Monday 11 October 2010

Jerusalem is Always Full of Surprises

I truly love visiting the Holy City of Jerusalem. There is no doubt that it has a certain spiritual atmosphere that I have not experienced in any other city in Israel, or elsewhere in the world. I am not sure to what extent this atmosphere is real, or created as a result of my expectation that I will feel it. The only thing that is important is that I feel it, and enjoy it very much. I usually try to make a point of setting aside at least one day each year to visit Jerusalem as a tourist. I like to travel around to the famous sites and vantage points and just experience the unusual things that can happen only in Jerusalem.

People in Jerusalem are totally different, and a good number seem crazy to me. Many of its residents have one religious leaning or another, and behave in ways which would not be acceptable or seen anywhere else. Where else in the world would it be completely normal for men to enter the bus at the front, with women getting on at the back. Although I find this odd, and even offensive, the residents in Jerusalem do it like it is the most normal thing in the world. This strange behaviour even seems to rub off onto the tourists who visit the city. Jews, who would not be seen dead wearing a kippa (skullcap) in public in their home towns, are all of a sudden enjoying wearing it in Jerusalem. There are those who experience Jerusalem Syndrome and other strange psychological occurrences, apparently all unique to this much fought-over city, which is holy to the three monotheistic religions, and the capital of the State of Israel.

On Friday, I had the good fortune to have an excuse to pay Jerusalem a fleeting visit. The occasion of a visit by friends to Israel from abroad took me to the City of Zion. I was, however, wholly unprepared for I what I was to witness. After entering the city from the north, and then heading eastward towards French Hill, I made a stop on Mount Scopus. In my quest to get from there to the area of the Germany Colony, I managed to take a wrong turning and momentarily lose my way. As a result, I was forced to drive unexpectedly through Wadi El Joz, an Arab neighbourhood of East Jerusalem. I had driven down these roads on a number of previous occasions, and had no hesitation about following this route to my destination. Even though the character of this neighbourhood is clearly different from that found in the neighbourhoods of the western parts of the city, or even the area within the walled Old City of Jerusalem, there seemed to be no logical reason not to travel this way.

This all changed when I suddenly observed three or four young Arab children, perhaps ten or eleven years of age, hurling rocks at passing cars. I was travelling up the hill past them, and they seemed only to be throwing rocks at the cars travelling down the hill. I could not quite figure out why they were throwing rocks at some cars, but not others. Perhaps they thought that they could identify Arab cars and spare them a pelting. Whatever it was, my shock turned to real anxiety when I was detained behind a bus and a long queue of cars heading up the hill. My car was brought to a halt directly opposite these children while I waited for the traffic to proceed. For some reason, they chose not to direct their attack at my car, and my anxiety became relief when the traffic proceeded, and I left the location of the random violence in my rear-view mirror.

After returning home later in the day, I read of the incident involving settler leader David Be'eri, who was filmed driving into a group of Arab children who were pelting his car with stones in the Silwan neighbourhood of East Jerusalem. This was not far from where I experienced my incident. Be'eri claims to have acted in self defence as he felt his life was in danger. There are many questions to be asked about this incident, especially how come an Associated Press film crew just "happened" to be on hand to film the incident, and then post the film clip on the Internet. Although I don't subscribe to Be'eri's right-wing brand of politics, I honestly understand what he means when he says that he felt threatened. I felt the same fear, and I did not even have a stone thrown in my direction.

This incident, although fairly minor in the overall scheme of Middle East politics, made me wonder a great deal about what is acceptable, and what is not. There can be no doubt that the extremism that people demonstrate in Jerusalem is a cause for many of its problems. When can it be OK for children as young as ten years old, to be stoning cars of innocent passers-by? What do we expect of these children when they eventually grow to twenty and thirty years old? Is this fight really about the Holy City of Jerusalem, or is it about the fact that possession is nine tenths of the law, and it is worth taking any actions to retain the possession? It left me feeling less optimistic and less spiritually cleansed by being in Jerusalem.

Later in the afternoon, while enjoying a late lunch in Emek Refaim Street with our friends, the first rain of the season arrived. These were the first drops of rain seen in Jerusalem for at least 5 months, and almost seemed to try to wash away the negative memory that still lingered in my mind following the earlier incident. As exciting and welcome as the few drops of rain were, they could not eradicate the picture imprinted in my mind of the young children seemingly randomly throwing rocks at passing cars.

This was certainly not the Jerusalem that Jews pray about in their daily prayers. Nor is it the Jerusalem which is holy to Islam and Christianity. This is the Jerusalem of violence, extremism, political brinkmanship and film cameras. Although I loved Jerusalem more before this act of random violence on Friday, nothing will stop me from cherishing it as the holiest place in the Jewish religion, and as the undivided and eternal capital of the State of Israel.

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