Jerusalem, the capital of Israel – that unified tribes into one nation, that remained seared into our consciousness through prayer, hymn and dirge – is more than anywhere an expression of the Jewish collective. An expression of the powerful will and hope of a nation made manifest once more. We encircle her in our embrace, as she does us in hers.
It was in the early 1990s. The first intifada was being fought with rocks thrown at buses and cars; innocent civilians were being stabbed in the streets. The Arabs I worked with would complain of threats and shakedowns by the PLO’s gangs who roamed their neighborhoods. Saddam Hussein’s missiles kept missing, but we had grown accustomed to carrying around our gas-masks.
I needed a certain government stamp for a mortgage document that I was eager to file with the bank. They were available at post offices, I was told. But this being Israel, none were open on Tuesday afternoons. Except for one: conveniently located on Sultan Suleiman St., not far from Damascus Gate, the heart of Arab Jerusalem.
I got off the bus near city hall, pulled a wool cap over my kippa and began to walk under Jerusalem’s winter sun. Across the street on my right were the Old City walls. The sidewalks were not empty, but hardly bustling. Car traffic was flowing briskly. As I neared Damascus Gate, a small group of mostly traditionally attired Arab women pored over some sundry goods for sale that had been set outside a housewares store.
As I neared, the crowd suddenly split into two – and out of the open seam ran two young men. Their faces were covered. They each held a grapefruit size rock. These they hurled with all their might into the windshields of two passing cars. Barely stopping to gaze at their handiwork, they turned heel and retreated through the entranceway of the store. The crowd zipped itself up after them. If I hadn’t witnessed what I did, I might have thought that the rocks had been meteorites from the heavens. The men were gone. The crowd had swallowed them up, as smoothly as you might a lick of ice cream. The only trace that they had ever been there were two bloodied Jewish drivers covered in a shower of glass.
2014. A quiet Shabbat morning and my ten-year old daughter decides to walk with me to the Kotel for prayers. We arrive while the still cool shade thrown from the Western Wall covers a good part of the inner plaza. It is still uncrowded. I join one of the several ad-hoc minyans of black-hatted, frock-coated men just near its middle. I bring my daughter a chair, so that she can sit and read the story book which she has brought with her. I stand beside her, open my siddur and join in the prayers.
After a few moments, I’m interrupted by a tap on my tallit-covered shoulder. A thirty-something man, whose face suggests that if one were to bet on his name, Buzaglo would give better odds than Shmulkewitz, tells me in Arak-scented Hebrew that my daughter is disturbing his rabbi. It seems that he is part of a minyan praying just behind us and his holy leader can’t abide the presence of a female child in his sight lines. I nod and smile, and get back to my prayers. My daughter looks up, and I motion to her that all’s fine and she can return to her book.
In another few minutes, the man returns. Upset. “I asked you nicely once,” he tells me, his eyes narrowing. I know him. A rescued soul. Pulled out of whatever probation program he was in, a black kippa slapped on his head, and brought back into the fold of religion. And I know the violence that lies just below that nice new head covering. I see it in his eyes, smell it on his breath. My daughter is quite aware that something bad is in the air. She looks up at me, frightened.
But before I can say anything, the rest of the minyan, strangers all, form a tight circle around us. Swallowing us up inside, a wall between us and the intruder. Several of the men tell him to leave. One comes up to my daughter and takes a candy from his black-frock coat and offers it to her. We get back to our prayers—safely ensconced within the confines of the group.
Violence and power have been wisely differentiated by Hannah Arendt. The latter, she stressed, is always the result of group action, “never the property of the individual.” Power resides within the concerted efforts of the collective. It is how they share their will about a common, desired destiny. Yet violence belongs (mostly) to the individual. It is an amplification of singular strength, which may, if amplified enough, threaten the collective who hold power. But for violence to succeed (except in extreme cases), the collective must willingly forfeit their power. The majority, usually powerful enough to press forward against the individual, may abdicate and allow the violent minority to dictate the path all will take.
Jerusalem – its very name is peace. Yet there are those who misunderstand that peace and power are not inimical, but rather that the latter is just what allows for the former. Prayer for the peace of Jerusalem is prayer for the power of the many and the good against the few and the violent. Jerusalem, a city broken and healed, needs those who love her to unite. And then, the shining city, world’s beacon, can live up to her name.