
In response to their activism, the Jerusalem municipality has determined that, as a major component of its call for a competition for a planned redesign of the square, Zion Square will be turned into “a place that promotes connections, tolerance and mutual respect.”
She goes on to describe the history of Zion Square, especially since the summer of 2014:
But by July 2014, during the heat of the Gaza war known as Operation Protective Edge, the square had been largely claimed by a right-wing extremist group, Lahava, which bills itself as the “organization for the prevention of assimilation in the Holy Land.” Dressed in black and yellow shirts, they would march repeatedly through the square, waving large flags, handing out stickers “don’t even think about a Jewish girl” in Hebrew and Arabic, and accosting anyone they perceived to be Arab, members of the LGBT community, or “leftists.”
“We realized we had to try to take back the square,” recalls Michal Shilor, 23, an activist in what was to become “Talking in the Square,” [translation of the group’s Hebrew name, Medabrim Bakikar, what we call Speaking in the Square] a group of volunteers operating with the support of the UJA-Federation of New York and the Jerusalem Foundation. “But we also realized that many of the kids in Lahava were alienated kids who were looking for something to belong to. So we decided to engage them.”
Facilitated by the Jerusalem Intercultural Center, “Talking in the Square” [Speaking in the Square] developed a routine, coming into the square on Thursday nights, a favorite night for Lahava activities, offering to engage Lahava activists – and anyone else who happened upon the square – in thoughtful dialogue. Gradually, over the year, and very much under the radar of the media, they became recognized as a permanent, and calming, feature.
But then came the murder of Shira Banki, a 16-year-old high school student at the Gay Pride Parade in late July 2015.
“We felt we were choking,” recalled Shira Katz-Vinkler, CEO of the Yerushalmim Movement. “Something so horrific was happening in Jerusalem and in all of Israeli society, and we knew we could not continue with ‘business as usual.’”
And somehow, Katz-Vinkler continues, “we all knew that the activity had to concentrate in Zion Square. Maybe it’s a way of expressing that ‘from Zion shall go forth Torah,’” she adds, citing a phrase from the books of Isaiah and Micha.
On August 1, thousands of Jerusalemites turned out in Zion Square to a vigil, headed by President Reuven Rivlin and with the participation of prominent rabbis from all the different religious streams, including the ultra-Orthodox, representatives of the LGBT support organization Jerusalem Open House, and others.
Recalls Weil, who had been at the Pride Parade, “I came to that vigil sad, broken. Yet, strangely, I came away feeling a sense of hope, based on the recognition that we can only heal if we all come together.”
After Banki died, the Yerushalmim Movement, together with Talking in the Square, spontaneously decided to observe the traditional seven-day mourning period in the square. They have continued to be there, every Thursday night, ever since, in an effort to rebrand the square as tolerant turf.
Fast forward to February 2016. The Jerusalem Municipality issued a competition to re-design Zion Square. The Mayor was persuaded to dedicate the square to dialogue and tolerance, and any design must include elements that promote these concepts. The article continues:
“The design of the square will be a real challenge,” says Roi Lavee, an architect employed by the municipality as a planner for the city center. “On the one hand, we want the square to be comfortable for everyone – Arabs, Jews, religious, secular, young, old. It is also a commercial space, and we want it to be a space that gives expression to the arts and creativity. It’s a huge project – but I believe that Jerusalem is up for it.”
Stay tuned for more developments on the planning and design of Zion Square. Here’s the post to the article via Facebook: