My wife and I were in Jerusalem for a week in March. Below are some thoughts on the city, its religious heritage, and the current conflict. Please forgive the longwinded travelogue format — this is based on some thoughts I sent to family and friends after the trip.
It is called the Holy Land for a reason â€“ religion is inescapable. Even when you’re not in the Old City (where most of the holy sites are), you can’t escape religion — the Dome of the Rock and church spires dominate the skyline, you see orthodox Jews in their distinctive clothing, and you hear the Muslim call to prayer over the loudspeakers several times a day. In a place where the absolute and transcendent are so ingrained in the land and the daily rhythms of life, it’s not a surprise that people feel so deeply about their conflicting identities.
In many ways it verified for me, in very tangible ways, that extremism is in fact the religious norm, given religion’s claim on the ultimate, and that it is moderation that we have to explain and work toward. (Here I am borrowing from the argument in Charles Liebman, â€œExtremism as a Religious Norm,â€? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 22 (1983): 75-86.) Of course, religion can also work for peace and justice, not just violence and exclusionâ€”Martin Luther King was proud to call himself an extremist in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and used the same term to describe Jesus and Paul. But it takes considerable courage, creativity, and strength to work for peace â€“ it is much easier to channel oneâ€™s absolutism into a desire for domination, especially in a historically conflictive locale.
The reason we went was for a conference called “Whence the Heavenly Jerusalem? The Politics of Sacred Space and the Pursuit of Peace.” It was about as interesting as academic conferences get, largely because it wasn’t all academics. There were several panelists and presenters from the area, representing secular and religious Jews (including two Jewish settler women), Muslims, and Palestinian Christians. I’ve never been in an academic setting where two women got into a sustained shouting match, in this case over the use of the word “holocaust,” but it was revealing as to the depth of feeling over history and words, and how those things have real meaning in people’s lives and worldviews. My paper, on Mormonism’s presence in the Holy Land, was well received but ultimately unimportant in the larger scheme of things — the LDS presence simply isn’t very significant over there, and I said as much. (It’s not often that I give conference presentations in which a major part of my argument is that my topic isn’t all that important, but I felt it would trivialize the real parties in the contest if I were to pretend that Mormons had some deep stake in the matter.)
Besides the conference, we had about four days to explore, which we took full advantage of. Obviously we couldn’t see everything, but we got a very good sense of the Old City, seeing all the major sites and many of the other less famous sites that we had identified as interesting. The Western Wall (actually the retaining wall of the temple, not the actual wall), Judaism’s most holy place, is really quite remarkable. We visited twice, and I had a deep spiritual feeling about it the second time — particularly as I sensed how meaningful it was to all the people around me who were praying. I said a prayer for peace as I stood at the wall; I was jarred when I turned around and saw a young man praying just a few feet away with an automatic rifle slung on his shoulder (probably a soldier on break).
I also loved the Haram al-Sharieff (sp?), or the Temple Mount. Non-Muslims aren’t allowed in the Dome of the Rock or the Al-Aqsa Mosque, but it was impressive just to be up on the mount where so much sacred history has occurred — from Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac/Ishmael to Solomon’s temple to Herod’s temple (where Jesus taught) to the current Dome (the third holiest site for Islam). It’s too bad the conflict keeps us out of some of Islam’s holy places, as I would have liked to have visited, less as a tourist and more as a fellow
Also intriguing, although simultaneously disappointing, was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the holiest site for Catholic and Orthodox Christians (most Protestants believe the crucifixion and tomb are at the Garden Tomb, which is outside the city walls and more pleasing to modern Western sensibilities). I was moved by the faith of the Lenten pilgrims, for whom this was clearly an incredibly momentous occasion, but it was so crowded, and several people acted quite rudely and un-Christian, that it was hard for me to get a sense of the holiness of the place. There was a nice moment, however, when a beam of sunlight from a skylight above shone down on Christ’s tomb. Most disappointing is that the church is in relative disrepair because the six churches that own it hate each other so much that they can’t come up with a plan to renovate and restore the church; they each have their own little fiefdoms within the church and are quite territorial — the tomb has had scaffolding on it since the 1920s because they can’t agree on a plan for how to restore it. Conflict is often the
most bitter between close brothers, not among distant cousins.
Walking along and then down the side of the Mount of Olives was a wonderful experience, particularly as I thought about how much Jesus loved to visit the Mount to pray and teach his disciples. When we went in the grotto at Gethsemane where some believe He performed the Atonement, there was a group of Asian Christians singing “Nearer My God to Thee” (in their native tongue), which was simple and touching. Seeing believers from around the world gave me more of a sense of the global reach of Christianity than anything I’ve ever experienced.
The most educational part of the trip was our trip to Hebron, which is a Palestinian city in the West Bank, but which was the first site of Jewish settlements after the 1967 war and which is now occupied by Israeli troops (approx. 1800 troops to protect 500-600 settlers). We went to see the Tomb of the Patriarchs (which houses Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Rebekah, and Jacob & Leah), which itself is a sad testimony to the division of the place â€“ since a massacre of praying Muslims by a Jewish doctor several years ago, it has been separated into Jewish and Muslim sides, so Jews cannot enter the Muslim side and vice versa (Christians can go in either side). This complicated things for our group, since we had Christians, Jews, and Muslims, but the Jews agreed to not admit they were Jewish (which was a poor compromise but perhaps our only option), and we went in the Muslim side.
On our way back to the bus from the tomb, we were walking through some very dilapidated neighborhoods. Palestinian communities are typically poor, but these were even worse. Even stranger was that there was a fence above our heads with all kinds of garbage and debris on it. My first impression was that it was a dirty ghetto, but then our guide explained that we were walking under one of the areas of Jewish settlement, and the Palestinians put up the fence above the walkway because the settlers constantly throw trash, baby diapers, rotten food, etc. on people walking below. In addition, the Israeli soldiers block off any of the roads near the settlements and patrol heavily, so Palestinians have basically abandoned those areas, which means people losing their homes and businesses with no compensation.
It was at this point that we walked past a guard tower, on the corner of the settlers’ school, and were stopped by the squad of teenage soldiers stationed there. There was no reason for them to stop us, other than boredom on their part, and even less reason to detain us for over an hour — we were clearly an international group, mostly Americans, walking back to our tour bus. But we were forced to stop and stand in the sun — if we were Palestinians it would have been with our faces against the wall — and they even slipped a microphone out the window to listen to our riveting conversation. Although the situation was less than ideal, it gave us a chance to meet several Palestinian boys, teenagers and younger, who flocked around us. Some of them tried to act tough, but one boy in particular was eager to engage us in conversation. He told us he didnâ€™t smoke (as opposed to one of the â€œtoughsâ€? who was puffing away), clearly trying to communicate that he was a good kid. When the guards finally let us go, he smiled and said, â€œI love you.â€? In the midst of terribly dehumanizing circumstances, it was one of the most deeply human moments of my life.
The experience in Hebron gave me the smallest flavor of the degrading nature of the Israeli occupation–there really is no other word–and the deep damage that they are doing to Palestinian communities. The only parallels I could draw were to the Jim Crow South and to South Africa under apartheid. This is not a holocaust, as some Palestinians in their anger are wont to say, but it does feature many of the worst forms of colonialism, imperialism, occupation, exploitation, racism, and the ugliness of brute power.
I am sympathetic to the Israeli desire (and need) for security, but they are mortgaging their long-term security and even their humanity for short-term solutions that are in fact only exacerbating Palestinian disappointment, frustration, resentment, and ultimately rage and hatred. It doesnâ€™t help that the Palestinians spend so much time fighting each other that they canâ€™t provide a unified voice against Israeli abuses, or to stop terror from within their communities. The policy of the US and Israel to undermine confidence in the new Hamas government is working brilliantly, although Iâ€™m not sure that a plan leading to brilliant failure of a democratically elected government and then a brilliant escalation in violence is all that brilliant.