Category Archives: religion

Inconclusion Jerusalem

By Diana Saverin

Old City, Jerusalem (Saverin/TYG)

JERUSALEM—My last days in Jerusalem left me far from comfortable. I saw many infuriating things, but one that especially sticks out in my memory was actually one of the most benign.

As I wandered around the Old City, I saw one young Jewish boy with a kippa and payot on his bicycle and two Palestinian boys with sticks. As I walked, the back-and-forth taunting intensified. They must have been 7 years old, and they faced off on the empty stone street. They backed away from each other, and they all seemed to be waiting for the other to make the first move, just as their respective leaders always seem to in peace talks. Eventually, my comrade scattered the kids, but I couldn’t help feeling defeated. They were so young. The mutual hatred and fear felt inevitable.

This one moment may be insignificant; kids fight all over the globe. But it did fit in with the plethora of hopeful and discouraging experiences I had over my ten weeks in the region. Now that I’m home, it feels appropriate to write “concluding thoughts,” or something along those lines, but my thoughts so far have been anything but conclusive.

I left the Ben-Gurion airport—after spending four hours in priority security procedures because of a Palestinian kafia and documentary on the West Bank found in my bag—feeling a web of contradictory emotions. After witnessing the numerous injustices in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, I could not help feeling anger. I felt anger for the man in the town of Siswaya whose village shrunk from 500 families to 43 as Israeli forces filled their caves and settled their land. I felt anger for the Bedouin village of Umm al-Kheir in the West Bank, where even out houses are demolished by the Israeli government, when yards away red tile roofs and cookie cutter houses mark the settlement Karmel next door. I felt anger for the disproportionate distribution of resources in the “united city” of Jerusalem. I felt anger for the checkpoints in the city of Hebron, where settlers cut down Palestinian olive trees and videos reveal settlers attacking Palestinian schoolchildren and even the aid workers there to protect them.

Olive trees owned by a Palestinian family in Hebron cut down by settlers. (Saverin/TYG)

A Bedouin village in the South Hebron hills, where any permanent structures built is demolished, with the Karmel settlement in the background (Saverin/TYG)

A Palestinian man looking at his and his ancestor's caves that have been filled by Israeli authorities (Saverin/TYG)

I felt anger for these and many more injustices, but this is not the whole picture. I went dancing in Ramallah, a thriving city in the West Bank. I even visited a hilltop, caravan settlement in the desert of the West Bank, and was welcomed with open arms. And I love so much of Jerusalem: the shuks and the suqs, picking figs and rosemary on my walk home, the hidden gardens, watching tourist groups at the various holy sites, the quiet of Shabbat, the mix of sugar and sage in Bedouin tea, arguments of who serves the best hummus or falafel, and the excitement of living somewhere in the paper almost every day.

And now that I am home, everyone wants to know “how it was.” Every time this question arises, I feel torn between giving a tirade on all the pain I witnessed that I want everyone else to understand, talking about my long walks through streets that smelled like cardamom or nectarines whose juice would spill down to my elbows, and everything in between. I haven’t mastered a party line to get both messages across, but my goals moving forward are the following:

1)   Show Americans what their government is supporting. This isn’t a distant conflict that Americans can claim they have no place to meddle in: our tax dollars fund many of the atrocities I saw. The Israeli army protects the settlers in the West Bank, and don’t protect Palestinians when these settlers use violence against them. While many Israelis claim that these settlers are extremists and terrorists, they cannot be so ostracized as long as Israel continues to protect them and sponsor their continued development. As long as Israel is supporting them, so is America.

2)   Encourage constructive criticism. As an often-fierce critic of Israeli policy, I have been stunned by and unhappy with much of the criticism I hear in America. This is not a one-sided conflict by any means, and in order for a viable peace to be possible, both sides and perspectives must be recognized as legitimate. One frustrating criticism I have encountered is gaffs at Israel’s security claims. Israel does have security concerns, and while I disagree with many of the actions done in the name of security, the answer isn’t to dismiss the fact that there are security concerns. Outright criticism is not helpful. The situation is complex and deserves no one-sided oversimplification.

3)   Don’t speak about Israelis as one unit. As with any society, there is a wide political spectrum in Israel. Further, the civil society is more vibrant and active than I’ve ever witnessed. From soldiers who give lectures and tours about their experiences in the occupied territories, to the weekly protest of the settlements in Sheikh Jarrah, to the women of Machsom Watch who watch over the checkpoints in the West Bank each day, to the bereaved families on both sides who discuss their loss together, the variety of organizations working towards peace are numerous and differ in strategies. Even for opinions I don’t support, there is a plethora of organizations working for change.

4)   Read multiple sources when it comes to the Middle East, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s astounding how different the narratives are, and how seemingly vital “facts” can be overemphasized or omitted. I no longer believe objectivity exists, which is fine, but more than one voice must be heard to at least hint at the reality. On this note, avoid hard to define and loaded words, such as “terrorist.”

5)   Keep learning, and talk to people. This conflict, like most, so easily becomes numbers and figures, and thus dehumanized, but any “solution” from the top would be futile if the situation on the ground remained the same. The other issue with the media portrayal of it often depicts it as hopeless and never-ending, but being there and witnessing the constant agency warrants hope. Hearing from the people who experience the conflict day in and day out reminds me that peace and coexistence are possible. At least talking to some people does.

As time puts more distance between me and those enlightening months, maybe I will have more definable goals or conclusions. For the time being, I will keep learning, keep an open mind, keep hope, and encourage others to do the same. Jerusalem is the most fascinating city I have ever been in, and I hope to find myself in this region again soon.


Leave a comment

Filed under conflict, media, Middle East, Overseas Bureau, religion, violence

Fasting for Peace

The Kotel on Tisha B'Av

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM–Starting last night, the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av began. At 7 P.M., restaurants closed, and a strange quiet hung over the city. Recreational spots across the country have also been shut down for the 25 hours of the fast.

The fast honors the destruction of the two Holy Temples in the Old City, which are said to have been demolished out of a senseless hate. They were destroyed over 600 years apart, but both on the ninth day of the month of Av. Today I watched as hundreds of Jews congregated at the Kotel to commemorate the loss, and read from the Book of Lamentations.

The fast has been expanded over the years to mourn other hardships the Jewish people have faced over thousands of years, which are said to have happened all on this one day. From the Roman conquerors in the city of Betar, to the Crusaders in France, to Jewish expulsion from England and Spain, to the beginning of World War I, to deportations during the Holocaust, to a bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, the withdrawal from Gaza which forced Jewish settlers to move in 2005, and more, the fast honors mass suffering of the past.

Today in Jerusalem, the concept of a baseless hate seems pervasive. Hundreds have flocked to the Gilad Shalit protest tent, where I attended a march last week, to lament his captivity, and hope for his return. At the same Wall where hundreds of prayers from the Book of Lamentations will ring today, just last week a woman was arrested for carrying a Torah because of her gender. Just outside of the Old City walls, the residents of Silwan I wrote about a couple of weeks ago await demolitions of their households. Is baseless hatred truly a thing of the past to commemorate, or a continuing characteristic of this crazy city?

For where else in the world do two nations live together on one land, and fight on the battlefields of civilian neighborhoods with construction and demolition? And where else does a religious minority control a democratic government to the point where prayer, religious conversion, and marriage have to follow the rules of the most extreme sector of the religion? And where else do all three of the most prominent religions of the world flock to visit holy sites within yards of each other?

These unique qualities of the city are pulling it apart. A Ynet-Gesher poll of 505 Hebrew-speaking Jewish Israelis revealed 42% of respondents believe the religious-secular divide causes the most tension in Israel and 41% said it was the Jewish-Arab situation. The baseless hatred is palpable amid these divides: 54% believe Arabs are the most hated in Israel, while 37% believe the Haredi Orthodox are the most hated. Jerusalem is a microcosm of this polarization. With the city 35% Arab and 22% Haredi, racial and religious divides are everywhere.

None of this is news. We are all at least vaguely aware of the constant tragedy and complexity of this ongoing conflict, and can recognize the baseless hate on both sides. I often think of the different sides as looking through mirrored windows, only reflecting back the very real pain each has experienced as a result of the continuing tension and the absence of any sustainable or long-term solution, without being able to see past the wall to the suffering on the other side. The tragedy for me lies in this blindness. Both sides have blood on their hands, both sides have pain in their hearts, and both sides bear the responsibility of making it better.

On this holiday, though, I appeal specifically to the Jewish people. Among the many Jewish traditions I have learned to love and admire this summer is the social justice teachings in Judaism. In a lecture last week, a religious man spoke about the role of this Jewish morality in the conflict, and used the metaphor of a grasshopper to describe the respective positions of Israelis and Palestinians. He said that for centuries, the Jews have been the grasshopper, and continue to ask for sympathy for this terrible position they were in for so long. On Tisha B’Av, it’s impossible not to be aware of the gross hardship the Jews have faced, and I sympathize deeply with this position. As the lecturer said, though, Israel is not the grasshopper in this particular conflict anymore; Israel has the upper hand and has become the aggressor. The Palestinians are now the grasshoppers, and Israelis, he says, have a responsibility to realize their privileged position and incorporate Jewish values into their actions moving forward.

This is not to say Jews or Israelis do not continue to face hardship inside and outside of the conflict, or have not in the past. They have, they do, and they will continue to face baseless hatred and adversity. Today, though, I implore Israelis to look past the mirrored window, and see the hatred and adversity Palestinians are facing in this conflict. Israel’s success enables it to change the ongoing tragedies in the region. The Jewish state has been created. Israel has internal and external problems, but it is a recognized and developed nation. Today, Jews can celebrate their promised land, but what can Palestinians celebrate?

Leave a comment

Filed under conflict, culture, human rights, religion, Uncategorized, war

Moving, Shaking, and Surviving: A Bedouin Woman Stands Up Against Polygamy, Honor Killings, Arranged Marriages, and Unfair Divorce in the Negev Desert

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM – This past weekend I stayed with a woman in a town in the Negev desert, Rahat, who used her own hardship and lack of rights as an impetus to assist women in similar positions. Between jokes about hating the beards in Rahat and delicious tea, her story left me with a great deal of hope.

The Bedouins in Israel have lived in the Negev for generations, but have faced a great deal of issues under Israeli governance. With several villages living without recognition from the Israeli government, impermanent structures dominate the expanding landscape of the desert.

Beyond the poverty and racial issues provoked on the surface of this controversy, women face an especially difficult fate. Honor killings, in which family members kill women for such crimes as sex outside of marriage, go unreported, save for a blank grave away from the village. Men take multiple wives, and since this is illegal under Israeli law, the second and third wives technically don’t exist. This leads to several issues, especially for their children who need identification cards. Most marriages are arranged, and when they fail, men automatically gain full custody of the children.

In this disempowering landscape for women, Mona found her voice. Faced with losing her six children in a divorce, she fought for four years to gain joint custody. She was confronted with fierce opposition within her town, but her unpleasant experiences led her to create an organization, Amerat, for Bedouin women in the desert. While many noteworthy organizations offer women economic empowerment and improve quality of life, Mona has crossed into more controversial waters to challenge the destructive status quo in the region.

NGOs are often deterred from addressing cultural practices that violate human rights because of the values of multiculturalism and respect for traditions, but Amerat is taking on this daunting task with passion, and avoids such controversy with a grassroots approach. Mona’s bravery astounds me; as men claim that she isn’t a true Muslim and threaten her, she continues to protect and speak up for women in the area.

Just as I expressed wonder at the bravery of Women of the Wall, who work within Judaism to create reform, I am awestruck with Amerat’s valiant battle within Islam and the Bedouin community for equal rights for women.

Leave a comment

Filed under activism, conflict, Overseas Bureau, religion, women

Detained for Prayer

This morning at Rosh Chodesh, police monitored women gathering at the Kotel to pray. (Saverin/TYG)

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM – This morning, a woman was arrested at Judaism’s most holy site, the Western Wall, for carrying a Torah scroll. While I have been doing some work for her organization, Women of the Wall, nothing could have prepared me for the outrage I felt watching several policemen tackle a group of women raising their voices together in prayer, and the admiration I experienced witnessing these women’s bravery.

For twenty-two years, Women of the Wall have met at the beginning of every Hebrew month, Rosh Chodesh, to pray together at the Kotel. Women of the Wall is a group of Israeli and Jewish women from around the world who seek the right for Jewish women to conduct prayer services, read from a Torah scroll while wearing prayer shawls, and sing out loud at the Western Wall. Currently, such action is forbidden under Israeli law, which singles out women: “No ceremony shall be held in the Wall’s women’s section. That includes reading from a Torah, blowing the ram’s horn, wearing prayer shawls or phylacteries. Violators shall be imprisoned for seven years.”

Women of the Wall tefila. (Saverin/TYG)

Every month, their actions provoke an outcry from the Ultra-Orthodox community, who today screamed, “God sent Obama to take away Jerusalem,” “these women are responsible for the deaths of 6 million Jews,” and because of them, “the Jews would lose Jerusalem to the Arabs.” The women sang through the chorus of accusations and screams, and complied with police monitoring of their prayer shawls and noise level. The yelling and aggressive police activity was only to be expected.

Ultra-Orthodox men shouting at the women's section of the Kotel. (Saverin/TYG)

As the group left, though, chairperson Anat Hoffman pulled out the group’s Torah scroll to lead a procession of supporters to Robinson’s Arch, where police forcefully grabbed the Torah. I stood amid violent pushing as women around me fell to the ground, until the forceful struggle ended with Anat in a police car, where she was taken to the police station and interrogated for five hours before being released and banned from the Kotel for thirty days.

The police pulling a Torah away from Anat Hoffman as she led a procession away from the Kotel plaza. (Saverin/TYG)

An escalation of force towards Women of the Wall's chairperson, Anat Hoffman. (Saverin/TYG)

This blatant inequality is the result of an eleven-year Supreme Court case, which dismisses women’s ability to pray as they wish at the Wall. This is not even to mention the fact that the women’s section of the wall was reduced from 18 to 12 meters, and the men’s section covers 48 meters. As the women celebrate the coming month of Av in the Hebrew calender, along with the men who point menacing fingers at their song from the men’s section of the Kotel, they reflect on its message of unwarranted hate, and pray for its departure from the wall as a step to ending the internal strife within Judaism and Israel.

The issues revealed today at the Kotel are representative of several in Israel. The gender inequality in religion, which prevents a woman from filing a divorce without her husband’s consent, forces her to the back of the synagogue, and emphasizes woman’s value in her ability to bear as many children as possible, continues to create controversy and divide the nation. Tension between religious and secular populations in Israel is also a major issue, which affects everything from modesty requirements, to the army, to praying at Judaism’s most holy site, and raises questions on the bounds of religion’s role in democracy.

These are issues that must be addressed. Women of the Wall is taking a seldom-trodden path by reforming women’s rights within religion, as many view feminism and the patriarchal structure of religion as incompatible. In the small overlap between the two, this group’s unyielding song is creating a precedent I hope women around the world will follow.

1 Comment

Filed under culture, human rights, Middle East, Overseas Bureau, religion, women

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.

Leave a comment

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

Boats and Biases in the Middle East

by Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM — Oh what a difference one night can make. Waking up on the 31st and seeing the news about the attack on the flotilla was overwhelming in a way I rarely experience the news. The day was a bustle of international law, constant news updates, and blurry videos from the ship, and since then, I have been thinking critically about what I typically trust. While I have my qualms about working for a pro-Israel organization, hearing the complete Israeli side to the tragedy turned the incident into a whole new shade of grey. When I read the New York Times article, which came out right after the incident and depicted the event so one-dimensionally (against Israel), I realized that if I was home, that probably would have been the only side I listened to. This incident drives home how complex the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, and I can’t say that I truly support either side in the flotilla event, but because five ships went back peacefully in the flotilla, and a handful of others have in the past, it does not make sense to me that the Israeli soldiers would whimsically decide to massacre this group, and the videos support the fact that there was resistance aboard the boat.

Existential questions aside, Israel’s future appears a lonely battle. Israeli army generals at a security conference I attended the other day constantly emphasized how Israel can only rely on itself, and has to assume it will not have any external help. I sympathize with this precarious position, but given the hundreds of tunnels importing goods and weapons to Gaza from Egypt, the current set up of the Gaza blockade appears to hurt the Palestinian people instead of Hamas.  Through the tunnels, Hamas can limit goods such as books that would undermine its message, tax the goods it allows (including cars!), and have access to weapons. Support for Hamas has only gone down 6-10% since the blockade, and that could be due to many other factors.

I also recognize Israel’s security concerns in the flotilla incident, especially in light of the fears provoked by arms found on a ship heading from Iran to Syria last November, but I think it would be detrimental to Israel to do anything else but change policy in some way towards Gaza. It will be interesting to see how Israel copes with international pressure to lift the blockade, especially if the United States pressures Israel. As I learned at that same conference, Israeli security puts the government in a constant tug of war between concern for Palestinians and protection of its people. My mind has never been open enough to consider the extent of this difficulty because of my fierce reaction against the current conditions in Gaza. Hearing the perspective of the people who constantly make those decisions humanized Israel’s position, even if some of my convictions towards it remain.

One main reason I wanted to come here is the disillusionment and anger I felt during the Gaza War in winter of 2008-2009. After being dismissive of the Israeli viewpoint, I am glad to be in the process of understanding it. This has made me realize in a dramatic way just how important it is to try to take into account both sides. In recent days I have been on Palestinian group websites, as well as sifting through Israeli Defense Force statements, and it has definitely changed my idea of “facts,” if such a thing can even exist, especially in a conflict so loaded with emotion from the loss of loved ones on both sides, religious zeal, and claims to history. As one of our Jerusalemite friends says so truthfully, referring to the ongoing disputes over who owns what land, “everyone is right,” and as I attempt to understand with an open mind both sides of the conflict, I have to continually remind myself of this notion to get away from the often dehumanizing rhetoric in the media.

The initial scramble for information also ignited zeal in me to write. Biases run so deeply, and as I’ve said, that became true in a very immediate way during this conflict for me. In the race for facts given our boundless access to information, something is lost. We saw in the build-up to the Iraq war and talk of WMDs how the media does not always play its role as a “watchdog,” and I have seen it in this conflict on both sides in the unwillingness to simultaneously present two valid points of view. Doing so creates a complicated narrative, and provides few answers. I knew all of this before, but being here makes it personal, and I hope to continue to carry this burning desire to provide accurate information home.

Leave a comment

Filed under conflict, media, Overseas Bureau, religion, violence

New Impressions of an Old and Contested City

by Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM — In order to work for an international media organization that educates the press on Israel, I will be calling this fascinating city my home for the next nine weeks. I have just moved into a loft in Emek Refaim, more commonly called “the Germany colony” because long ago this was where the Germans lived. Our area is nice and full of little bookstores, gardens, restaurants, stores, and coffee shops. There are several old residential “colonies” throughout the city — you can tell where the old German houses are because their doors and shutters are made of wood. No Israelis use wood on their houses; all of the Israeli buildings here have to be made out of the same stone, which makes views of the city from above quite dramatic.

In the center city is the “shuk,” which is the Hebrew word for market. The shuk winds under a tarp with tons of fresh fruit, vegetables, olive oil, bakeries, ice cream, meats, fish, and anything else you would want! I have also made it to the Old City, which is next to center city. The Old City alone has four different quarters — the Muslim quarter, Christian quarter, Jewish quarter, and Armenian quarters — and the Muslim quarter leads to the Western Wall. The Muslim, Christian, and Armenian quarters consist of rows of markets in streets that wind beneath arches, and the stones on the roads have been there for at least 2,000 years.

The Western Wall offers quite a contrast, as it is an open courtyard with the area closest to the wall closed off for prayer. This praying area is divided between men and women, and there is a good deal of controversy surrounding the women praying. Apparently women who have worn the praying shawls that many of the orthodox men wear, women who have prayed too loudly, women who have not been modestly enough dressed, or men and women who have prayed together in the open area have had objects thrown at them or been subject to arrest. There isn’t as much controversy surrounding the fact that the men’s praying side is significantly larger, has more praying tables, and has an eight story tunnel next to the wall that can be used for prayer during rain. It is simply unfair in the same way that many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish practices are to women (i.e. women in some synagogues aren’t allowed at the front near the Torah or allowed to touch it or sit with the men).

Yesterday I returned to the Old City with a Jerusalemite who is a tour guide after an afternoon spent overlooking the area in beautiful gardens. It was previously the poorest part of Israel, because it bordered Jordan before the 1967 Six-Day War and was victim to bombs and rockets. Once it became a part of Israel, the poor were kicked out and it became the most expensive place to live, which is another controversy. Despite the controversy, it is a lovely place: there are no cars allowed, and the flowers are incredible. Vines and trees overflow onto the sidewalk, and in between the houses you can eye the walls of the Old City.

It seems that every square foot of land in this city incites debate: just outside of the Old City, there is a new parking lot where about thirty Orthodox Jewish men were protesting, screaming “Saturday” in Hebrew because the cars park there on Saturdays, which violates Shabbat. The parking lot was put there after another parking lot for those going to the old city was installed in an Orthodox neighborhood. This move has left the group equally displeased. Their numbers have dwindled over the past months; my tour guide friend recalled hundreds of them blocking the streets a couple months ago. He brought me through the Jewish quarter, which has some incredible Roman remnants and looks quite different than the alleys of the other three quarters. I walked through the same parts of town as the day before, but had a far richer understanding as my friend used his expertise to carve through the extraordinary layers of the city and dissect the significance of the each areas to the each religions. We ended at the spot where Jesus was put on the cross and buried. In one hour, we saw the most holy spot for Jews, one of the two holiest spots for Christians (the other being Bethlehem), and the third most holy spot for Muslims, and they are all within five minutes walking distance!

Leave a comment

Filed under architecture, geography, Middle East, Overseas Bureau, religion, urban affairs