To visit Jerusalem is to visit the whole world in a single step: it seems, during our three weeks in Israel, that we have studied all of history as it has played out on this tiny patch of land. Nowhere is this more clear than in the Old City of Jerusalem. Standing on the city ramparts, time telescopes inwards; the stories of the past are vibrantly alive. So too are the signs of the present – a city that exists like an uneasily held breath, the heart of a two-thousand-year-old conflict that appears to have no possible solution. We have been travelling at this point for over six months. I have never imagined anywhere like Jerusalem.
We began our Israel trip in hip, young, modern Tel Aviv, where Israeli flags and Pride flags waved along the beachside promenades and we jumped in the warm, pounding Mediterranean surf. White high-rise hotels, beautiful young people, blue ocean – it sort of reminded me of Miami. Ninety minutes by bus, however, and we were among clusters of ultraorthodox families on the sidewalks, women and girls with long skirts and headscarves, men in dark coats and hats, studying the Torah as they waited at the bus stop. We stared openly at the crowds of young men and women completing their compulsory military training: brown uniforms, black combat boots, great assault rifles strapped to their backs as they rode the buses, ordered falafel at the local market, joked and laughed with their friends. Beginning on Friday afternoon, and lasting all through Saturday, a Shabbat hush falls over the city, as smells of cooking drift through doorways, the roadways empty of vehicles. We were not in Miami, or even Tel Aviv. We could only be in Jerusalem.
Surely a person could spend a lifetime learning the secrets of Old Jerusalem, where every stone, each window, has a story to tell. We didn’t have a lifetime, but we did have a wonderful guide, Elad, who spun tales with familiar protagonists – Abraham and Isaac, King David, the Queen of Sheba, Saladin, Richard Lion Heart – and patiently explained the links between the city’s ancient marvels and the present day. Entering through the Jaffa Gate, he reminded us how the same road we had taken from Jaffa, the port just south of Tel Aviv, was, even in ancient times, the main artery linking the Mediterranean port to Jerusalem’s holy city. For thousands of years, people have come from near and far to seek Jerusalem – prehistoric pagans, Egyptian traders, Roman soldiers, Frankish crusaders, Ottoman empire builders, British colonists, all preceded today’s crowds of contemporary pilgrims. I have always read the Bible as a work of faith, of stories. Here, it is local history, it is geography: this way to Bethlehem; this way to the Sea of Galilee. We followed wide-eyed as Elad led us along Ottoman ramparts and past crusader-era monasteries to the Western Wall, where Solomon built the temple envisioned by his father, King David. The holiest of holies was built on the foundation stone, the literal center of the world according to both Judaism and Islam. As it is recounted in the Bible, the temple was destroyed – twice – and only the Western wall of the Temple Mount remains, a pilgrimage site for Jews from around the world. We saw a joyful bar mitzvah taking place and old women chanting in prayer, resting their heads and palms against stones that are smooth and softened from thousands of years of seeking hands. Tucked into the many crevices between the stones, thousands and thousands of paper scrolls bear messages, prayers, perhaps carried from home for those unable to make the trip themselves. Above the remains of the wall stands the Temple Mount, or the Dome of the Rock, built on the very foundation stone itself from which God created the world, the same foundation that is, for Muslims, the spot from which Muhammed ascended to the heavens. We stood in line to visit the Dome of the Rock. The security presence was astonishing. After a brief wait we were told: no entry today. There was, the guards announced, “some tension.” Elad reminded us: we had come to Jerusalem towards the end of the month of Ramadan. Muslims, fasting during this most holy month, crowd the Al Aqsa Mosque in prayer. Some days, groups of Israeli settlers also arrive, protesting the current rule stating that only Muslims may pray at the site. Clashes have often turned violent, and did again during our stay. When security forces fear that things may be getting tense, tourists are turned away. We nodded. We left. There was little to say: this is the held breath, the waiting, the strange mixture of tremendous faith and tremendous fear that pervades the air in Jerusalem.
From here, Elad led us down a warren of alleys and archways and into the Muslim Quarter of the city, quieter than usual due to the Ramadan fasting. “It will be more tense here,” he told us, “You’ll feel it.” And we did, as twice we saw Israeli police forces surround young Arab men, checking identification cards and then leading them away in handcuffs. And yet Elad was right at home, smiling his warm, open hearted grin at friends and strangers all around, stopping to engage Muslim and Jewish restauranteurs, shopkeepers, other tourists, and a group of young soldiers in conversation, coaxing each of them to tell us about their experience here in the Old City. “Everyone has a story,” he explained, “And those stories are what make this history.”
Over lunch, Elad told us his own story – an Israeli Jew with parents from North Africa, he was raised near the West Bank, taught at an early age to hate and fear the Arabs whom he knew only as the threatening force that was always just outside his home. Like all Israeli young men and women, he served in the military. He did well, he led tanks in the army. There was war. People died. He came away shaken by what he had seen and done, looking, I think, for a way to make sense of it all. For him, the answer was found in stories, personal and historical: for years now, he has led groups that bring Arabs and Israelis together to talk – it is not always overtly political, more a telling of personal histories. “People need to talk,” he told us, “Everyone has a story.” If anything will ever change in Israel, Elad maintained, “It certainly won’t happen unless people can talk to each other. And right now, they can’t.”
A part of me that is impatient and concrete wanted to dismiss this: Jerusalem needs resolutions! It needs a plan! Idealists can sit in circles and talk about stories while the world explodes! But as Elad spoke, I knew he was right. There’s no leadership now, anywhere in the world, ready to bring an end to conflict in the Middle East – a conflict of narratives that has, as Elad showed us, endured for at least 2000 years. The sense of division and hatred on both sides is real, palpable to any visitor. It is based in historical legacy and also on very concrete, very contemporary events. Perhaps all that is shared, at this point, is an ocean of fear in which everyone appears to be swimming. Fear, and a determined belief in the importance of Jerusalem. In the face of this, trying to get people to talk seems like the only possible option.
From the Muslim Quarter, we made our way to the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus walked with the cross. Again, the charge of the places was electric – here, you lay your hands where Jesus fell. Here, the site of the crucifixion. Here, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, here is his tomb. A line of Christian pilgrims from all over the world crowds the sanctuary. A woman from Ghana spreads a pile of tourist T-shirts along the slab of rock where Jesus lay, letting the holiness of the stone permeate the thin cotton fabric so she can bring them home to her family. But of course there has been tremendous conflict here as well – the Holy Sepulchre church itself is divided up into different areas, each cared for by a different Christian denomination. For years, there had been fighting and even bloodshed over whose authority was superior, until finally, under the Ottomans, a rule of “status quo” was put into place – no more fighting, no more changing of the boundaries, each sect would keep whatever space it had. And the key to the church would be kept by an impartial party, a Muslim, who would watch over the others. Elad showed us a ladder on a small balcony that was in place at the time, and was spanning two different regions. “No one has been able to move it for two hundred years, because no one can figure out whose it is.”
It is such a symbol of our troubled world: that Jerusalem, this most beautiful and holiest of cities for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike – together about 50 percent of the world’s population — should be so perpetually troubled. And by extension – what would it mean for our world, rife as it is with the same partisan violence and fear and clashing of narratives – what would it mean for the rest of us, if Jerusalem were peaceful?
On the Mount of Olives, we sit in the Garden of Gethsemane, where the olive trees have been carbon dated back to the time of Jesus, where the Bible tells us that Jesus prayed the night before his death, wishing for a different outcome even as he knew his betrayal was coming. What else have the trees witnessed, we imagine, as empires have risen, fallen, and swirled around Jerusalem. Looking across from the Mount of Olives to the Old City’s golden domes and spires, I try to imagine what it would be like to be here without that undercurrent of fear and unease – a world where soldiers aren’t needed, where anyone could visit any site to pray after their own fashion, where opponents do not view each other with mutual distrust over walls and across checkpoints. It is pure fantasy. But then again, the stones and structures of this city attest to the miracles that have happened here – events that have shaped the entire history of the world as we know it. Who am I to tell Jerusalem what is fantasy?
At every public beach or park in Israel we pass a sign from the municipal recreation department. It is translated into Hebrew, Arabic and English. “Go in Peace” it says. And we do, for all of our time in this beautiful, complicated, vital country. Every time I see a sign, watching families bobbing in the Dead Sea or swinging in playgrounds in Haifa, I am struck by the simplicity and universality of the wish.