The funeral of a 92-year-old mother of two adult children is normally a fairly routine occurrence. The small crowd gathered, family and friends, few knew her in her prime. Words were said.
The unadorned corpse shrouded and covered respectfully was carried on its stretcher from the van by male relatives within hours of her passing, in accordance with Jerusalem custom.
Yet only in Jerusalem would this type of funeral pass for normal. Cell-phones communicated to the army and fully-armed border patrol for the go-ahead and the parking lot gate was opened. Traffic was stopped. The short cortege crossed the traffic circle by foot to the other side and continued towards the site of the open plot, as a coordinated convoy.
The moves of other pedestrians were relayed to the soldiers maintaining eye contact one to the other along the short route. There was a vegetable stand, there was a drinks stand, and we passed an otherwise nondescript small hotel with a panoramic view that was breathtaking.
After wending our way through the closely spaced graves, the great-grandmother was lowered into her ultimate resting place on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, just as Jews have been interred for thousands of years before her.
The funeral occurred this past Thursday, the day after Yom Kippur when the Jews believe the Book of Life has been closed for the preceding year, and, coincidentally, the same day the UNESCO proposition was passed glaringly omitting reference to Jewish connection in Jerusalem.
Her gravesite was in direct view of the ancient site of the City of David, one ridge over, and the Temple Mount rose across the valley, surrounded by ancient and new Hebrew-incised gravestones, some mere fragments due to the effects of harsh years of sun and of the elements on their surfaces since being set ages ago, but also due to vandalism and war.
Echoes of Jewish presence reaching back deep into history reverberate at this site. The Sacrifice of Isaac, Jacob’s Dream happened here. Solomon’s Temple, Herod’s Temple stood here. They hearken back more than a thousand years before the dawn of Christianity here, more than 1,600 years before the start of Islam elsewhere.
The destroyed Jewish Temples are no more. The relative newcomers are evident by the well-maintained churches on the ridge, the Dome of the Rock and El Aksa Mosque sit like sentries on high in the close distance. A strong tall cypress pierces the deep blue of the late afternoon sky, relieving the monotony of pale Jerusalem stone spreading in every direction.
What should be a routine and peaceful end of life took a surreal turn in the City of Peace. With Jewish presence driven out by pogroms, like the Yemenite neighborhood once in Silwan, this site is now flanked by Arab neighborhoods. Some hostile populations live incited by their political and religious leaders and they exacerbate daily tensions. Mourners and their vehicles are often attacked by rocks, and worse.
On a different occasion, I sat helplessly as a boy who could not have been more than 9 took advantage of August heat and an open window to spit at my elderly father-in-law when on his way to pay respects at his mother’s grave.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, I am reminded that Israel united the Temple Mount and the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives to the rest of pre-1948 Jerusalem, after Arab armies attacked the modern State of Israel while still in birth throes.
Under the 19 years of Jordanian rule, Jews were denied any access to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest sites. While in Jordan’s hands, rather than preserving Jewish heritage, cemetery stones on the Mount of Olives were used to make latrines, pavements, roads, and graves were desecrated. The deliberate destruction and attempted erasure of Jewish heritage continue today and are the essence of this UNESCO vote.
Seeing the gleam of the Golden Dome on the Temple Mount in front of me, I could not escape the thought that while Israel has honored the ability of Jerusalemites of all faiths to pray at their holy sites, despite ongoing terrorism, for some it remains a one-way street.
There are those who do not recognize that mutual respect must precede as a foundation for any advancement in this shared space. The most modest of Jewish life events — a handful of mourners needing an armed escort — illustrates the tension Jews still live with at the very source of Jewish history.
UNESCO’s denial of the indigenous Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the holiest site of the Jewish religion exceeds chutzpah. I hear my late father, who lived through the Anschluss in Austria in my ears, saying, “Black turned to white, white turned to black.”
Notwithstanding Ban’s spare remarks about the outrageous vote, as with most things, the damage is done at the inception and cannot be unheard. No one reads corrections. Fewer read footnotes.
Witnesses to the Big Lie, the stones scream.