Peace and tranquility must remain in the Old City - opinion

The Old City, the cradle of the world’s three major religions, stirs passions that are undeniable and coexistence and reason must prevail.

 JERUSALEM’S OLD CITY this week – an extremely complicated place.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
JERUSALEM’S OLD CITY this week – an extremely complicated place.

It’s a quick light rail ride down Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road, past the closed storefronts, construction sites and small-town Main Street feel, to the Old City – one of the world’s most famous plots of real estate, and often the mega-sized focus of global attention.

It’s a short distance... yet worlds apart, like Dorothy waking up from her black and white world into the vivid color of Oz. On Monday morning, a couple of hours after the traditional Birkat Kohanim priestly blessing took place at the Kotel, and a day after the second round of riots at the Temple Mount threatened to escalate into another regional war between Hamas and Israel, the Old City was a weird mix of bustle and quiet.

Inside Jaffa Gate, after a two-year absence, there were some of those once-ubiquitous colored flags held by tour guides to contain their flock as groups of tourists began to return. Just before descending into the Arab shuk, there was a makeshift barricade manned by Border Police with a big handmade sign in Hebrew that said: “To the Kotel,” with an arrow pointing to the right toward the Armenian Quarter.

You could go straight into the shuk if you wanted to, but if you didn’t look Arab, a policeman might ask why you’re going that way before letting you pass.

Whether it was erected as a safety measure to prevent a bottleneck of Jewish worshipers descending the wide stairs in the narrow corridors of the market, or whether it was due to fear of attacks (anyone who watched the viral video of three Jews with tallitot being attacked by Palestinian youth on Sunday in the Old City would be excused for having that fear), the end result was a nearly empty shuk with most vendors dejectedly sitting in front of stores clutching their worry beads.

A Palestinian man and an Israeli Ultra-Orthodox Jew are seen walking in Jerusalem's Old City on April 17, 2022 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)A Palestinian man and an Israeli Ultra-Orthodox Jew are seen walking in Jerusalem's Old City on April 17, 2022 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Mohammed, who was dusting off crucifixes and straightening out a display of “Sababa” T-shirts outside his shop, shrugged his shoulders.

“Whatever the Jews do and the Palestinians do that keep tourists away is bad for us,” he said, while refusing to lay blame on one or the other. “Directing tourists to avoid walking past us is just a slap in the face.”

Michael, a mild-mannered older man who runs a mini-market in the Christian Quarter, was squeezing fresh orange juice for a couple of tourists from Holland.

“Business is picking up – even with what happened yesterday,” he said, referring to the riots on the Temple Mount that, depending on who you talked to, were ignited by Palestinian rock-throwing and provocation or Jewish brazenness by ascending the Mount. “It’s a big week with Easter, Passover and Ramadan.”

Michael placed the blame for the recent unrest squarely on Israel’s shoulders.

“Look, it’s Ramadan,” he said. “Why do the police let Jews go up to the Temple Mount? There have been agreements here for centuries,” apparently forgetting that Jews were forbidden to pray at the Kotel during the 1948-67 era when Jordan ruled the Old City.

“Whoever is in charge here, whether it’s Israel or someone else, the first thing they have to do is respect the status quo of the holy places. When Israel took over in 1967, they themselves pledged to keep the status quo. And then they break it, and you have to expect a reaction... also from the Christians.”

He was referring to a letter released by the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem last week, written by the police, in which they restricted to 1,000 the number of those who may enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the Holy Fire ritual on April 24 for Orthodox Easter.

“Look outside,” he said, gesturing to the steady stream of Jewish visitors heading toward the Kotel. “There aren’t any restrictions for them – 300,000 Jews and tourists are coming to the Old City this week. And they limit us to 1,000?”

EVERYONE HAS their own particular beef with what goes on in the Old City. Michael may have been peeved about the Holy Fire, but for young Israeli Mendy Starch, it was a different fire that got his goat – he and a companion were detained by police just before Passover for attempting to bring a goat to the Temple Mount to sacrifice as a Passover offering

“There are only two commandments in Judaism that if you don’t follow, you’re facing extermination: Keeping Shabbat, and the Passover sacrifice,” Starch told The Media Line. “We lost 2,000 years of worship and performing our rituals because of the exile. Any mitzvah you do outside of Israel is just to preserve the tradition. The core is worshiping in the land of Israel.”

This week, Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinovitch related to the bizarre desires of Starch and his ilk, saying that Jews like him are “less than a minyan. They are individuals who took interest and inflated it to proportions that have nothing to do with reality.” 

That’s all well and good, but as Dr. Eran Lerman, a lecturer at Shalem College and vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security told me this week, people like Starch are as dangerous in their own way as the Palestinian rock-throwers inside Aqsa Mosque.

The increase of Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount has nothing to do with Israeli policy, but rather with the growing movement within Israeli society that Lerman described as “semi-ultra-Orthodox messianic. Their specific focus is the Temple Mount.”

According to Lerman, Israel has been highly successful at maintaining calm in such a volatile setting as the Old City.

“Basically, the consistent policy has been the preservation of the status quo,” he said. “We have a common interest with Jordan in preserving the current status in Jerusalem as it is. Of course, Jordan would never acknowledge that publicly. But they have no trust whatsoever that Palestinian sovereignty on the Temple Mount would actually respect their special standing. It’s the only holy place left sort of under Hashemite management,” referring to the Wakf, which administers the site.

“Legally, there is very little reason to prevent Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, but strategically, in terms of the broader national interest, there is a reason. So the police are constantly walking this thin line.”

That thin line though can be shredded by Hamas at any time. Even if the police were exemplary in their behavior on the Temple Mount (and other viral videos that have proliferated point to overzealousness on their part), the recurring story that we seem doomed to repeat – Palestinian anger over Jews visiting the Temple Mount leads to rock-throwing and rioting, which leads to an Israeli police response, which results in Arab world condemnation – is always one step away from exploding into rocket fire from Gaza.

As Khaled Abu Toameh pointed out in these pages, Hamas has been seeking to portray itself as the sole “defender of Jerusalem and the Islamic holy sites.” It claimed credit for the recent wave of terrorist attacks in Israel, and has been instrumental in goading Palestinians to attack Jews from Aksa Mosque beginning with last Friday’s prayers.

Hamas knew that Israel would have to respond to quell the Palestinian rioting by entering the mosque, and by then it didn’t matter how it all started. Israel was the culprit, snuffing out freedom of religion. Unfortunately, everyone from the rest of the Arab world to the US State Department to the pope bought that whopper hook, line and sinker.

The only reason the last few days have not yet escalated into another full-blown war between Israel and Hamas – with Israel’s south bearing the brunt – is because Hamas has one eye on avoiding a further Israeli onslaught on Gaza.

However, as Eran Lerman emphasized, all it takes is one image to inflame the Palestinian masses.

“One picture of a goat being brought for sacrifice on the Temple Mount is enough to generate a fantasy of something more nefarious, like that the Jews are going to take over,” he said. “There is constant pressure from some elements on the Israeli side to force the status quo to change. In fact, police enforcement is curtailed by court rulings that don’t so much change things in favor of Jewish prayer, but revert to the way things were generations ago, and were then banned in the interest of public safety. It’s an extremely complicated situation.”

That’s the Old City in a nutshell: extremely complicated. The ancient site, the cradle of the world’s three major religions, stirs passions that are undeniable. And there are those, as we saw over the last week, who would like nothing better than to start a holy war and oust the ‘other’ from their midst.

That’s not the view of the vast majority, thankfully. This week Jews, Muslims and Christians converged there, some hoping for inspiration or answers, others drawn by a deep religious belief, still others by a connection to history and their place in it.

Ultimately they and the voices of coexistence and reason must prevail... in a large part because Israel’s sovereignty over the Old City has resulted in an unprecedented level of religious freedom for all who seek it. There’s room for all who arrive, in wonder and with purpose, to pray to their respective higher powers.

A very happy and peaceful Passover, Ramadan and Easter to all.