A Jerusalem Walk

One of the great pleasures of living in Jerusalem is its cool evenings during the summer season. The days are hot as the sun beats down on you through a cloudless sky that can be unrelenting, but once it sets the cool evening breezes take over and it is usually quite pleasant. Even during the COVID-19 crisis people come out of their houses and take to the streets and the sidewalks walking with their family and friends.

Very often, especially during this period of the coronavirus, that has been exactly our plan. We spend most of the day inside doing our work and towards late afternoon as the day cools down or in the evening after it has set we take our daily walk.

Monday night was no different. I am in the middle of taking some Zoom classes in the evening and I had a 45-minute break, so we decided to take a walk. One of our favorite places is the Jerusalem Tahana Rishona, First Station, the old train station. We walk along Derekh Beit Lehem to the station, do some people-watching, and then return to our apartment along Derekh Hevron. Pre-corona days, we might spend time going to the restaurants there, but now we are more careful and simply use it as a walking destination.

As we walk the train tracks to the station, I am always amazed at the plethora of languages that I hear. Of course, Hebrew, but also Arabic, English, Spanish, French, and Russian among others. Even today with people wearing masks, one can hear the different languages spoken. Then there are the runners and bicyclists who don’t speak, but add to the many people out and about.

This past Monday night, the most prevalent language we heard, by far, was Arabic. Families were walking together, friends were sauntering in the cool night, and partners were moving slowly under the clear sky. As we walked the train tracks nearing the old train station both my wife and I remarked how wonderful it was. Here we were in a region marked by war and enmity, in a city that has seen conquering heroes and whose ownership is still in dispute according to many in the international arena, and people of all different backgrounds, religions, and ethnic groups were calmly walking next to one another. It was clear that those who were speaking Arabic were just as comfortable on the street and the tracks as those speaking Hebrew or any other language. If only others could see Jerusalem this way, their opinions of both the city and the country at large might undergo a metamorphosis.

I said to my wife that I would like to take that stroll with former president Jimmy Carter, who has accused Israel of fomenting apartheid. I would like to be out in the evening air with all those who see Israel as a racist state, one whose very existence should be called into question. I would like to walk the route with the detractors of the Jewish state who suggest that the state and its citizens, including its Arab citizens, are worthy of BDS legislation.

No, Israel is not a perfect state and it needs to be more equitable to its Arab citizens, but to walk along the train tracks on a cool Monday night highlights the fact that at least on this Jerusalem evening Arab and Jew can occupy the same space, enjoy the very same scenery, and experience the beauty of the clear summer nights of Jerusalem. Will this solve all the problems of the Middle East? No, but it is a picture the world must see and an experience that the detractors of Israel must have. After all, in what Arab country could I feel free to walk down its streets, speaking Hebrew, wearing my kippah and feel safe? In fact, one could say the very same for many streets in Europe as well. And, sad to say, there are also probably places in the United States where I wouldn’t feel comfortable as well.

It was good to walk among my Arab neighbors Monday night, listen to them converse in their language, and witness women wearing their distinctive clothing, as all of us enjoyed a peaceful night in that area of Jerusalem. Peace will be brought to this region through a people to people approach. I want to believe it is possible and after our Monday evening walk I am convinced that it really is.

About the Author
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is Rabbi Emeritus of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park Illinois, an 1100 family congregation which he served for 31 years. He is past president of the international Rabbinical Assembly, MERCAZ USA and MERCAZ Olami, and a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish People Policy Institute. He is also past president of the American Zionist Movement and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute. He is the author of Encountering Torah - Reflections on the Weekly Portion. He and his wife Bryna made Aliyah in June 2019.
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