What if…

Two small words, but in the right context, their impact can be explosively large.

That was just one of the discoveries gleaned by planners of Jerusalem 2050: Vision for a Place of Peace. A four-year project spearheaded jointly by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and the Center for International Studies, Jerusalem 2050 is an invitation to re-envision a city long connected with heavenly aspirations. Amid a real-world landscape of bloody battles, fractious national politicking and diplomatic setbacks, the project’s goal is to bypass realpolitik and “turn to the liberating potential of imagination and design, to open new windows of understanding about the shared dreams and desires of Jerusalem residents who want to make their city peaceful,” says project director and DUSP Professor Diane Davis.

The decidedly utopian premise driving the project took its first formal shape in a Visionaries Conference held last April at MIT. Its aim was to elicit visionary scenarios recasting the city — from social, cultural, economic, and urban planning points of view — which will culminate in 2007 with an international juried design competition carrying an anticipated $200,000 prize. Thirty leading architects, city planners, urban activists, artists and other intellectuals — Palestinian, Israeli, European and Americans reflecting a potpourri of opinion — grappled with the challenge.

Committed to Peace

One issue that took a few initial hits was the utopian concept itself. Some of the Palestinian participants, Davis conveys, felt it was “an academic, ivory-tower luxury to think only about the future. There was some sentiment that you first have to face the problems of the present.” Among the Israelis, too, there was division of opinion about whether a Jerusalem of the future ought to be united or divided along national/political lines. While all invited participants were committed to peace, “some were in favor of having separate municipalities, with their own institutions and transportation systems, as a temporary strategy on the path towards a united city later,” says Davis.

Among the exciting ideas floated during the two-day conference was one by Yossi Yonah, an Israeli political theorist of Jewish Yemeni extraction who grew up in Iraq. Drawing on his mother’s experience in Baghdad, he relayed scenarios in which Muslims and Jews lived on the same streets, took care of each other’s children, borrowed each other’s wedding dresses, and relied on one another in everyday ways that are absent in Jerusalem. His personal narrative was as controversial for broaching the topic of racism in contemporary Israeli society — even among Jews of different cultural backgrounds — as for painting a picture of a desirable future.

Another idea presented by Yusef Natsheh, an archeological preservationist and professor at Jerusalem’s Al-Quds University, and echoed by Princeton University architectural historian Christine Boyer, rejected the standard logic of nation states about national memory. Rather than trying to impose a single national memory about a city’s patrimony — having solely an Israeli or Palestinian historical narrative defining the meaning of the Temple Mount, for example — both called for a diversity of public narratives as a way to move to a peaceful future.

Another alternative view was offered by Samir Srouji, a Palestinian architect and visual artist who introduced a clip from a film by renowned Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman. The film began with a shot of a beautiful Palestinian woman, decked in spiked heels and sunglasses, walking up to a barricade in the occupied territory. In the film, “the handsome Israeli soldiers manning the barricades at first responded purely as men drawn by the power of her striking elegance. Then, the thought occurs she might be a terrorist, and they hurriedly put up their guns. Finally the woman walks boldly through the checkpoint. The ambiguity of the guards’ initial response was so human, so everyday, as was the woman’s sense she could keep on walking.

The film’s powerful images really fit the conference, because they underscored the challenge of going beyond state-imposed, top-down or bottom-up assumptions about how people should interact, and focused on the micro-dynamics of individual perceptions and the daily world in which people live.”

Possible Spinoffs

MIT’s role in the initiative can be described as “applied social science,” says Davis. “The faculty use academic theories and methodologies to understand problem-solving in the real world.” One of the project’s possible spinoffs, she adds, could be capacity-building courses in technology and urban planning, offered to Palestinians to bolster their preparations for the design competition. “This will promote the likelihood their visions will be as expertly crafted as the Israelis’, who have well-established and well-resourced urban planning programs. It will enable the project to have a long-term impact.”

Paradoxically, the greatest success of the conference for Davis was “realizing how difficult it was going to be to do the project and how important making even minimal headway at the level of the city is going to be for regional and global peace. If the visions we get out of the competition can provoke a new conversation among previously antagonistic groups, or shake up old assumptions and ideas while also producing new ones — that will be a wonderfully positive thing and well worth our efforts.”