Just Jerusalem: Vision for a place of peace

by Diane E. Davis, Leila Farsakh and Tali Hatuka
BOSTON - It is often said that the future of Jerusalem depends in large part on the future of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. While this is undoubtedly true, change and improvement in Jerusalem can be achieved independently of any final peace agreement. In fact, transformation in Jerusalem may actually aid the resolution of the larger conflict. For this reason, it is important to think about ways to make the city of Jerusalem a more liveable, just and humane place. If citizens in this contested locale had more opportunities to share a commitment to the same city, so as to increase the likelihood of living together in peace and harmony, then some progress on the larger nationalist conflict just might accrue. This realization is behind a new project that we have developed at MIT, called Just Jerusalem: Vision for a Place of Peace. Our aim is to generate new ideas and discussions about Jerusalem as it might be in the future - a just city shared in peace by its residents, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish, Palestinian or Israeli. What would it take to make a city claimed by two nations and central to three religions "merely" a city, a place of difference and diversity in which contending ideas and citizenries can co-exist in benign yet creative ways?

The genesis of this project emerges, in part, from a sense that it may be time to try a new approach to Jerusalem, one that entails envisioning this city as transcending the constraints imposed by nation-states. If the superimposition of nationalist projects and aspirations on ethnically- or religiously-diverse urban locales like Jerusalem has fanned the flames of aggression and violent conflict, could concerted efforts to think about what social, political, economic or spatial practices would "emancipate" this city from nationalist blueprints possibly serve as the solution, or, at minimum, help lay a partial foundation for greater tolerance and perhaps even peace?

Why at this time in history would we want to think about a new vision for Jerusalem as a city that is institutionally autonomous from competing nation-states while at the same time capable of collectively embracing all the distinctive religious or ethnic groups that people it? To embark on such a project, which calls for an analytical bypassing of nation-states and rethinking the concept of citizenship, will invite controversy and opposition both within and outside the Middle East, primarily because it entails working against the grain of prevailing approaches to conflict resolution proposed by peacemaking specialists for the Middle East and most other regions of the world.

One commanding reason it is worth proposing that the city serve as the analytic entry point for producing peace is the fact that conditions change, and with historical change we see new opportunities that may have been foreclosed in the past. Now we are facing a world in which the powers and responsibilities of the nation-state are being transformed by globalisation, when the asserted value of the state as the primordial agent of domestic politics is under question on a variety of fronts and when cities themselves are becoming actors in the global scene.

Jerusalem's long and complex history not only shows us how destructive were early twentieth-century efforts to impose a nation-state logic on this religiously and ethnically diverse city, which for centuries had functioned relatively well without a single sovereign nation. It also offers some clues as to how and why efforts to imagine a city belonging to no nation-state(s) might bring it one step closer to peace. During the Ottoman period, in fact, long before struggles for the creation of a single sovereign national state in this territory, a multiplicity of institutional arrangements governed servicing and representation in the city, and they operated in ways that led to relatively peaceful co-existence among the city's Jews, Muslims and Catholics. By no means are we proposing an uncritical return to a period of imperialism. However, in this early period the binary - or even tripartite - understanding of space and identity that now generates so much controversy was almost completely absent. This suggests that the linking of land, people, and nationality - which now serves as the unquestioned basis for almost all negotiations - is just one of the many possible ways the city could and has been organized. Such observations suggest the importance of thinking about alternative models for organizing and managing the city, including those that disappeared when competing nation-states hijacked the discourses and practices of urban organization.

Just Jerusalem: Vision for a Place of Peace is a project determined to generate new ideas and discussions about Jerusalem as it might be in the future. As an international competition it calls for visions of Jerusalem that transcend nationalist discourses and instead focus on the questions of daily life and the "right to the city" for all its inhabitants today as much as in the future. All entries to the competition will be expected to describe what it would take to create this type of urban arena by the year 2050. The year 2050 is not an arbitrary point in time so much as a metaphor for a future far enough from the present conflict to allow some freedom to imagine a different situation, but near enough to generate serious deliberation.

The competition addresses the belief that the nature of the city, and the way out of its conflicts, cannot be reduced to a single, negotiated view. In the case of Jerusalem, such consensus-building strategies are often part of the problem, leading to conflict over the terms and outcomes - not to mention perceived betrayals - of negotiation. The process of negotiation pretends that all parties are brought to the table as equal partners; yet this is rarely, if ever, the case. We seek to bypass the standard route of negotiation between "representative" peoples and turn instead to the liberating and regenerative potential of individual imagination and vision.

* Just Jerusalem: Vision for a Place of Peace is an interdisciplinary initiative led by MIT's Center for International Studies (CIS) and Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP).

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* Diane Davis is associate dean of the School of Architecture and Planning and political sociology professor of urban studies and planning at MIT. Leila Farsakh is assistant professor in political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston and research affiliate at the Center for International Studies at MIT. Tali Hatuka, is an architect, urban designer and research fellow in MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 19 April 2007
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.
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Jerusalem: Vision for a place of peace
Jerusalem as it should be
Let's not forget the LOCAL concern
Sharing Jerusalem: the condominium solution
Jerusalem: A centre of conflict or a base for convergence?
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Other articles in this series

Jerusalem: Vision for a place of peace by Alice Shalvi
Jerusalem as it should be by Rami Nasrallah
Let's not forget the LOCAL concern by Hagai Agmon-Snir
Sharing Jerusalem: the condominium solution by John V. Whitbeck
Jerusalem: A centre of conflict or a base for convergence? by Jihad Abu Zneid