Jerusalem Or: When Religion Shakes Urbanity

An(other) Interview with Nimrod Luz

When I contacted Nimrod Luz for this interview the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel had come into force since two days. I thought time was ripe for profiting from his presence as a fellow at the Max Weber Centre in Erfurt and asking for his learned-cum-passionate opinion about the events triggered by the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision on the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah on 6 May and the police’s clearing of the Temple Mount complex on the day after. Prof. Luz is not one to shy away from speaking his mind on Benjamin Netanyahu’s idea of national defense. Yet he had just released a long interview with Susanne Rau about the Meron catastrophe and thus I was prepared for a kind refusal or a tactical deferral. Instead, he promptly whatsapped me back by posing only one condition: that “we take a good coffee for you, a tea for me, and then walk and talk to live up to our great teacher Socrates.” Actually, Socrates’ legendary style of interview consisted of a caffeine-free ambulatory practice but, after almost eleven months of lockdown, coffee shops and bars had opened again in Erfurt. The city lured us into the good old habit that, according to both of us, I guess, made urbanity a most formidable invention of our social species and thus a sorely missed one.

Emiliano Rubens Urciuloi (ERU): Prof. Luz, we normally – lazily? – associate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with categories like religion and ethnicity. This spontaneous thinking has probably led us to overlook an aspect that, instead, is pivotal in your research as a political geographer and has dramatically surfaced in the recent flare-up of the conflict in Jerusalem: urbanity. With the Sheikh Jarrah and the Al-Aqsa cases, the centrality of the urban space and the viability of urban life in a situation that some would describe as “settler colonialism” (Veracini 2006) came dramatically to the fore. Was it always the case and we, European onlookers, almost ignored the city scale while focusing on national borders, on the one hand, and human rights, on the other? Or is the “urban question” – also beyond Jerusalem – now more prominent than before and the urban, therefore, escalating as conflict driving factor?

Nimrod Luz (NL): This is a very challenging and thought-provoking take on the conflict. Indeed, the urban level is crucial to the conflict, which rages across cities and not solely on the national scale. Lorenzo Veracini made a very valid point with his concept of “settler colonialism” and particularly about Israel/Palestine where the colonizer is not moving as the colonized awaits. To put things in context, I want to reiterate his idea of settler colonialism as it will allow us a better understanding of the issue you brought to the fore. Settler colonialism is theorized as an exclusive, land-centred project that coordinates a comprehensive range of agencies, from the metropolitan centre to the frontier encampment, with a tendency to displace, depopulate, or eliminate, rather than exploit and subordinate, indigenous societies. The main point is that, while “colonialism reproduces itself, and the freedom and equality of the colonized is forever postponed, settler colonialism, by contrast, extinguishes itself. Settler colonialism justifies its operation based on the expectation of its future demise” (Veracini 2011: 3; original emphasis). The settler colonisers’ claim is to ultimately become settled and post-colonial, that is, to “cease being colonisers if and when they become the majority of the population. Conversely, and even more perplexingly, indigenous people only need to become a minority in order to cease being colonized” (Veracini 2010: 5).

As the Israeli settler society demonstrates clearly, this is far from happening. Now, you focused our attention on Jerusalem which is to be found in a unique position as both a city and a national capital and hence the stakes are higher for both sides. Al-Aqsa or the entire compound of the Haram al-Sharif are emblematic to the nation and serve not only the Palestinian denizens of the city but rather the entire Palestinian groups. This was easily discerned in the last round of violence as both 48-Arabs (a common definition to the Palestinians who have stayed within Israeli borders and are now citizens), Gaza, and the West Bank communities were united in opposing Israeli control therein. And the Palestinian motto “bi-ruh bi-dam nafdika ya Aqsa (we will free you al-Aqsa with our souls and our blood)” was chanted in cities within and without Israel by Palestinian youth demonstrating and confronting Israeli security forces. In this sense, one can go as far as to leverage Jerusalem’s uniqueness to develop an “Aleph approach” to the urban: that is, to learn from Jerusalem by making it the totalizing “vista point” from which the variety of structural forces shaping any city can be seen and challenged (Yiftachel 2016; see Luz 2021). Yet, tempting as it is to focus exclusively on Jerusalem, we might better take up your challenge by zooming in on other cities around the region whose population consists of Jews and Arabs. [Notice that I refrained from using the word “together” as it is rather questionable how together such urban life is, although they do live in the same cities]. These places are known as mixed cities and in those cities, one may observe exactly what you alluded to, which is the urban scale of the conflict and the importance of looking at the manifestations of this conflict in daily urban life. In a way, this is exactly what triggered my “Religiocity” project. In this endeavor, among other things, I am to deconstruct the often-used notion of state and religion and show the crucial importance of the urban level. Surely, in cities the state/nation is daily manifested, constructed, and experienced, rather than the national level, which is highly elusive to urban dwellers. Urban areas are the point of encounter of diverse groups. It is there that group relations are “concretized” through the intersection of global, state, and local forces. Urban dynamics regularly shape the distribution of material and symbolic resources, turning cities into sites of political contestation, articulation, and mobilization (Yitfachel and Roded 2011). Approaching the matter through the urban scale allows us also to engage with the repercussions of religion conflict in cities in the shape of “urbicide” (e.g., Berman 1996). Gaza can be taken as a dismal case in point if we consider the obliteration of urban tissues and surely urban lives as the conflict erupts on the ground time and time again.

ERU: Allow me, however, to come back to Jerusalem and take it, as you suggest, less as an exception than as “omnipotent emblem”: an Aleph, indeed, “the place of all places”, a window through which one can gaze and “fathom the relational nature of urban forces” from every possible angle at the same time (Yiftachel 2016: 484). Increasingly occupied, patrolled, and walled in, the first impression of East Jerusalem is that of a suffocating city-space. Embodying quite the opposite of the German medieval motto “Stadtluft macht frei!”, the Arab sector is an emblem of how incredibly suffocating a city might be. Which kind of half-a-city is East Jerusalem now? Who is concretely “planning” it and how?

NL: I cannot think of a more remote notion from the reality of East Jerusalem than the idea that urbanity will set you free. One may also bring to the table at this stage Henri Lefebvre’s much quoted and – some would argue – misunderstood idea of the “right to the city” (Lefebvre 1968) or Leonie Sandercock’s concept of “Cosmopolis” (1998) which is a city that is designed for all its citizens. To understand the impossible reality for East Jerusalemites, I would say firstly that it is, arguably, the most problematic and festering urban problem in the region. Following the 1948 war, East Jerusalem was under the rule of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan until 1967. Overall, the Jordanians left the West Bank to its own device and treated it as secondary to their primal concerns east of the Jordan River. East Jerusalem became a rather sleepy and slowly progressing urban environment. Following the 1967 war, East Jerusalem was annexed to Jewish West Jerusalem to become part of the “United” city. The city’s municipal boundaries were expanded to include 28 Palestinian villages surrounding Jerusalem, effectively making it the largest urban area in Israel. Jerusalem was declared the indivisible capital of Israel. The municipality follows a governmental policy to ensure a Jewish majority in the city. In order to accomplish that, land was appropriated to serve the construction of new satellite Jewish neighborhoods. Additionally, Jewish groups are working to settle Jewish citizens within predominantly Palestinian neighborhoods. The Shaikh Jarrah neighborhood is a case in point that demonstrates clearly how urban planning is a key tool in achieving the goal of maintaining Jewish hegemony in Jerusalem. Urban planning is conducted as a subservient mechanism to the primary goal of constructing Jerusalem as the national capital of the Jewish nation. Under Israeli control for over 50 years now, East Jerusalem has undergone constant changes which aimed, more often than not, at keeping its population at bay to allow tightening Jewish dominance over the city. This situation became even less tenable and sustainable for East Jerusalemites after the construction of the Separation Wall in 2002. The wall – or barrier as it is sometime called  – separates and traps large parts of Palestinians in Jerusalem from essential services and socio-economic infrastructures. As an aside, while working on my previous project on “Enchanted Places in Contested Regions”, I was following a new emerging sacred site: Our Lady of the Wall. This is an icon of Mary painted on the Separation Wall at the behest of Christian nuns from Bethlehem whom the wall disabled from arriving at the holy sites of Jerusalem such as the Holy Sepulcher during their holidays. They inscribed their yearning for free movement and freedom to practice their faith on the wall in the shape of the icon. Symbolically, when they pray facing the icon they are praying towards Jerusalem.

Our Lady of the Wall, an icon of Mary painted on the Separation wall.

So, to sum up my response, East Jerusalem is suffering from severe under-planning, inferior and unsatisfactory urban infrastructures which render the notion of a united indivisible city rather ludicrous. Furthermore, it is plain to see how these intangible boundaries are becoming rather tangible when the conflict escalates, and riots or demonstrations take place in response to political events or contested municipal new imposition.

ERU: Apropos of escalations following contested and contestable decisions, thinking especially of the Israeli police raiding and occupation of the Temple Mount complex, would you go as far as to say that there is an attempt by the current Israeli far-right government to turn Jerusalem into a “fundamentalist city”: namely, into a city “whose minority residents, belonging to different ethnic or religious groups, are denied access to basic urban services and specific public spaces” (AlSayyad 2011: 16)?

NL: I must admit I never considered AlSayyad’s notion of the fundamentalist city regarding Jerusalem, but I have to say I cannot take it off the table so easily. On the face of it, Israel is committed to freedom of access to holy sites for all denominations in and out of the city. And yet, time and again, we learn on infringements on devotees to arrive at their respective holy places. So thinking of your questions along the lines I delineated previously about the urban development of Jerusalem… alas, it sure fits the bill! But in all fairness I must stress that this is not only due to the present-day far-right governments, as you suggested, but rather to a long established policy of Israeli governments since 1967 – a rather tacit policy as in general no restrictions are imposed on minority groups in the city from enjoying their places of worship.

ERU: Looking outside Jerusalem can probably help us to find some useful comparisons. In your own ethnographies on the northwest Israel’s city of Acre (Akko) you have written about a policy of “religious gentrification” as set of formal and informal phenomena driven by an ultimately “ethnocratic logic”? [In a recent report on the city of Lod, published on the Italian newspaper, Il Manifesto, the Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar has similarly spoken of “nationalistic gentrification”] Can you explain what these two notions mean and how they concretely interact? Are we confronted with the same phenomena in Jerusalem, for instance with the Sheik Jarrah property dispute? 

NL: Indeed, these two notions go hand in hand. Ethnocratic logic is a geopolitical theory constructed by Oren Yiftachel (2006) and refers to a democratic regime which is based on the premise of one ethnic group promoting and sustaining its own goals within a democratic framework. Some would argue that this is not democratic at all but, indeed, everyone enjoys citizenship even though the state and its agencies are geared to ensure the hegemonical position of one ethnic group. The situation in Acre, as well as in many mixed Israeli towns in which the state enables the construction of religious neighborhoods which I theorize as religious gentrification, follows and can be understood against and within the ethnocratic logic. Tamer Nafar is right in his analysis as this is exactly how he experiences the development of Jewish neighborhoods in the mixed town of Lod. The Sheikh Jarrah dispute in Jerusalem, like everything in this troubled land, is a bit more complex. In 1875 an area of 17 dunams (5 acres), was purchased by the Jewish Sephardi Community Council in Jerusalem. In the following decades more lots were purchased by Jews and the area was collectively called Shimon Hatasdiq neighborhood. Following the 1948 war and the annexation of East Jerusalem by the Hasjemite Kingdom of Jordan Jews could not reside in this area and the vacant houses were soon occupied by Palestinian tenenats, some of them reside there since then. Using the Ottoman purchase deeds of the said houses the case being made in Israeli courts is that  “we are only defending and bringing back what is ours”. The reality on the ground is that, with the help of Israeli courts, Jewish religious NGOs are evacuating Palestinian families from houses they have lived in for decades. Sure, a bit of good faith and cessation of nationalistic appetite might have allowed a solution. But Jerusalem being Jerusalem, that is, a city where every inch is fought over by the two national groups, in recent years Sheikh Jarrah became yet another battle ground over the “indivisible” capital of Israel. 

ERU: When cities are battled over the way Jerusalem is, it is difficult not to hark back to Lefevbre’s notion of the “right to the city” (Lefebvre 1968) – which David Harvey has later qualified as “the right to change and reinvent the city […], a collective right contingent upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization” (Harvey 2012: 4). How would you describe current Palestinians’ entitlement to the “right to the city” more than 70 years after the Nakba? How does it differ from other claims and how does it change according to the context, e.g., in Jerusalem, Gaza, or the West Bank? Finally, which role do the topics of urban exclusion and entitlement play in the religious and secular competitive agendas of both Hamas and Fatah?

NL: As mentioned in my previous answer, this notion of right to the city, at the moment, is rather vague and out of reach for most Palestinian citizens of Jerusalem. Gaza and cities in the West Bank are in a sense less censored by Israeli planning policies so theoretically speaking they could better implement these notions among solely Palestinian denizens. Regarding the agendas of Hamas and Fatah on cities, I have to admit that I know Hamas and Fatah charters and I did not find in them direct references to cities. Both are national liberation movements and until the goal is achieved (free Palestine or could be more….), they work mostly on the national scale. However, by their very existence and given the role they play in promoting East Jerusalem as the future capital of Palestine, transforming and amplifying its central political role through religion and by concentrating on its holy Islamic center (al-Haram al-Sharif), they circuitously affect changes in this regard in the city. I would like to pursue this further and suggest that religion is crucial to understand the problematics regarding the “right to the city” in Jerusalem and also why it renders a move in that direction tremendously difficult. To do that, we must introduce the geographic concept of scale. Put simply, scale refers to the ways places are perceived, understood, and promoted on different levels and between different levels from the personal (body scale) to the global. Understanding places within multiscalar configuration allows a better understanding of the forces that shape them as well as of the reasons leading to these configurations (Swyngedouw 1992a; 1992b). In recent decades Jerusalem has been the platform, battlefield, bounded space (take your pick) for a plethora of forces on various scales competing over its sacred iconic landmarks as ways to gain control over both physical and political capital. On the Israeli-Jewish side there are a few external (working on a national level) groups who are working and influencing daily life in Jerusalem. The first is a Jewish Orthodox messianic group, Ne’emanei Har Habayit (Temple Mount Loyalists), which is constantly mobilizing to allow Jews to pray at the Temple Mount and also build a synagogue there. Another one is Ateret Cohanim (Crown of Priests) which promotes the construction of the Third Temple. Until that happens, they work tirelessly on the ground purchasing real estate properties around Jerusalem and mostly within the old city to better their position. Among the Palestinians, too, Jerusalem’s religiosity and sanctity are heavily used by external groups. This is again working on the national scale but heavily influencing the urban one. A notable case is the “northern” branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel which has planned an effective mobilization around the slogan “al-Aqsa fi khatar” (al-Aqsa in Danger) (Luz 2014). Until it was outlawed in 2015 by the Israeli Parliament, it was actively and openly working for the Arabization/Palestinization of the Old City of Jerusalem.

In parallel, Hamas has also mobilized itself by using Jerusalem’s religious importance to gain political dominance. Hamas often builds on the early connection of Palestinian nationalism to Islam, initiated brilliantly by the Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husyani by scorning at the failure of Fatah secularists to secure a state, and by emphasizing a “return to the roots”. Glorification and control of the holy city and its sacred sites provide a route to national and personal salvation embodied in the popular slogan “Islam is the solution” (Yiftachel and Roded 2011: 200). This is clearly manifested in Hamas’ logo (pictured below) which centers the nation around the Dome of the Rock being part of the Haram al-Sharif. Notice, if you will, how the Palestinian flags are embracing the dome.  The ultimate political goal of forming a Palestinian state from sea to river (Jordan) is symbolized through the icon of the land above the dome. Ironically enough, this is the way Israeli maps are now being drawn often neglecting to draw the Green Line which once served as the border between Israel and Jordan.

Hamas’ Logo.

ERU: The examples you brought remind me, once again, of how thin the line can be between claiming a “right to the city” as participation to its production and vindicating a monopoly over the urban space… Yet now let’s assume that Jane Jacobs was too negative on top-down urban planning and that what we do need are solar-eyed progressive urbanists. What is the current role – if there is any – of Israeli critical geographers and city planners in challenging the way in which space – and urban space, in particular – is produced and leveraged to enforce domination and create exclusion? After all, if the city is the problem, the city can also be a solution. Concerning more bottom-up initiatives, is there any Israeli-Palestinian organized, non-profit, and non-governmental attempt at imagining and reconstituting a totally different kind of city which actively involve the residents?

NL: There are numerous Israeli organizations and, within them, a group of critical geographers who are constantly working to reconstitute a different kind of city and imagine different, more inclusive cities. Just before I left Israel to arrive here, I introduced the mayor and the vice-mayor of Acre to the coordinator of an NGO called “Abraham Initiatives” that works under the motto of “Building a Shared Society for Jews and Arabs in Israel”. Both of them were very open and forthcoming about new initiatives. However, they assured us that Acre is a different story and co-existence in it is not just a slogan but rather a reality. I did not share with them my concerns that they might live in a fantasy land as the reality I explore in the city tells a rather different story. Indeed, they were right in the sense that Jews and Arabs work side by side and interact in the public sphere but the discrepancies among the two communities are too big to be ignored. Jewish-owned stores in the old city were set on fire as well as other symbols of Jewish existence in the predominantly Arab parts of the city. It did not end there, and some cases of lynching took place in this usually calm city… Other NGOs are working tirelessly and valiantly for many years now to suggest a different take on Israel’s planning politics. Among them I can mention BIMKOM – Planners for Planning Right and IrAmin. They are operating mostly but not solely in Jerusalem. Additionally, we have solidarity groups within Israel who still fight an uphill battle to allow the possibility of a shared and more inclusive existence. The Association of Civil Rights in Israel is also a constant force that challenges the state’s discriminatory policies, usually by taking the struggles to court. And surely one may also think of B’teselem which is an NGO dedicated to the defend Palestinian civil rights in the occupied territories.

ERU: Thank you, Professor Luz, for this fascinating conversation.

The interview was conducted by KFG Junior Fellow Emiliano Rubens Urciuoli.


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Urciuoli, Emiliano Rubens; Luz, Nimrod. “Jerusalem Or: When Religion Shakes Urbanity”. Religion and Urbanity Blog. KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” (FOR 2779). 25/05/2021.

Cite this blog post
urbrel (2021, May 25). Jerusalem Or: When Religion Shakes Urbanity. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved April 21, 2024, from

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