My Word: Pontificating on Jerusalem

Listen to Hebrew spoken on the streets and compare it to the fate of Latin and you’ll understand part of the miracle of this city and of this land.

Youth celebrate on Jerusalem Day (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Youth celebrate on Jerusalem Day
All roads lead to Rome, but when the pope visits Jerusalem, all traffic comes to a standstill. Jerusalemites are used to high-profile visits – it literally goes with the territory – but the whirlwind trip by Pope Francis was in a class of its own. A highschool student stuck on a bus with me missed her matriculation exam in Bible studies – an irony not lost on the rest of the passengers, some of whom spent two and a half hours together because so many streets were closed for security reasons.
I found myself exuding extraordinary Jewish motherly emotions to the pope as he passed through our city. Like the almost unprecedented number of police and security agents protecting him during his stay, I didn’t want anything to happen to him. Especially not here; especially not on our watch.
As it was Pope Francis came, saw and conquered many hearts. A pope who reaches out in friendship – anyone from any religion who reaches out in genuine friendship – is, in my opinion, a welcome visitor (traffic snarls notwithstanding).
The photo of the pope by the security fence near Bethlehem with its spray-painted anti-Israel messages was upsetting – not least for its obvious exploitation of the pontiff and abuse of the truth. The photo of Francis placing a prayer for peace between the stones of the Western Wall presented an image far easier on the eyes and heart. And I am convinced the stones of the Kotel will still be standing long after the graffiti on the security fence has faded.
Perhaps nowhere in the world is the message of universal values more pertinent than in Jerusalem.
Ahead of the pope’s visit, when it was clear that normal life would be temporarily disrupted, I did what all experienced Jerusalemites did – stocked up on groceries. It probably seems like a gross overreaction to outsiders – but there’s something ingrained in the Jerusalem experience that makes such preparations as buying extra milk, bread, fruit and vegetables an automatic response to everything from a one-day holiday to a flurry of snow, or a visit from a traffic-stopping dignitary.
“It’s like we’re pre-programmed to prepare for the Siege of Jerusalem,” quipped a woman waiting in the supermarket line.
Later, as I unpacked cans of food – good for all emergencies, we shouldn’t know of them – I wondered whether she had been referring to the siege of 1948, when the Arabs cut the Jews of Jerusalem off from the rest of the country during the War of Independence, or the Roman siege a couple of millennia earlier.
Only in Jerusalem would such a question arise.
I have neighbors who remember the 1948 siege well and friends who recall the dangers of the pre-1967 years. Most of my friends commemorate the fall of the First and Second Temples as naturally as they celebrate the city’s reunification.
No sooner had the pope safely returned to Rome, than Jerusalem celebrated its own unique birthday, or rather a re-birthday. Jerusalem Day, whose Hebrew date this year fell on May 28, marks the reunification of the capital in the 1967 Six Day War. It is marked by prayers, parades and public dancing – most of which caused more traffic jams.
In an effort to counter the claims of Israel being an apartheid state, many Facebook friends have recently taken to posting photos of Jews and Arabs traveling together on Jerusalem’s buses and the light rail. For those of us who actually live here, the remarkable thing is not that Jews and Arabs share the same stores, cafes and public transport, it’s that the buses and light rail manage to function between one event and another. (The memory of the approximately half a million mourners who brought the city to a halt for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s funeral a few months ago came to mind with the road closures for the pope.) Part of Jerusalem’s magic is the marriage between the metaphysical and the mundane.
I realize that Jerusalem’s Arab residents might not see the reunification of the city in the same miraculous terms that I do, but I don’t have to apologize. I’m proud to be on the side that didn’t launch wars in 1948, 1967 and 1973 – and lose. I’m happy to be part of a people who build and rebuild Jerusalem, making it grow and flourish without attempting to annihilate other religions and cultures.
Jerusalem is an ancient city; the Roman-era siege seems fairly recent compared to the First Temple period. The population, however, is overwhelmingly a young one. The vast majority of the city’s Arab residents have grown up in the united city. Similarly, most of the Jewish population does not remember firsthand living in a divided city under constant threat from Jordanian snipers, let alone life with British-imposed curfews during the Mandate pre-1948.
Our sieges are due to weather conditions and visiting dignitaries, celebrations and festivals, or the passing of leaders.
The light rail in particular, whether fully functional or not, has united the city in an incontrovertible way. Mamilla Mall, the high-class shopping parade linking the city center to the Old City, serves all. A walk, jog or bicycle ride along Mesilot Park, built on and around the old railway track, also makes it clear that people of different stripes – or at least sporting different religiously identifying headwear – share the same pleasures and leisure- time activities.
A Palestinian acquaintance, a resident of Ramallah, noted how incongruous it was that she had visited Jerusalem’s recently inaugurated Cinema City while I have yet to find the time. (And maybe our prayers for peace will one day be answered and I’ll feel as comfortable visiting Ramallah as she is in Jerusalem.) Having different neighborhoods with their own distinct character is not the sign of a racist system – at least no more than it is in cities elsewhere that boast Chinatowns.
I used to joke that the best way to see the city’s Arabs and Jews together was either to visit Hadassah Hospital or (the pleasanter option) visit the Biblical Zoo. Those days are gone.
The city’s mixed nature is now evident in far broader settings. Does that make me feel threatened? No.
I am secure enough in my identity and Jerusalem’s identity as the eternal capital of the Jewish People. It is a spiritual link that cannot be broken.
And the more people realize their welfare and livelihoods depend on peace, commerce and – particularly in a city like Jerusalem – providing an attractive environment for visitors, tourists and pilgrims, the safer we will all be.
In a natural progression, Jerusalem Day gave way to preparations for Shavuot – one of the three festivals when Jews in Temple times made a pilgrimage to the city. Traditionally on the eve of Shavuot Jews hold all-night study sessions. It is not unusual to find people wandering the streets in the early hours of the morning. Special points can be found on the way to the Kotel where the modern-day Jewish pilgrims can stop to drink.
The street names are in Hebrew; the people speak Hebrew; when they get stuck in traffic, they grumble in Hebrew; when they greet each other, they do it in Hebrew.
Compare that to the fate of Latin and you’ll understand part of the miracle of this city and of this land.
This is Jerusalem. I don’t occupy it. I live in it. I live it. And I love it (traffic jams and all).

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The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.