The Center of the World

I thought I understood. At least a little, anyway. And I thought coming here would help me understand even more. But now I’m utterly bewildered. I know even less than when I started.

Today, this place, in all its magnificence, its violence, and its terrible, awe-inspiring glory revealed itself to me. Yes, that statement is dramatic, and no, I did not come down with a case of Jerusalem Syndrome. It just does not get more dramatic or intense than this.

It was a one-two punch that knocked me flat on my back. First, a tour of Jewish settlements, led by Bruce, a Jew from West Bronx, who immigrated to Israel in the early 1980s. Bruce met me and the other two members of our group (Grazyna, British, and Carolyn, Canadian, both of whom are also volunteering in the West Bank) on King David Street in Jerusalem. Bruce was armed, the handle of his gun sticking out rather obviously from the waist of his pants.

During the tour, we spoke to settlers who moved from places like Chicago, Montreal, and Russia in order to stake their rightful claim to the Promised Land. They consider themselves entitled, by Biblical and historical mandate, to land in Israel (all of Israel, not just in Israeli-administered territory). The conversations we had were heated but respectful. At times, though, it was difficult for me to bite my tongue, but we were guests and we were not going to ruin that. (I think the settlements are a huge obstacle to peace, but in this part of the world, a lot of things here impede the peace process.)

Second, the Old City. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built, it is said, on the site of Christ’s crucifixion. Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus followed to his death. Shabbat (Friday night, the holiest time of the week for Jews) at the Wailing Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. The call to prayer from al-Aqsa on the Temple Mount, rising, just slightly, above the din at the Wall, claiming its own place in this city at the center of the world.

Christian pilgrims from all parts of the world, throwing themselves down on the floor of the church and praying and sobbing. Jews from across the Judaic spectrum, speaking French, Polish, Russian, Hebrew, some visiting the Wall for the first time, ran toward their brethren, some of whom rocked violently back and forth in prayer. Nuns, monks, imams, rabbis—clerics from the three great monotheistic faiths—passing by each other in the narrow, covered lanes of the Old City.

And the guns. Everywhere. Police, Jewish civilians, nineteen-year-old soldiers (male and female), praying at the Wall with automatic rifles slung over their shoulder and Torah in hand.

Ironic. Conflicted and conflicting. Glorious. A place like no other.

I will have much more to report after I’ve had a chance to reflect. This was my first full day in Jerusalem, and it completely—forgive the unholy expression—kicked my ass.

Here are some photos from today’s adventures:

Sign marking entrance to Palestinian Territory.

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Illegal Jewish settlement (called an outpost). These are illegal because they are not approved by the Israeli government and are usually built on Palestinian land. Residents tend to be ultra-orthodox. Some, but not all, outposts are demolished, and their residents moved to approved settlements.

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Israeli soldier at a settlement supermarket. (A bit blurry, but he didn’t want his photo taken, so I didn’t have much time to take it.)

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Our guide, Bruce, hosting us for coffee and snacks at his house. (Some of the settlement houses looked like houses you would find in an American subdivision, but this was more like a trailer he built himself.)

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A settler family.

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Fences everywhere.

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Quiet lane in the Old City.

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Ethiopian Christian who unlocked his church to show me a 17th century Ethiopian Bible.

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T-shirts for sale in the Old City.

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Armenian entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

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Muslim graffiti.

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