Where to begin a post about Jerusalem? Let’s start with a wall. This wall.
It’s maybe the world’s most famous. To those of Jewish faith, the Western Wall formed part of the sacred Second Temple that the Romans destroyed. An end-of-days belief holds in its replacement by a Third.
For Muslims, it is part of al-Aqsa, where the Prophet Mohammed tied his steed before ascending to heaven.
It is structurally simple yet overwhelms with meaning; in the notes of prayer spilling from its crevices, in the faithful pressing foreheads against its smooth stone.
Here is where we’ll start.
Why begin with a Wall?
Because it’s paradigm for Jerusalem. For all of Israel and Palestine.
Walls are more than structures here. They mean. They determine who can, and can’t.
Take the Western Wall. It’s sacred, yet separates from the Temple Mount. Wherein lies the Holy of Holies. For those of Jewish faith, this is the most divine part of the Temple; the part where God’s presence appeared.
And Palestinians? What does a wall mean for them?
For many, it means they can’t come to Jerusalem. Despite it being their capital, their land, shared with Jewish and Christian communities until 1948.
That’s the year Israel declared itself a nation. And the year it captured the Western half of the city, defeating Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. Over 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from West Jerusalem as a result. In the city’s eastern half, occupying Jordanian forces kicked out Jewish residents and destroyed 58 synagogues
But nineteen years later, East Jerusalem became Israel’s too. (So did the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, and much of the West Bank). All were claimed by Israel as its military steamrolled Egypt, Jordan, and Syria’s in the Six Day (June) War.
For Israel, securing East Jerusalem meant more than territorial gain. It meant the “first chance to visit Judaism’s holiest sites after nearly two decades of Jordanian occupation.”
To Palestinians, it meant more loss. That of holy sites, yes, but also homes and liberties. A loss made palpable in barbed wire and concrete, and the ripple effects they create.
To learn this history, to see it, makes you wonder how people keep their faith here.
Then again, maybe it’s all that keeps this place afloat.
How did Jerusalem get here?
To cover that would take more than a blog post. (Especially one written by yours truly, whose religious education consists mostly of 8th grade Bible camp).
So I’ll just cover the basics. Scholars date civilization here back to 3,000 B.C., with the Canaanites. It then became an Egyptian vassal state before the Israelites (and then the Assyrians, and then the Babylonians) took it over.
Subsequent dynasties controlled Jerusalem until the 1st century A.D., when she came under Roman control and flourished. She then fell to the Byzantines, and then to conquering Arab armies; to the Holy Roman Empire, and then to the Ottomans.
According to one source, Jerusalem has been “destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times.”
You can actually see her layered history as you stroll through the Old City. Surrounded by sandy-colored walls of “Jerusalem Stone,” it’s the iconic square-mile area where we begin our free walking tour with Dror of Sandeman’s.
Entering via Jaffa Gate, and winding our way through Old City, we essentially walk what Turkish sultan Suleiman the Magnificent built in the 1500s.
But while strolling through Old City, we see beyond what Suleiman left. Roman columns stand as witnesses of far more ancient times, and line the stone-paved road below the one on which our tour group finds itself.
Dror tells us that these are excavations of Professor Nahman Avigad, who found remains here from the Byzantine and other eras. (This only started in the late 1960s, after Israel seized East Jerusalem).
Yet these ruins aren’t the main draw. Tourists and pilgrims are here for the holy: that written about, and built, in the honor of the God, disciples, saints, and prophets central to our world’s three biggest religions.
They are here to kiss and kneel. To worship at the Western Wall, or the Dome of the Rock, or at one of the churches, temples, or mosques within (or outside) the Old City.
They have come alone and in pairs. In families, and in entire congregations. From across Jerusalem and across the world.
It is humbling to witness. It also means constant crowds. Packed elbow-to-elbow, they choke Old City’s narrow corridors, each following a flag that their guide (sometimes, a fully-frocked priest) holds aloft.
They also move really slowly. And sometimes they stop, next to one of the shops hawking all religious paraphernalia imaginable. (I’m talking frankincense. Plastic menorahs. And actual Crowns of Thorns.)
One day, Greg and I dodge the groups and trek up the Mount of Olives. Geographically, it’s a small ridge in Jerusalem’s east, named for olive groves that once covered it.
Religiously, it’s where many Christians make pilgrimage to the spot where Jesus is believed to have ascended to heaven. (Most people, however, make that pilgrimage by bus. This meant our walk up was tourist-free.)
The mount is also the site of the Jerusalem’s oldest cemetery. The 3,000 year old Jewish site holds 150,000 graves, including those of several key religious scholars and rabbis.
At its most vibrant, the Mount is also where dozens of Muslim children run and play on the jungle gym beside their school, which we delightfully witnessed as we puffed up winding, pilgrim-free roads.
Indeed, a favorite part of our Mount visit was seeing lived Jerusalem. About 850,000 people call it home, including 40,000 who live within Old City.
It was in Old City that we saw boys running home from yeshiva, toting backpacks half their size while weaving around the crowds. We saw Muslim women shopping for spices and pairs of rabbis walking to temple, heads bowed in deep conversation. We saw priests reading in solitude under freshly-hung laundry. (And cats. So many cats).
Co-existence (seemingly) at its best.
To see this diversity, you may lose sight of divisions. Of walls.
But they’re ever-present here.
They flow freely into each other. Yet shops, signage and vibe often tell you which quarter you’re in at any given time. And they hint at Old City’s conflict-ridden history.
This began mainly in 1917, when Britain seized Jerusalem from the Ottomans. Drawn by Zionism (and rising anti-Semitism in Europe), thousands of Jewish settlers came to the city, in search of safe haven, biblical fulfillment, and fresh starts.
Before long, they clashed with Palestinians (including in the 1929 Riots, which started with prayer disputes at the Western Wall.) In 1948, Jewish residents were kicked out of Old City entirely, following the Arab-Israeli War. (Many Christians left too, under the new Jordanian restrictions.)
Not until Israel captured all of Jerusalem in 1967. Not until thousands of Palestinians were expelled and denied citizenship. Not until Jerusalem became Israel’s beating heart; a symbol of its strength and foundation.
Accordingly, many Jewish Israelis moved into Old City, building temples and yeshivas (some within the Muslim Quarter).
The Israel-held power balance is clear here. You’ll notice its reception, too, if you look closely at what’s for sale in the Muslim Quarter. One t-shirt we saw bore the slogan: Israeli Defense Force: My Job is So Secret, I Don’t Even Know What I Do.
Another shows a Google search bar containing the word Israel. The adjacent query reads, Did you mean “Palestine?”
Modern conflict here isn’t just commercial. Nor is it confined to two groups.
Take the Church Of The Holy Sepulchre. One of Jerusalem’s shared holy sites (among six Christian denominations, no less), it is governed by a “status quo” agreement.
This means that, each dawn, the church’s Muslim custodians hand the keys off to the day’s pre-designated worshippers. Despite the system’s general success, fistfights still break out on occasion. Between priests and monks.
Sheesh. At least things seem peaceful in Old City. For now.
What about outside Old City’s walls? What of “New” Jerusalem?
Diversity and division persists here too. (More on that in a minute).
And while modern buildings and wide boulevards shape the landscape, so do intimate neighborhoods, with their tiny, winding alleys, fragrant gardens and old yet tidy apartment buildings.
One such neighborhood is Nachlaot. Begun in the 1870s by residents eager to escape Old City’s crowds, it’s one of the earliest areas built beyond the walls.
We stayed here. And enjoyed strolling down its many alleyways, full of ceramics, jewelry, and kitsch shops. Oh, and taking falafel breaks.
It’s truly divine. And totally overwhelming. Over 250 vendors selling produce, fish, meats, spices, sweets, and wine, intermixed with trendy brewpubs and tapas joints crowded with equal part tourists and locals.
(By the way, the market shuts down on Friday around 2 pm. Just like all of Jerusalem. That’s when Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest, begins. While we didn’t light candles or recite any blessings, we did take part in one Shabbos rite: cooking delicious meals.)
From hectic market shopping to near silence on Shabbos, the juxtapositions in “new” Jerusalem astonish. So do its contrasts. Crumbling apartments give way to palatial new buildings as you make your way from Nachelot to the German Colony neighborhood.
Perhaps the city’s poshest, it was built in the latter half of the 1800s by the German Temple Society, which urged members to settle Jerusalem in preparation for the Messiah. That settlement now boasts bourgeoisie cafes and shops.
Strolling through Mea She’arim is a totally different experience. While modern for its time (apparently, it was the first part of Jerusalem to have streetlights), its edifices are mostly shabby, and its streets lack the hustle of most Jerusalem thoroughfares.
What’s most glaring, though, is its insularity. Mea She’arim’s population is Hasidi and Heredi (Orthodox), who strictly follow Jewish law and prayer. Dress for men is black coats and hats; for women, long-sleeve shirts and skirts (and a head covering if you’re married).
Don’t have the wardrobe? Part of a tour group? You’re not welcome. Just read the signs.
Needless to say, we didn’t spend much time here.
Where we did spend time was on the slopes of Mount Herzl, at Yad Vashem.
It is Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust victims, containing within its complex a history museum, synagogue, library, publishing house, memorial sites, rotating exhibitions, and more.
I’ve never seen a memorial as curated and extensive. To see it properly would take days, but a few hours allows for a visit to the history museum. Here, you follow a chronological narrative that begins with early anti-Semitism, with examples from the 14th through the early 20th century and WWI.
Then come the Nazis, and the swift transition from racism to outright damnation. Witness the Nuremberg Laws, and Kristallnacht, in black and white photos of ruined Jewish homes, businesses, and lives. And then see the ghettos and work camps, pointing you toward their devastating conclusion. Dachau, Buchenwald, Mauthausen. Auschwitz.
You’ll never get a more comprehensive look at the Holocaust than you will here. At its horror and mundanity. At its terror and death. But also, at the resistance to it. In the Minsk Ghetto, and Warsaw. In the thousands of Aktions of Jewish people and their allies.
You’ll also learn of the aftermath. Europe didn’t welcome Holocaust survivors with open arms. Anti-Semitism, compounded by traumas of war and loss, followed survivors.
For many, Israel was their land of hope. The British restricted immigration there, yet thousands made the journey, with varying success.
Yad Veshem shows more than the dream of Israel. It shows what, to millions, became its necessity. A haven that gave homes and opportunities to people from across the world; people who, in turn, built economic miracles and mighty defenses out of desert.
But for all it has given, Israel has taken away. It has taken away homes and rights for the people who lived here. These people, the Palestinians, number in the millions. They live as refugees across the Arab World. And they live like hostages in the Occupied Territories. Unable to move freely, or live out their dreams, watching them vanish as settlements encroach on land their foremothers and fathers held for generations.
It is a Twilight Zone scenario in Israel. One that draws its share of parallels to horrors faced by Jewish people across Europe not so long ago.
Israeli journalist Ari Shavit perhaps puts it best in My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel:
“There was hope for peace, but there will be no peace here. Not soon. There was hope for quiet, but there will be no quiet here. Not in this generation. The foundations of the home we founded are somewhat shaky, and repeating earthquakes rattle it.”
Jerusalem is Israel. It is diversity, and division. It is history and holiness, belonging to everyone- but some more than others.
It welcomes. And yet walls us apart.
It’s a simmering status quo: a mixed pot of religions and creeds, of locals and tourists, moving past each other with a purpose all their own.
What happens in Jerusalem will be critical, for the future of the nation. For the Middle East, and the world.
For us, it was a transformative learning experience about the world’s epicenter of spirituality and conflict. And a visit we won’t soon forget.
For further reading, I recommend:
- My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit
- Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East
by Michael Oren
- The Conflict in Jerusalem Is Distinctly Modern. Here’s the History.
(New York Times article written in 2017).
- Death and Rebirth: Armenians in Jerusalem by Anna Gazmarian (I don’t touch on the Armenians in my post, but it’s fascinating and tragic to read about their history in Jerusalem via this Rumpus article).