By Harry Onickel
My wife and I recently spent five weeks in Israel. We stayed in a charming courtyard apartment kept cool by shade from two huge olive trees (and an AC unit) in Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood, a ten-minute walk from the Old City. Musrara, home to secular and religious Jews, Christians, and Muslims, was built in the late 1800s.
Most of Jerusalem was built more recently; the newest parts being built as you read this. Jerusalem is a mixture of the new, the old, the very old, and the – what! how old? It’s a living historical record going back an estimated 5000 years.
Growing organically over all these centuries, street construction had to be based on topography, so even in the newer neighborhoods, good luck finding a street that goes in a straight line for any appreciable distance or intersections that make right angles. This adds to the challenge of negotiating your way around, but also gives a sense of accomplishment when one is able to successfully navigate a decent portion of the city. Or at least that’s how I felt after figuring out how to travel from point aleph to points beit, gimel, dalet, and hei – and back. Too, there was the ordeal of having to frequently walk up and down hills. Going downhill was sometimes more difficult, treading over paving stones worn smooth and slippery through centuries of foot traffic.
The Old City, while a major tourist attraction, is not an Israeli Greenfield Village. Yes, thousands of years of history, from Hezekiah’s Tunnel to bullet holes and memorials from Israel’s war of independence exist here along with restaurants, moneychangers, and enough shops to make even the best shopper drop, but people also live in the Old City.
While ancient, not all of the current features are original construction. The outer walls have been rebuilt as recently as the sixteenth century after having been repeatedly knocked down by conquering armies and by earthquakes. Jerusalem has been invaded, conquered, re-conquered, torn down, and rebuilt with new structures raised over the remains of the old. Archaeologists are continually discovering ancient city remains and artifacts. Stones and rubble from the Roman destruction of the Temple have been uncovered for tourists to marvel at.
Walking the streets of Jerusalem, in and out of the Old City, one sees people of all different shapes, sizes, ethnicities, skin tones, religions, nationalities, and modes of dress. I believe this is referred to as diversity. Do they all live together in perfect harmony?
I don’t know.
How well do you and your neighbors get along? You and your co-workers? You and your family? As these are people we’re discussing, and people everywhere share certain characteristics, you can probably use your own social circle/work network to make a guess.
While we were there, an incident occurred which (again) tested this diverse coexistence. Two Israeli policemen were murdered on the Temple Mount by Palestinian terrorists. There were repercussions that extended well beyond Jerusalem, as they always do when these types of incidents transpire. Part of the Israeli government’s response was to place metal detectors on the Temple Mount, just as there are metal detectors at the Western Wall, at the Vatican, and at mosques world-wide including some in Saudi Arabia. I will analyze this event and its extended aftermath in our next exciting installment.
Meanwhile, outside the Old City, things went on as normal. People went to work in the morning. Children attended school. Shops and restaurants were open, except on the Sabbath. In the downtown triangle, a few minute’s walk from the Old City, there were still diverse tourists and natives wandering the streets, eating at the numerous sidewalk cafes, shopping for souvenirs and groceries, listening to buskers, and giving spare change to beggars. Mothers and fathers pushed their babies in strollers or rode them on the backs of bicycles.
There was however, a larger than normal police presence. There are always in-uniform soldiers with their weapons, especially in the tourist-heavy downtown triangle. By weapons, I don’t mean side arms like the police carry. I mean automatic rifles. Are all the soldiers on duty? It’s hard to tell. Many of the soldiers and more than a few of the police officers are on their phones. Some soldiers are strolling with their girl or boyfriends. They’re eating ice cream or relaxing at lunch or dinner. They’re redirecting lost tourists. Recently, due to stabbing attacks, off-duty, out of uniform soldiers have been allowed to carry their weapons.
The Musrara neighborhood, our Jerusalem home, borders the 1948 armistice line. From 1948 until the Six Day War in 1967, if you crossed that line, which was then marked with barbed wire, you were in Jordan. Musrara residents, during that time had to be wary of Jordanian snipers, who were known to pick off an occasional Israeli. Across Kheil ha-Handasa Street, a major thoroughfare, and across the light rail tracks, both of which roughly parallel the armistice line, is an Arab neighborhood. The owner of our Jerusalem apartment recommended a bakery and fruit market there. That’s where she goes. Her mother travels there to get to her doctor. For a few days there were police officers at the main intersection dividing the two neighborhoods and at our Damascus Gate light rail stop. There were extra police officers on area busses. Some side streets were blocked to automobiles.
There was still a lot of back and forth foot traffic, Muslims and Jews continued walking through each other’s neighborhoods, easily recognized due to their modes of dress.
Were people more vigilant? Well, maybe the ones walking head down concentrating on their phones were taking sidelong glances. From what I saw though, children still played in the streets, alleyways, playgrounds, and parks after school. Groups of Old City tourists were still following their guides around exploring history, religion, and architecture. Old City merchants were still giving the old hard sell, trying to entice lone tourists into their shops. The souk was still jammed with people buying groceries and waving flies away. Natives were still out living their lives. Tourists were still touring.
The first mistake people make about Jerusalem is thinking that news reports give the whole picture. The second mistake is trying to impose their religion and/or politics on the city. Believe it or not, Jerusalem, a city unlike any other, is full of people living their lives, just like every other city.
I’m Harry Onickel. I am a reader. I always have been. I like to think that between reading for all these years, fiction and nonfiction, high and low culture, classics and trash, the acceptable and the dangerous, and just being around for a bit, I’ve learned one or two things and perhaps gained a bit of perspective. In addition to learning, reading makes me wonder. Lately, I’ve been wondering – what lies behind the mask? My blog, occasionally updated, is The Teacher That Exploded.