Headfirst into the inferno

A visit to the Old City two days after the brutal stabbing that pierced the holiday joy.

At the charged atmosphere of the Western Wall: Simhat Torah celebrants, tourists and a group of pilgrims from Papua New Guinea (photo credit: DAVID BRINN)
At the charged atmosphere of the Western Wall: Simhat Torah celebrants, tourists and a group of pilgrims from Papua New Guinea
(photo credit: DAVID BRINN)
 ‘You’re going to the Old City? Are you crazy?” That was my wife talking on Simhat Torah, two days after Rabbi Nehemia Lavi and Aharon Banita were murdered in a terrorist attack inside Lions’ Gate.
It was my 15-year-old son’s idea to visit the hot spot, check out the afternoon celebrations and witness the mood in the potential tinderbox – the vortex of the current round of almost intifada-like violence that has gripped the country.
I’ve learned that anytime a 15-year-old offers to do something with you, you don’t say no. So call us crazy, but off we went.
The first sign that it wasn’t an ordinary day was the volume of police presence on Route 1 leading from Mount Scopus to the Old City. It seemed like every other vehicle sported flashing blue lights, and many intersections boasted officers standing in pairs.
The second sign was the parking space we found right across from New Gate by the Notre Dame Center, signifying the reduced traffic around the tourist-heavy area. Two policemen were stationed at the entrance to New Gate, checking the ID of a young Palestinian man, as we walked by heading toward Jaffa Gate.
In a reduced sense of the usual frenzy, there was the usual colorful mix of Natorei Karta hassidim, Franciscan monks, Christian tour groups and Jewish worshipers in holiday mood converging on the most popular entrance to the Old City.
Inside the long shuk descent, most of the shops were open but the Border Police presence outnumbered the shoppers, with security posts set up every 75 meters or so. Most of the vendors didn’t even bother to stand outside their stores to approach shoppers, preferring to sip tea and stare blankly at the soldiers and police.
“You can’t do business with all of these soldiers here,” said one vendor outside a trinket shop. “Hopefully, things will go back to normal after the Jewish holiday is over.”
A glance at the side roads leading toward Damascus Gate revealed a total closure (whether self-imposed or police ordered) – no open shops, no vendors and no passersby. Even we weren’t crazy enough to venture in that direction.
Arriving at the Western Wall, we were met with three different minyanim dancing with their Torah in late-afternoon hakafot with a couple of hundred celebrants.
They seemed to be moving with particular fervor, as if trying to exorcise the terror of the last year, and the last days, from their midst.
Watching from outside were tourists, both on their own and in groups, undaunted by the police presence and specter of violence. Among them was a group of pilgrims from Papua New Guinea, whose leader began to sermonize in English.
A small crowd of locals and tourists surrounded him to listen to the praise for Israel and the admonishment to be strong in the face of threats.
“You are the chosen people, and we will always be here to support you with love and our prayers,” he riffed, amid a myriad of amens from his fellow pilgrims.
Two men in white shirts and black kippot turned to walk away from the spectacle. One said to the other, “Love and prayers are going to do us a lot of good when we have to go to war against the Arabs.”
On the ascent back through the shuk toward Jaffa Gate, as the welcome late-afternoon cool breeze picked up, more shop owners were calling it a day, and some of the border policemen were as busy checking their cellphones as keeping an eye out for potential disturbances.
We approached the car, having survived a walk in the Old City on Simhat Torah. The Jewish spirit of dancing in the face of trouble was in full bloom at the Kotel, Israel’s supporters from Papua New Guinea and elsewhere were vocal and full of reassurance, and there were no terrorists lurking in the shadows.
The holiday had passed in relative quiet – but at what price? The Old City had been turned into a veritable police state – necessary for a sense of security, but untenable in the long run.
With cooler temperatures and the season’s first precipitation forecast for the next day, the hope that the current tension and increase in Palestinian terrorism would wash away with the weather was just that – a wishful thought, with nothing concrete to back it up.
The rain clouds may be dark and ominous and further muddy the situation, or they may provide a cool, hard respite that clears the path of reason – but this is not only up to the weatherman.