The mosque they burned is in Beit Safafa, but Beit Safafa was swallowed by Jerusalem long ago. Waze directs me to the Gilo off-ramp and down a narrow, unmarked road. It’s dark – the street lamps that brighten the streets of Jerusalem don’t light the streets here. I follow the robotic voice that distorts the pronunciation of the street names, no longer Begin and Dov Yosef, but Al-Butma and A-Zeitun.
The streets are dark, but the Jews who park their cars on the sidewalks and against the walls of the alleys are easy to spot here in Beit Safafa. They huddle together, pretending that it’s because of the frigid Jerusalem air and not due to the strangeness of being in an Arab village five minutes from the Malcha Mall. “Hagai said 2 Badareen Alley, and look, this is 40 Badareen Alley, so we just have to keep walking.” The Jerusalem municipality has neatly labeled the streets with blue signs, the street names printed in Hebrew and Arabic. “There it is!” someone points at the green neon lights of the minaret peeking over the rooftops. I trail behind them towards a narrow staircase.
A man in a quilted jacket with the logo of a security company welcomes us in. Did the police send a security guard to the mosque, I wonder? But it isn’t a police uniform, and he speaks Arabic easily with a group of men on the stairs. A private security guard, I realize, like the ones Jews hire to keep them safe in synagogues in Europe and the US. I step over the threshold and wonder if I should take my shoes off.
The arched ceilings and walls are blackened with soot and the carpets have melted into the tile floors. “Scoot in, scoot in,” someone says. “There are more people coming.” Most of the mosques I have visited are big, touristy affairs. El Aqsa in Jerusalem, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. This one is cozy and strikingly similar to a Sephardic synagogue. It feels familiar.
A rabbi speaks “This week we remember the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. Rabbi Abraham Heschel was Dr. King’s friend and a civil rights activist. When confronted with the violence and hatred directed at the black community in America he said, ‘We are not all guilty, but we are all responsible’. We are all responsible here.” The crowd murmurs in agreement.
The mukhtar speaks next, his Hebrew fluent and unaccented. “The Jews are our friends — we don’t want trouble here. We know that this is an aberration.” Again, the crowd murmurs. There are 150 people here, maybe 200, I think. If this is an aberration, where is everyone else? I look at the blackened bookcases, full of holy books and remember my grandmother’s stories of Kristallnacht, of Nazis desecrating the holy Torah.
The mukhtar continues, “Our Imam gave a sermon on Friday, calling for calm, telling us that we must all live in peace, Jews, Christians and Muslims. It was inspirational — we should translate it to Hebrew, post it on Facebook.” I wonder what speeches would be given if Muslims had burned a synagogue, if, unlike this attack, it would have made the news.
“Has anyone from the municipality been here?” someone asks. The mukhtar and the Imam shake their heads sadly. Others speak, decry what happened, and the Imam ends the event with a soulful prayer in Arabic.
The crowd mills around the mosque, slow to leave. An old man wipes the soot off a bookcase. “See here,” he says, pointing to the words engraved upon it. “My mother donated this bookcase, before she died.”
“I’m sorry,” I tell him. “I’ve been crying since yesterday, when I first heard what happened. I am ashamed.” Tears flow down my cheeks as I say this. What can I offer him other than my tears?
“This mosque is 800 years old,” another man says. “It was built here in the time of Saladin.”
“I’m sorry, I am ashamed,” I say again. My tears fall to the ground, dotting the soot. My words echo against the blackened walls. There is no more to say. I step out of the mosque into the darkness.
*The visit described was organized by Tag Meir: Light instead of terror.