Ed Husain

The Arab Street

Husain examines politics, society, and radicalism in the greater Middle East.

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Three Observations From Jerusalem

by Ed Husain
July 19, 2012

Palestinians visit the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City (Ammar Awad/Courtesy Reuters). Palestinians visit the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City (Ammar Awad/Courtesy Reuters).


I am in Jerusalem this week.

This city, its surroundings, and claims by both Arabs and Jews on its territories make it the epicenter of a conflict that stirs the strongest of emotions. Much of the anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism prevalent in this region is linked directly to Arab perceptions of injustice and humiliation meted out to them by the ongoing Israeli occupation and the unprecedented support Israel enjoys from the United States. In contrast, almost all my conversations with Jewish friends here reflect a deep existential angst. Who can blame them? The walls of this ancient city and its varied renovations after different conquests are testament to the persecution and mass killings of Abraham’s first children, the Jews.

And it’s not just the archaeological reminders of mass killings and barbarity at the hands of the Babylonians, Romans, Crusaders, and others—but the fresh memories of the Holocaust in Europe. Then there are today’s hostilities between the children of Abraham: Israelis are terrified at the prospect of a nuclear Iran; they do not trust the Muslim Brotherhood’s promises of peace from Egypt; they want to see Assad’s grip in Syria ended, but worry about what comes next on the Golan Heights; they fear the threats of Lebanon’s Hezbollah on Israeli territory; and, domestically, they see the grasp of a terrorist Hamas on Gaza.

The terrorist attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria yesterday only confirms the worst expectations of many in Israel.

Palestinians here, too, have a long list of complaints of injustices and humiliations that fuel their anger toward the State of Israel, ranging from travel bans and restrictions on their movement within their country to aggressive land grabs by Israelis and legislation designed to weaken rights of Arabs on their property, the settler movement and its direct confrontations with entire Arab villages, and daily discrimination faced by Palestinians in education and employment.

The peace process is in shambles. As one worshipper said to me at the al-Aqsa mosque yesterday, “salam, salam, kulluhu kalam,” a saying mocking the peace process as only empty words.

Yet life goes on. From Bethlehem to Hebron to Tel Aviv, I see a vibrancy in this divided country. Three interactions have struck me most so far:

First, one of the saddest and most disturbing aspects of modern Muslim life for me is the treatment of women in some mosques. In Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, a gender apartheid is in place where entire walls separate men from women. Women are often reprimanded for being in “male areas.” But here in Jerusalem, at the holiest of holy sites for Jews and Muslims at the Dome of the Rock, it is Muslim women who reprimanded me for wanting say my prayers at an opening in the shrine. During the five daily prayers, it is women who pray inside the Dome of the Rock, say my Palestinian friends. Men pray away from the center of the building, and have become accustomed to women playing a prominent role here. No wall of separation exists, and to see women in such freedom at the Dome of the Rock, Islam’s third holy site, is a lesson for other Muslim communities globally. In the nearby al-Aqsa mosque, again, women were free to walk inside and around the mosque. There were no walls, no barriers, and no demands for face covers. Mosques are Islam’s most important public spaces: equality here helps build it elsewhere.

Second, a Jewish friend of mine from London introduced me to an ultra-orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem who kindly welcomed me into his home to meet his family of eight children and his neighbors, of whom some were also ultra-orthodox rabbis. He then took me to a visit a yeshiva. There, in the rabbi’s community, the very same debates I hear in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Egypt about reconciling religion, scripture, and modernity were alive and animated. Just as Muslims look to scripture and text for guidance, so did the rabbi’s community look to him and his library of commentary on scripture. The ultra-orthodox challenges with women’s rights, homosexuality, and wanting to maintain religious purity in a pluralistic modern world can offer insights to their Salafi Muslim cousins.

Third, my Palestinian companion on a trip to Bethlehem was a man who not only joked in fluent Hebrew with Israeli soldiers at checkpoints, but proudly told me that for the first time in fifty-six years he could now afford foreign holidays to Austria and Turkey. He has obtained an Israeli passport and used it to travel abroad. In our many conversations, he was nothing but mild-mannered. He was quick to remind me that he could insult Prime Minister Netanyahu without any repercussions. As we drove around the West Bank, he pointed to houses sold by Palestinians to Jews. Not settlements, but legal transactions. His anger and comments will never leave me. “It is forbidden to sell property to the Jews. The man who sold that house was then shot and killed in Jericho by other Palestinians. His body was buried in the desert. Traitors are worse than dogs, and have no burial rights.”

When emotions rise, logic disappears. Groupthink dominates Arab-Israeli discourse, and whatever the gains of the Arab spring, this city and the powerful sentiments it evokes can yet again derail the best plans for democracy and prosperity in the region.

For more on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, see CFR’s Crisis Guide here.


  • Posted by Yisrael Medad

    An excellent reflection on many aspects of reality here. But one point: – although the Temple Mount is holy also (if not more) to the Jews, Jews have no right to pray on the Mount anywhere, even in some far corner way away from any Moslem building and our entrance is quite severely restricted and supervised both by police and Waqf officials. Our archaeological artifacts are tossed about or covered over. A bit of consideration for another religion’s values would go a long way to coexistence and then perhaps peaceful relations.

  • Posted by Independent Patriot

    It is interesting to note the refusal of the Palestinian population to accept any responsibility for their situation. If they didn’t promote Jew hatred, terrorism and Holocaust as well as Temple Denial, there would be nothing for the Israelis to fear. No it is not pleasant to have to go through checkpoints and road blocks, but it is the fault of the Palestinian leaders who refuse to negotiate and accept Israel’s right to exist. This is not a chicken and the egg situation either. The Palestinians have always denied the right of Israel to exist, promoted terror, and the right to murder Jews. Jews are not going to put the lives of their children at risk so those who promote their murder have free reign to kill. Sorry…too bad.

  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    Three interactions stuck and unfortunately, all somehow showed that Palestinian Muslims as errant irrational children who should learn something from the adult rational Israeli Jews. Of course, it was a coincidence.

    The first interaction praised Palestinians behavior in Al-Aqsa but the start reminded us all that Muslims treat their women badly. Yes, Muslims treat their women badly but all the western commentators so concerned about Muslim women rights to worship or to work are sadly silent about their right to live. Going with the trend, the author didn’t find the plight of Palestinian women and children living in Gaza interesting.

    The second interaction again has the same theme. Even when many Israelis are complaining about the anti-women and anti-peace behavior of Orthodox Jews (the same qualities which were criticized in the first and third interaction), the author shows them in a positive light and asks Muslims to learn from them.

    The third interaction can only be written by someone whose community has never been colonized. It reminds me of Malcolm X’s distinction of two kinds of slaves: the house negro and the field negro. The house negro, as compared to field negro, ate good, dressed good and was generally beaten less violently by the master. Why? Because house negro accepted his position in the house as natural and didn’t fight against it. Master was born to be master and he was born to be a slave and serve. Field negro wanted rights and was not ready to call the house where he was daily humiliated and beaten as his own house. Perhaps, the author should also meet some field Palestinians to balance his views.

    Israel’s right to exist has been accepted by the whole Arab region (Please read King Abdullah’s peace initiative of 2002 which has been endorsed by Arab League many times), if only Israel accepts UN resolutions and allows the formation of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories.

  • Posted by Jared Israel

    To Raja M. Ali Saleem: Are you serious? Israel’s right to exist “has been accepted by the whole Arab region”? Either you are abysmally ignorant, or you are trying to deceive Westerners by telling them what they would like to believe. On May 17, called Nakba or Catastrophe day because it marks the creation of Israel, Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) Supreme Guide Badie, the leader of Ikhwan worldwide, repeated the long-established Ikhwan position that Israel must be destroyed.

    As translated by the Jerusalem Post, Badie said “On this day, like every year, the Arab and Islamic nations remember the worst catastrophe ever to befall the peoples of the world. […] We demand the international community rectify the historic injustice [of 1948] and pressure the government of the Zionist entity to withdraw from the land of Palestine.””

    In 1948, Israel did not control the West Bank or Gaza, so the “Palestine” from which Badie wants “the Zionist entity to withdraw” is all of Israel, from the river to the sea. Likewise, Fatah officials say on Arab TV that negotiations are merely a tactic in a two-pronged campaign to destroy Israel. The other prong is “operations.” If Arab organizations and those who encourage their hostility to Israel — including, unfortunately, the Vatican — honestly sought peace with the Jewish state, they would get it immediately. The policy of killing Arabs who sell homes to Jews says it all. ‘No Jews or dogs allowed.’

    Peace is equated with treason.
    — Jared Israel