a photo of a woman riding a light rail train in Jerusalem.
A woman rides a light rail train in Jerusalem. Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Part cultural tour, part social activism, a project called Dissolving Boundaries uses Jerusalem's public transportation as a stage for examining relations between Israeli and Palestinian residents.

JERUSALEM­—If there’s a neutral zone for the residents of Jerusalem, it’s on rails. In a city where real estate is highly contested, where walls divide neighborhoods based on faith, and the clothes you wear are code for where you should be seen, the city’s modern light rail system––whether by virtue of peace or necessity––glides above the divide.

That’s why a team of Palestinians and Israelis from Mekudeshet, an arts and cultural initiative, are using the city’s public transit as a platform for documentary and observation. Every summer, the group stages a program of original light-rail-based tours called Dissolving Boundaries—“docu-theatrical journeys” designed to distance you a little from your personal paradigms.

Dissolving Boundaries is part cultural tour, part social activism. Run by the citywide festival and nonprofit Jerusalem Season of Culture, the tours last from five to seven hours, and are open to locals and tourists alike. Apart from the choice of day, time and language (Arabic, Hebrew, English, or trilingual), no itinerary or additional information is posted. The organizers only promise to bring participants to places in Jerusalem they didn’t know existed, from a rehabilitation center for people with disabilities to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish nightclub. There, they will encounter “boundary dissolvers”—Jerusalem residents who cannot be easily corralled into a box based on their dress or faith.

One sweltering Thursday afternoon in August, I joined up with a small Dissolving Boundaries tour group of locals and tourists at Mahane Yehuda market. There I met Karen Brunwasser, deputy director of Jerusalem Season of Culture. A small, sprightly woman dressed in a sleeveless top (“In Jerusalem, this is code that I’m liberal”), Brunwasser calls herself as a “weaver” for her ability to stitch the pieces of the Jerusalem experience together into a coherent whole.

As we walked through the market, Brunwasser pointed out the sights—an ex-army brothel turned into a bar, an Arab family from Iraq selling challah, a modern coffee shop with Jewish mothers drinking espresso and nursing their babies in the open air. Here, where many different cultures intersect, Brunwasser said, “I feel at home.”

Then we were handed a small black audio transmitters and headsets and instructed to wait for the light rail train to arrive. Under the shade, I stood with an assortment of fellow passengers—elderly locals with shopping bags, Orthodox men, IDF soldiers, tourists in t-shirts. In minutes, a sleek tram cut through the street: We all boarded; I pressed play, and my audio tour began.

Over my headset, I heard Brunwasser’s warm, friendly voice. “Try to imagine me as a friend who picked up the phone to call you, to help you make sense of something that’s been on your mind,” she said.

In a city full of contested spaces, Jerusalem’s light rail can function as a neutral ground. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

The 14-kilometer Red Line, which opened in 2011, makes a natural site for social activism. The train weaves through both Arab and Jewish neighborhoods, connecting Mount Herzl in the south to Pisgat Ze’ev in the east; the 140,000 passengers a day it carries are a cross-section of Jerusalem society. Indeed, the tracks on which the train lurches forward are themselves a boundary line: Part of the light rail’s route follows the seam that, before 1967, served as the border between Israel and Jordan—a “barricaded no man’s land,” in Brunwasser’s words.

On the audio tour, Brunwasser identified various Arab, Christian, and Jewish landmarks as the train passed: Damascus Gate, Paulus House, Zion Square. “It was here that I first fell in love with Jerusalem, as a 16-year-old, looking out at the square overflowing with young people, having fun with a freedom and an abandon that didn’t exist for teenagers in major American cities,” she told us over headphones as we rolled by the public plaza.

Interspersed with her comments were narrations from “boundary dissolvers” who had strong ties to the landmarks. One such character was Sarah Weil, a Northern Californian who found Judaism as a young adult, came out as lesbian at age 14, and then “went back in,” said Brunwasser, in order to confirm to the requirements of the faith with which she’d fallen in love. Weil recounted how she would march in Zion Square with a rainbow flag. “Cars honked at me, people shouted curses, called me a pervert, said I was repulsive,” Weil said over the headset. She explained that rabbis don’t allow such public discourse, so she must hold her own, and people from all religions and secular groups have come to the square to engage.

As the train entered East Jerusalem, where the majority of Palestinians—38 percent of Jerusalem’s residents—live, the sensation of crossing a border was palpable; the crowd started to thin, shop names morphed from Hebrew to Arabic.

At Beit Hanin, an Arab neighborhood and the site of Israeli-Palestinian clashes in 2014, the group was instructed to disembark to meet our next boundary dissolver, Riman Barakat, a Palestinian activist. As we followed Barakat along the separation wall of concrete, graffiti, and barbed wire that snakes around the territory, I noticed the jarring difference in the built environment. Where carefully landscaped gardens and fruit trees shade residents of West Jerusalem, buildings here are unfinished and naked, roads are pocked from potholes, and naked cables hang over streets.

Art displayed along the separation barrier in East Jerusalem. (Keshia Baldage/CityLab)

Barakat explained the contrast: Palestinians residents may pay taxes, but support for infrastructure on the city’s east side is sorely lacking, as there is no Palestinian representation in city government to push for it.

The conflict doesn’t just manifest in the form of buildings; it has also affected freedom of movement. When Israel assumed control over the predominantly Arab eastern half of Jerusalem from Jordan after the Six-Day War of 1967, the Israeli government expanded the borders of the city, annexing Palestinian villages and offering residents Israeli citizenship. Most Palestinians refused, Barakat said, believing that having citizenship would only legitimize Israeli occupation. “People are always surprised that we don’t have an Israeli passport,” she said. “We’re stuck in the middle. Paying taxes, but getting no support. Not being able to leave Israel, but not Israeli either.”

Barakat’s organization, Experience Palestine, puts together tours for Israeli lawmakers and students to hear the Palestinian narrative. She also works as the East Jerusalem director of Mekudeshet in a bid to make the citywide festival incorporate more Palestinian characters and experiences.

(Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

Each Dissolving Boundaries tour features a unique cast of boundary-dissolving locals like Barakat. Other participants might meet Omer Schuster, who married a Muslim woman and follows Islamic rules, or artist Yotvat Freizen-Weil, who makes art for Syrian refugee camps. One of Brunwasser’s personal inspirations is boundary dissolver Nadav Schwartz, an Orthodox LBGTQ activist. “He’s a boundary dissolver who’s making change by staying in his community and holding a mirror up to it,” she said.

Organizing these tours is an ongoing challenge for Brunwasser and her team in a country where identity and faith are powerfully divisive forces. (Sample dilemma: Should the catered meals served on the tour be kosher or halal?) There have been difficult conversations, uncomfortable situations, and internal conflicts within Mekudeshet on how to engage more participants from all parts of the city. “We’re still trying to engage the ultra-Orthodox and Arab community,” Barakat said.

At the end of the day, though, Brunwasser said, “It’s Jerusalem. And you don’t want to give up, because it’s Jerusalem.”

This year, a new, loosely formed Dissolving Boundaries Institute plans to prepare similar tours aimed at nonprofit organizations, and it’s also planning to make the audio guides available to the public, so light-rail riders can take their own self-guided versions of the tour. The hope is that this model can be replicated outside of Jerusalem as well: While much about the city’s situation is unique, it’s certainly not the only place with starkly defined barriers between neighborhoods and communities.

“Jerusalem is facing the issues that so many parts of the world are facing now with respect to race, religion, segregation, and income inequality,” Barakat says. “We think that Jerusalem could be the blueprint for how to negotiate boundaries in the future.”  

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