Israel Heritage Classroom Committee gets an up-close look at the ‘living organ’ that is Jerusalem

Israel Heritage Classroom Committee gets an up-close look at the ‘living organ’ that is Jerusalem

Just days after the attack on a synagogue in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof reiterated the city’s status as ground zero of some of the fiercest violence between Palestinians and Israelis, an overview of the city’s contentious past and present was on the docket during a meeting at the University of Pittsburgh.

Sponsored by the Israel Heritage Classroom Committee, the meeting brought together speakers Katherine Martin, a 2014 Israel Heritage Room Scholarship winner and Hebrew University professor Noam Shoval, the evening’s keynote speaker.

Martin, a doctoral student in Pitt’s Department of Linguistics, described dissertation-related research undertaken in Israel that focuses on how first-language writing systems impact word recognition and component reading skills in a second language. In addition to slides referencing data collected, Martin featured images of her Israeli accommodations.  

Following Martin’s presentation, Adam Shear, director of Pitt’s Jewish Studies Program, introduced Shoval. Shear highlighted many of Shoval’s accomplishments, including a recent promotion in rank to full professor in Hebrew University’s geography department.  

For much of his talk, Shoval detailed geopolitical research and its relevance to potential divisions of Jerusalem. Shoval began by stating that although Jerusalem is widely recognized internationally, in practice “it’s small on the global scale, insignificant economically and the poorest city in Israel.”

He followed by dichotomizing Jerusalem as described by the media and “Jerusalem on earth.” The latter, Shoval maintained, is a city statistically safer than Pittsburgh in terms of both murders and robberies.  

“Jerusalem is quite a peaceful city,” Shoval remarked.

As he moved through his talk, Shoval showcased maps and diagrams of Jerusalem and historical divisions of the city. An academician who Shear noted is the only person who both teaches in Pitt’s Jewish Studies department and holds patents for new technology, Shoval then took aim at academic literature regarding Jerusalem. While the corpus of such work describes Jerusalem as polarized and divided, it is based on census information. Shoval contends that such data notes only “where people sleep” and not “people’s daily lives.”

He offered listeners a window into the daily activities of Jerusalem’s residents by highlighting research he recently completed.  

While using GPS technology, Shoval observed 24 hours of activity from 16,000 complying Jerusalem residents — a group that included Palestinians, religious Jews and secular Jews. From his findings, Shoval noted “a lot of joint activities in Jerusalem,” adding that “the city is a living organ with people moving from place to place. Jerusalem’s current urban and social geography are more complex than just what people are seeing.”  

While academicians and politicians attempt varying divisions of Jerusalem, Shoval argued that “empirical investigation is needed to understand Jerusalem on earth.”  

Prior to fielding questions, Shoval concluded, “Division of Jerusalem will make the situation worse for everybody since a division of the city is an outcome of war, not an outcome of peace.”  

The event closed as attendees enjoyed refreshments in the hallway of the Frick Fine Arts Building. Still remaining inside the classroom, Jack Halpern stated that he was “very impressed” by the lecture and that “the statistics were mindboggling.

“To have that many people and break it down into that many components and graphs, I was impressed by that,” said Halpern.

Brian Burke added, “It’s a new way of looking at something prevalent in the news. I learned a lot.”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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