My Word: Jerusalem of complexes and complexities

Jerusalem, home to close to one million people, is a composite of its sounds: Church bells, the calls of muezzin to prayer and the singing emanating from synagogues and homes on Friday nights.

June 16, 2019 23:54
AN AERIAL view of Jerusalem – the ancient, old and new.

AN AERIAL view of Jerusalem – the ancient, old and new. . (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Jerusalem is larger than life. And just as complicated. Just how big or small it is depends on where you stand — physically and politically. Ditto how you determine its complexities.

I showed a first-time visitor to Israel the view from The Jerusalem Post’s offices this week, located half way between the iconic Mahaneh Yehuda market and the prosaic Central Bus Station.

Taking in the sights that included the Knesset, the Bridge of Strings, Sacher Park, the low, red-topped stone buildings of Nahlaot and the new skyscrapers, the visitor was impressed. Every time a train left the light rail station under the window, the pleasant ringing of its bell sounded out.

Jerusalem, home to close to one million people, is a composite of its sounds: Church bells, the calls of muezzin to prayer and the singing emanating from synagogues and homes on Friday nights. There is the noise of never-ending construction and the silence of ancient graves.

The city excels in contradictions. It is both heavenly and very down to earth. It’s a city that has been praised in psalms and songs for years, thousands of years. Nonetheless, it is not an easy place. The millennia of history add pressure of the sort Tel Avivians go to the beach to escape. And anyone who believes that cleanliness is next to godliness has not sidestepped the litter on Jerusalem’s streets. There are pockets of poverty and profound social problems, but also immense charitable efforts and compassion.

Being aware of security comes naturally to Jerusalemites. Leave your bag unattended and it is as likely to be blown up by police sappers as a suspicious object as it is to be stolen. But it is a capital city where streets are bustling, and safe, well into the night. Mahaneh Yehuda after dark has a special buzz. After the fruit and vegetable stands close, it’s time for the cafes, bars and occasional street party.

The First Station also has a unique charm. The converted railway station houses restaurants and stores, hosts lectures and movie screenings, and is often the first stop, rather than the end of the line, for those looking for something to do in the evening.

The beautiful Park Hamesila – the Train Track Park – along the old railway is another only-in-Jerusalem spot. People out for a stroll or walking their dogs pass cyclists and Segway riders. Many stop at the free lending libraries in colorful, converted bus shelters.

Those who describe Jerusalem as an “apartheid” city clearly don’t ride its buses, shop in its malls, relax in places like the Tisch Family Biblical Zoo, or receive treatment in its major hospitals, where Jewish and Arab doctors and nurses work in difficult conditions to help patients of any or no faith.

Jerusalem boasts the world-class Israel Museum; the hands-on Science Museum; the unique Bible Lands Museum and the Museum for Islamic Art. It also has Yad Vashem – the Holocaust museum and memorial to unanswered prayers.

There’s contemporary and traditional theater, the Cinematheque and quaint Smadar movie house or Cinema City and Yes Planet. Catch the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, a classic in its own right, or adventure into avant-garde music. And for those looking for a show, this year’s Israel Festival has just begun.
For a great view of Jerusalem and its history climb to the top of the Tower of David Museum, in the Old City, near Jaffa Gate. Among its current exhibitions is a look at the Temple Mount through historic photographs and real-time closed circuit cameras.

Because, yes, Jerusalem is also the Temple Mount, where the First and Second Temples once stood. It is Judaism’s holiest site but ironically a place where Jews are not allowed to openly pray. This is the site known throughout the Arab world as Haram al-Sharif. Al-Aqsa Mosque architecturally pales next to the golden Dome of the Rock which shines there. Did I mention complexities and contrasts?

Jerusalem Day celebrates the reunification of the city in the Six Day War in 1967, ending 19 years of Jordanian rule during which Jews had no access to the Temple Mount, the ancient Mount of Olives cemetery and the Kotel – the Western Wall. The only remnant of the walls that once surrounded the Temple, this is a place where Jews for generations have prayed and placed notes in its crevices and cracks.

JERUSALEM CAN literally drive you crazy. No other city inspires its own medically recognized psychosis – Jerusalem Syndrome. Those afflicted, usually tourists or pilgrims, suddenly believe they are a biblical figure and pronounce either messages of peace or dire warnings, depending on which prophet dominates. Jeremiah of Jerusalem was no bullfrog.

Jerusalem, the capital, is home to the President’s Residence – President Reuven Rivlin is himself a proud eighth-generation Jerusalemite; the Prime Minister’s Residence, the Supreme Court and the Knesset. Perhaps the parliament is itself suffering from some kind of unique Jerusalem phenomenon. It was hard to explain this week how the Knesset could further legislation calling for its own dispersal less than two months after the last general elections; why the coalition would support such a self-destructive move while the opposition voted against it.
Part of the answer is found in the noises that can be heard frequently outside my office window, close to the IDF recruitment center. Here there are often protests by members of extremist ultra-Orthodox sects, who not only are unwilling to serve in the IDF but refuse to even go to the recruiting office to collect an exemption.

Is it the most important problem facing the country? No. The inability of the politicians to reach a reasonable and sustainable compromise is possibly of greater long-term significance. Whatever solution is reached – and it could involve the president, the court, the prime minister and the religious and secular parties – the political struggle, fueled by egos, does not bode well for the future government.

But it is only natural that the Israeli parliament, gracing a Jerusalem hilltop, should have its own style.

The Knesset takes its name from the Knesset Hagedolah – the Great Assembly – of the fifth century BCE, when Ezra and Nehemiah convened a representative body of scribes, sages and prophets in Jerusalem as part of the return from Babylonian exile. The number of MKs, 120, reflects the composition of the ancient body of rulers. Evidently, this relationship has not driven the Knesset members to act with greater distinction, particularly when seeking a coalition of at least 61.

The most prominent symbol of the Knesset is the large bronze menorah situated close to the Rose Garden. The seven-branched candelabrum provides another reminder of the Temple and is engraved with the passage “Not by strength and not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord who rules over all” (Zechariah 4:6).

The menorah was a gift to the Knesset by the British Labour Party for Independence Day in 1956. Such generosity and religiosity is unthinkable today, under Jeremy Corbyn. But every time I wonder about Israel’s current situation I realize that, while we have our own style, we are far from the only Western country facing political struggles. Within a week, Theresa May stepped down as Britain’s prime minister over Brexit and Austria’s youthful chancellor Sebastian Kurz was ousted in a no-confidence motion the day after his party triumphed in the European Parliament elections.

The Knesset, incidentally, is a wildlife sanctuary, in the most positive sense. The Jerusalem Bird Observatory and urban wildlife center are located in its grounds. Other parliaments might offer shelter to rare birds – human and ornithological – but I’m sure the Knesset is the only one where porcupines live in a cave dating back to Second Temple times.
And that, too, is part of Jerusalem’s nature and wonders.

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