I only just made it into Jerusalem. The week following my visit access was restricted due to two killings on the Temple Mount. While in reality the likelihood of being hurt or killed in an attack is minimal, visiting Jerusalem feels like a game of Russian roulette none the less.
I took the bus from Jaffa to the Tel Aviv Central Bus station. On January 2003 two Palestinian suicide boomers killed 23 people and injured over 100 at this bus station. My daughter had been in Israel the previous week. She and I were lucky then, but so many families were not. The randomness of place and time is something we all walk with whether we’re conscious of that or not – it could be a bomb, it could be a bus, or anything unforeseen – either way, it is right to live in acknowledgement of such events, but not to live in fear of them.
The bus station covers six floors. It is a mix of shops selling the usual range of trinkets from China, clothes, travel needs and more than a few delicious foodie places. There is even a McDonalds on the ground floor – definitely not in the delicious food category. I feel a disquiet about the place. Many shops are closed – their shuttered facades creating dark gaps, like pulled teeth, add to a gloomy and unwelcoming vibe.
Here, as in all places where large numbers of people gather or pass through, there are security guards with metal detectors posted at each entrance. The guards, generally older men with heavy bodies and empty eyes, go through their routine checks in a perfunctory manner. I watch the people before me open their bags for an inspection that is cursory rather than careful. I too am waved through without any fuss.
The young men and women from the IDF, the Israeli Defence Force, are ubiquitous in the bus station, as they are everywhere in Israel. They seem always to be on the move, with a bag slung over one shoulder and a weapon slung over the other. These soldiers are young, 18 or 19. For many it’s their first time away from home. It’s the young female soldiers carrying their weapon over one shoulder and a colourfully decorated bag with small fluffy animal toys hanging from the straps, over the other that jar me the most. They look like high school kids off for a sleepover at their friend’s house. My mother heart tightens as I know that any one of them could be killed today, tomorrow or next week, and the truth is, some are.
In 2016 Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot required all IDF soldiers to carry their weapons at all times, even when on leave. This command was a response to the stabbing of an unarmed IDF solider on leave. Prior to that murder, IDF soldiers had to hand their service weapons in before taking leave. This was done in an attempt to reduce the number of soldiers using their weapons to commit suicide. Both forms of death are tragic and avoidable. I believe words, not weapons are the means to, and the way of peace.
I find my way to the back of the bus station where the shuttles park up in long lizard lines. I locate the one heading for Jerusalem and climb in. When the shuttle is full it departs, then the next one takes its place in the cue. The journey is cheap, stuffy, bumpy and without a reliable departure or arrival time. It seems to stop randomly along the way to let people off, but picks no one else up.
I alight at the shuttle’s final destination to a nondescript crossroad, checking my GPS for directions. I follow the road down the hill for about 20 minutes, weaving my way through an Arab market and traversing the maze of pedestrian crossings through the busy traffic and trams outside the Damascus Gate. It’s impossible to miss the walls of the Old City. Despite so many invasions and wars and unrest over the centuries, the walls remain a testament to mans’ enduring desire to delineate between insiders and outsiders, and to defend or destroy, depending on which side of the wall one is born – in reality or belief.
The many people drifting in and out of the Damascus Gate are dwarfed by the City’s walls. The Old City hosts a plethora of inhabitants and visitors – tourists, Jews, Christians and Muslims identifiable by their clothing and accessories. During significant religious events the city bulges with pilgrims, both religious and secular, eager to be part of the Old City’s energy, excitement, history and future. The four quarters of today’s Old City were established after the six day war in 1967 – Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian. During that war the Muslim Moroccan quarter was completed destroyed by the Jews to establish a plaza in front of the Western Wall were Jews could pray at the Western wall.
I enter through the Jaffa Gate where for centuries pilgrims have arrived along the road from the Port of Jaffa. Jaffa was once the gateway to the Holy Land, but now Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv is the port of entry for tourist, pilgrims, Aliyah immigrants and locals. At the Jaffa Gate on the morning I arrive a guitar playing busker sits on the ledge just inside the Gate, while outside a woman stands beside a ‘Stop Persecuting Falun Gong in China’ sign handing out pamphlets. My father entered through this Gate in the early 1940s when he was on leave during WWII. Israel was his ‘rest and recreation’ from fighting with the New Zealand troops in Egypt.
I follow the tourist trail through the Old City, passing the Armenian quarter on my way to the Western Wall. I pass battered buildings and wonder how many people have lived on that spot over the millennia, how many women fed their children and cared for aged parents, and why or what has hindered a rebuild this time. There is so much I want to learn and understand about this place – I have so many questions. I’m not sure the stories and tales that slip and slide through the streets and float on the dust in this ancient city will ever all be captured or told. But what I’m learning here is that the truth is not negotiable within these city walls, but it is also not exclusive. This is a city of multiple truths and fake news.
As I wander these streets I consider the relationship between religion and politics – is religion the means to achieve political goals, or is it the other way around? I know that nothing is that black and white, but in my cynicism born from reading about the history of Israel, I suspect the tail being wagged is religion, and the dog is, and has always been, politics and power. Perhaps Marx was correct in asserting that religion is the opiate of the people. So many die in defense or defiance of contested stories, myths and purported facts, when in truth, the battle is for power, for land, and for wealth.
The streets are lined with bullet and battle scarred buildings built, rebuilt and re-purposed over millennia. I walk along the Via Dolorosa, where it is said Jesus carried the cross to the hill where he was crucified. Along the route women shop for the evening meal, children play and men sit on plastic chairs idly watching and smoking. The needs of everyday life are met in these lanes and alleyways, yet the tension is palpable. I try and imagine how it is to live here, but it is so far from any reference points in my life that it would be presumptuous and arrogant of me to think I’ll come anywhere close to truly understanding.
I catch the eye of locals as I pass through their communities – none feel open or give me cause to feel welcome. I am an outsider in a place where outsiders are potentially a threat to both their physical and religious life.