Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Berlin and Jerusalem: Two Capitals

Visiting Berlin affected me more than I had ever imagined. Most visits to foreign countries are enjoyable but rarely have they left a lasting effect on me. Since returning from Berlin I haven’t been able to free myself of its pull. Beyond that my Berlin visit has put me in the uncomfortable position of comparing it to Jerusalem: one capital to another. There are those who would considered it irreverent and perhaps borderline sacrilegious. How can one compare the once profaned Berlin to the eternal holy city of Jerusalem? Worse than that: how can one, such as myself, who lived in and loved Jerusalem compare it to a symbol of the mass annihilation of European Jewry. It isn’t easy and as much as I resist, I am compelled to consider Jerusalem on the backdrop of Berlin, precisely because Berlin is today a seamless and united city, while Jerusalem is still struggling with existential issues. (Obviously, it wasn’t enough for Menachem Begin to declare that united Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people. It might have been the ideal, but as reality has unfolded and revealed itself it is easier said than done).

Realizing of course that there is a fundamental flaw in trying to compare Berlin to Jerusalem for the same reason that it has been impossible for Jerusalem to realize a seamless unification: at the heart of the struggle are two people defined by polar religious beliefs. These beliefs are exclusionary and disallow for the space necessary for two peoples to live together. On the other hand, Berlin never had this problem. Their split was artificially constructed based upon geopolitics on the eve of the conclusion of World War Two by dividing of the spoils of war between the East and the West.

Having said that the question remains: are there any valid comparisons that can be made between the two? Both are capitals of great nations that were arbitrarily divided as a result of war. Both are currently unified. Both cities possess dazzling architectural and historical landmarks, and both are the seats of government. In both cities the populations tend to have an above average sophistication with an intellectual / cultural advantage over their countrymen. Because each is the seat of government lawyers, clerks and bureaucrats are over represented, while industrialists and entrepreneurs are underrepresented.

So much for the comparisons. Now for the differences: I can’t help escape the reality that Berlin happens to be a more beautiful city esthetically. It didn’t have to be this way. Berlin was devastated and in ruins after World war II compounded by decades of communist neglect. Jerusalem too was war torn and in shambles after the War of Independence and once again after the Six Day War. Jerusalem had the potential to be the most beautiful city in the world and was even referred to lovingly and poetically as the city of gold. But if one were to visit Jerusalem today one would find a city that is faded dreary and in desperate need of a facelift. This applies to west Jerusalem as well as to east Jerusalem. In west Jerusalem there are still pocket neighborhoods where the architecturally unique homes are well maintained with manicured gardens: those are in the isolated secular or modern orthodox, American textured neighborhoods. But the preponderance of west Jerusalem is haredi / ultra orthodox and the neglect in their neighborhoods is rampant. No pride of ownership. It sort of reminds me of the blue-collar neighborhood that I grew up in. You could always tell the frum homes from the gentile ones. The frum ones stood out due to their lackluster appearance, brown lawns, chipped paint on window and door frames and in general all the signs of neglect, while the modest gentile homes were well kept and manicured with much curb appeal. It’s pretty much the same thing when one tours the drab and depressing streets of haredi / ultra orthodox neighborhoods in west Jerusalem.

But the difference between east and west Jerusalem is much starker and palpable from architectural design to civil infrastructure of roads and sewerage; to the resentful eyes of the vanquished, still ever present. Berlin’s reunification was facilitated because of the will of west Berliners to divert the preponderance of taxes to develop the east at the expense of neglecting the continued development of the west. Had west Jerusalem had the same policy of diverting more money into east Jerusalem infrastructure one would have to wonder if that would have changed things on the ground and created the atmosphere for a truly united Jerusalem? If west Jerusalem had developed aggressive, strident programs in tolerance, embracing all its citizens as equals, as the west Berliners had, one has to wonder what impact if any, it would have made on the future of Jerusalem that is at the core of negotiating a peace with the Palestinians. As it is, the unification of Jerusalem is political fiction; waiting for an opportunity when perhaps wiser men can create an amicable peace where a shared Jerusalem might be the capital of two nations.