The grim logic of Jerusalem

Bernard Avishai, a writer and consultant living in Jerusalem, is author of "The Hebrew Republic." He blogs at

The little supermarket in the German colony of Jerusalem has a famously good meat counter; the man who has run it for the last 10 years or so is named Abed. He is a Jerusalem-born Arab, a Muslim, about 40 years old, the father of three (or is it now four?) children, whose pictures hang behind the counter. The store is a place residents of the neighborhood wander into several times a week, looking for blueberries or chestnuts. I almost always wound up speaking to Abed about this or that and eventually started coming in to talk, even if I needed nothing. I am more than a customer to him, and he is more than a clerk to me.

Abed has a quick mind, infectious smile and Zhivago-like eyes. He could have been anything he set his mind to becoming. But Jerusalem is not a place where an Arab can go into a bank, borrow money and start a business. He once told me the story of how he and his closest high school friends had hatched a plan to study the law; that a couple of them actually went to Cairo to get their degrees. But Abed had wanted to start making money and missed the boat, you know, for reasons young men later come to regret. But he did go to work -- 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., every day for 20 years.

When Abed had finally squirreled away enough money, around the turn of the millennium, he started building a stately house in the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina. He moved his family into the house, his dream palace, in 2003. This was when the violence of the latest intifada was at its peak. Cafe Hillel, across the street from the market, was bombed that year. Within 1 1/2 miles west of it, there have been (by my count) 10 other suicide bombings of stores, restaurants and buses since 2001.


In 2004, the government announced that it was building a security wall that would protect its “united” capital, Arab east and Jewish west, from the terrorism coming from the Palestinian territories. For some reason, Beit Hanina would be on the other side of the wall. Abed and his family were given weeks to find a place to live on the west side of the wall or they would be considered residents of the Palestinian territories, not Jerusalem; he would lose his job, and they would lose their social insurance and health benefits (which his taxes had paid for all those years).

So his family squeezed into a two-bedroom flat in a neighborhood within the wall, near where his brothers lived. “Who lives in the house now?” I asked him at the time. “The birds,” he said, and added: “God is great.”

He told me the story with resignation and not a word of hatred. His eyes only teared up when he explained how he had to pull his kids from school and tell them they could no longer play with their friends. Two years later, he wept again, holding my hand, when his brother’s house was demolished, the standard punishment for adding floors without a municipal permit. Such permits are almost never granted. Wholesale demolition is a fate no Jewish house, for departing from a building code, will ever suffer.

I am telling this story because Abed did not wake up last week and start killing Jews -- not like Hussam Duwayaat, who went on a rampage with a Caterpillar construction vehicle, killing three and injuring many others. Nor did 249,000 other Arabs in East Jerusalem kill anybody, though they are not happy about what’s been happening in the city of their birth.

The government speaks of walling terrorism out. Clearly, however, it is walling in grievance -- and, at times, blind rage. What should be a five-minute trip east to Al Quds University, or a sister’s dinner table in Hizma, is now an hour’s drive through northern checkpoints, past Abed’s house and the birds.

When, moreover, people speak anxiously about Jerusalem as the epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is all too easy to assume that Jews and Arabs sort out into their respective national organisms; that every act of cruelty committed by any Arab or Jew is somehow expressing the DNA of the national organism as a whole; that atrocities like that committed by the Caterpillar driver July 2 would just not happen if Arabs simply condemned violence collectively enough, or if they didn’t secretly want atrocities to happen. (Presumably, that suicidal driver was revealing Abed’s real dream palace -- a Jerusalem without Jews.)

This is, for God’s sake, no way to think about human beings. We do not need more fancy theories about the collective mind of Palestinians. We need to understand the grim logic of Jerusalem since 1967. We need to understand bell curves: the probable distribution of sociopathic outbursts within an angry population. An Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement will not put an immediate end to attacks like the one last week. But as Abed once told me, blessing God, what, if not peace, eventually will?