I wrote this post some months ago and, at the time, certain issues were at the fore of my mind. I am aware that now international politics and the lack of peace process with the Palestinians are in my thoughts more than the religious issues that are central to this post. Nonetheless, I wanted to post it because the issues are still relevant and significant.
When we arrived in Israel, we participated in a special ceremony to receive our identity documents. This ceremony captured nearly everything about the State of Israel that is complex, enthralling and challenging. On our way up to the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem), our bus drove by the edge of an area known as Silwan. Our tour guide explained we were going past a mixed neighbourhood of Jerusalem, symbolic of the whole of Israel. ‘Mixed’ is a delightful euphemism to describe a neighbourhood in which Jews and, in this case, Palestinians live. Moreover, our guide neglected to mention that Silwan had been the subject of an ongoing dispute and was just that week in the news as a result of a violent incident.
Things got even more complicated when we arrived at the Kotel. Michelle and I decided not to go on the guided tour, since we needed to feed our daughter, and instead I ran up the steps at the back of the plaza to buy a couple of things for our journey to Haifa that evening. There is something very odd about being in Jerusalem in the 21st Century and hearing the busking fiddler play melodies from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. The nostalgic world of Jewish life in the Shtetl is almost the antithesis of what the new capital of the State of Israel was ‘supposed’ to represent, but here in the Old City the worlds collide. On my return to the Kotel Plaza, I was accosted by the obligatory number of beggars and couldn’t help eavesdrop on a conversation between a member of a group of Israelis visiting as part of their art club and a charedi beggar. The beggar shouted at her when she gave money to an Arab, ‘Don’t give money to him, he’s an Arab!’ To which she promptly replied, ‘What, he doesn’t need to eat too?’. I briefly went down to the wall itself and was asked by someone if I would make a minyan (quorum of 10 required in some communities for certain prayers) for afternoon prayers. Time did not permit me to help, but I was struck by the almost total absence of anyone other than Charedim (Ultra-Orthodox) praying by the wall. I don’t know if he ever got together enough people for his service.
Our ceremony itself took place at the back of the plaza in the site of an archaeological excavation of Roman period Jerusalem. The organiser told us that we were walking on paving slabs that it was quite possible Jews also walked upon and that should send a shiver up our spine. He then handed over to various other speakers, including a Christian Zionist who donates significant amounts of money to the State of Israel to support the absorption of new Jewish immigrants. Leaving aside the issue of whether it is right to accept the money, I found it rather strange having him speak to us. His ideology was contra to a Zionist narrative proclaiming independence from non-Jews determining the Jewish people’s future (whether malevolent or benevolent) and his theology was so categorically opposed to mine we would be hard pushed to agree on anything and certainly not our expectations for the end-of-days. When the ceremony finally finished we were told we were going to stand beneath the Israeli flag in the centre of the plaza and sing Hatikvah (the Israeli national anthem). Just as we began climbing the steps our leader called us back – he had been told we weren’t permitted to sing Hatikvah beneath the flag because we were a mixed group. There’s that euphemism again, only mixed in this context means men and women. So Hatikvah was sung out of sight and sound of the easily offended charedim who control the Kotel area. That did not stop the Western Wall Foundation (the charedi non-governmental organisation which administers the kotel area) providing us with a copy of Rabbi Judah Halevi’s poem ‘My heart is in the East‘ – which some claim to represent a sort of medieval proto-zionism. How strange – the charedim who, whilst shifting in their stance on Zionism, have historically been anti-zionist, control the plaza at the heart of the capital city of the State of Israel. This control is to such an extent that the national anthem of the State cannot be sung by a mixed group in a location under their control. I rather think that instead of handing out Judah Halevi’s poem, the organisers might better have distributed ‘The City of Slaughter‘ by Bialik, in which he lambasts the fervently Orthodox for their concern with the minutiae of Jewish law over saving their family and themselves from a pogrom. But perhaps that would have been just a little too counter cultural.
Israel is a complex place to live. There are competing claims to land, religion, history, identity and authority. It is far from perfect. It is also a work in progress and that’s what makes it exciting – where nearly 6 million Jews are living and trying to understand alongside their fellow citizens what it means to live in a Jewish and democratic State. If an hour at the Kotel can refract so much of current issues in Israel, think what day to day life is like?