When They Say, Don’t Go To The Old City

Just a few days ago, my wife Robin and I returned from a brief but wonderful trip to Israel. As I wrote in this space before we left, there was no specific business, professional or family obligation that was bringing us there. We just wanted to visit the country that we love, see family and gain a more accurate sense of what it’s like to be in Israel at a difficult and stressful time for the country and its citizens.

Robin and I have each lived in Jerusalem for two years, one separately, as college students, and one of them together after we were married. Between us, we have made countless trips to Israel over the years. Like many American Jews who have similar relationships with Israel, we have our favorite places to eat, stores to shop at and places to visit. On the most basic level, this visit was no different.

But there was one glaring difference between all of our past experiences (except during the intifadas) in Israel, and this trip. Our friends and family in Jerusalem, and for that matter outside of Jerusalem as well, counseled us not to visit the Old City: no Arab shuk, no Kotel, no Jewish Quarter. Stay away. The random stabbings and other such incidents that have characterized the recent wave of violence in Israel were simply too likely to occur within the twisting, turning streets of Old City. Even the area outside of the Jaffa Gate had seen a violent incident.

The sad truth is that even Israelis have been spooked about coming to Jerusalem, and not just the Old City. Adult groups from around Israel have reconsidered visits planned long ago, and younger students have rescheduled class trips.

During our time there, other than Birthright trips and the parents of Americans who were spending a year in Israel, there were precious few American tourists in Israel. I encountered one Bar/Bat Mitzvah age group from an American synagogue, but they were not allowed onto Ben-Yehudah Street in Jerusalem, and certainly not into the Old City. Even though what’s going on now is not classified as another intifada, stores are largely empty. The owners of our own favorite places were lamenting, to a one, the absence of buyers, and going to extraordinary lengths to make sales. Merchandise is not moving, and they’re not making money.

And, of course, it’s not just Jerusalem that is suffering from these random stabbings and assaults. They have occurred in cities all around Israel. But the sense, based merely on frequency of occurrence, is that Jerusalem is the most seriously affected.

Having said all this, other than entering the Old City, there was no activity that we consciously refrained from because of what is going on, and we did not feel as if we were ever in any danger. On Friday afternoon, on a visit to the Jewish shuk in Mahaneh Yehudah, I can say without exaggeration that the narrow passageways were so congested as to make movement in any direction almost impossible. Clearly, Jerusalemites were making a conscious statement that the random acts of violence would not prevent them from living their lives. Among them, and throughout Jerusalem, we felt safe and secure.

What I think is fair to say, however, is that the random violence has contributed to a greater sense of what one person referred to as “situational awareness.” As a New Yorker, I winced when I heard him say that, because we who live in this city always have for many years cultivated that sensitivity. We know what it feels like to be aware of who is behind you when you’re walking alone, and to make sure that our children develop that awareness as well. It doesn’t keep us off the streets here in the city, and it certainly is not keeping Jerusalemites off the street either. But it has made them just a bit more wary, like here, of neighborhoods that they’re not sure of, and when something feels like a potential threat even in their own neighborhood.

I winced because I never felt that way anywhere in Israel before. It was always the place that I felt completely secure. Even in the land where watching out for suspicious objects on buses has been routine for decades, and gave birth to New York’s “If you see something, say something” campaign, I never had the sense that I was at risk. But the relentless campaign of senseless, random attacks against innocent civilians is ever so slowly and cruelly eroding Israel’s sense of security on a day-to-day basis, not in terms of war, but in daily life. It is taking its toll in so many ways, both existential and economic.

The great irony, of course, is that among those who are being hurt most severely in an economic sense are the Arab merchants in the Old City. They have next-to-no foot traffic, no tourists are coming their way, and their revenues have plummeted.

Here’s the real takeaway from our visit. There is no better way to show your support for Israel at a time like this than to visit. Go, if you possibly can. Walk the streets, shop the shops, show your faces, and make a bold statement about what American Jews do when the going gets rough in Israel. If, as has been said, ninety percent of life is about showing up, nowhere is that more true than in Israel. Remember, we live in the city with a big bull’s-eye on it. Situational awareness and all, I still feel safer there than here.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.