Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Travel Log: Israel: Fragility

I promise, this is my last post about Israel. Although based on the number of emails I've received about my Israel posts and pictures, I gather no one really minds how much I'm writing about the trip.

Jerusalem is a place that is heavy with tension. This may have a teensy bit to do with the fact that three of the major world religions all trace some major major aspect of their faith to that one city. Perhaps. Within a five minute walk of one another you have the Western Wall (Judaism):
Dome of the Rock (Islam):
and Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Christianity):
And as much as people like to take a "10,000 foot view" and say how Oh Look! Jerusalem is a place where these three religions peacefully coexist, I have to say that it's kind of a big fat paper thin veneer. Not even really trying to, we witnessed quite a bit of animosity between people, heard stories from friends who live there, and of course (as written about previously) ourselves experienced a fair bit of ridiculousness while trying to experience our own faith. One event in particular sticks out in mind, partly because I'd never seen anything like it and partly because it captured so perfectly the simmering underlying tensions that often boil over the surface.

On a Saturday we left the Old City to go to the Israel Museum. Saturday, as you may know, is the Jewish Sabbath. And just as in any religion, there is a spectrum of how seriously people take this day. In Jerusalem, no buses run at all, and most of the New City shuts down. Serious business. There is a segment of Jews ("ultra ultra Orthodox") who basically think that NO ONE should be able to drive in the city and don't want ANYTHING opened. So ok, but then there are Muslims and Christians and tourists of all walk of life who actually DO do things on Saturday. So there probably needs to be some kind of balance, right? Like say opening a parking garage right at the wall into the Old City (nowhere near the Jewish Quarter), run by an Arab, that is open on Saturdays. But to the ultra ultra Orthodox, this is not so much a reasonable compromise as a desecration of all things holy.

In response, for the past few months every Saturday several hundred of these ultra ultra Orthodox Jews come out to the parking garage to protest. We're talking decked out in black coats, big fur hats, the whole shebang, screaming "SHAAAAAABBBBAAAASSS" (ie, Shabbas, aka Sabbath) at the top of their lungs and staging a massive protest. Which Hayley and I just so happened upon as we left the Old City to go to the Israeli Museum. We're talking 5 feet away. Perhaps this is oversimplifying a bit but it seems to me that staging a massive protest that involves screaming and potentially getting beaten up by the police ON THE SABBATH YOU'RE TRYING TO PROTECT is a bit counterintuitive, no? Maybe that's just me. I mean, I get the point, I get the principle, but also I don't. It just seems crazy to me that (at that point) for 8 Sabbaths in a row you're either skipping part of Temple (because I would guess for those kind of guys it's an all-day affair) or leaving your wife and 10 kids at home alone on the one day set aside for things like being with your family. What's really the point of all that?

I don't presume to understand all the ins and outs of this particular situation, but I write about it just to highlight just how fragile Jerusalem is. One incident, one racial slur, one parking garage can set off a whoooole massive chain reaction that isn't just about last week or last month but about thousands of years. Talk about walking on eggshells...

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