The first time I entered the Old City of Jerusalem, I truly felt like I was taking a step back in time. It is an awe inspiring feeling knowing that each step you take connects you with your ancestors from thousands of years ago. It’s as if the walls are whispering to you in hushed and hallowed tones. You are somewhere special now.
The smooth cobbled stones beneath your feet seem to carry you automatically, almost as if you are merely a passenger, being guided by forces far more powerful than yourself, drawing you further and further inside a world so different to your own. The intoxicating smells of the Armenian restaurants danced and tickled my nostrils as I passed them, weaving my way down small, narrow roads, where you have to push yourself tightly against walls whenever a car passes.
The Tower of David stands proudly on your right, as if it’s guarding and watching over those who pass it. As I made my way along the roads that twisted and turned, it felt as if I was in a maze, not quite knowing where I was going, yet never feeling lost. I passed ancient Christian churches. I passed markets where the Romans once ruled. I passed yeshivas where Jewish students learnt. I passed small shops selling their wares. I passed eateries. I passed peoples’ homes, hidden within the beautiful stones. It felt as if I was drifting between the present and the past – yet being in both places at once.
But among all the charms that were appearing around me, there was one that was pulling me ever closer, one that was drawing me in, one that was beckoning to me. As I rounded one last corner, I saw it appear before me – the holiest place of the Jewish people – the Western Wall.
It is a special moment in one’s life when you look deep into the heart and soul of your nation, yet that’s how it felt to me. Staring at that wall that glistened so beautifully in the sunlight, the same way it had for thousands of years, reminded me of how special that place was.
And I did feel special. And lucky. And honoured. Because it was as if I was honouring the millions of Jews who had passed before me, throughout the ages and throughout the lands, who always faced Jerusalem in their prayers. Who beat their chests, eyes closed with angst, praying for the peace of Jerusalem. Who, in their darkest days on earth, dreamt of walking among these ancient and holy stones, and always concluded each seder with the eternal words “Next year in Jerusalem”.
And yet here I was, standing there, representing all those who had that same dream but were unable to make it come true.
Jerusalem is truly the heart of the Jewish people. Its roads and paths and laneways are the vessels that pump the blood that makes it beat. It has always been this way, from the moment King David first made Jerusalem the capital of the Jewish people 3000 years ago. Since then, it has never been the capital of any other people.
And yet there are those who believe that tearing this city in half will lead to peace. I don’t see it like that. I don’t see how taking a dagger and driving it deep in the heart of the Jewish people can ever bring peace. History has already proven that.
Between 1948 and 1967, Jordan controlled all of this area I walked through. And in Article VIII of the Israel Jordan Armistice agreement of 1949, it called for “free access to the Holy Places and cultural institutions and use of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives.” But that didn’t happen. Despite requests and pleas from Israeli officials and Jewish groups to the UN, the US and others to try to get them to enforce the agreement Jordan signed, Jews were denied access to the Western Wall, the Jewish cemetery and all religious sites in Jerusalem.
But that was only part of it. Because when the Jordanians captured the Old City, they destroyed the Jewish Quarter and expelled its residents. They destroyed fifty eight synagogues, looted their contents and desecrated them. They turned Jewish religious sites into chicken coops and animal stalls. They ransacked the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, where Jews had been buried for 2500 years. They desecrated the graves and smashed the tombstones, using them as building material. They turned this holy Jewish site into a slum.
The Temple Mount, on which the Dome of the Rock now stands is a site holy to both Jews and Muslims. It is also the focal point of violence which the world is currently watching. But in 1967, when Israel succeeded in capturing the Old City, I believe they made one fatal judgement.
Instead of allowing at least joint control of the area by Jews and Muslims, they decided to give control of access to the Islamic Waqf only. And ever since then, Jews are not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount. That intolerance by the Muslim and Palestinian authorities, who continue to fan the flames of hatred, is what fuels the violence that we are witnessing. Jews were never allowed to pray there under Muslim control, so why should Jews not be allowed to pray there under Jewish sovereignty? If every Jew who desires to pray on this holy place is automatically branded an extremist right-winger, what does that say about the kind of peace that will will exist between Israel and the Palestinians? This is not a case of Jews demanding to pray in Mecca or Medina, the heart of the Muslim world, where they too once lived. This is Jerusalem – capital of the Jewish state. And the world, who like to speak about two states living in ‘peace and security’ conveniently close their eyes to this most blatant discrimination, while focusing on areas of land occupied by no one.
When I look at this beautiful city – this city full of memories, of history, of pain, of triumph and of tragedy, I see more than just the pale limestones lingering in the last fading rays of sunset. I see a city of life, where people eat and drink and breathe and laugh and love together respectful of each other and their ways of life.
Perhaps it is a pipe dream, but as Theodor Herzl once said, “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Me – a long time ago!