Dispatch 9: Go In Peace
Jerusalem street

So I get into a Jerusalem cab one day, and the cab driver turns out to be a Palestinian Catholic whose life is falling apart.

A religious man, he used to go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem every Sunday to pray. That used to be an easy trip from here. (I, for example, live closer to Bethlehem than to some suburbs of Jerusalem.) He met a woman at the church, fell in love, and married her.

But when he applied to the Israeli authorities to bring his wife here, he was denied permission. Several years later, they're still married, and now they have a child; and his wife and child have still never been allowed to set foot in Israel. As checkpoints close and the Separation Barrier continues growing along the border, passage between the West Bank and Israel is increasingly difficult even for the few people still allowed to cross the line. The driver, who tells me his name is Jack (it sounds unlikely, but it's what I heard), is worried that soon he'll be separated from his family permanently.

He doesn't want to go live in the West Bank. Jerusalem is his home, it's where he was born, he insists he has a right to live here and bring his wife here. (I'm also guessing he doesn't want to move to Bethlehem because he'd almost certainly be unable to find work in the West Bank and support his family.) The Israeli government insists, however, that he does not have a right to bring his wife here. And this law has recently been upheld by Israel's Supreme Court.

Denying Arabs in Israel the right to bring their Arab spouses here is a security measure, the court insists. And given the state of siege that Israel lives in, this is not an incomprehensible position. If a terrorist can disguise himself as a religious Jew (as some have done, which is why I am horrified to see "religious Jews" pass easily through places where I get a full security search), then he can certainly disguise himself (or herself) as a spouse.

However, many countries take security precautions with foreign-born spouses being brought into their territory, and Israel has some of the most highly developed intelligence forces in the world. Is it impossible for the IDF or the Mossad to perform a background-check that would allow a Christian wife-and-mother from Bethlehem to join her spouse in Jerusalem? At a guess, it seems like it's within their capability. That doesn't mean, however, that it's anywhere on their To Do list.

Barrier And the great tragedy of the Palestinian people is that they're not good at calling international attention to such issues. At least not in any effective way; despite popular rhetoric on the subject, I'm very skeptical that violence is an effective messenger for the underdog. Mostly, it just makes people dismiss you, despise you, or decide to kill you before you can hurt anyone else.

After all, what does the average North American know about Palestinians: "They blow up buses and cafés." Consequently, most people don't know or care what's happening to them. When your society's primary message to the world, even if it's only a minority position, is kidnapping and car bombing, then the world writes you off and doesn't much care what fate befalls you. (And, in another great failure of communication, I don't think it's at all clear if these acts are a minority position for the Palestinians.)

Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. drew the eyes of the world to their causes and developed tremendous national and international pressure against their foes. The Palestinians have suffered outrageous and indefensible injustices at the hands of Israelis, as well as various Arab nations. Yet in the six decades since the UN voted to partition this land over the objections of its Arab inhabitants, the Palestinians have not achieved even a small fraction of what the Indian independence movement, the South African anti-apartheid movement, and the American civil rights movement achieved with that kind of time.

When your society's primary message to the world, even if it's a minority position, is kidnapping and car bombing, then the world writes you off and doesn't much care what fate befalls you.

David's Tower

With the Old City and East Jerusalem in dispute (both Palestinians and Israelis claim these areas as part of their proposed final borders), you'd have to be fairly oblivious not to notice how eager Israelis are to convince the world that they are the better caretakers of Jerusalem. And, indeed, there is a sense in which this is clearly true. Destroying the Jewish Quarter seems to be the single most proactive thing that happened in the Old City during the 19 years it was under Jordanian control. It was only after the Israelis seized the city in 1967 that archaeology recommenced in any substantial way in the ancient city, particularly in the Jewish areas; that historic buildings and sites started benefiting from preservation and restoration; and that a thriving tourist industry was developed to bolster the city's flailing economy. (Well, it was thriving until the second intifada. Though recovering a bit since the February 2005 ceasefire, it's still rather fragile.)

However, there seems to be no case at all for Jordan reclaiming Jerusalem, and King Abdullah seems too sensible to want it, anyhow. And the Palestinians have never ruled Jerusalem, so they lack a track record to compare with Israel's. (Prior to Jordan, the city was under British control for 21 years; prior to that, Turkish Ottomans ruled it for centuries. Prior to that... oh, it was so long ago, who really cares?)

As the longtime native population, Palestinians claim moral, geopolitical, and religious rights to Jerusalem (which is the third holiest city in Islam, as well as holy to Palestinian Christians); but they lack the military might and international support to make this stick, and there's little doubt that they lack the money to maintain or develop the city at the level the Israelis are developing it. Not only is Israel a much more economically advanced society with far more infrastructure than the impoverished Palestinian Territories it has occupied for 39 years, Israel also has access to immense sums of money from overseas. Palestine, by contrast, has an economy that's based primarily on foreign aid, and it’s now having trouble just getting food and medicine to its citizens under the internationally shunned Hamas government; so its prospects don't look at all promising for responsible management of an ancient, crumbling, the-roof-and-cellar-constantly-need-fixing city that is holy to three major religions.

He who guardeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep... but he sure enjoys a whole lot of contributions from wealthy donors. Almost every nice building, bench, archaeological exhibit, museum, garden, institute, or square here has a plaque honoring the private donors who made its restoration or existence possible.

However, Christians and Moslems here complain that their historic buildings are crumbling and neglected under Israeli rule while Jewish ones are lovingly restored; their archaeological sites are dismissed and covered over while Jewish ones are well-funded and turned into museums; their neighborhoods leak and their garbage collection is unreliable, while Jewish areas are constructed, renovated, and well-tended.

Additionally, Moslems have long been alarmed by the archaeological digging beneath the Arab quarters and around the Temple Mount in the Old City. Apart from what may or may not be justified structural concerns about the stability of their landfill-made Temple Mount, Moslems have other fears about the digging of tunnels. And although the Middle East is thick with absurd conspiracy theories, worries about the Temple Mount can't be dismissed as empty paranoia. While one sincerely doubts that any credible archaeologist would ever be involved in such a scheme, some fanatic Jews in the 1980s, for example, tried to use tunnels around the Temple Mount (I have no idea which ones) to blow up the Dome of the Rock.
Western Wall tunnels

So it's no good you saying, "No one would ever do that." Because someone tried.

Ergo, some understandable paranoia among Moslems atop the Temple Mount (al-Haram, the "Noble Sanctuary," in Arabic) while Jews dig and tunnel around its base. Meanwhile, Moslems have been digging and building on the Temple Mount (particularly under the al-Aqsa Mosque), and they won't let Jews, Christians, or non-Moslem scholars anywhere near their work, despite the fact that they're digging (and destroying) Crusader, Byzantine, and Jewish archaeological evidence up there.

It's this whole big thing.

Of course, since the Dome of the Rock is a fabulously beautiful building, a famous shrine holy to a major world religion, and the single best-known visual icon of Jerusalem, you may well wonder why someone tried to blow it up in the 1980s.

Well, because they were extremist nutbags. That is an alarmingly common phenomenon around here, and it knows no boundaries of race or religion. But, to offer a slightly expanded answer, there is a tiny but dedicated segment of Israel's Jewish population who want to kick the Moslems and their sites off the Temple Mount and build the Third Temple there.

Now, me, I'm thinking this is a terrible idea, no matter how you look at it.

First of all, Yahweh (a.k.a. God, a.k.a. Allah) allowed the First and the Second Temples to be destroyed, Jerusalem sacked, and its citizens scattered to the winds—twice. So what in the world makes anyone think the afore-mentioned deity is going to be any kinder to a Third Temple? Moreover, since the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque have been sitting firmly on that Temple Mount through 13 centuries of war, conquest, and even earthquakes, doesn't that suggest that whatever-gods-may-be actually like those structures and want them there? And, while we're on the subject, I'm wondering if the Third Temple, like the first two, is going to be home to high priests and animal sacrifices? Egad.

Plus, if there's one sole thing that could get the whole Moslem world to stop quarreling with each other and unite long enough to obliterate Israel and kill every last Jew here, surely it would be seeing Israel destroy the third holiest site in Islam, al-Haram, with its shrine and its mosque. Indeed, due to the historical and religious importance of these Islamic structures, most nations would condemn their destruction. And, of course, most Israelis would, too. So a more-successful covert attempt than last time is presumably the only way it'll ever happen.

Nonetheless, there's an institute in the Jewish Quarter openly raising money and making plans for construction of the Third Temple on the site where the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque currently stand. They're for real, and they're operating within the law (though they didn't seem to like me visiting their storefront). Needless to say, the Arabs are Not Amused.

So why a Third Temple, you may wonder? Me, too. Jerusalem already has roughly 900 synagogues, including some big, grand, impressive ones. When is a surfeit enough? And how much difference will one more Jewish house of worship here make to the sour, surly, scowling temperament of your average Jerusalemite? Probably not enough to make up for the hellfire that would descend on Israel if it destroyed al-Haram.

And what's with the Temple Mount, anyhow, I hear you ask?

The landfill of the Temple Mount covers Mount Moriah, where Jews, Christians, and Moslems believe Abraham came within moments of slaying in his son to please his god (and you thought you had problems with your dad?). The mount is additionally holy to Jews because it is the site of the First and Second Temples. In Jewish tradition, the Temple Mount is the place on this planet where mankind is closest to God. The mount is also additionally holy to Moslems, who believe that the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven from the rock that the Dome covers now. And according to something I read recently, the mount was also holy to half a dozen ancient religions that preceded or coincided with Judaism in this region (so it seems likely that this is where ancient Hebrews first got the idea that the mount was holy).

This conviction about the holiness of the Temple Mount extends to the surrounding city. Not only does Jerusalem have a long, violent, rich history of important religious events and legends, but many people believe that Jerusalem has an inherently holy feel to it, a special atmosphere.

Personally, however, I have found Jerusalem to be about as holy as a post-game soccer riot. Rather than a spiritual center, my contemporary experience of Jerusalem, like my explorations of its history, have consistently revealed it as a perpetual center of religious fanaticism. I do indeed think there's something "special" in the atmosphere here, but it's certainly not anything I'd want to export, and I sure as hell hope it doesn't stick to me when I leave.

Indeed, I've come to believe that perhaps the single most defining example of the atmosphere or ethos of Jerusalem is something called Jerusalem Syndrome. It's a well-known, much-studied mental disorder unique to this city. In a classic case of Jerusalem Syndrome, a person who has not previously exhibited mental illness comes to Jerusalem... and goes nuts. Soon after entering Jerusalem, and without any prior personal history of this nature, the individual comes to believe that he is Jesus Christ, or the Messiah, or one of the Biblical prophets, or some other divinely-inspired sort of individual.

Victims of Jerusalem Syndrome are easy to identify, since they usually dress all in white, and their costumes are pretty outlandish. The syndrome is well documented by psychologists, and I've seen a number of examples of it myself. The victim I've seen most often here is a middle-aged white woman with short brown hair who, based on her accent, is probably from the United States. She dresses in a white gown that has gold-lamé Hebrew lettering on it. She carries a tall staff in her hand, and she strolls around the city regularly, stopping now and then to make a loud proclamation or prophecy.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Jerusalem Syndrome is that most of its victims recover... simply by being removed from Jerusalem.

When I look around this city, at the Jews, Moslems, and Christians, all of whom fight bitterly and endlessly within their religions as well as with other religions, and who have been doing so here for millennia... I can't help wondering if we could cure most of them just by getting them out of this poisonous town.

Dome of the Rock
Dome of the Rock
Holy Sepulcher
Holy Sepulcher
Western Wall
Western Wall

So Jack, the cab driver who can't bring his wife and child to live with him, tells me unhappily that emigration is his family's only hope of living together as a family. He and his wife have started talking about going to Australia, England, or possibly Canada. Anywhere but the United States, he tells me bitterly. Like many Palestinians, he harbors deep ill will against the U.S. government for its support of Israel—and, by extension, of policies like the one that prevents him from bringing his wife and child to live with him.

"It's not fair," he says. "Jerusalem is my home! I shouldn't have to leave my home in order for my family to be together. It's not fair!"

I agree with this, adding, "But when is war ever fair?"

"But we're not at war!"

This is a constant assertion that I hear here, and it always baffles me.

So I say to Jack, "Israel and Gaza have exchanged heavy artillery fire every single week since I got here. Israelis endure bombing of civilian targets. The West Bank is under military occupation. The borders are closed and heavily guarded, the checkpoints are well-armed military posts. Israeli soldiers die. Palestinian fighters die. Civilians on both sides die. Children on both sides die. This has been going on the whole time I've been here. So tell me... in what way are you not at war?"

Jack looks surprised. It's as if he's so used to these conditions, he forgot that they constitute what most people understand as "war."

As I write this, the Israeli Army is massing along the Gaza border in response to the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by a Palestinian faction which is demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israel.

I think people here say "we're not at war" because they've been at war so long that they have no idea what not being at war actually looks like.

Separation Barrier
Separation Barrier

Not long ago, a group of three people—a Palestinian, an Israeli, and an American who lives here—told me that war is the default setting of people in the Holy Land. A ceasefire here is just a chance to rest up for the next round of fighting. It's always been that way here, they said, and it won't change any time soon.

During my sojourn here, I've seen the utterly irrational, non-sensical things that people here fight over—that people here have fought over since they first began writing down their reasons for fighting, millennia ago. So when it comes to things that really matter—like who will live on this patch of semi-arid land that no one wants to share, and who will rule it—I find it impossible to imagine how the people of this region will ever resolve the bitter, tail-chasing tragedy that is the Arab-Israeli conflict.

(Then again, my imagination is shockingly limited for a fantasy writer. I never thought the Iron Curtain would fall in my lifetime, I never thought the IRA would lay down their guns, and I never thought Paul would divorce Heather.)

I came to Jerusalem with no strong opinion about the Arab-Israeli conflict other than, "What a mess." And in two days, I leave. My opinion now of this situation is no more sophisticated than it was before, just more emphatic: "What a MESS!" Far from finding answers here, I leave with even more questions than I had when I arrived.

This is my final dispatch from Jerusalem (though because of internet-connection  problems, I may not be able to post it until after I'm out of the country). My time here has been interesting and thought-provoking, but I'm ready to go back to a place where I can read menus, ask directions, set down a package without causing a full-scale security alert, and stand in line without being pummeled and trampled by people who don't believe in lines.

So, as they say in farewell here, shalom (Hebrew) or ma' as-salaama (Arabic): Go in peace.

And how ironic is that?

June 28, 2006