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The Round Trip part 13: Walking the line

From Ramot to Rachel’s tomb via Brooklyn, a haunted house, a threat of very painful eternal damnation and two fjords.

Ira, Ezra and myself are having breakfast in the sunny kitchen of Givon Hakhadasha. Ira eats what she terms a “kibbutz” breakfast: white cheese spread, some bread and a chopped salad of tomatoes and cucumber. She talks of the settlement’s oddities, from an eccentric neighbor who claims unconvincingly to have served as a secret agent, to a peacock whom she once saw walking down the leafy streets, next to a little girl who tried to feed it ice cream.

Another oddity involves a Palestinian man named Mahmoud Saberi, whose house gradually became engulfed by the settlers’ houses. Saberi refused to leave his property, and it was consequently fenced off by the settlement to keep him out, allowing him a narrow opening in the direction of the nearby village. Saberi’s house now sits at the end of a fjord of fence, connected to the settlement’s own enclosing fence.

Ezra takes me to see this.

Then he drives us to the north of Jerusalem, to the colossal suburban neighborhood of Ramot, which was built post 1967 on both sides of the Green Line. At the time, and indeed as late as the 1990s, it was illegal for maps printed in Israel to show this line, and Ramot’s own planners may not have known precisely where it ran. I am fairly confident that most people living here today have no clue where Israel ends and the West Bank begins, nor in which territory they live. The dotted line on “Google maps” is surprisingly easy to ignore.

Where the two of us reach that dotted line, it unassumingly crosses the most mundane street. Of all the invisible borders I have crossed so far, this is the most invisible.

Talk about an oddity… In fact, lets do talk about oddities. I’m something of an expert on the subject, having once composed a book entitled “Wonderland: Strange Places, Surprises and Mysteries in Israel.” Many of the sites I documented there were in and around Jerusalem, and quite a few touched on the old 1949 armistice line, which used to divide the city physically and does so now in every other way.

The walls and fences of the separation barrier surround Jerusalem, keeping all of it, east and west, within Israel’s hold. The old dividing line remains meaningful, however, as it still splits the city by language, by mentality, by appearance, by religion, by rights (Israeli Jerusalemites are citizens, Palestinians are “residents”) and by the municipality’s willingness to remove garbage.

This line is known as “The Red Line,” an indication that when charting the armistice maps, the green crayon was put aside and a different color was used for dividing Jerusalem. My plan today is to follow the Red Line from north to south, pointing out curiosities along the way.

Allow me to begin with Ramot’s own “beehive blocks,” designed by architect Zvi Hecker in the 1970s. They are widely considered to be unlivable.

Ezra accompanies me to the mouth of a 2000-year old tomb in the neighborhood of Sanhedria. Jerusalem is the sort of town where residential neighborhoods simply rise out of miniature Petras. It’s normal here. The dead dwell among us.

Sometimes they even dwell among us in the comfort of their own homes. Followers of Chabad Lubavitch Hassidic movement built two exact copies of a house standing in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The much admired Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whom many Chabadniks believe to be the messiah, used to reside at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. The replicas of that address were made with such reverence and attention, that a squeaking stair in the original house squeaks also at Kfar Chabad, next to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, and right here in the settlement of Ramat Shlomo, East Jerusalem.

Ezra goes to work, and I stop at the a cafe for coffee and a respite from the heat. It is appropriately named for its location, but so overpriced that it may well be named another oddity.

I am in Sheikh Jarrah, A Palestinian neighborhood that became notorious in 2009, when Israel evicted several Palestinian families from their houses so ideological settlers could move in instead. According to the state and settlers, papers prove that the land was bought by a now defunct Jewish organization prior to 1948. Sounds good, property bought is property owned. So now do Palestinians get to retake Old Jaffa? Will the army and police cover them during the takeover and protect them thereafter?

What, no? but –

The eviction of the families was so obscene that it provoked a truly popular human rights campaign, but Israel did not budge. The spreading of Jewish settlers across East Jerusalem is regarded as a cause celebre, both by the government and by the city’s current mayor, Nir Barkat. Confiscated properties and sprung-overnight-settlements multiply rapidly around the city, typically inhabited by extremists who do not come to be good neighbors.

Some degree of coexistence persists. Here is a Palestinian. Rabbi Yaakov Hillel’s chauffeur brought the Rabbinical Buick for a wash, and is having a friendly chat with the owner of the car wash. Above their heads, a Hebrew sign still offers special Passover washes, to clean the vehicle of traces of baked goods.

As I venture deeper, the disturbing truth reveals itself. I see no Palestinians on the streets at the very heart of the neighborhood, only settlers and ultra-Orthodox Jews. The latter come to pray at a newly popular ancient tomb, attributed to Shimon Hatzadik (Simon the Just), one of the last members of the Great Assembly.

Once I descend towards the tomb, the Israeli flags and the inevitable IDF rooftop position, my presence provokes interest. A settler teenager approaches me and asks what I might want.

“I want to check this place out. It’s intetresting.”

“Oh yeah?” by my naked scalp he can tell that I am not of his own, and so I must be the enemy, the fifth column. The monsterous “Smolan” (leftist). “How is it interesting, ha?”

“Things happen here, people get thrown out of houses.”

“Oh yeah?” his face turns instantly purple. “The Arabs stole this entire country from us! Go back to history. It is ours! You can argue with me, you can, but that would be banging your head against the wall, because I have my own truth, you see, and this country is only ours! So You can argue, argue, yeah, you can argue, but in the end you’ll burn in hell and they’ll stick a skewer up your ass!!” and he turns away and walks.

These are unexpected words to hear from a religious youth. His friend is quick to apologize and the older Haredi passerby turns to me and suggests: “Go pray at the tomb, it’ll solve all your problems.”

Dear god. If only.

I don’t make it to the tomb. It’s not really a place I would like it to be. Rather, I head south and go visit a haunted house.

Raphi Etgar, a graphic designer and curator, started “Museum on the Seam” in an old house that served as an IDF position in 1967. The windows are still narrowed with concrete to provide safe sniper positions, but the shots are now aimed at the heart and mind, and the weapon is art, political art.

The current exhibition deals with memory and its ability to act as a warning. A huge ski-masked head by local artist Erez Israeli evokes the head of the sniper who may have held this position. A broken block that reads “we”, cast by French-Algerian Djamal Koken, appears like a summary of everything I have been through so far on this journey, and especially today, here, in a city that is two cities, on a border that is a border that isn’t a border.

Maya, who minds the museum’s counter, reads +972 and recognizes me, so I get an audience with the museum’s founder and this show’s curator. Raphi’s office is situated on the building’s roof. The view to what once a slender no man’s land and is now major throughfare and a light-rail route, is perfect.

Raphi confirms that the house is haunted. “This house has been through an historical maelstrom that it cannot forget nor ignore. Before it was occupied by the army, this was a house where a Palestinian family lived. The contradictions it contains are contractions we must respond to, and I believe that a place where once people fought is a place where we must talk peace.

Besides the history, there’s the location. “We border the most ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in the Middle East on one side,” Raphi continues “Then to the south is Musrara, where the Mizrachi “Panthers” once raged, and across the street are the Palestinians. How many political and cultural borders can surround one building?”

This place really is lost in the fifth dimension. The “most ultra-Orthodox neighborhood” to which Raphi refers is Me’a Shearim, where makeshift posters full of political messages, angry prophecies and community gossip remain a favorite media source in the age of the iphone.

Right across the way, is the heart of Palestinian Jerusalem, with its ceaseless bustle, its muezzins and its fried chicken joints. No Berlin wall stands along this street, it’s equipped with clearly painted crosswalks, and yet the crowd on either side is nearly perfectly homogeneous.

This entire city is unexplainable, a mystery with a mayor. Just as I begin to follow its fabled walls, a freak storm of dust take over everything, breathing becomes hard and walking impossible. Then summer turns to winter in a matter of minutes and I must seek shelter in a bus.

As the bus travels south, it takes me past other roadside attractions. There is, for example a peculiar cable car that was used by the Palmach to pass food and ammunition into the besieged Jewish quarter in 1948. The cable holding it spans the breadth of the valley of Hinnom, and was once traversed on foot by tight-rope-walker Philippe Petit.

Further to the south, in the neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber is something far stranger: a road on which things seem to be naturally drawn uphill, by virtue of some reverse gravity (In fact it is by virtue of an optical illusion that turns downhill into uphill in our minds). There are so many things to show, but photographs are bound to come out awful in such weather, So I might as well head on south to the biggest oddity of all.

Like many Jerusalem landmarks, It’s a wall, a very tall wall. The separation barrier in Beit Jala is eight meters tall and as gray as the life of a North Korean paper boy. While it does separate Jerusalem and metropolitan Bethlehem, it also penetrates into the town of Beit Jala, creating a meandering corridor that ends at the site of Rachel’s Tomb. It thus allows Jewish Israelis unobstructed passage to the holy site, while dissecting an entire neighborhood and a refugee camp on the other side.

The tomb itself, which for centuries was a beautiful domed structure, standing on the country roadside between two historical and beautiful cities, and precious to Jews everywhere, has been entirely cast in concrete and is now literally a bunker. This doesn’t seem to bother the faithful, who stop to capture a Kodak moment.

Next to the tomb is a depiction of what it had once looked like. This day began with a tentacle of fence that seems to protrude into Givon Hahadasha and with a dropped jaw. It ends with a tentacle of concrete that sticks into Beit Jala, and with a shed tear. I cheer myself with a song, a weird song of course, and hum the words of Syd Barret while waiting for a lift out of this cul de sac.

The madcap laughed at the man on the border
hey ho, huff the Talbot
the winds they blew and the leaves did wag
they’ll never put me in their bag
the seas will reach and always seep
so high you go, so low you creep
the wind it blows in tropical heat
the drones they throng on mossy seats
the squeaking door will always squeak
two up, two down we’ll never limit
so merrily trip forgo my side
Please leave us here
close our eyes to the octopus ride.

More lyrics: http://www.lyricsmania.com/octopus_lyrics_syd_barrett.html
All about Syd Barrett: http://www.musictory.com/music/Syd+Barrett


The Round Trip thus far!

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Thanks for reading and taking part in the adventure. All writing on this site is done voluntarily, so if any of you would like to pitch in directly for my travel expenses, please click here or on the “donate” button at the top of this page to do so. I’m deeply grateful to those who already donated. Thank you so much! This project would be impossible if not for you.

For more of The Round Trip

Relive the first two journeys:
The September Journey
The Christmas Journey

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    1. XYZ

      Having seen the city and the seam line up close, do you believe the city can be divided politically? By this I mean have it politically divided without it turning into a shooting gallery with a hermetically sealed border with mine-fields and barbed wire like it was before 1967, which is now viewed as a golden age by some Israelis of the radical Progressive/Left.

      Reply to Comment
    2. A

      I’m out of superlatives. I’m going to look for your book..

      Reply to Comment
    3. AYLA

      thank God for you, Yuval. I’ve been trapped on another comment thread on this site, feeling like the only things left to do that makes any sense, really, is to weep, and then, your post. more later. for now, I will simply savor it as a bright light of sanity. Shabbat shalom.

      Reply to Comment
    4. AYLA

      so, wow. That fenced in house! (it actually reminded me–though representing a moral opposite–of the rooftop jewish settler homes in the Old City with israeli flags, surrounded by barbed wire). The beehive block (unbelievable, truly!). The religious kid’s rant (less unbelievable, but still). Also, I guess this answers my question about whether the rest of the country was engulfed by the dust storm on Wednesday; when we get them in the desert, they seem so of-the-desert that it’s hard to imagine them anywhere else. The state of Rachel’s Tomb and the surrounding wall seems to encapsulate everything crazy and devastating, here, as does your final photograph. A mystery with a mayor, indeed. Yet rather than feeling depressed by readings this, I feel amazed by this place in a way that just makes me more wistful for what feels on one hand impossible, and on the other, so simple: lift the borders and lines and fences, undo a lot of what’s been done and give up on some of it, live and let live (as, in a way, all those neighborhoods surrounding the museum and so many others are already doing), draw a clear constitution and protect it under law from those–Jewish and Palestinian–who say “only ours”–and celebrate every oddity, every difference, every bit of history that is more shared than we seem to remember. Here’s a line from my novel: You can’t draw lines in the sand, because there is always wind.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Dhalgren

      Another eye-opening account. One line is definitely being erased by your writings, Yuval, and that is the line of ignorance. For the thirteenth time (a different kind of Friday the 13th), thanks.
      (Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” comes to mind too after reading this episode.)
      There must be some way out of here
      Said the joker to the thief
      There’s too much confusion
      I can’t get no relief
      Businessmen, they drink my wine
      Plowmen dig my earth
      None of them along the line
      Know what any of it is worth
      No reason to get excited
      The thief, he kindly spoke
      There are many here among us
      Who feel that life is but a joke
      But you and I, we’ve been through that
      And this is not our fate
      So let us not talk falsely now
      The hour is getting late
      All along the watchtower
      Princes kept the view
      While all the women came and went
      Barefoot servants, too
      Outside in the distance
      A wildcat did growl
      Two riders were approaching
      The wind began to howl

      Reply to Comment
    6. JG

      OMG, this shocking picture of Mahmoud Saberi’s house tells all how perverted the settlement policy is. How sick is it to build a prison wall around a house of a citizen like this? Can’t believe it…..personal ghetto in itself

      Reply to Comment
    7. Nancy Kaplan

      Thanks for posting these travel journals. Your photos add so much to the informative commentary. I wish more people, both inside and outside Medinat Yisrael, would follow +972 in general and your travelogues in particular. Kol ha kavod!

      Reply to Comment
    8. Traveller

      Great insights! This journey is really unique and provides to foreigners extremely interesting perspectives of your country!

      Thanks a lot!

      Reply to Comment
    9. mc

      The fenced in house, the “WE” block split in half, and the separation monument, evokes a phrase I recently came across. “Separate but equal.” I found this in Haaretz, said out loud by David Rotem of Yisrael Beiteinu over a year ago and was shocked.

      This is a phrase from the late 1800’s to 1960’s in the U.S. The era of the Jim Crow laws. The concept of “separate but equal” is today self evidently racist because of that history. But it took a Supreme Court case, Brown v Board of Education in 1954, to establish that “separate was inherently unequal.” Even that wasn’t enough and it took two Civil Rights Acts of Congress in 1964 and 1965.

      I appreciate the sharing of this journey. It serves many purposes, with many stories not at all related to “the line.” But each step shared in this trip makes clearer to me how untenable separation is. Part 5 is the model. Ya’ara are not people who believe in abstract and ridiculous concepts like states having rights, let alone rights to exist. It’s people who have such rights. Not states. What does it take to let go of this romanticism with the state?

      It’s 2012 and even ~50 years after the civil rights movement in the U.S., it’s still a little bit more than a little bit racist. This is not some short journey for Israelis and Palestinians either.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Leen

      MC, I agree completely. This is what I have always said when the ‘separation’ argument popped up. There’s no such thing as separate but equal, it was inheritantly unequal in the deep south, despite laws indicating that they should be equal but separate.
      Regime security should never be valued more than basic human rights, and that is something that I think a lot of people struggle with. States come and go, people however stay and their human rights is much more valuable than regime security.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Laura

      Jerusalem is a mystery with a mayor! Gadol
      Loved that one.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Bettina

      From me, too, a heartfelt thanks for your reports, so accurate and so full of sharp little insights and places to go and see….. but one burning question – where can one get the book?

      Reply to Comment
    13. How much did they charge you for the coffee?

      Reply to Comment