Photograph by Omer Messinger, NurPhoto/Sipa USA/AP

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A family of Hasidic Jews visit a Persian leopard at Jerusalem's Biblical Zoo.

Photograph by Omer Messinger, NurPhoto/Sipa USA/AP

Jerusalem Zoo Struggles to Remain Common Ground for Israelis, Palestinians

Amid war, Jerusalem's Biblical Zoo is an island of sanity in a complicated reality.

JERUSALEM—In most zoos, a peccary would warrant scant attention. The grunting, short-legged New World critter doesn't spout water like crowd-pleasing elephants or pick visitors' pockets like mischievous lemurs. What it does boast, though, is a passing resemblance to a pig. In super-religious Jerusalem, this is enough to reel in crowds of curious conservative Haredi Jews and Palestinian Muslims.

Officials at the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens (known locally as the Biblical Zoo) have gone to great lengths to reconcile the hoglike animal with local religious sensibilities, which prohibit the consumption of pork and deem pigs unclean. They cleared its arrival with a rabbi, and mounted a sign saying, "This is not a pig!" in four languages next to the baffled-looking peccary.

"It must be the only enclosure in the world that says what animal is not inside," zoo director Shai Doron said, with an amused grin.

But if all of this comes across as unnecessarily accommodating, it's also illustrative of the delicate juggling acts that civic institutions must perform in this bitterly divided holy city.

Several decades of stop-start violence have inflamed local tensions and shrunk the number of arenas where sizable groups of Israelis and Palestinians feel free to congregate and unself-consciously mingle. Amid this increasing segregation (Jews in the city's west, Arabs on its east side), the zoo has long stood out as a welcoming green space and untroubled communal melting pot.

"There's something about animals. It's about everyone. It doesn't matter if you're Shinto, Buddhist, Muslim; an elephant is an elephant, a rhino is a rhino," said Doron, who describes himself as a left-leaning Israeli Jew. "Even though this zoo is technically for the wildlife, it's really for people."

But there's more to the zoo's success in sidestepping local divisions than a shared appreciation for its impressive cast of animals—many of which, like the monkeys and wolves, have been selected because of their appearances in the Bible and the Koran.

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A giraffe in the Biblical Zoo gazes out at the hillside view.

Unlikely Friendships

Almost half of the zoo employees are Palestinian, and the facility actively solicits groups of religious Arab and Haredi Jewish schoolchildren, many of whom receive little science education and rarely interact with animals in the city. By offering discounted entry fees on the condition that the visiting school groups take free guides to animal conservation for later study, the zoo attracted 40,000 Palestinian and Haredi Jewish children last year.

Relations between the zoo's Palestinian and Jewish staff reinforce its reputation as an island of sanity in a complicated reality.

Unlikely friendships have been struck—like that of Mahmoud, a Palestinian who started off as a zoo maintenance employee, and Haim, an Orthodox Jew whose family lives in West Bank settlements—and many Palestinians have come to occupy senior leadership positions.

"We're not just friends; we're all like family," said Mahmoud, who, in a rather telling reflection of the uncertain situation beyond the zoo's walls, asked that his surname not be printed.

"In the zoo, things are very different," echoed Amar Abbadit, who is from East Jerusalem and, along with his daily duties as an elephant keeper, has been charged with supervising an upgrade of the struggling Qalqilyah Zoo in the West Bank. Its ongoing renovation has been funded largely by Israeli donations and spearheaded by the Biblical Zoo as an alternative for Palestinians unable to cross through checkpoints to visit Jerusalem.

As befits the Biblical Zoo's tricky status as an Israeli institution in an often hostile Middle East, Palestinian and Jewish staff alike must grapple with a unique series of concerns.

A griffon vulture raised at the zoo swiftly flew east after its release, and on landing was caught by Saudi Arabian villagers wary of its tag's Hebrew markings. An intervention by a third party secured the bird's release after three days. Closer to home, a zoo sand cat set free in the desert south of Jerusalem strayed over the border into nearby Jordan and died, but its handlers were unable to recover it because they have not been able to develop ties with their regional wildlife counterparts.

Conflict Hits Home

The zoo's awareness of Muslim and Jewish religious considerations extends well beyond peccaries.

Its secular administrators, who were forced some time ago to excise mentions of Darwinism in the zoo's exhibits, reworked a sign at its Australian exhibit after visitors kept defacing its description of the continent's separation from Asia many millions of years ago.

Doron is sanguine about such concessions.

"Why present something that is thought offensive? It's much more important to address the illegal animal trade, bushmeat crisis, destruction of habitats, and conservation. These are much more important issues than going into conflict in Jerusalem," he said.

But after more than 20 years of nearly hassle-free coexistence since the zoo was reopened in 1993, the wider conflict in the Middle East is beginning to hit home at the zoo.

The murders of three Israeli teenagers just south of Jerusalem in early June, followed by the revenge killing of a Palestinian boy a few weeks later; the war in Gaza; and the presence of large groups of traumatized kids from southern Israel who come to the zoo daily as respite from Hamas rockets have deterred most Arab visitors.

Staff members have suffered by extension.

Abbadit is sometimes berated when Israeli visitors see his name. "They say, 'You shut your mouth and don't talk again,'" he said. Among the Palestinians of the West Bank, who are divided by the Israeli security fence from their peers in East Jerusalem, there appears to be an even clearer consensus that Arabs and Jews ought not to work together. "If they're together at supermarkets, cinemas, the zoo, it just helps the [Israeli] occupation [of the West Bank]," said a taxi driver outside the checkpoint crossing near Bethlehem.

Attitudes among both communities are hardening to an extent not seen during the first and second intifadas, when Palestinians in the late 1980s and then in the early 2000s engaged the Israeli military in a brutal series of uprisings. Even so, Doron is keen to champion the zoo's successes as a model for intercommunal cooperation.

"In the end, we're not really an island here. We're not isolated. We're part of the community. But if there's hope for the city of Jerusalem, they should follow the zoo," he said.