Berlin and Jerusalem share much in common when it comes to painful separation, so a German foundation has set up a forum where urban experts from the two cities can learn from each other.
Some fear a divided Jerusalem could have its own Berlin Wall.
Separation and unification, integration and fragmentation - these are themes that Jerusalem and Berlin have in common.
Though the two cities in many respects such as geography or climate couldn’t be more different, they also share many similar features: Both are capitals which were formerly divided by a wall, they both have undergone a major transformation process and they still unfortunately suffer from internal divisions.
Drawing on these parallels, the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation set up a Berlin-Jerusalem forum two years ago. The aim was to get together experts from both sides, study the similarities and figure out ways for each to learn and profit from the other.
For the past year, experts from the eastern and western parts of Berlin have been working together with Israelis and Palestinians from Jerusalem. It’s hoped that Berlin’s successful reunification in 1990 and the ensuing fragile task of embracing the former communist eastern half into the western democratic fold will serve as a model for the group to gain new perspectives on Jerusalem.
Every year the group meets for a week of intense discussions. Deutsche Welle caught up with them during a recent meeting in Berlin as they gathered at Checkpoint Charlie, one of the most famous Cold War border crossing points between the eastern and the western part of the city.
Berlin Wall a reminder of Jerusalem
Israel Kimchi, a regional planner from the Jewish part of Jerusalem in the city’s west was thoughtful as he walked along the former border in Berlin. He said the place’s history made him think of the Six Day war in 1967, when Israel annexed the eastern part of Jerusalem from Jordan, placing it entirely under Israeli sovereignty after two decades of division into the Arab east and the Jewish west.
"It reminds me a little of Jerusalem because for 19 years Jerusalem also was a divided city with walls and border lines," Kimchi said. "And we were very fortunate that the wall came down 35 years ago. And here the same situation, divided cities that became one city again."
However, what people from Jerusalem feel reminded of in the German capital crucially depends on what part of the city they belong to.
Rami Nasrallah, the head of the Palestinian group, for example grew up in Arab east Jerusalem and lives under Israeli rule. Whenever he wants to visit his family in the West Bank he first has to pass Israeli checkpoints.
"Believe me when I crossed the Checkpoint Charlie I felt the same - but there were no soldiers there - like crossing Kalandria in northern Jerusalem, I felt the same. It was in the past, but the Kalandria one is existing, it has become a permanent checkpoint separating the north section of east Jerusalem and Ramallah from the center," Nasrallah said.
The Palestinian stressed how the current situation was painful for the city’s Arab residents: "The reality in Jerusalem is so hard, when it comes to division and separation and we should find a solution."
Looking for a solution
Developing such a solution for Jerusalem is precisely the aim of the urban experts who have come together under the framework of the forum for the third time now. On their agenda are seven days of intense discussions, lectures and fieldtrips.
The overall idea is to help create visions and solutions for Jerusalem drawing on the experience gathered in Berlin.
Lena Schulz zur Wiesch from the Berlin team of the trilateral conference said she and other German experts were bombarded with curious questions from the group about how Berlin managed to overcome its painful divisions once the wall came down and the gradual transition to becoming a larger, enlarged metropolis.
"They (the group from Jerusalem) call us a sounding board. We are the sounding board,” she said. “They are asking us very concrete questions about for example, How did you do that? You had two different transport systems, sewage systems, administrations. How did you manage to bring those together. Which processes were responsible for the working out?"
A common vision without a wall
The city of Jerusalem is of crucial importance to both Israelis and Palestinians alike. But both sides remain at odds over what to do with the city and base their claims on religion and history.
While Israel refuses to budge on the idea of dividing Jerusalem to be a dual capital city, the Palestinians are pushing for a divided city and control of East Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Palestine. That's why Jerusalem is seen as one of the major obstacles on the way to peace in the Middle East.
But having studied the division of Berlin, Israelis and Palestinians in the city forum have at least managed to agree on a common vision for the future of Jerusalem. They want their city to be the capital of both Israel and a future Palestinian state. But crucially they don't want the city to be physically divided. They say the world doesn't need another Berlin wall.