Narratives in a Divided City: Childhood and Memory in Jerusalem, 1948-2008

Dana Hercbergs, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation examines Palestinians’ and Israelis’ narratives about growing up in Jerusalem over the last sixty years, beginning with the 1948 Arab-Israeli War known alternatively as the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) and the Israeli War of Independence. Scholarship on modern Jerusalem has generally examined Arab and Jewish inhabitants separately, at the expense of a more comprehensive perspective of situated, daily interaction. Moreover, descriptions of young people’s lives are often overshadowed by adult-centered narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. This ethnographic study considers how the Conflict shapes residents’ narratives about their childhood in the context of Jerusalem’s post-1948 history, as well as how the other ‘side’ is implicated in their stories and in the consciousness of contemporary youth.

Because political divisions inform a great deal of daily life in Jerusalem, I treat the physical and social terrain as the foreground for analyzing young residents’ experiences over time. In particular, I focus on the contexts for their routines and folk traditions: Sites of leisure and play, patterns of mobility and routes, and places of tension and conflict. Adults’ narratives about their childhood past were solicited through personal interviews, public story-telling events, and personal and organized neighborhood tours. Research with contemporary teens involved informal interviews and guided tours to illuminate how they articulate their sense of local knowledge as they navigate familiar and strange terrains around the city, while revealing their landscapes of play and imagination.

While often tinged with nostalgia and romanticism, Palestinian and Israeli residents frame the narratives about their childhood past in light of their social and political status in present day Jerusalem. In the tone and content of their stories, they express the precariousness or stability of their status as Palestinians or Israelis in this divided city, respectively, and evaluate how their national and communal affiliations impact their views on Arab-Jewish relations. A comparison of adults’ childhood narratives with the experiences of contemporary teens reveals that in comparison with their elders, youth today are less familiar with the ‘other side’ and with the city as a whole as a result of the limitations they face by living in a divided city.