Firstly apologies for the hiatus – a batch of Real Life intervened!
Our first days in Jerusalem were a whirlwind of impressions, sights, information and people, with very little time to process what we had seen and heard. This is, in one sense inevitable in a place which has had such a long and at times bitter history. It is a place which has been fought over from antiquity, with invaders from – amongst others – Rome, Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, the Crusaders, down to 1967 and the aftermath of continuing conflict today.
It would be both naive and presumptuous to make judgements and draw conclusions about today’s circumstances after just a few days in the place, taking in the atmosphere and looking at the local English language editions of the newspapers, and glimpsing the tv programmes, but certain impressions stand out and need to be considered.
One essential is to discount much of what is reported in the Western press. Sadly much of the reporting, particularly but not exclusively in the tabloid section, is ill-informed and comes from a particular viewpoint. Getting an unbiased viewpoint is extremely difficult, and so I stress that these following comments come from what I have experienced in our first five days.
The first impression is that of hospitality. It is more of a genuine welcome than the usual approach of tourist places to relieve the visitor of as much cash as possible and then move on to the next group. Yes, some of the street vendors can be quite pushy, and you need to be prepared to pay if you want to photograph a camel, but I stand by my comment. At the Bethlehem Co-operative there was a painstaking introduction to what was available and the ethos behind the work. There were refreshments and there was absolutely no pressure to buy anything. You could talk to the stallholders who were quite happy to show and talk about their wares, and were courteous if we didn’t want a particular item.
Friday’s visit to Yad Vashem was a stark reminder, if one were needed, of why Israel
collectively says “never again”. It is a place of infinite pain but it is also a place of division. There is no mention of the other groups who were slaughtered on an industrial scale by the Nazis. Every recruit to the Israeli Defence Force is taken to Yad Vashem as part of their initial training – we saw some whilst we were there – and I cannot help but wonder whether the story told there leads to some of the problems at the checkpoints when these no longer recruits are deployed to guard the borders. Does the enormity of the history there mean that even friends are regarded with suspicion, just in case?
The other side of the coin we saw on the day after our arrival. Some Palestinians reckon 15th May as Nakba Day, the Day of Catastrophe, which commemorates the time in 1948 when Israel became an independent state after some 700,000 Palestinians had been expelled or fled, and many villages depopulated and destroyed. A short way down the road from our hotel there was a gathering dispersed by the Israeli Police and military with tear gas, water cannon and a cavalry charge of some youths who came running down the road in front of us. No more than eight Palestinian men under the age of 50 are allowed to gather in one place in Jerusalem, a prohibition which does not apply to Orthodox Jewish men: the following day there was a procession of forty or so walking down the road with a police escort to clear the traffic.
But it is important to remember that neither Israeli nor Palestinian society is a homogenous grouping. Even in Jerusalem there are tensions between Orthodox Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews and secular Jews. The ultra-Orthodox pay no taxes, nor do they serve in the Army, and whilst we were there a debate was being held in the Knesset as to whether they, together with others like the Christians, should be required to serve. The motion was defeated – for now.
As we passed the Knesset building (which I was intrigued to learn was built on land leased from the Christian Church in the form of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate) we reflected on the nature of the Knesset (or ‘Great Assembly’) which has 120 members elected by proportional representation from a party list. It is a method almost guaranteed to require coalition government, since it is unlikely that any single party will amass 61 seats to provide a majority. It is widely recognised that this means that progress on any matter is likely to be slow, or blocked by a minority party. Again there is divison between those who see this system as needing reform and those who are content with matters as they are.
All in all, we have quickly learned that Israel is a complex society, and one which is, rightly, determined to survive even if there is a forthcoming clash between the secular and the various forms of Orthodoxy.
But one has to wonder sadly how a nation which suffered the horrors of the Holocaust could now inflict such suffering and humiliation upon its nearest neighbour.