Palestine Diary Day 2 – Introduction to Jerusalem


Lewis Baston spent six days with a Labour2Palestine delegation to Jerusalem and the West Bank.  Here we publish his diary day by day.

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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.

Lewis Baston writes for The Guardian, Progress and LSE Politics and Policy blog on elections and politics. 

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