What Jerusalem and Texas have in Common

Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock is the only building I can distinguish from afar. (Saverin/TYG)

JERUSALEM — As things have calmed down in the wake of the flotilla, the political tension has been slower to thaw. The pro-Israel rallies in the streets have been dwindling, but conversations surrounding the conflict persist. It feels as though the area is on the brink of some kind of change. Talk surrounding the many pending flotillas, the blockade, Egypt’s role, relations with Turkey, Hezbollah’s arsenal and ties with Syria, the continued smuggling to Hamas, the “we con the world” video, and more engender an atmosphere of urgency, which is reflected in the conflict’s constant role in almost every conversation I engage in.

I don’t think, though, that this sense of urgency and feeling that the conflict is on the threshold of some historical shift is unique. I get the sense that Israelis, and most likely their neighbors, either feel this way constantly or have stopped feeling the intensity of it. As I was researching Iran’s threat to arm its aid flotilla with Revolutionary Guards, I asked a veteran coworker what he thought would happen in the event of a convergence with the IDF. He laughed, “World War III.” I did not find this equally amusing. Many residents and frequent visitors share this jaded immunity to the constant threat of a breakout of violence, which is certainly foreign to America’s take on violence and vulnerability.

This is amplified by the militaristic presence; guns (mostly M-16s) are everywhere. Every Israeli I know my age is in the army, and a couple friends of friends were commandos on the flotilla. I see women my age, often dressed like me, but instead of a satchel with a tourist map, sunglasses, and a bag of walnuts, they carry rifles over their dresses. Israel is the only country in the world to have a draft for women. While they may opt out for national service, many enlist in the military. This past week I watched a documentary on women who have served in the West Bank and Gaza, and their experiences in this hyper-masculine culture they often called “the wild, wild west.” The footage provided an interesting juxtaposition between more religious women, whose role is emphasized as bearing as many children as possible leading to stories about women have had upwards of twenty children, and these often more secular women who use violence and a hardened outlook on Palestinians to maintain the political dynamic of the territories and to fit in as “one of the guys.” Fitting in as one of the guys, though, often meant taking pictures with dead bodies of terrorists, detaining people at the border arbitrarily, and violating Arab women’s bodies in weapons searches. The images were grueling, and the memories were painful to hear.

Seeing this footage and constantly discussing the complexity of the conflict with a very wide range of people has overwhelmed me at times. There are so many logical perspectives and there is so much information surrounding the conflict, but the more I learn, the less I am sure of.

It is a common saying here that people who come for a week write a book, people who come for a month write an article, and people who come for a year don’t write anything. To live here, residents have to keep a light spirit about it in some form, because if they didn’t, how could they get through each day? Sometimes I find Jerusalem’s weight tangible. There is a promenade where I run, which is far enough above the city that the buildings are indistinguishable, except perhaps the Dome of the Rock on a sunny day. Looking out from the top, I often feel helplessly sad with the amount of blood shed over thousands of years for this land, which looks like many other cities from the distance.

I have decided, at least for today, though, to focus on the constant agency in the city. Amid the disillusionment that can easily characterize my feelings towards this city, which a friend who lives here tells me Israelis think about the same way Americans think about Texas—there is hope. There is a radio station broadcasting dual narratives from Palestinians and Israelis, with people from both sides working together in one building. Parents of victims of attacks on both sides speak side by side about their sorrow for an organization called the Parent’s Circle. Jerusalem Peacemakers are bringing together Imams and Rabbis to learn about each other’s faiths as they used to generations ago. Yesterday I attended a universal hug around Old City, where people of all faiths, from all walks of life, and from all parts of the city came together for meditation, music, and mutual understanding. Beyond organized efforts, people coexist. The same promenade that brings me sadness is a connecting point between East and West Jerusalem, which brings together a wide range of people. I visited an Orthodox neighborhood the other night for dinner, and amid my discomfort with some narrow viewpoints, I heard the call to prayer from a mosque down the street. Kids from West Jerusalem even buy drugs in East Jerusalem. Coexistence happens. It has to. Just looking at the Kotel and the Dome of the Rock reveals this, as they appear to be stacked right next to each other.

Even the Haredi protests give me a strange degree of hope. I fundamentally disagree with them, but they care. This city is in so much motion with different causes and people constantly trying to do something for their respective passions. Maybe the sense I have had that Israel is on the brink of some change is due to the fact that people here think so too, and act accordingly. As a peace activist friend taught me this weekend, quoting the famous Israeli author Amos Oz,  if there is a fire, I will try to get a team of firemen to extinguish it. If there aren’t firemen, I will bring people with buckets. If I don’t have any buckets, I will use bowls. If I don’t have bowls, I will use a spoon. I will carry that lesson to avoid the cliché that the longer I stays here, the less likely I’ll be to continue to understand and work to resolve the many conflicts. It will be an act of immersion, joining the Jerusalemites in the battle to make this land the place the idealist in me imagines it to be.


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Filed under conflict, culture, Middle East, religion, violence

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