When I was a child, I remember learning about Israel – about kibbutzim, about the religious history of course (at Christmas and Easter), and about Israel being, apparently, the “promised land,” the “land of milk and honey.” Later, during fifth form history, I studied the Israel/Palestinian question, and then again from a slightly different perspective at university. It is therefore a place I’ve always felt I knew, but it wasn’t till I was in my late 30s and 40s that I really personally got to know anyone who was in fact Jewish or Muslim, and who actively practiced their religion. This isolation, and perhaps our sheer distance from this most troubled of areas, kept me (and most New Zealanders) somewhat ignorant of the situation Israelis and Palestinians find themselves in daily, and I believe/hope I have therefore been able to see both points of view, albeit from afar. Inevitably I have views. I was interested to see how these might change, or be solidified, in a visit here.
We arrived late one night, to the friendliest immigration officer I think at have encountered anywhere except the Philippines (immediately after a change of government). “It’s my Kiwi day!” he declared happily. “More kiwis today than Australians.” We both agreed that could only be a good thing. And, showing once again how beneficial a NZ passport is, he waved us through.
OK, so that was a good start. Having checked in, and had a good night’s sleep, the next morning we decided to immerse ourselves in Jerusalem’s religious history, and set off down the street towards the old city. First impressions, in this old part of Jerusalem (just outside the walls of the Old City itself), were of an open, bustling, charming place, full of locals and tourists, all relaxed and happy. Cafes, and in particular, bakeries abounded. And it was a good ten or more degrees cooler than Dubai, which made us very happy.
What we had noticed already, and what became only more obvious over the next few days, is how obvious, how in-your-face religion is here. It is even more noticeable coming from New Zealand, where religion is one of the three topics to be avoided in conversation, where religion plays little part in the daily lives of the majority, and where religion forms no part of our political landscape. Yet religion pervades everything here, even to the toppings on pizza, or ingredients in your sandwich. Or, on a Friday night or Saturday lunch, whether it is even possible to buy lunch, or get a taxi. Our taxi driver, who was clearly one of the only casually religious, pointed out to us the conservative, Orthodox areas, filled with women who cover their hair and dress very conservatively, and the men in the black suits, black hats with large rims, and the ringlets in front of each ear. He referred to a “crazy” Orthodox area that has, on the Sabbath, regularly stoned cars driving past on the motorway to Tel Aviv, angry that others are driving cars when they believe it should be prohibited. And even in our hotel, on the Sabbath (or Shabat), one of the two elevators was designated a Shabat elevator, which means that it is programmed to stop at every floor, so the religious don’t have to “operate” technology/machinery by pushing a button for a selected floor.
In Jerusalem, it can be very easy to look at someone, and know their religion. Many men wear the skull caps or Kippah (yarmulke), the more orthodox Jewish women and most if not all Muslim women cover their hair, but use different scarves and techniques. And if someone is carrying a gun, then it is pretty sure they are Jewish. Then of course the other category is the tourist, and we are identifiable by our sweat, our hats and cameras, and sensible shoes.
The Old City is walled, and – except for Saturday morning – thronged with tourists from all countries and religions. They come here to the Western Wall, or to the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque. There are restrictions though. Perhaps our timing was poor, but we were unable to get near the Dome of the Rock, arriving too close to prayer time, and turned away by the soldiers arming the gates. Beneath the mosque is the Western Wall, where Muslim visitors are able to walk past but behind a barrier, unable to get too close. The tension of this area was illustrated the day after we visited, when a security guard shot dead a Jewish man who apparently shouted “Allahu Akbar” in the Wall compound.
Then there are the Christian tourists, pouring into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, an 11th century church commemorating the site of both the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (though this is debated even among Christians). The faithful kneel at the Stone of Unction (or Stone of Anointing), touching the stone for blessings. Wikipedia tells me though that the belief that the stone was where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial is a recent one (dating only after the first Crusades), and that the stone itself is only two hundred years old. Throughout this city though, belief (no matter what your religion, no matter how humbling the displays of faith) trumps fact.
What surprised me was how truly small the Old City of Jerusalem actually is. Visiting and walking through the city, with Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists alike, it becomes patently obvious that the city needs to be shared. And the intransigence displayed by the different sides of the conflict merely sets them all up for difficulty, if not disaster. And the tragedy unfolds …
As we drove through the West Bank to the Dead Sea, the wall erected by the Israelis is clearly visible. Tall, concrete, and foreboding – it brought to mind the walls and ghettos of World War II. And that’s the irony and tragedy of Israel.
* I have to credit the Jewish Kiwi Australian we met who described Jerusalem this way.