We’re back in Jerusalem for the last three days of our trip. We started the day nervous about how much we still wanted to see and how little time we had left. But between a busy day walking around the Old City and the growing desire to go home to see our boys, we’re now feeling that we’re going to be just fine with what we will be able to see.
We still had our car from the trip to Galilee, so we decided to use it to see some of the new city in West Jerusalem. This was particularly enticing because Jerusalem had a lot of rain this morning, the first rain we experienced on our trip. It was uncomfortable walking around in that much rain, so we enjoyed using the car to see the Knesset and the Israel Museum from the outside. We would like to be able to go back and tour both institutions, but that probably won’t happen. At least not on this trip.
After returning the car, we walked a short walk trip back to the Old City in lighter rain. Along the way, we saw the King David Hotel (the premier hotel in Jerusalem that played several key roles in the Jewish push for independence), the YMCA (which puts our suburban YMCA to shame), and a new open air mall.
We chose to start our second day in the Old City by leaving it to see some of the religious buildings on Mt. Zion:
- Tomb of David (a Jewish shrine that almost certainly isn’t the actual tomb of King David)
- Upper Room (which is really just one claimant to the title of the location of the Last Supper, with another being St. Mark’s Syriac Orthodox Church)
- Dormition Abbey (which supposedly marks where Mary died)
Notice that all three of these holy sites are presumed locations – that happens a lot.
The Tomb of David was interesting because it was the holiest spot that Jews had access to from 1948-1967, when the Western Wall was part of Jordan. Additionally, the men’s section and the women’s section are separate, with the men getting access to a much larger portion of the sarcophagus than the women get access to. It’s also interesting that this extremely holy place for Jews is in the same building as the Upper Room, an extremely holy place for Christians. Further, the Upper Room was once converted to a Mosque, so all three major Abrahamic faiths care about this one building.
Dormition Abbey was a fun place for Jenny because it is owned and run by Germans (its history is related to the history of the Lutheran Church in the Old City where Uncle Fred works). After so many places on our trip in which the only text was in Arabic and Hebrew, languages with alphabets we can’t even begin to parse, it was almost shocking for Jenny to be able to read the explanatory signs in two languages! We also happened to be there when a German service was happening, so Jenny got to listen happily along.
After Mt. Zion, we headed back into the Old City to Dung Gate (yes, really) to visit the Western Wall. We had been to the plaza twice on an earlier day in the trip, but in neither case did we actually go to the wall – once because we were running around trying to find our tour guide, and once because the wall was too busy with a prayer service for the Gaza crisis. This time, both we and the plaza were calm enough for us to touch it.
I know many people are overwhelmed with emotion upon reaching the Western Wall, but that wasn’t my reaction. I looked at the huge stones and thought about the history of the wall as part of Herod’s Second Temple. I looked at the water-logged scraps of paper jammed into every possible nook and cranny of the wall. But also I noticed an unfairness that came up for the second time today – the section for men is about twice as big as the section for women. Not only that, the men additionally have a long covered section to the left of the plaza where they excavated more of the wall to allow for more of the wall to be used. On a rainy day like today, that meant that men were praying comfortably under cover and their large outdoor section was nearly empty, but the women were jammed into a much smaller section huddled under umbrellas. And apparently, this situation came into being only in 2005, and it’s a great improvement over what came before!
I really look forward to the day when religions accord women as much respect and power as they accord men.
Another weird thing we saw at the Western Wall was a surprising amount of Israeli military. There’s a rickety wooden bridge that leads from the Plaza to the holy Muslim-controlled Template Mount above. For some reason, that bridge today was full of a bunch of Israeli soldiers. We don’t know why. Were they there to squelch any protests about the Gaza situation that might flare up after Friday services? Were they there to intimidate? Was this an unusual occurrence? We don’t know the answers to these questions, but the presence of so much Jewish military at the entrance to a Muslim holy site seemed very, very odd.
After the stop at the Western Wall, we considered going to City of David just outside the Old City Walls to see the archaeological excavations of the city as it existed in the time of David and Solomon. However, we decided that were had seen enough excavations the previous few days in Galilee, so instead we raced across the Old City to get into the Citadel before it closed. The Citadel (also known as David’s Tower, though David had nothing to do with it) is a remnant of Herod’s Jerusalem that has been turned into a museum of the history of the city. It wasn’t a great museum from the perspective of having valuable artifacts (that’s what the Israel Museum and the Rockefeller Museum are for), but it did give us a good overview of the history of the city with clear and informative descriptions and dioramas of the various empires and kingdoms that have ruled the city over the centuries.
When we were done with the Citadel, we returned to the Christian Quarter to check out some parts of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre we missed the first time. We found the Syriac chapel that burned decades ago but has never been repaired because the various denominations can’t agree on who has to pay for it. Then we considered waiting in line to see and touch the Tomb of Jesus, but the line was long and slow, and we just weren’t that interested in being pressed close to a horde of Russian pilgrims for hours. We had better luck at the 13th Station of the Cross, where the line was short enough that we go to touch the bit of rock that is thought to be Golgotha. Unfortunately, we don’t have good pictures of either of us crouched down to put our hand through a little hole to touch a piece of rock that may or may not have once had a particular cross on it.
From there, we visited Fred’s church to climb its tower. The bell tower of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer has some of the finest views of the city from its point high above the Christian Quarter.
After that, it was time for shopping! After all, it’s Black Friday, right? First, we bought some souvenirs from an Armenian ceramic artist whose work we liked. Then, we went to the souk to Shaaban Amer’s souvenir shop.
Shaaban is a friend of Fred and Gloria’s, and they had introduced us to him on Sunday after church, saying that he was a very honest and generous merchant. We can’t disagree at all. At the moment we showed interest in his store, he called up a friend who brought over some complimentary hot coffee and tea for us to enjoy as his guests (we saw him do this for at least two other groups while we were in his store). Shaaban gave us really good prices on a wide variety of Israeli and Palestinian-made items to take back, telling us what was local and what we should skip. He even left us in charge of his store when he had to run out to replenish his supply of something we bought! Unfortunately, we didn’t think to get a picture of Shaaban, but I think we’ll see him again. (Update: though we didn’t get a picture of Shaaban, I found a video on YouTube interviewing him)
At that point, it was time to leave for our Thanksgiving feast, part II. Much of the Lutheran community of Jerusalem gathered at the house of the director of the Lutheran World Foundation not far from Fred and Gloria’s house for a potluck Thanksgiving dinner. Unlike the Palestinian interpretation of American food that didn’t quite hit the mark yesterday, this was real American recipes made by real American cooks. Very tasty.
Before dinner, we gathered in a large room engraved with “Himmel und Erde werden vergehen; aber meine Worte werden nicht vergehen” (Matthew 24:35 in German) to sing a few hymns.
The highlight of the evening for me was later, during dinner, talking with some Americans and Norwegians working in Jerusalem about their experiences here.
The consistent story we heard was that the American media portrayal of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict doesn’t tell the whole story. We don’t hear about the Palestinians who need to drive 2.5 hours to work instead of 15 minutes because a wall was erecting in the middle of their town. We don’t hear about the Palestinian around whose house a 12-ft concrete wall was built, separating him from his olive grove, his only source of income. We don’t hear about the plight of those who live in a city with five times the people of St. Louis in only twice the area, people who have no legal means ever to leave their city and no ability to obtain a decent education or decent job.
But these stories don’t tell the whole pictures. The dinner companion who mentioned the man who lost his olive grove then elaborated that the Israeli government offered him millions of dollars for his land before building the wall – how does that change the ethics of the situation?
There are a lot of stories like this in Israel that we don’t hear about in America, but I don’t pretend that after a week here I know that these are the only relevant stories. While the Palestinians have grievances, so do the Israelis – are they morally equivalent?
We heard that there’s an old joke among visitors who look into the conflict that goes something like this:
“After I was in Jerusalem a week, I was ready to write a book.
After I was in Jerusalem a month, I was ready to write an article.
After I was in Jerusalem for five years, I didn’t want to say anything.”
I know I’ve written a lot in the past week in these blog posts, and the posts are getting longer. Maybe if I were here for a month, they would be getting shorter. But at the moment, one conclusion seems clear about the American role here: America loves an underdog, and Zionist reflexive defense of Israel made sense when Israel was the outgunned underdog. But in an era when the Israeli military responds to 4 Israeli deaths by killing 57 to 107 Palestinians, Israel isn’t an underdog anymore. When will American policy and media reflect that?