Reflective impressions of Jerusalem

Posted on 16 April 2011

I am pretty lucky as my job frequently brings me to diverse places of the world. This time, I just come back from Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) composed of the West Bank and of Gaza where I spent the last three weeks. Although I was based for most of my stay in the recluse/closed down Gaza strip (indeed inaccessible to most), I nevertheless also had the chance to stay few days in Jerusalem. This post then relates my impressions of Israel, while I’ll write two other posts about the West Bank and Gaza.

I’ve been wanting to visit Jerusalem for a looooong time, and indeed, my expectations were met. Its central place in the world’s history is obvious to anyone looking at it, and it remains today one of the most important places for half of the world’s population, namely the Jews, Christians and Muslims.

First, of all, I was absolutely struck by the beauty of the Old City. It is pretty small – it takes no more than an hour to walk all around it following its fortified walls – and is being invaded by hordes of tourists, but I was nevertheless surprised by the fact that there are no visible tensions between the different communities populating the place. The Old City is indeed divided in four ‘quarters’ – the Jewish, Armenian, Christian and Muslim – and given the recurrent violence that occurs in the region between tenants of these faiths, I would have not been surprised if the air had been more tense. Having said that, I immediately qualify this by recalling that despite my positive experience on this regard, the place is heavily patrolled by Israeli uniformed and civilian forces, and tensions do occur on a regular basis. And while people can walk all around the Old City, it is interesting that it’s only when entering the Jewish quarter that one has to go through metal detectors and put the bags in an x-ray machine. That said, I’ve noticed a number of t-shirts being sold in the Jewish Quarter that are of particular bad taste, if not purely provocative… Judge by yourself with the following picture…

The Old City is packed with places – big and small – to contemplate, visit or feel and you could spend months discovering its (sometimes hidden) treasures. For instance, the Wailing Wall is a surviving remnant of the Temple Mount and is a sacred wall for the Jews; the Via Dolorosa, the “way of sorrows”, which traditionally traces the last steps of Christ from where he was tried to Calvary, where he was crucified, and the tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcre where he is said to have been buried (but there is no historical basis to these…); or the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock which together make the third holiest site for Muslims.

 

But altogether, what struck me most was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is a large building spanning several areas in which Christ is believed to have been crucified and died, buried, and then rose from the dead.

What I find particularly interesting is that the church is not one church in the sense of a building with an altar and podium near the front, but rather a warehouse of churches for each denomination present, each having several altars and chapels. As such, the place is of great diversity. It is shared between Eastern Orthodox Christians, Oriental Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, the Armenian, Ethiopian, Syriac and Coptic churches. Due to this diversity, and this is perhaps what I find the most ironic, an arrangement (known as the Status Quo) was established in 1853 in order to reconcile all of these competing Christian traditions, by strictly regulating times and places of worship for each community in the common areas. I mean, they are serious about it… For instance you can see a wooden ladder left on a window ledge over the church’s entrance which someone placed there sometime before 1852, when the status quo defined both the doors and the window ledges as common ground. As such, this ladder remains there to this day in the same position which you can see here on the picture…

 

Yet, the status quo did not halt the violence, which continues to break out every so often even in modern times. For example, on a hot summer day in 2002, a Coptic monk moved his chair from its agreed spot into the shade. This was interpreted as a hostile move by the Ethiopians, and eleven were hospitalized after the resulting clash. In another incident in 2004 during Orthodox celebrations, a door to the Franciscan chapel was left open. This was taken as a sign of disrespect by the Orthodox and a fistfight broke out. Now, one understands why – for centuries now – the custodians of the key of the church are actually not Christians but Muslims. Indeed, in 1192, Saladin assigned responsibility for it to two neighboring Muslim families. Until now, twice each day, a Joudeh family member brings the key to the door, which is locked and unlocked by a Nusseibeh.

As I read elsewhere, “you do not need to be Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, or even be overly concerned with religion, to be overwhelmed. Anyone with a sense of history, spirituality or the human species should be absorbed by the tremendous weight of human civilization that cloaks nearly every part of the city. It is an inhabited, living city – not a deserted museum or monument. Humanity’s passion play has been constant revival at this location for most of the length of recorded history.”

This remains true until today. Indeed, while walking in the Old City, I several times heard fighter jets flying above. Nobody seemed to care about it, yet one has to realise that for a good part, they had just dropped bombs in the Gaza strip, located only few dozens of kilometres away… Business as usual…

Illegally annexed in June 1967, Jerusalem is Israel’s largest city. Today, the Separation Wall completely severs the Arab East from the surrounding area, severely impacting its residents’ economy, culture, political viability, and future. As you may know, Jerusalem itself is divided between Jerusalem East and Jerusalem West, considered by Israelis as the capital of their country (a claim generally not recognised by the international community whose embassies are rather located in Tel-Aviv). Arab Palestinians hope that when (and if) Palestine officially becomes a state (it is until now, occupied and largely administered by Israel), Jerusalem East becomes the capital of their new state. This however will be a hard thing to do in practice as the territory is being increasingly fragmented by Jewish settlements. The following map of the Israeli expansion should give you a better idea of the extent of the problem…

I’ve spoke to a number of Palestinians and asked them what made them Palestinian. From a ‘nation’ perspective, the answer is pretty obvious: they are Palestinians because of a shared history, culture, language and traditions. But from a legal perspective, it seemed to me that every Palestinian I met had a different legal status. Indeed their Palestinian passport is not seen as conferring them citizenship, since it is not issued by a government and their status is generally linked to their place of birth and/or living during a given period in time. Those living in Jerusalem East for instance don’t have the same rights and obligations than those living in West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Egypt or Jordan. This has a direct impact on their ability to move and travel in the region, but also in Jerusalem itself. For example, while (East) Jerusalemites can drive to the West Bank (located only few kilometres away), inhabitants from the West Bank have utmost difficulties to drive to Jerusalem. Gazans on their side, are essentially stuck in their tiny 40×10 km strip. After the 1967 Six Day War, East Jerusalem residents became permanent Israeli residents, affording them the right to live and work in Israel without special permits. However I’ve been told by several Palestinians that residents endure repeated investigations and inquiries to keep proving their legitimacy and apparently Israel commonly denies it. In addition applications can take months or years to be considered, making them time consuming and expensive.

Also, I was surprised by how Jerusalem East looks dirtier than Jerusalem West. I’ve been told several times that the garbage of the (Palestinian) East Jerusalemites – despite their payment of a local tax to the (Israeli) municipality – are collected irregularly, as opposed to daily in Jerusalem West, and that the (Israeli) municipality does not invest the same resources in maintaining the sewage networks. This is apparently not only an urban myth, and I find it indicative of a certain frustration that so many people expressed to me. As a recent United Nations report puts it, “in the years since 1967, Israel has undertaken measures – in particular land confiscation, settlement building and construction of the Barrier – which serve to alter the status of East Jerusalem, contrary to international law. Government and municipal policies have also negatively impacted the estimated 270,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem.” In few words, quality of life in different neighborhoods varies dramatically, but it is safe to say that Jerusalem’s Jews enjoy a far greater range of rights and benefits than Jerusalem’s Arabs.

Eventually, it seems to me that the current situation in Israel and ‘Palestine’ is unsustainable – continuing the practice of giving Israel’s Jews privileged access to basic services like health and security at the expense of Israel’s Arabs and of Palestinians will only deepen social and economic divisions between these peoples. I understand Israel’s need for security, but by keeping outsiders in indignity and hardship, it seems to me that its approach to security precisely sows seeds for future frustrations and violence.

The Gaza strip is often said to be “an open air prison” (which, as I’ll explain in a following post, certainly feels like it for its inhabitants) but my stay in the region, even if short, made me realise that Israel, with its militarised society and never-ending obsession about security, has also closed itself in a fortified compound and suffers from a largely self-inflicted besieged mentality. Yet one should not forget the wise words of the Talmud (which is the comprehensive written version of the Jewish oral law and the subsequent commentaries on it): “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are”…


 


3 responses to Reflective impressions of Jerusalem

  • Rompstomp says:

    Read your post on your visit to Gaza and Jerusalem. I went to Jerusalem, Sept 10 to 12 in 2001. We wanted to go to Gaza but with 9/11 occurring at this time, a Palestinian we were buying a juicer from strongly advised it would not be wise given the palpable tension.

    Yes, it is a mind fuck of a place to visit. It is amazing how quickly you become used to people carrying weapons and the feel of living in a city under siege.

    But for me, the situation didn’t sink in until about a year later travelling through India around Manali where a lot of Israelis go after they finish their military service. We had some very interesting conversations with them about Palestine and they were not too kind. One memorable situation occurred when we went to the Indian/Pakistan border at Wagah to watch the border closing ceremony. We teamed up with a Swiss guy and an Israeli girl who were travelling together. As we were walking towards to border we had to cross lots of razor wire fences and security check points. My friend turned to the Israeli girl and commented to her, “does this remind you of somewhere?” Of course I immediately thought of Israel with all of it’s security and that was the intent of my friend’s comment, but did the Israeli girl see it that way? No, she thought it was a comment about the concentration camps of World War II and was understandably but not justifiably offended. She was only about 20 years old and I found it quite amazing that she could make such quick connection to an event from 60 years ago but be blind to the current situation she lives in. Well I don’t want to comment on something that I am not qualified to talk about but this documentary (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1377278/) is made by someone who can challenge the status quo. For me, this explained why that girl reacted the way she did and indeed gives an insight into a problem Israeli Jews have to deal with before the Palestinian problem can be addressed in any permanent way.

    [Reply]

    Making Sense of Things Reply:

    Thanks a lot for your comment, it’s a fascinating one!!! I guess your little story summarises very well some of the things I picked up while there.
    Regarding the documentary you mention, I had seen it, and I agree with you, it’s an excellent one

    [Reply]

  • I visited many sites except the audio quality for audio songs present at this web site is in fact fabulous.

    [Reply]

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