Archive | Palestine Israel visit Feb 2012


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Posted on 03 April 2012 by admin


Jerusalem is a single-industry town. Religion (and therefore politics) suffuses the city and its life. One makes some sort of statement as soon as one says Shalom/ Salaam/ Hello to someone, and from reading a shop sign one can tell more or less where someone stands. The only exception seems to be for sellers of souvenir T-shirts, an ideologically relaxed breed in most places but here capable of selling hero-worshipping Che-style pictures of Yasser Arafat alongside T-shirts depicting machine guns and pro-Israel slogans like ‘IDF- UZI DOES IT!’ and ‘GUNS AND MOSES’.

The souvenir trade here seems to be capable of accommodating the extreme and inconsistent, but not to deal much with the middle ground. The outline map of the area that the world recognises – an Israel vaguely shaped like an old-fashioned telephone, the West Bank between the speaker and the receiver – is a less common one than a map of Israel claiming the entire West Bank, or of the entire area painted in Palestinian colours with old cities like Jaffa present but Tel Aviv not on the map. I am not attracted to the ideological/ demographic implications of either picture, but I guess one should not seek sophisticated political analysis on T-shirts or wooden ornaments. The most attractive T-shirt banality available was Shalom/ Salaam/ Peace in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

There is a known psychiatric disorder called ‘Jerusalem syndrome’. The concentration of so many religious buildings and people, and the sense of closeness to the sublime, can trigger weird symptoms in some visitors – delusions that they are the Messiah being the most noted. It is usually temporary. It is an extreme form of a feeling that most visitors with any empathy will have. Jews are at their most Jewish here, Muslims their most Muslim, and Christians their most Christian (in a perhaps rather mystical vein of Christianity). Even so secularised, agnostic and liberal a Church of England Christian as myself feels a bit of a tug. To walk the streets where Jesus trod, to trace the Stations of the Cross, does have its emotional effect. To pray at the place that Christ was crucified (and you do pray there, even if you haven’t done so properly for years)… one does feel connected somehow.

It is not just the history and theology that makes one identify that bit more with one’s religion in Jerusalem. The very architecture of the Old City encourages a tendency to pick a team, as it is divided into the Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian Quarters, and in talking to people it is easier to smooth over the niceties of one’s belief set and accept an identity as a Christian. This was less unusual in past centuries in eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire, where religious communities had their own self-governing arrangements for civil law and were arranged into ‘Quarters’ and ghettoes – often Muslim, Orthodox, Armenian and Jewish. The fate of the latter in Europe, of course, has its importance in the broader picture of Israel and Palestine.

Jerusalem life could be made completely impossible for everyone if one tried, and even in Jerusalem nobody quite has the bloody-mindedness to try, so people are left to get on with their worship even if their beliefs completely contradict each other. The fabric of tolerance in Jerusalem frequently wears thin. Make no mistake, ‘tolerance’ does not imply approval (a common error made by visitors about the inhabitants of Amsterdam, for instance).Tolerance and strange extra-territorial arrangements have a long history in Jerusalem, hence the peculiar European war that we call ‘Crimea’ which started ostensibly over the guardianship of the Christian holy places. Ironically, the feuding Christian denominations entrust the key of the holiest site in Christendom, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with local Muslims rather than with any of their rivals. The custodianship of the Temple Mount (Haram ash-Sharif) is also, more predictably, in Muslim hands. Muslims can walk up to the focal point of the religious emotion that swirls around the place, while everyone else goes through an Israeli police security checkpoint. The catch is that unless you are an East Jerusalemite or an Israeli citizen, as a Muslim you will find it difficult to get to Jerusalem at all.

Each of the three religions’ core sites has its own particular atmosphere. The Temple Mount has an austere, geometric beauty, softened by the small formal gardens each side of the Dome of the Rock. My Muslim friends who prayed there and at Al-Aqsa found the experience profoundly moving, but the inner beauty is physically inaccessible to non-Muslims.

The Western Wall, a minimal distance (one must resist the temptation to say ‘a stone’s throw’ in these parts) from Al-Aqsa, is to religious Jews the place where the divine is most manifest on Earth, and the devotion of the faithful is at once public and utterly private and inward.

The Christian church of the Holy Sepulchre lacks any of the unity of the Dome of the Rock; reflecting the many Christian denominations who look to it, it is a melange of Byzantine, Crusader and more modern styles. It is a rambling, confusing building, perhaps a metaphor for the pluralities and contradictions of Christianity. It is the centre, but still point it is not.

The Old City is a honeycomb of a place. Streets and alleyways weave up, down and around, making it ideal for wandering around in and making one’s own discoveries. Everywhere there is something old, strange, beautiful or quirky, from ‘Mr Moustache’s Very Good Food Stand’ near Herod’s Gate, where I acquired a fresh, warm falafel (a love of falafel unites Israelis and Palestinians) to an exquisite display of spices in a Palestinian trader’s shop in the markets.

You really cannot tell where somewhere that looks like a doorway off an alley may lead – it might be another even smaller alley, or stairs up or down, or a small synagogue, a family house, an arched cellar… I looked in one such archway this morning, to see two men, one of them clutching a handgun, calmly discussing something. The number of live cats roaming the Old City suggests that curiosity can be held in check, and it duly was in my case on this occasion. Climb some anonymous-looking metal stairs, and you may find yourself on the roof, looking across the Jerusalem skyline on one side, and on the other peeking down to a main street in a Levantine market over oblivious tour groups, trinket-sellers and money changers.

NEXT: Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1)

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Posted on 03 April 2012 by admin

Immigration officers the world over have a reputation for humourlessness and prickliness and grumpiness, but Israeli border control is often regarded as distilling these qualities to the ultimate degree. My own experience, however, was reasonably straightforward. The only slight glitch was the presence of a Malaysian entry stamp in my passport, about which the Israeli officer questioned me a bit. I completely understand his point of view; Malaysia does not admit Israeli nationals at all and there is a distressing vein of anti-Semitism that is officially permitted and encouraged in Malaysia, so giving a mild grilling to someone who comes and goes freely to hostile territory is hardly unfair. I was awarded an Israeli entry stamp of exceptional clarity in its printing, leaving all subsequent border control officers in no doubt that I’ve come here. My two colleagues on the trip, incidentally, were both Muslim; one was admitted even less problematically than me, but one was held for some sustained questioning.

Travelling in the ‘sherut’ (presumably from the same root as the ubiquitous ‘marshrutka’ in the former Soviet Union) shared minibus taxi from Ben Gurion airport to Jerusalem, despite the darkness, did have its illuminating moments. The landscape of most of Israel and Palestine is a broken one, with rocky hills and steep valleys and this was visible along the main road; while a hospitable place compared to the desert, there is still a harshness to the territory. Israeli modernist architecture is an intriguing response to the land; its rippling, concrete buildings with large open-arched windows built along the hilltops somehow look at home here.

Inadvertently, a couple of fellow passengers provided a bit of insight into the conflict of idealism and pragmatism that is woven into life here. A young man, a convert to Judaism just arrived from Canada and full of religious enthusiasm, was hoping to study at a yeshiva and become an Israeli. He was sat next to another young man, a native-born Israeli, and talked so loudly that one could not help listen. The Canadian explained that he had not made any study arrangements in advance, his former rabbi was in Jerusalem but did not know he was coming, and he had not even made any sleeping arrangements for his first night. The Israeli said calmly but rather bluntly, “You should have come better prepared.” The Canadian was also puzzled by a stop on the way from the airport to Jerusalem. “Where is this place?” he asked the Israeli. “Abu Ghosh. It’s an Arab village.” And yes, it was a modest-looking, tidy place nestling in a valley, and the illuminated minaret of its mosque was the most visible building in the night – well, that and a large number of restaurants with outside signs. The Canadian was obviously puzzled, so the Israeli added, “People often come here from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to go out to eat. A lot of people don’t keep Shabbat or always eat kosher.” The Canadian’s bafflement and disappointment were almost audible, and the conversation drifted to an end. The kindly taxi driver, an older man who spoke with a central European accent, went out of his way figuratively and literally to find a safe place for the Canadian ingenue to stay. There are many kind and hospitable people, and many hustlers and extremists, here. I hope he falls in with the former group; it would be tragic if his faith and innocence were corrupted to ill ends.

The other illumination is one that can be learned by looking at the map, but it does take a visit here to really feel it. The Holy Land is tiny. As my guidebook puts it, Israel is the size of the US state of New Jersey and the West Bank is considerably smaller than that. So much has happened, historically, religiously and in contemporary politics, that the map expands in one’s mind. In strict physical geographical terms, Jerusalem to Ramallah is about as far as Southampton to Winchester.

The end of our journey, for today, was the Azzahra Hotel in East Jerusalem. In coming here we were crossing a line, the old boundary between East and West Jerusalem that from 1949 to 1967 was nearly impenetrable but is now nearly invisible. The old Mandelbaum Gate site is a fairly anonymous spot on a wide road, less prominent than any of Berlin’s old checkpoints. East Jerusalem has a concentration of hotels, from the lavish American Colony to more modest accommodation like the Azzahra, just north of the Herod Gate to the Old City. Despite the lateness of the hour, there was a genuine warmth to our greeting at the hotel. Like many people in conflict-ridden areas (Bosnia and Serbia come to mind in my fairly recent travels, as do the sharply segregated suburbs and city of Detroit), people here seem to treat visitors and new arrivals with a kindness and gentleness that contrasts with the hatred or more often blank indifference with which they treat their neighbours.

NEXT: Introduction to Jerusalem

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