NGOs disagree on the facts on the ground and on what the future should look like
Jerusalem is a dream and a vision, and at the same time a city where garbage needs to be collected, children go to school, and roads need to be fixed. For some of the 800,000 people living inside the city’s municipal boundary, Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people, reunited in 1967 after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. For others the city, or at least those parts of it on the eastern side of the Green Line, is occupied territory, land which should one day become the future capital of a Palestinian state. People’s understanding of events in the city’s history are always viewed through the prism of their beliefs and nuanced by what they think is best for the future of the holy city.
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This is as true for the plethora of vying non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that live and work in Jerusalem as it is for the city’s residents, visitors and observers. Numerous groups with political agendas conduct tours within the environs of Jerusalem each one highlighting the evidence they believe proves the veracity of their cause. As often as not conflicting NGOs will look at the same piece of evidence and interpret it in two radically different directions.
Keep Jerusalem is an organization founded by Chaim Silberstein in order to advocate for the continued unification of the city. “If you mention the words “east Jerusalem” most people think it is an Arab area, overwhelmingly populated by Arabs, and therefore it’s not a problem to give it away,” Silberstein told The Media Line. “However when you inform people that in fact east Jerusalem is compromised half of Jews and half of Arabs and the neighborhoods are intertwined then people’s attitudes and opinions change drastically,” Silberstein explained in a slight South African accent.
Silberstein, who lives within a Jewish community located in the West Bank, fears that two possible futures lie ahead for Jerusalem: either Arab neighborhoods in the east of the city will become part of the West Bank and will eventually become home to violent organizations in a similar manner to Hamas’ take over of the Gaza Strip; or Jerusalem will remain united but the Jewish population will find itself eventually outnumbered and outvoted due to higher birth rates among the city’s Arab population – the so called demographic problem.
A third and preferable option, as far as Keep Jerusalem is concerned, is the boosting of the numbers of Jews living in east Jerusalem through government housing and special subsidies.
Taking a different view of the city is Ir Amim, a dovish organization that campaigns to make Jerusalem a “more equitable” place to live for all of its residents.
“Ir Amim works very hard to promote the understanding that the division of the city is an imperative part of a two state solution – meaning that the city must be the capital of two sovereign nations,” Betty Herschman, Director of International Relations at Ir Amim, told The Media Line. Herschman, who emigrated to Israel from the United States, explained that the organization did not see the division of the city as a worthy objective in itself, but as a necessity for peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
As can be imagined Keep Jerusalem and Ir Amim do not tend to agree with one another. Although the two groups are not directly in conflict they are representative of the numerous NGOs who disagree ideologically. These groups put much of their efforts into spinning their narrative and conducting tours for those willing to give up their time to come listen.
Although it is likely that there is a certain amount of “preaching to the choir” taking place during these tours they represent a key battleground when it comes to bringing policy makers and opinion leaders into line with an organization’s point of view.
Part of this clash of conflicting narratives is the interpretation of evidence on the ground. In a report earlier in the year the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) said that 75% of Arabs living in east Jerusalem are below the poverty line. When asked to comment on levels of poverty among Arabs in east Jerusalem both Ir Amim and Keep Jerusalem’s answers were indicative of the manner in which they could view the same piece of evidence with radically different outcomes.
Herschman argued that the continuation of income inequality between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods was “dramatic enough to constitute a (deliberate) lever of displacement,” pointing out that Palestinians make up 40% of the city’s population but only benefit from 10% of the municipal budget. In Ir Amim’s view the municipality of Jerusalem is slowly encouraging Arabs to leave the city by keeping them poor.
Silberstein, on the other hand, rejected any notion that intentional discrimination was taking place and suggested that the figure of a 75% poverty rate was “vastly inflated.” Any lack of funding towards Arab neighborhoods, he said, was simply because Palestinians, most of whom are residents of Jerusalem but not Israeli citizens, continuously refused to vote in municipal elections and therefore lost out when decisions about funding were being made.
Disagreements over the facts and the use of statistics to blur lines, should not come as a surprise, Professor Eran Feitelson, of Hebrew University’s Geography department, told The Media Line. “In Jerusalem everyone has a different narrative – there are always multiple narratives,” Feitelson said.
An exact definition of east Jerusalem is difficult to define, Feitelson explained, as people mean different things when they use the term – “it depends what you count in and what you count out.” When Israelis say east Jerusalem they are generally referring to the Arab communities, irrespective of geography or political considerations, Feitelson observed.
But the most important thing to remember when listening to an individual or an organization’s narrative – and this, the geography professor said, is something he drills into his students – is always be skeptical of numbers.
As the old adage goes, “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”