Vignettes of Jerusalem

The Wailing Wall and Arbitrary Inclusion/Specific Exclusion

I visited the wailing wall for the second time today. This time I was with Paul, and we walked right up to the wall itself, and into the enclosed prayer area at the left side. We were asked to cover our heads, but little white yakimas were provided (for anyone’s use – no problem with lice here?). I thought the hat would fall off, so I walked around deranged-looking holding it to my hair.

It was a very different experience from visiting the wall during the paratrooper service. This time, rather than the israeli theologic-military machine, I really felt I was experiencing a centre of jewish culture – actually a side of jewish culture I respect deeply: its emphasis on study, meditation and reflection. In the enclosed area there were many distinctly dressed jews studying and singing while facing the wall.

At the same time, visiting this area on the north side of the wailing wall breaks my heart. Because of the gender segregation I have visited a jewish site of immeasurable significance which an ultra-orthodox friend of mine has never visited, and will never be able to visit unless the current policies of restricting women to a section of the wailing wall are changed. It seems deeply unfair that me, someone who has no substantial connection to judaism, has the right to visit this deeply significant area and yet someone who has devoted their life to worship is excluded on the basis of their gender.

It is this arbitrary inclusion coupled with non-arbitrary exclusion that characterizes this city. As a Canadian tourist, I can come and stay for 6 weeks in Jerusalem – no problem. There is no reason for me to have a right to visit this place – I have no territorial roots here, I have no religious connection to this place. And yet, there is no need for a visa, a special permit, or anything. On the other hand there are millions of people for whom this place holds a special religious and historical significance who can not visit here without a special permit, or at all, because they come from a country Israel is at war with, or because they are refugees who fled from Palestine during the Nakba and had their property expropriated by zionist settlers-colonialists.

I found out later that another person on our trip, who is Muslim, was not permitted to enter the wailing wall area because she had no passport. The reason was that Muslims from other countries are permitted to enter the area, but locals are not. Again, this arbitrary inclusion/specific exclusion alienates local places from people who have a stronger connection with the area, while including tourists – people who will come, have interesting experiences, and go home to tell their friends how friendly a country is Israel.

Police Contempt in the Market 

On Damascus Gate street we witnessed our first incident of Israeli police’s attitude towards Arab palestinians. While eating falafel I noticed a police officer kick over some of the vegetable baskets of an Arab street vendor. Apparently there was some issue with their permit, which is a valid reason for a police officer to intervene in the affairs of the street. On the other hand, there is nothing necessary about the cavalier attitude which several of the participants noticed in the police – treating the Arabs with contempt, and smoking a cigarett there with his buddies, in full figure of his authority, as they cleaned up  the mess created by his boot.

This kind of incident is exactly the reason why Jerusalem, at least the old city, should not be under the control of a single state – especially not a state closely associated with a single one of the religions which claims it as holy. In the old city, “on the ground”, the city is as important to Jews as it is to Muslims as it is to Christians – and why should one group’s interests be reflected in matters planning, defence, and policing? International police could have cultural sensitivity training, and could come from institutions where instead of religious ideology they were versed in human rights discourse. The transition from the RUC to the PSNI in the North of Ireland might be a partial model for thinking about how a police force can be de-associated from one particular religious ideology and community.

Emotions and the Green Line

Walking home today from the old city I felt a rush of emotion crossing a bridge which straddles the green line (looking at a map now, I think I might have been off by 100 feet or so, but I basically had the place right). I had the strong feeling that I was leaving Palestine and entering Israel. I realize that Jerusalem up to the annexation wall is Israeli administered, but it is significant to me that even the Canadian government does not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, meaning that even according to Pro-Israeli western governments, the green line is the border of Israel in Jerusalem. I have the strong sensation that this line is important – it came into being somewhat arbitrarily, as a result of an armistice between Israeli forces and Arab armies in 1948. On the other hand, it divides Palestine into two regions which are internationally recognized as distinct territories, and for both of which there is overwhelming international recognition of their people’s right to self-determination. Those two regions are the state of Israel and the imaginary state of Palestine. It’s easy to say things like “on the ground, Palestine starts at the annexation wall” – but in reality even the territory in the “West Bank” (in the Israeli meaning of the term) is heavily regulated by Israel through a hodgepodge of exclusively israeli occupied and jointly occupation zones. And to speak about East Jerusalem, i.e. Jordanian territory occupied in 1967 (ceded to Palestinians in 1988) as Israel is to recognize Israel’s annexation of territory through wars subsequent to ’48 as legitimate.

Apparently Obama has given another toothless address stressing the importance of the ’67 borders, which will probably end in nothing because although he’s saying a lot of the right things, the alliance between Israel and the US military industrial complex is so lucrative for defence contractors. At the same time, the fact that he is stressing the importance of this border, even if it will have to be modified through land-swaps, is a recognition of the importance of the green line and the importance of the principle that annexation of territory gained through war is not legitimate.


3 thoughts on “Vignettes of Jerusalem

  1. Thank you for sharing your insights and observation from Israel and Palestine.

    How does your ultra orthodox Jewish female friend feel about being excluded from the north side of the Wailing Wall?

  2. I’ll ask her. I can already tell you, though, how my Muslim friend feels about being excluded from the South side of the wailing wall, on the suspicion she might be Palestinian. Palestinian muslims have less rights than foreign muslims in Jerusalem, and people who appear Muslim seem to be considered “Palestinian until proven otherwise”.

  3. This is a bit late. My ultra-orthodox friend isn’t bothered at all in her exclusion from the holiest synagogue in judaism. Apparently it’s just not a big deal.

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