Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Conflict

The Conflict. Just two simple words, and yet pretty much everyone knows exactly which conflict is being referred to when those two words are mentioned in connection with Israel. Sometimes I feel like talking about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is like beating a dead horse. Whether in Israel or across the ocean in the United States you don't have to look very far to find cynicism or apathy when it comes to this topic of conversation. And I understand, to a certain degree, the eye-rolling when this topic surfaces.

We did a three-session block on the Conflict in our Israel Seminar that started with a visit to the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif as it's called in Arabic). I was actually excited to be going, even though (in order to beat the flocks of tourists) this required getting up at what for any musician is an obscene hour of the morning. Even though I've been to the Kotel numerous times, I'd never before visited Haram al-Sharif.

So I rousted myself from my bed at ten minutes to six in the morning, met my friend and next door neighbor, and together we walked to the Kotel plaza to meet our class. Even despite getting there at 7:30 in the morning, we still had to wait forty minutes before security actually let us go through the gate. They checked our bags for anything that even remotely looked Jewish; one of my Cantorial classmates had music confiscated because it had words transliterated from Hebrew. I'd known already that Jewish worship of any kind is illegal on Haram al-Sharif, and I'd thought I was safe. After all, I reasoned, I only had my lunch, a notebook and my pencil case in my back pack. Nothing that could possibly be construed as an item of Jewish worship. But no, even I was forced to lighten my backpack. Turns out that they don't even allow writing implements on Haram al-Sharif because they don't want to give anyone the opportunity to do graffiti. At first I was annoyed. Did they honestly think that I, a seminary student, was going to write "God hates Muslims" on one of the holiest sites in all of Islam? And then I remembered that the Haram al-Sharif t is still hotly contested in the realm of the Conflict, and in light of that, graffiti is never simply graffiti.

I overheard one of the security guards talking on his radio in Hebrew, telling a fellow guard: "I've got a group of students here, all American, half of them are Jews and half are Christians, I think." I must have really been in a snarky mood that morning, because I came very close to turning around and shouting at him -in Hebrew -"ma pitom gever? Ani Israelit!" just to be contrary. Roughly translated, that phrase means: "What the hell man? I'm an Israeli!" I bit my tongue though, and mumbled to Allan instead about how I hate that whenever Israelis see English speakers in groups they automatically assume that no one speaks a lick of Hebrew. Allan reminded me gently that we were in a touristy area, so it's only natural for the guard to assume that we were tourists. I grumbled and followed him up the ramp that bridges the Kotel plaza with the Temple Mount.

On top, blinking in the clear sunshine, I gaped as we came out into another plaza, wide and clean. I felt transported to another world as I looked at the orderly rows of Cyprus trees, like colonnades, splitting this plaza clearly into several sections. Old men sat in twos and threes, smoking cigars, playing chess, reading passages from the Quran; women dressed in long coats and full hejab strolled together down the rows of Cyprus or chatted with the men. In one part of the plaza people knelt on rugs, obviously praying. I didn't want to admit it, but I was shocked at the feeling of serenity that permeated the air. I felt myself flooded suddenly with that particular stillness from which the voice of intuition speaks. My eyes filled with tears and I was overcome by an urge to sit under a tree and listen until the stillness gave me some glimpse of the Divine. It's just like being in the Negev, I thought to myself. There, you feel the presence of something greater than you; you don't understand it but you want desperately to connect with it. I was glad that I was wearing sunglasses; I was too ashamed to weep at seemingly nothing in front of my class, let alone in such a public place.

Thinking back, my shock was due partly to subconscious associations I had made with that place long ago. Haram el-Sharif is also where the Kotel is, and I've struggled bitterly for most of this year with the contempt I feel for the politicization of that particular historical site. It makes me uneasy at best that the Kotel is now claimed by the Ultra Orthodox Jews as the holiest site in all of Judaism, the place where we are the closest to God. They conveniently forget that the mechitza (divider between men's and women's sections) and prohibitions against the way women pray are modern developments -as in, less than one hundred years ago. It seems to me that the Ultra Orthodox have hijacked the Kotel, and, even more than the prohibitions against women, I disagree most passionately with the forcing of God into such a confined space. Why should I be closer to God at the Kotel than in my own room praying in the morning, or out at a restaurant with the friends that I love -or all alone on a mountain top in the middle of the Himalayas? After all, one of the names of God in Hebrew has the same root as the word for nature. The blatant fanaticism that Ultra Orthodox Jews have brought to the kotel rankles me. So, I choose to avoid the place as much as I can. Thus, I also chose never to go up to Haram el-Sharif until I had to for academic purposes.

Another layer to add to the confusion and complexity of the site: Haram el-Sharif is where the First and Second Temples once stood, and the Ultra Orthodox Jews believe that the site needs to be kept vacant so that when the Messiah comes the Temple will be rebuilt. Obviously, that the Temple mount is not vacant is a problem in their view. The Dome of the Rock was built during the Muslim conquest of then Palestine and Ultra Orthodox Jews -even secular Israelis to some extent -are still vexed over this affront. I can actually understand the bitterness over the Dome of the Rock being built upon the ruins of the Temple. However, as it happened roughly 1400 years ago and I don't buy into the Ultra Orthodox criterion for the Messiah, I don't believe that holding on to ancient grudges is going to help the current peace process. By that logic, the Palestinians might actually have more reason to be angry than any Israelis; the circumstances under which Israel came into statehood were terrible (to put it mildly) and in the Zionists' haste to find a solution to the Jewish Problem, errors were made that under any other circumstance would have been avoided. History shouldn't be taken as an opportunity to pass judgement on our ancestors though, and I don't mention that in order to take a side in the Conflict. I just think it bears mentioning for the sake of objectiveness and nuance.

I spent the better part of an hour wandering the plaza, posing for photos, admiring the beautiful craftsmanship of the buildings, and discussing historical events with Allan and a few other friends. As we laughed and took each other's picture, I found my thoughts wandering to Habib, our head of maintenance at the college. I thought of the conversation we had about the differences between Jews, Arabs, and Christians and I was filled with a strange feeling, not quite nostalgia. I mused on how people have always found ways throughout history to overcome religious and cultural divides when love is involved. Then I mused on the relationships we choose in our lives, and how they effect us. I mused as well, more darkly, that most Israelis believe that the Conflict will never be resolved, despite opinion polls showing that a majority of Palestinians are willing to acknowledge that Jews have a connection to this land just as they do.

We had a debriefing session after we arrived back at school from Haram el-Sharif, and I realized -in talking with my friends -that it's not necessarily the subject of the Conflict that is tired and worn out and makes me groan inwardly every time it's raised. Rather, for me it is the manner in which people approach and talk about the Conflict. I am fed up with the lack of nuance in which too many people (on any side of the conflict) approach it and seek to deal with it. Honestly, I would rather that the Muslims keep the Temple Mount for the sake of peace (security notwithstanding). In my opinion, they've done a wonderful job in creating a sacred space. It may no longer be the site of my religion, but I can recognize and respect the reverence with which they treat the site. We don't know when the Messiah will come, or even if the Messiah is a physical person. Thus, wouldn't it be better for someone to use Haram el-Sharif for spiritual purposes, rather than letting it sit empty in preparation for an event that may or may not happen?

I want to believe that the Conflict can and will be resolved -even though living in Jerusalem for the past seven months has given me a more than healthy dose of cynicism regarding human nature. It's really easy to get embroiled in all the little details of the history of the Conflict, but I'm not sure that will help in the end. I don't know that it's possible, but it seems to me that if we could somehow move on from the slights of the past (which have been suffered and perpetrated pretty evenly on both sides to date) it might bring us closer to a solution. Of course things could have been done better in 1948, but wiping Israel off the map won't solve anything either. Anyone who suggests that is ignorant. I want to believe that there is a way for both sides to co-exist without literally killing each other. It may sound overly simplistic (and thus make me sound like a hypocrite), but it seems to me that we now need to find a way for us to "agree to disagree".


  1. A beautiful, thoughtful report. I've never been up on the Mount, so, thank you for sharing your experience.

    I had no idea that mechitzah and the like were such new developments. Makes you wonder what other invented traditions are held as similarly deeply traditional and inviolable. Though, that's really quite the can of worms, so maybe it's best to just leave it be...

  2. Yes, there's a great saying: "one generation's kavanah is another's keva". That's saying basically, that one generation comes up with an idea and eventually it becomes the sacred tradition in future generations. Judaism has a long history of building traditions in this way, and it's brought us many beautiful traditions. I actually don't mind the mechitzah, and though I like wearing a tallit when I pray I don't need to wear one at the kotel to feel more Jewish. I view the kotel as a historical sight and I don't need to go there to find God. However, when people start using a site like the kotel to further their own agendas problems arise. It's always a fine line.