My Jerusalem: A Personal Reflection

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Posted on July 17th, 2014 | Filed under Book Review, Challenges, Featured, Social Issues
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Stylized world map in the shape of a clover-leaf (the three classical continents of Europe, Asia, Africa), with Jerusalem at the center, with additional indication of Great Britain, Scandinavia and America / the New World. By Henrich Bunting. 1581. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Under the glare of the midday desert sun, I gaze at the life teeming below me. From my perch on the ramparts, I can see the sun sparkling off the brilliant gold of the Dome of the Rock. Jewish men and women are bowing and crying and caressing the cool stone of the Kotel. Children run down the narrow streets, laughing and kicking a soccer ball, nearly colliding with a Greek Orthodox priest in elaborate garb. The scents of sizzling shawarma, spices, and blended fruit waft into my nostrils.  The afternoon call to prayer for Muslims comes over the loudspeaker, nearly drowning out the shouts of the open-air merchants, who hawk their wares in a mix of Hebrew, Arabic, English, and a thousand other tongues.

This is my Jerusalem. The Jerusalem you can see from the ramparts, the stone wall surrounding the Old City. The Jerusalem that is a microcosm of the greater Jerusalem; people of so many ethnicities, religions, convictions, and experiences, crushed together as they go about their daily business of selling, buying, eating, and worshipping. And yet as close as they are physically, the closeness is artificial. Rare is the moment when there is genuine, meaningful interaction between members of different quarters. There are a thousand missed opportunities per day for understanding, conversation, and friendship. Yet in that same day there are also a thousand opportunities for hatred, conflict, and violence. My Jerusalem thrums with the potential energy of these opportunities. My Jerusalem is both a triumph, and a tragedy.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend an event sponsored by the Massachusetts Council of Churches at the Boston Museum of Science, which consisted of a screening of the Imax film “Jerusalem,” a conversation with the director, writer, and producer, Daniel Ferguson, and a reception with the Boston interfaith community. The film itself was visually stunning, an almost dizzying ride through a beautiful and ancient city. What struck me most, however, was the director’s choice to structure the film around three teenage girls--one Jewish, one Christian, one Muslim. They all called Jerusalem home; they walked many of its same streets and passed by many of its same sites each day. Yet their particular experiences of the city were each so different from the other. They each had different spaces where they felt safe and comfortable, and the meaning each brought to her interaction with these spaces was unique. In the film, the young women never interact with each other. Daniel Ferguson acknowledges that this was a deliberate choice: when he attempted to film a scene with the three girls all together, after a brief period of small talk, they fell into awkward silence. The chasm between them was simply too wide to be traversed by a few forced minutes of physical proximity. This is one of the small tragedies of my Jerusalem: that there can often seem to be more separating us than what brings us together.

Soon after this event, I began reading Ari Shavit’s new book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Shavit’s task, in his own words, is to

“address our existence as whole, as I understand it. This book is the personal odyssey of one Israeli who is bewildered by the historic drama engulfing his homeland. It is the journey in space and time of an Israeli-born individual exploring the wider narrative of his nation...What has happened in my homeland for over a century that has brought us to where we are now? What was achieved here and what went wrong here, and where are we heading? Is my deep sense of anxiety well founded? Is the Jewish state in real jeopardy? Are we Israelis caught in a hopeless tragedy, or might we yet revive ourselves and save ourselves and salvage the land we so love?” (p. xiv)

As a liberal Jew, I have a complicated relationship with Israel, and Shavit speaks powerfully to that. He expresses his love, loyalty, and pride in Israel more eloquently than I ever could, and he gives a voice to the all-too-often unspoken discomfort, fear, and anger that I and others feel on issues such as occupation and the rise of religious and nationalist extremism. The triumphs of Israel are obvious: its military strength, its booming industries, its creative and courageous population. The tragedy of Israel is perhaps no less obvious, but it is more nuanced: the inability, willful or otherwise, to see the cost that these triumphs have taken. To render invisible the Palestinian homes and villages destroyed in 1948. To erase their Arabic names and replace them with Hebrew ones. To paint the story of Israel in triumphant, nationalistic colors, instead of admitting how years of war and occupation have (perhaps irreversibly) damaged its collective moral psyche. The tragedy is, in essence, each side’s ignorance of the humanity of the Other. This blindness does not make these tragedies go away; rather, it suppresses anger and resentment and fear that will inevitably boil up and demand to be felt and seen and heard.

In mid-June, my husband and I spent ten days in Israel, visiting friends and family in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. This was our second ten-day trip together; we had honeymooned in Israel in 2011. To me, these visits never felt like tourist excursions. Rather, perhaps because we had spent six months studying in Jerusalem in 2008, and of course because of the years upon years of Jewish yearning for this land, they always felt like coming home. The sun-drenched sky was my sky, the warm pinkish roads of Jerusalem stone were my roads, the dusty desert air was my air. Yet if I am inheriting this promised land, if I am claiming it as my own, I also have to fully embrace its darker side. I have to see what has been invisible, and speak what has been unspoken. I have a responsibility not only to acknowledge the sins committed in the name of Israel, but to actively work to atone for them.

As I write these words, four families in Israel mourn the loss of their young sons, murdered in cold blood. Palestinian and Israeli civilians alike are running for cover from rocket fire from the IDF and Hamas. Many have died, and many more probably will. My heart is aching for the violence that has once again engulfed the land I love. Once again, we see that the triumph of Israel is also a tragedy. Once again, I pray for peace to return to my Jerusalem.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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2 Responses to “My Jerusalem: A Personal Reflection”

  1. Martha says:

    I am thinking of going to see the IMAX Jerusalem film and was looking for a review of it when I came across your post. You’ve written beautifully how people have taken sides and both are suffering, hopefully eventually everyone will be able to see (not blindly looking away) the past and all that is ugly and find beauty in it, the various names in different languages.

  2. Martha says:

    …underneath we are all the same – humans ♥

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Sarah Fein is a PhD student in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Her work focuses on the role of women and gender in the Hebrew Bible and its later interpretation.


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