‘The New York Times’ hang-up over Jerusalem

Michael Kimmelman should occupy himself more with architecture, and less with politics and history.

A mock-up of the First Station cable-car station in Jerusalem, which is currently in approval phases. Source: Jerusalem Development Authority.
A mock-up of the First Station cable-car station in Jerusalem, which is currently in approval phases. Source: Jerusalem Development Authority.
Yisrael Medad
Yisrael Medad is a researcher, analyst and opinion commentator on political, cultural and media issues.

JNS editor in chief Jonathan Tobin got it right, writing in reaction to Jerusalem’s new cable-car project: “What Israel’s opponents want is to erase history, not preserve it.”

And The New York Times, once again, leads the media in finding new angles and heights to promote any and all possible (and impossible, as well as improbable) negativism regarding Israel, Zionism and the Jewish people’s national identity; in this case, also describing the new transportation project.

The paper afforded its architecture expert, Michael Kimmelman, an article suggesting, according to some, a “Disneyfication” of Jerusalem. Actually, his position is “critic,” and one can only presume that he takes that calling very seriously.

Kimmelman’s look is one “through a cultural lens.” Back in 2008, he observed Gaza for the newspaper and noted that its residents possess,

“ … a sensibility that, until lately anyway, had a moderating effect on both religion and society.”

Would it be unfair to mull over suggesting that the paper send him to the area and review the architectural wonders of the terror tunnels Hamas has built and continues to build? And from there, north, to the Hezbollah tunnels? One must be thankful, nevertheless, that Kimmelman included this remark of Gazan cartoonist Omayya Joha:

“I have a quill in one hand and a gun in the other. … Israel thinks of me as a radical anti-Semite, but I’m not. I simply do not think that we can ever have peace. No way. Never.”

He also covered pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim’s concert there.

I am not professionally equipped to critique Kimmelman’s analysis of the cable-car project and its effect on the city. And I have no problems with someone holding to a political or ideological construct that differs from that of mine. What I can do is to judge his writing on the backdrop of the city’s history and its politics because that is really what is behind his decision to devote almost 1,800 words to the subject.

Yes, Jerusalem’s “skyline is still dominated by great Muslim and Christian shrines: the gold, glistening Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” but, of course, that is only because the Romans destroyed the Second Temple (oh, if only Kimmelman could have written a piece on Herod’s architectural feat of more than 2,000 years ago), the Byzantines built a basilica on the Temple Mount’s platform and some three centuries after that alteration, conquering Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula, who occupied the country, then constructed one mosque, Al-Aqsa, and a monument to the stone held sacred, the Dome of the Rock.

His unease with Zion if Israel had deemed it proper to engage in rebuilding that Temple, as even Theodor Herzl had imagined (in his Alteneuland) can only be envisioned.

The cable car will not be built “to the Western Wall, the holiest site in the Jewish world”—not because it will not be built, but because the Temple Mount is the Jewish world’s “holiest site,” unless, of course, Kimmelman is living in some other Jewish world. As to whether “thousands of passengers … every hour” will be floating across the sky, as he suggests, is another indication of an other-worldliness of Kimmelman.

But the real crime that upsets Kimmelman is that:

“Israel wields architecture and urban planning to extend its authority in the occupied territories … the cable car curates a specifically Jewish narrative of Jerusalem, furthering Israeli claims over Arab parts of the city.”

And he follows this with his own crime of disinformation and lies, writing:

“Israel’s current government seems to hold preservation less sacrosanct than previous ones—eroding, for political purposes, the protections on landscape and heritage.”

For Kimmelman, there is something dark and ominous, and it is “a Jewish version of the city’s history.” I find Kimmelman to be a proponent of another version of history that subverts truth.

Let’s back up just a bit. Except for the 19 years of the illegal Jordanian occupation of the city—euphemistically termed an annexation that was promulgated in April 1950—Jerusalem has never been a divided city with separate “districts” (Kimmelman writes of a “Palestinian district of East Jerusalem called Silwan”). Until the 1850s, except for a few Arab homes, the city was only the walled-in area. By 1860, Mishkanot Sha’ananim was built for Jews who wished to improve their lives outside the city’s walls. By that year, Jerusalem’s Jewish population became the demographic plurality, and soon, its consistent majority.

During those 19 years between 1948-1967, tens of thousands of graves—graves of Jews who had been buried over the past two millennia on the western slope of the Mount of Olives—were desecrated. Tombstones were ripped out of the ground to pave pathways for the Jordanian army and to serve as latrine covers. Others were simply covered up, many when the Seven Arches Hotel was constructed, opening in 1964. With a quick Google search, Kimmelman could have learned (if he already didn’t know), that

“All but one of the thirty-five synagogues within the Old City were destroyed; those not completely devastated had been used as hen houses and stables filled with dung heaps, garbage and carcasses.”

Was that an architectural feat? Did it improve Jerusalem’s skyline?

No, it wasn’t, and it surely didn’t. It was a planned, post-battle defeat of the Jewish presence in the city.

Already in the 1920s and 1930s, the Arab riots caused thousands of Jews to move out of the walled Old City—first from the so-called Muslim Quarter and then, following the Jordanian invasion of 1948, from the Jewish Quarter. It is not just a matter of uncovering “biblical Jewish remains” that can “cement an ancient Jewish connection to a contested site,” but displaying more than an almost 3,000-year-old presence, but one that continuously existed throughout the ages under various conquerors and occupiers.

Jerusalem is not solely biblical, as indeed, Judea and Samaria are not as well.

He writes:

“Even the cladding of East Jerusalem’s settlements in Jerusalem stone, the architectural uniform traditionally worn by buildings in Jewish West Jerusalem, helps spread the image of a single Jewish city.”

There are no multiple “East Jerusalem settlements” and, indeed, there is no “West Jerusalem.” That division was a result of the Jordanian rule of 19 years versus some 3,000 years the city being undivided. It is an Israeli city wherein Jews and Christians and Muslims and others reside.

And as for “East Jerusalem” being considered “occupied territory,” Kimmelman should occupy himself more with architecture, and less with politics and history.

How ridiculous to write the cable car “pretends Arab Silwan isn’t there” as “tourists will fly over and tunnel under Silwan’s Palestinian residents without actually having to encounter them”, as if they daily encounter them at the present. Or to compare it to “West Bank bypass roads.” With the cable car in place they will be seeing them much more than today as Silwan is on the other side of the walled section and down a hill. In fact, if it wasn’t for the City of David organization sponsoring archaeological excavations and, for example, cleaning out the Shiloah Pool, why would any tourist go there?

As someone reacted to a tweet I sent out, this is:

“[a]nother case of pushing propaganda from radical NGOs with fringe agendas.”

I would suggest that Emek Shaveh is a source of Kimmelman’s interest. A Silwan Arab resident Jawad Siyam is quoted. He is a longtime agitator. No Jewish resident of the neighborhood is afforded an opportunity to express his or her opinion. He quotes cable-car critics who complain it is part of an “effort to inculcate a Jewish narrative of occupied Jerusalem.” If anything, it is to uncover a Jewish narrative oppressed by a false narrative that Kimmelman assists in spreading.

Ronnie Ellenblum, a sociology professor and historical geographer at Hebrew University, is provided space to philosophize that the cable car presents a “straight, inflexible, indoctrinating” effect while the Old City’s maze, which requires one to “pass through all sorts of places before you reach your destination, mingling, feeling lost, ultimately finding yourself,” as if that feeling of being lost is a prized positive element that is sacrosanct and cannot be challenged, as if the Old City must always be a museum or that no other people before ever altered its design.

Moshe Safdie is allowed to comment that the Western Wall is “a ruin, humble, an ancient site of sadness and loss … the true heart of Judaism.” For Safdie, the cable car high above is a symbol of “aggression,” that it “suggests not strength, but insecurity and weakness.”

I recall the line from an Uri Tzvi Greenberg poem, that the wall no longer is a place of wailing and tears, but that “it roars.”

In fact, all of Jerusalem—east, west, north and south—has been reinvigorated since 1967, has been “raised from the dust,” as Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz described in his early 16th-century “Lecha Dodi” poem, sung every Friday night, ushering in the Shabbat.

Jerusalem is a living city, a city of vitality. It possesses an element of the ancient as well as the modern. And its future is still to be achieved—on, below and above its soil.

Yisrael Medad is an American-born Israeli journalist and political commentator.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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