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.