Issue No.
157, May 2011 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Ethnic Identity in Al Quds
Interview with Dr. Albert Aghazarian
Visitors to Jerusalem’s Old City often express surprise at its composition. There are the quarters representing the three major monotheistic religions-Jewish, Christian and Muslim-which place the city at the centre of their faith. They are completed by a fourth quarter, the Armenian quarter, which is by the far the smallest and the least populated, with fewer than 3,000 residents.

The Armenian presence, a constant since the fourth century, is a reminder of Jerusalem’s long history of ethnic diversity. United Nations Resolution 303 from the 1947 Partition Plan had intended to make Jerusalem an independently administered international city, in recognition of its importance to so many different faiths and ethnic groups. Communities of Gypsies, Africans, Syriacs, Ashkenazis, and a kaleidoscope of religious strands have all made their homes here.

Yet since Israel’s annexation of the city in 1967, that international character has come under increasing threat. The Jewish State’s efforts to control the ethnic make-up of what they view as their sovereign capital has been manifested through demolitions, quotas, and institutional discrimination directed at non-Jews.

At a time when these capricious mechanisms are in overdrive, it is reassuring to look to the Armenian community as an example of durability. Their most high profile representative, Dr. Albert Aghazarian, a historian and director of public relations at Birzeit University, as well as a lifelong Jerusalemite, has theories as to how his people have survived for so long amid such fierce competition.

“In 1451 a German Bishop visited and said, ’Armenians are masters of the art of bribery,’ which has some providence,” says Aghazarian. More seriously, he feels his people have benefitted from a “shrewdness; a sense of navigating along the raindrops,” which has allowed them to ride out the storms.

While Aghazarian is concerned about the effects of Judaization on Jerusalem, he feels it is “an exercise in futility which time will erode. Israel wants to run the show,” he says. “There is asymmetric containment currently, but this is a country of stories and mirrors, each one different, and any attempt to deny that is bound to fail.”

Aghazarian is a self-declared Palestinian, but passionately believes that Jews are also victims, as they are betrayed by their state’s policies. “Israel is defeating the core of Judaism. Modern Zionism is the biggest aberration of Judaism, the ideas have gone and their identity now is just as triumphant soldiers.” He adheres to that well-known expression that declares, “The measure of a society is how it protects its most vulnerable,” and argues that modern Zionism has produced a failing, dysfunctional society.

“Fear is the fuel (in Israel) and you can’t build on fear. When nationalism developed in central Europe, the French version said ’protect the citizen.’ The German version put the citizen beneath the system. Zionism adopts the German version.”

Aghazarian asserts that outside influences have assisted Israeli attempts to “flatten the layers”. He blames mass tourism for “whitewashing” Jerusalem, making it digestible and commercial at the expense of its cultural richness. Certainly the Old City market, at its best, an inspiring glimpse of multiculturalism at its finest, has shed a little sparkle now that there are so many identical stalls for trashy souvenirs and cheap Asian goods.

Aghazarian advises communities to celebrate their differences and resist pressure to conform. “In classical times the USA wanted to be a melting pot. I think it’s better to have a ’containing pot’ and everyone is unique. Identity should be an orchestra.”

He describes Jerusalem’s Sufi sects, with their emphasis on humility and compassion, as an example of the gifts each community makes to wider society. “I grew up thinking tolerance was a positive term, but I don’t now. It implies you have to be accepting of something or someone, that you are only giving and not taking.”

As a proud Armenian, Aghazarian sees no contradiction in also defining himself as a Palestinian. He has “engaged heavily” with the conflict and represented Palestine in negotiations, including the 1991 Madrid conference. Yet his self-concept of identity is fluid, pointing out that there was an era when “we would describe ourselves as Jordanian.” To deny this, and posit a “monolithic identity” set apart from “others” would be dangerous. “The most dangerous sentence is [the common Zionist claim that] ’we alone are God’s chosen people.’” Aghazarian says, “It allows external and internal rejection.” He cites Stalin and Pol Pot as proponents of such reason.

Yet even making such bleak comparisons, Aghazarian has no doubt that Jerusalem will survive these trials to retain its naturally diverse ethnic make-up. He points out that a new Mormon community has recently arrived and that the Gypsies have established an NGO. Lessons from history and the Armenians provide reason for optimism.


Article photos by George Azar.

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