Choreographed by Sharaf DarZaid, the various dance troupes from Jerusalem, Gaza, Bethlehem, Jenin, Ramallah and El-Bireh number 130 dancers in total, with footage cut together from the various locations and measuring the close physical distance to Jerusalem, despite the inability of most of the dancers to visit the city.
Sharaf, in an interview, said that he was encouraged by friends in South Africa to do the video, hinting at the historical relations between the two peoples. He goes on to say that the main inspiration for the video is that Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine and that “attention is drawn to the physical barriers that prevent Palestinians from accessing Jerusalem”.1819
While Ramaphosa’s call to celebrate Heritage Day by doing the Jerusalema Challenge shows an assertion of South African cultural diplomacy, the uptake of the challenge in Palestine saw a different use of the song’s soft power by highlighting exclusion from Jerusalem itself.
Within the context of the Covid pandemic, perhaps one of the most interesting things about DarZaid’s video is the emptiness of some of the famous places in areas like Bethlehem and Jerusalem that typically are heavily filled with tourists and pilgrims.20
The increasing politicisation of the song over the course of the pandemic in 2020 is in many ways reflected by the politicisation of the pandemic in Palestine-Israel as attempts to curb the spread of the virus began with the role out of newly available vaccines. Israel has been hailed as a model of leadership in vaccination having already vaccinated half of its citizens by March 2021.21 However, the disparity between Palestinians and Israelis in access to vaccines has been contentious, with Medicine Sans Frontieres stating that those in Israel are 60 times more likely to be vaccinated than those in the Palestinian Territories22 leading to much debate and criticism about Israel’s international obligations.23 Added to this is a recent deal where Israel would trade 1.4 million soon to expire Pfizer vaccines in exchange for fresh supplies from Palestine when shipments in September arrive has been rejected by the Palestinian Authority as the first shipment from Israel was due to expire just 12 days after arrival rather than the previously agreed 6 weeks.24 Such incidents related to Covid have added further fuel to the statement by groups such as Human Rights Watch that Israel is practicing a form of apartheid.25
In February this year, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a program to trade excess vaccines for diplomatic support, particularly to countries who had moved their embassies to Jerusalem or would open diplomatic missions in the city.26 It would seem that while the Jerusalema Challenge provided new impetus for Palestinian claims to Jerusalem as a national capital, Covid vaccines provided a similar outlet for Israeli cultural diplomacy through immunisations abroad to cement Israeli claims of sovereignty over the city. These competing claims both operated through politicised international networks, showing just how fragmented the city is not just domestically, but internationally.
Where much of the world has found some sort of unity in Jerusalema as song and dance challenge in the context of Covid, the interaction between the phenomenon and virus in Jerusalem and more broadly in Palestine/Israel has in fact highlighted the ever-growing disparity and political fragmentation, particularly in the lead up to the current violence.
Headlines in recent weeks have discussed Israeli attempts to dispossess four Palestinian families from their homes in the inner city East Jerusalem suburb of Sheikh Jarrah that is at the centre of the current violence.27 What is surprising, however, is that the dispossession of these families has both garnered world attention and solidified Palestinian solidarity given that such evictions in Jerusalem are common place28 and 15,000 Palestinians from Jerusalem have had their right to live in the city revoked by Israel between 1967 and 2016.29
Beyond the politics of property and legal rights of Palestinians in Jerusalem, what is less understood about Sheikh Jarrah is its central cultural importance. It is home to key cultural institutions like El Hakawati, the Palestinian National Theatre,30 Dar Al Tifl, the Palestinian Folklore Museum,31 Dar Issaf Nashashibi, a literary organisation,32 and many Western-funded scholarly and cultural institutes such as the Kenyon Institute,33 Ecole Biblique,34 and the American School of Oriental Research.35 Sheikh Jarrah is also home to Orient House, which, until it was shut down by Israel in 2001, was the Palestinian National Authority’s only diplomatic mission in the city. Computers, files and its archive were looted, despite the protected diplomatic status of Orient House under the Oslo Peace Accords.36
The recent history of Sheikh Jarrah is a microcosm of the broader claims and counterclaims of the city. The push to control areas of such cultural importance as Sheikh Jarrah, the Old City and Silwan are at the heart of the current situation, which centres on controlling Palestinian culture in the city. The impact of Jerusalem’s Arab culture is already minimised, given that the majority of Palestinians cannot even visit national cultural institutions in the capital as access to Jerusalem itself requires seeking Israeli military permission.
These multiple claims and questions of ownership over the city, whether physical or spiritual, are addressed in a sound work by Palestinian artist Qais Assali and opera singer Ju-Eh. The work takes as its base an Arabic translation of Blake’s poem, read aloud in the performative tradition of Arabic literature, upon which Parry’s melody is overlayed sung by Ju-eh and then interwoven with English commentaries.37
The haunting sound work, which runs for close to seven minutes, forms a subversive reply to the claims which the original hymn makes. Its ethereal tone reflects back on the sense of spiritual transcendence with which Jerusalem is often associated, particularly in the context of Blake’s lyrics. But listening to the deftly interwoven commentaries that Assali intersperses also disrupts the serene chorality of the soundscape.
“It’s not only William Blake.
White English men had the same idea
Yes, it was a failure, to be in Palestine.
Please take it.
Build it in England and leave Palestine.
And don’t get bored of it and give it to someone else.”
At one and the same moment, Assali’s commentary nativises the poem by translating it into Arabic, subverting the cultural incongruence of the original song, but then quips “And don’t get bored of it and give it to someone else”. This allusion refers to the British withdrawal from Palestine at the end of the British Mandate leaving the politically volatile situation that led to the creation of the Israeli State and the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe), which saw more than half of the Arab population made refugees in 1948. Effectively, the work questions and undermines colonialist notions of ownership of the city by reappropriating the weight of Blake and Parry’s imagining of it and recasting it from an indigenous perspective. This effectively flips questions of Jerusalem’s ownership on its head.
The question of ownership of Jerusalem has resonances beyond well beyond the political sphere. Indeed, the Jerusalema challenge seems to have created a continuity of the contestations that the city embodies, this time in an economic form. Recently, with the many video challenges placed online Warner Music, who hold the copyright to the song, sent infringement notices to a number of institutions in Germany.
Staff from a number of state operated agencies such as hospitals, police and fire departments and other frontline workers who have participated in the challenge have received notices of copyright infringement. In legal terms there is a strong case for such infringement notices,38 however, there is also a moral argument that the song’s popularity would not be what it is if it weren’t for such largescale participation in the viral trend.