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PDI: Starting Off in the Old City

Posted on 07/18/2010 @ 07:10 PM

PDI Israel

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By Josh Langer, International Program Associate

I’m thrilled to be blogging about our first full day here in Israel. As you know from Avery’s post, we’re currently based in Jerusalem - a wonderful setting to consider today’s theme of what makes a place holy. This was particular pertinent as the day led into Erev Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning to commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples. I’ll run through all of the day’s activities, and leave you with a few of the critical questions we struggled with as a group.

We started the day in the Old City, with the goal of visiting sites holy to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. We intended to start at the Temple Mount, the site of the famous golden Dome of the Rock Mosque, and the less well-known, but perhaps more important, al-Aqsa mosque. I’ve been the Kotel (Western Wall) many times, but never had the opportunity to go up on the Temple Mount, which is under the jurisdiction of the Waqf, the organization that oversees all Muslim holy sites in the region. Unfortunately, many of us weren’t sufficiently modest with our attire, so all of us wearing shorts had to go buy some awesome pantaloons... check out our pantaloons in the picture below.

We eventually got to the Temple Mount, but not until after we visited what is known as Kotel Katan (the small Wall), a little-known, yet very interesting section of the Western Wall. The part of the wall that everyone is familiar with has a large plaza that was cleared out after Israel gained control of the area during the Six Day War in 1967. Until that point, homes and shops were built up right against the wall while the area was under Jordanian, and before that, British rule. Some sections of the wall still have homes, shops and offices built right up to it - and one of those sections of the wall has a cleared out space that is roughly 20 yards long and ten yards wide. It’s the exact same wall, but it obviously doesn’t have the same level of importance as the part of the Wall with which we’re all familiar.

After the Kotel Katan, we returned to the Temple Mount appropriately dressed. It was spectacular to see the Dome of the Rock mosque so close up - but what was even more special for me was to have the views of the rest of the city from the Mount that I’ve never seen before in all my time in Jerusalem. It’s a totally unique perspective of the surrounding areas, especially the Mount of Olives. Many of us felt conflicted on the Mount - it was a very powerful place, both because of the special environment created by the Muslim holy sites, but also because of the significance of the site to us as Jews - it is the site of the former temples, and also where Abraham bound Isaac. However, the area is now the most controversial piece of real estate in the world, and to be in a place that has time-limited and activity-restricted access for non-Muslims was a very difficult fact to face.

As we exited the Temple Mount, we passed a group of young Orthodox men standing outside the gate of the Mount. They were chanting a beautiful niggun (traditional chants, often with syllables instead of words). They were chanting with real vigor - I interpreted the emotional chanting as a lead-in to Tisha B’Av, starting later that evening, and as a protest against the Muslim authorities who currently administer the Temple Mount and restrict Jewish access to the Mount.

We then visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, an extremely holy site for Christianity, as it is where Jesus supposedly buried and resurrected - interestingly, different Christian denominations identify different locations in the larger church complex as the site of Jesus’s burial and resurrection. I found the church to be “overdone” - it didn’t have the simple, subtle power of the Temple Mount or the Western Wall/Kotel Katan. It seemed cluttered and busy.

After finishing in the Old City, we returned to the hotel for a Hebrew lesson and took a brief break. After the break, we were back on the bus for another exciting expedition, this time to Gush Etzion. “The Gush” is a bloc of Jewish settlement in the area known invariably as The West Bank, Judea and Samaria, the occupied territories, the liberated territories, and so on. Each label is a loaded political term. At the very least, I can say that these Jewish communities are extremely controversial. We had lunch with a member of the city council, who explained her perspective on the history of the land, her connection to it, and the importance of Jews settling and maintaining the land. After lunch, we toured a settlement called Bat Ayin, most enjoyably the home of Avi and Debby Neuman, who worked as educators in the past few summers at our summer programs. Avi lovingly called his community “freaks on a hill” - Bat Ayin is seen as one of the more radical settler communities. Bat Ayin was a very simple and rudimentary community, with the most basic homes, unpaved roads, etc.

Following our time in Bat Ayin we drove through an adjoining settlement, Efrat, that was completely different. It looked like any modern, thriving town in Israel, with beautiful, large homes, clean paved roads, playgrounds, shopping centers, and so on. Jewish settlement in the West Bank is diverse and nuanced and complicated. These communities are only 20 minutes from Jerusalem, and their eventual status will be an extremely controversial development as the Israelis and Palestinians continue to play with the border.

We ended our tour in Gilo, a southern suburb of Jerusalem that overlooks Bethlehem, and a number of other Palestinian towns that share the same valley. It also overlooked what’s called by the Israeli government as the “seam zone” - or what most people in America know as the security wall/fence. We saw how it meandered around Bethlehem, and learned the reasons one might support or oppose its existence. What’s important to know about this barrier is that it is not unilaterally supported on the “Jewish side”, particularly by settler communities who are worried that they will remain stuck on the “wrong side” of the barrier. One often hears Jews who have moral misgivings about the barrier, but there are also Jews whose reasons are more geopolitical.

We finished our day with a text study, and a special visit back into the Old City to experience the traditional chanting of Lamentations at the Western Wall. I chose to participate in an egalitarian (mixed men and women) chanting at the southern corner of the wall, an absolutely stunning setting, as we sat on huge stones at the base of the wall as lights cast our shadows on the wall in front of us. The chanting was beautifully haunting and perfectly conveyed the depths of mourning that one would express to represent such dramatic loss.

So that was our day in a (rather large) nutshell. Here are a few questions we struggled with as a group, that I hope all of our faithful readers will also consider:

What makes a place sacred? Does space have inherent holiness, or is holiness assigned to space by people?

How can the same space be holy to different people for different reasons? How do we reconcile what can be emotionally charged and irrational conflicts that result from those competing narratives?

What the heck should happen with Jewish settlements on “the other side” of the Green Line? Can return of land achieve peace? Can and should we expect territorial compromise from Jewish communities who have such a deep historical, religious, and emotional connection to the land? What sort of relationships do these communities have with the local Palestinian communities?

The area around Jerusalem is just as complicated, if not more so, than the settlements we visited to the south. I guess there’s not a question here, just, if you have any great ideas for how to get everyone to agree on what should happen here, tell Bibi!

Thanks for reading - tomorrow we charge into the desert to visit Qumran, where the famed Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Enjoy the next entry! Thanks for reading!

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