14 February 2012

Arguing Over Stones

with ir amim in gilo, over-looking bethlehem
 A day of contrasts.

The morning we spent with a guide from Ir Amim, a civil rights organization that is devoted to monitoring and litigating housing & construction issues in East Jerusalem.  We were blasted, right out of the gate, with an impassioned and energetic presentation of specific places--Gilo, Har Gilo, Bethlehem, Rachel's Tomb and Har Homa--painting a picture of an unofficial Jerusalem urban planning design that is meant to prevent any future Palestinian capital or meaningful Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem.  Some in our group were enthralled with the cascade of facts--Har Homa and the snaking concrete barriers around Rachel's Tomb were the two starkest examples--and others were nonplussed, seeing it all in the broader context of what Israel needs to do to ensure its rightful sovereignty over Jerusalem.  There was something bizarre and other-worldly, a security dystopia, in seeing a holy site surrounded by concrete walls in every direction.  It screamed in metaphoric language of the insidious, painful realities on all sides.  No one should be restricted from visiting their religious sites--Jews, Christians or Muslims--but Rachel's Tomb isn't protected as much as it's hermetically sealed behind a universe of concrete that in walling out Palestinian homes, also walls in itself.  A disturbing and troubling site.

To my mind, the most compelling aspects of the tour, besides the guide's impassioned plea for awareness, for an eyes-wide-open approach to the facts on the ground in the conflict, was when we stood on a ridge overlooking the whole city and could see clearly the physical difference between East and West Jerusalem.  Clearly, a century of conflict has only reinforced the black and white; and the continued lack of a coherent urban plan for the whole city means that the disparities in services and the application of the law will remain a deep, unhealed wound.

Neighborhoods of East Jerusalem hung PLO and Hamas flags; Arafat's image continues to adorn doorways; suicide bombers, long dead, remain valorized, their faces postered on light poles along the tattered roadways.  In one area we were supposed to visit, a demonstration had broken out over a house demolition; another had arisen near a parking lot where we'd be later in the day, at the City of David, a fascinating, important, but nevertheless controversial dig of 1st and 2nd Temple ruins--controversial because the City of David is also the Palestinian village of Silwan.

News had not yet reached us about the terrorist attacks against Israelis in New Delhi and Georgia, a frightening and troubling development in the Iran-Hezbollah-Israel conflict.  But as we heard over and over again from speakers regardless of their political leanings, Israel is, without a doubt, living in an often precarious situation with its neighbors.  And the Iran nuclear issue is the subtext for so much these days.  Among the many dangers--outright war with chemical and nuclear weapons--is the tragedy that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be sublimated to these greater global considerations.  That's not good for anybody.

And then to the City of David.  Archaeologically of great significance with sites from the 1st and 2nd Temple period, an historical reality that is denied by the Palestinian narrative that understands ancient Jewish connections to the land as colonial fantasy.   Beyond the need and the right to embrace, affirm and understand history, there is the purely practical matter that the data at the site is fascinating and exhilarating. 
from a 2nd temple mikvah, over-looking Silwan
And yet:  always an agenda.  The dig at the City of David is funded by El Ad, an organization that is doing phenomenally interesting historical work while also settling Jews in predominantly Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, claiming the Jewish right to do so, and opposing an similar move into West Jerusalem for Palestinians who may have fled or been evacuated in the War of Independence in 1948.  The clearly unequal application of power permeates the site.  Litigation and demonstrations are ongoing--with Ir Amim often opposing El Ad in its effort, which provided an enjoyable subtext to both morning tours--the Ir Amim guy taking shots at the El Ad guy; and the El Ad guy returning serve.  It's too bad we didn't make them sit together and debate. 

There's been ample coverage of the politicization of this project and yesterday was no exception with protests at the site. 

As much as I was thrilled I have to say that what troubled me about the experience was that our guide, who was excellent, twice apologized to the group for the Palestinian incursions into our tour.  And what were those incursions?  First, a Palestinian family beneath site was burning sticks beneath a pot boiling their lunch of okra and zucchini in the backyard.  He apologized for the smoke.  Second, when the mosques called forth their afternoon prayers and the guide needed to raise his voice, he again apologized for the "noise." Each instance brough to mind the great line from Amichai's poem, Tourists:  "I said to myself, 'Redemption will come only if their guide tells them, "You see that arch from the Roman period?  It's not important; but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family.'"

Toward the end of the tour, we walked through a water tunnel that was part of a greater sistern from King Herod's time, walking under the Silwan and City of David, under the southern wall of the Old City, at came out just beneath Robinson's Arch.  I had seen that stairway, warning me not to pass, for years; and here I was, coming up the stairs.  It was a damn big thrill. 

But it was colored by the message.  Valorizing Herod the Great, a blood-thirsty maniacal leader--were not those workers who built the Temple slaves afterall; how many did he kill, including members of his own family, to achieve and maintain power--always sours these visits for me.  Our guide ended with a beautiful sermon about Jewish unity but it was a vision of unity that pointed toward a Third Temple, rebuilt today by Jewish hands, a delusion of nationalism more than a dream.

History and ideology are simply too intertwined in this worthy archaeological project and what a shame it is.  I hope for the day when their can be joint excavations, celebrating one another's historical finds, raising a glass together to the deepening of our mutual connections to this land.  So entrenched is this conflict for now that we're still left arguing over stones.




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