Violence in the Old City as our trip comes to an end

JERUSALEM — Today was our last day in the Holy Land, or Godland, if you will. Our schedule deemed it a “reporting day” and, for the first time in a week, we didn’t have a set schedule. There were no places to see or people to meet; everything was up to us. Most of us took this opportunity to report (or shop for gifts and souvenirs) and finish tying up loose ends on the stories we’ve been thinking about all week.

I spent a lot of this day at the Western Wall: thinking about the time we spent there as a class and reflecting on how I could use the conversations I’d had with different pilgrims throughout the week to create something that might resemble a good news story. My colleagues did similar things: Augusta spent her day at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Sarah spent her day taking a tour of Jerusalem’s water tunnels, Dan visited an evangelical church in Bethlehem and Vildana and Isobel were reporting on cross-bearers in the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City.

But things didn’t go as expected. This afternoon at one of the gates of the Old City, an Israeli security guard was wounded in what police said was a stabbing attack. The assailant was killed at the scene. The security guard was taken to the hospital. As journalists, we’re trained to see this as news and almost expect these things to happen. We live in New York City, after all. But today, after everything we’ve seen, done and experienced all week, it weighed on us more than it normally would have.

Vildana and Isobel were at the gate when it happened.

“We heard a scuffle and someone being beaten, and then a few seconds later we started hearing gunshots,” Isobel said. She estimated she was five meters from the scene when she and Vildana sought shelter from the gunfire, pressing themselves against a stone wall.

According to a report by Haaretz, the assailant was from the West Bank, and belonged to the Hamas party there, although he is not considered to be an active member. Hamas commended the attack in a statement, saying that it commemorated 100 days since President Donald Trump declared the move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In the moment, everything was “super surreal,” Isobel said. “Afterwards, it was clear that tensions are still running very high in the city and it was a rude awakening to that.”

After the attack, some shops closed and guards stayed at the gate, ensuring that the area was safe. Some of the holy sites in Jerusalem also shut down, al-Haram al-Sharif being one of them; Professor Moghul was locked inside for about an hour. Tensions were high until we all touched base with one another.

I rushed with my classmates Dan and Galie to the Old City, in hopes that someone would be able to tell me what happened before it was all over the news. I found myself back at the Western Wall and talked to one of the women there. We were both trying to understand what happened. It turned out I knew more than she did.

“Be careful and God bless you,” she said before hugging me tightly. “God will protect you. He protects his people.”

Thea did a quick WhatsApp check and made sure that all of our classmates and faculty were accounted for. I don’t know who protected us today, but I am thankful that we are all safe. We met for dinner back at our hotel just in time for everyone to talk about this day and the experiences of the week. We celebrated being together, learning and growing throughout this journey. We traded stories of our best encounters, our favorite jokes and the religions we would switch to for a week if we could.

My favorite part of this trip was learning so much about the world around me. This was my first time outside of the United States, and I was so grateful to enter every situation with an open mind. Today was hard. I wasn’t sure I wanted to write this dispatch because of how difficult it was for my colleagues to be present for something so hard to watch or hear. But they are okay and we are all safe. For that, and for Godland, I am also grateful.

We’ll see you soon, Israel/Palestine.

Photos from day 8: 


Sacred stone and the fault lines of conflict

JERUSALEM — Our journey through the Holy Land has finally brought us to the city holy to three faiths, Jerusalem. After two days immersed in the tension, trauma and faith of the West bank, we drove through the Bethlehem checkpoint and into Jerusalem’s Old City, where the fault lines of conflict are tangled in the sacred geography of the world’s major religions. We also got to see the city’s Jewish holy sites through the eyes of Professor Goldman.

We began our tour on a rooftop with a panoramic view of the Old City. Professor Yarden pointed out the tangle of holy sites and ethnic enclaves that spread in every direction. In the near distance, we looked past the Arab and Armenian quarters towards the Western Wall and the Haram al-Sharif. In the distance, Jewish tombs poured down the slopes of the Mount of Olives, feet pointed towards the former Temple.

Goldman told the group about his great-grandfather, who, like my great-grandfather, is buried on the Mount of Olives. These were Jews who traveled to what was then Palestine at the end of their lives to die in the Land. Yarden made the point that this ancient practice was consciously countered by the modern Zionist movement. The Zionists declared that they were not coming to Eretz Israel to die – they would come to live.

We made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church was built on the site where Jesus is traditionally believed to have been crucified, buried and resurrected. Pilgrims flow through the church doors to fill relics with sacred energy and to have a moment of contact with a place that has touched the divine.

But while the site brings Christians together from across the world, it is also a place of division. The building itself is a patchwork of jurisdictions and boundaries between the six Christian denominations who oversee it. Where clergy from each denomination can pray, burn incense, hang relics or repair the church’s crumbling infrastructure has been prescribed by a complex series of agreements dating back to the 1800s.

Yarden said that while many like to emphasize the divisions within the church, it runs remarkably well, an elegant ballet of carefully choreographed coexistence. But the slightest deviation from the agreed-upon divisions – no matter how mundane – can reveal the spiritual fervor and tension just beneath the surface. On a hot day in 2002, a Coptic monk moved his chair from its designated spot into the shade, setting off a brawl with Ethiopian Orthodox monks that sent 11 clergymen to the hospital.

In the cramped confines of the Old City, it’s not only co-religionists who share real estate. We visited David’s Tomb, a Jewish holy site, where tradition says the biblical King David is buried. Directly above David’s Tomb sits The Cenacle, believed by many Christians to be the site of the Last Supper.

The site is one ancient building with two floors of ecstatic worship performed in the traditions of two different faiths. These two layers of believers generally exist in different orbits, but it is a tentative coexistence. Yarden recalled seeing a group of ultra-Orthodox worshippers, upset that monks chanting above them would impede their prayers from reaching heaven, once attempted to drown out a Christian ceremony with blasts from their shofars. The police were called but could do nothing to settle the dispute. “Israel guarantees freedom of worship,” he explained.

From the roof above David’s Tomb and the Cenacle, one can look eastward across the Jewish Quarter and see the twin domes rising above the most significant piece of shared real estate in Jerusalem – and possibly the world. To Jews it is the Temple Mount: the site of the second temple and the source of all holiness in the world. For Muslims, it is the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary: the home of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the place from which the Prophet Mohamed ascended to heaven.

While the State of Israel controls the land surrounding the site, the Haram al-Sharif itself is controlled by the Waqf, an Islamic authority appointed by Jordan. Jews can get permission to access the site but Jewish prayer is strictly forbidden.

Unfettered access to the Temple Mount for Jews is limited to the plaza below its Western Wall, abutting the Jewish Quarter of the city. Many visitors press their foreheads against the stones, trying to be as close as possible to the spot where the Holy of Holies once stood. Many slip written prayers in the cracks between the stones. For some, access to the Wall is a miracle of history and a place where they feel the presence of the divine. For others it is an unacceptable substitute until the day the Temple is rebuilt.

Even the slightest diversion from the status quo at this physical intersection of Judaism and Islam has the potential to send the region into chaos. Reverence for the site by both Jews and Muslims is both a cause and a reflection of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Goldman told the group that when he first came to Jerusalem after his bar mitzvah, the Western Wall was in the sector of the city controlled by Jordan, so the closest he could get was the Jaffa Gate. He was finally able to visit the Wall in his 20s, after Israel took control of the city in 1967. He recalled standing on the plaza in front of the Wall and overhearing a father tell his young son about the Temple, its destruction and its connection to 3,000 years of Jewish history. Goldman said he decided then that he would one day do the same with his children – a promise he fulfilled.

Over and over again, Jerusalem tests the idea that the same space can be sacred to different peoples at the same time for completely different reasons. Declaring something sacred is in some ways to declare ideological ownership of it, yet the city is a tangle of intertwined claims of both spiritual and physical ownership.

Yet, as intractable as these competing claims can seem, and while it’s true that a tenuous coexistence is enforced by armed soldiers and high-tech surveillance systems, Jerusalem also gives reasons for hope. Sitting within the walls of the Old City, we watched the intermixed processions of Muslims heading to the al-Aqsa for Friday Jumu’ah prayers, Orthodox Jews descending towards the Western Wall and Christian pilgrims following Franciscan friars along the Via Dolorosa. These competing currents squeezed, mixed and diverted through the ancient, narrow streets, as they do every Friday.

As the Christian pilgrims approach the final Stations of the Cross and enter the courtyard in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they pass through the shadow of another piece of Jerusalem’s sacred geography, the Mosque of Omar. Yarden told us how the mosque was built to honor the Caliph Omar, who conquered Jerusalem in 637. Omar met with the Patriarch Sophronius at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to accept his surrender and receive the keys to the city. When it was time for prayer, Omar’s assistants suggested he pray in the church. Yet Omar feared that later generations would learn that he prayed there and would attempt to build a mosque over the site of Jesus’s death. Out of deference to the Christian holy site, he prayed outside. The Mosque of Omar stands as evidence that Jerusalem’s sacred spaces can be the core of conflict, but, Yarden reminded us, these two houses of worship can also be monuments to dialogue and coexistence.

Photos from day 6:


The terrible dizziness of approaching the divine Al-Aqsa

JERUSALEM — When Ali Abu Al-Awar speaks of what Jews call the Temple Mount and what Muslims call al-Haram al-Sharif (“the Noble Sanctuary”), reams of history spool out. Here memories from the distant past and the nearly present co-habituate cautiously, both possessing equal merit. There are memories of Israeli military forces from 1967 spreading out over the plaza and crying in exultation, “Har HaBayit BeYadeinu!” — “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” Very close by is Al-Ghazali, the 12th century Muslim theologian, leading a study group on the reconciliation of legalistic and mystical Islam and underneath an olive tree writing his Revival of the Religious Sciences. From Al-Awar’s mouth, the Haram comes alive, teeming both with the conflicts that have defined Jerusalem’s strife alongside the spiritual truths that make this city transcendent.

As we followed Al-Awar to the Haram, we passed a Muslim cemetery where the old Arabic stones crowd one another, vying for recognition when the final judgment comes. Across the Mount of Olives, we could see the adjacent Jewish cemetery, a reminder that the faiths which live in Jerusalem all believe in the resurrection of the body, an apocalyptical tradition centered around the Temple Mount as a site of ascension.

Throughout the Muslim cemetery are green coffins with the words sadaqa jarya or “the only things that stay are good works.” When a Muslim dies, coffins are used as a transport from the mosque to the burial site, but not put in the ground. The presence of them around the cemetery points to the Haram as an active Muslim site, while the Jewish cemetery across the way remains quiet.

As we entered the Lion’s Gate, we were greeted by yet another guide, Ahmad Abu-Hadid, who has been ushering tourists and dignitaries through the site for 30 years. Abu-Hadid quickly condensed into a few minutes some 1,300 years of the site’s Muslim history, from the construction of the Dome of the Rock under the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik in 691 C.E. to the Jordanian government gaining access and control of the Haram in 1951. The Haram is a vast plaza, with minarets on three sides, the Dome of the Rock in the center, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque to the furthermost south, the third holiest mosque in Islam after Mecca and Medina. While the women of our group put on long loose skirts offered by the waqf, the Islamic religious trust in cooperation with the Jordanians who control access to the Haram, school children nearby played volleyball and old men sat under trees drinking tea.

The serenity of this Saturday morning proved to be deceptive as Al-Awar explained attempts by right-wing Jews to bomb the Dome of the Rock and the continued attempt by fundamentalist Jews to assert their presence on the Mount, and their dream of destroying the Muslims sites and building a third temple.

“There is a fear of violence, a constant fear of Muslims losing control here,” Al-Awar said as we meandered around the Dome and towards the Al-Aqsa Mosque. To counteract these provocations Muslim citizen groups called Murabitin (for men) and Murabitat (for women) were formed in 2010 to safeguard the Haram. From Sunday to Thursday, they sit in circles studying Islamic thought, on guard for those seeking to undermine the status quo, the latest governmental iteration of which says only Muslims can pray on the Haram but tourists of other faiths can visit.

Even in the midst of these tensions, the Haram acts as a great source of unity for those of the Islamic faith in their connection to their religion and their God. Muslims from all over the world flock to the site, seen as the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven, to meet the prophets and speak with God. The Dome glittered magnificently on this cloudless day, as the sun beat down and the devout recited late morning prayers.

As my classmates were ushered into the Dome of the Rock for a brief visit, I was unable to join them because I was overcome by a terrible dizziness. One could say it was dehydration or the overwhelming feeling of approaching the divine. At a place like this, no one ever really knows.

Photos from day 7:


Life on the margins in the West Bank

BETHLEHEM — On Thursday, the fifth day of our journey, we heard from three separate communities in the occupied West Bank about their engagement with the land. In the morning, we visited Deheisha, a Palestinian refugee camp to the south of Bethlehem. Then, after lunch, we travelled to the nearby Jewish settlement of Alon Shvut, where we spoke with a professor of the Har Etzion Yeshiva. And finally, in the evening, we went to the unrecognized Bedouin village of Susya.

We woke up in the Palestinian homes where we spent the night and then regrouped and traveled to Deheisha. Omar Hmidat, the son of the local imam, came to greet us and be our tour guide. Hmidat, 26, is majoring in media studies at Al-Quds University as part of the Bard College honors program. His thesis is on “the visual narratives of Palestinian political expression” – something that was evident from his in-depth knowledge of the murals that dotted the encampment.

The camp itself was created in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli War when, in 1949, refugees from Hebron and 45 villages west of Jerusalem sought temporary asylum. According to official statistics from 2015/16, there are as many as 15,000 people living on an area of one square kilometer. Over the years, however, the population has expanded rapidly and as many as 22,000 people now live immediately outside the camp, Hmidat said.

Though the camp is largely comprised of permanent structures, the UNRWA is still operative in the area.

While the community is less reliant on the UNWRA for aid than it once was, Hmidat explained to us that its presence is also symbolic. It is, he said, “proof of the right of return” for Palestinians.

The meaning of “right to return,” he continued, has evolved from the refugees’ right to resettlement in their former homes to a broader understanding of access and basic civil liberties. Deheisha is located between Zone A, governed by the Palestinian authority, and Zone B, which is under joint Israeli-Palestinian security control.

After touring the refugee camp with Hmidat, we went to his home where we met his father, Sheikh Ibrahim Hmidat. He took time to explain to us that life was hard and dispiriting for the residents of Daheisha, but that Islam has helped to sustain the community, giving it hope for the future.

After lunch, we met with Rabbi Yair Kahn at Har Ezion Yeshiva, in the settlement of Alon Shvut. A student of two luminaries of the Modern Orthodox movement, Joseph Soloveitchik and Aaron Lichtenstein, Kahn serves as the editor of the yeshiva’s virtual Bet Midrash Talmud series.

The rabbi opened the conversation by saying, “To be Jewish is to be part of a nation.”

Through references to the books of Esther and Ruth, it quickly became apparent that Kahn derived his authority from religious texts, and not international agreements and treaties. Where the people of Deheisha spoke in terms of checkpoints, economic self-determination, and water rights, Kahn repeated time and again about “providence” and “the hand of God” in guiding Jewish settlement of the West Bank.

Alon Shvut is a settlement in Zone C, administered by the Israeli military, but is considered part of what would be the future state of Palestine. As such, most of the international community considers its existence illegal under international law, a claim disputed by Israeli government officials who cite the existence of a Jewish community there before 1948.

Although the rabbi was reluctant to speak personally to issues of politics or theology, he stressed the importance of tolerance and, to some extent, pluralism, at the yeshiva.

“What we are taught here is complexity – that there are different opinions,” he said, “and that you must respect them even if you disagree with them.”

After leaving the yeshiva, we were joined by a rabbi of the more progressive Reform movement of Judaism, Rabbi Arik Ascherman.

Ascherman, the former president of an organization called Rabbis for Human Rights, now heads an organization called Torah of Justice. He led us to a Bedouin encampment at a West Bank community called Susya.

The Bedouins at Susya were uprooted from their community in 1986 when an ancient synagogue was discovered on their land and expropriated by Israel. Since then, a legal battle has ensued over rights of ownership and settlement. Before the election of Donald Trump in the United States, Ascherman explained, the Israeli authorities had made accommodations and allowed the Bedouins to build on their farms, but over the past year these talks have fallen apart. We had to chance to meet some of the families affected by the dispute, and they informed us, with Ascherman translating, that the Israeli army had dismantled their makeshift homes seven times in recent years. This encounter demonstrated the determination of displaced families to stay on their land, but also the precarious existence of Palestinians living in Zone C, where Israeli civil and security control is an everyday reality marked by checkpoints, outposts and growing settlements.

Speaking to the sectarian nature of the conflict and why he does this work, Ascherman reminded us of the need to exercise individual acts of kindness to chip away at harmful stereotypes between different peoples.

“I will do it again and again,” explained Ascherman, recounting an occasion when he was beat and arrested by the Israeli Defense Forces, “for a young boy to say, ‘A tall Jewish man in a kippah came to my rescue and told me not to be afraid,’ because if there’s any hope for any of us, it is that [Palestine’s] children are mine, too.”

Photos from day 5:


The Holy Land: Where churches abound and even the water is sacred

TABGHA — On this very shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, Christians believe that Jesus fed 5,000 people with nothing but five loaves of bread and two fish. The miracle is marked by a church that draws a steady flow of pilgrims who silently crowd the small space, some of them kneeling by the walls and whispering private confessions into a monk’s shoulder. While the modern church on the site was completed in 1982, some of the floor tiles date to the Byzantine period.

(Godland News / Liz Donovan)

The place’s serenity does not match its frenzied history. About 130 years ago, a German Catholic group called the German Occupation of the Holy Land purchased 250 acres along the Galilee’s shoreline – including what is now Tabgha. The pilgrims did not even know what they had acquired: The original Byzantine church had been destroyed by the end of the seventh century, and the land as they found it was obscured by overgrowth. Only archaeological excavations in 1932 clarified the site as that of two major Biblical episodes, but its proximity to the hostile Israeli-Syrian border prevented the church’s construction until 1967 (when Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria).

Since then, said Father Matthias Karl – one of Tabgha’s five Benedictine monks from Germany – life for Christians within Israel has been generally agreeable. The situation in the West Bank, he noted, is “totally different.” There, Karl said, Israel reneges on the democratic principles it tries to uphold within the pre-1967 borders.

But Tabgha has also known the severity of marginalization: In June 2015, Jewish extremists carried out an arson attack against the church that caused seven million shekels in damage. But the aftermath of this atrocity followed the model of generosity that Karl and Tabgha have long tried to set. The room in which we met, he said, was funded entirely by synagogues from around the world who refused to let the arsonists represent Judaism.

Generosity is built into Tabgha’s mission, said Karl, because Jesus performed one of his most generous deeds on these very grounds. For 40 years, the church has been inviting disabled and traumatized Israelis and Palestinians to visit the church together; it now hosts a full-fledged retreat for up to 80 of those children during the summer.

Indeed, Karl seemed at all points more concerned with his faith’s practical impact than with its symbolic implications. Asked about his robes, he joked that the hood saves him from needing to remember a hat.

Before we departed, Karl interacted with us on personal level. One Catholic member of our group, Liz Donovan, brought along a dozen wooden rosary beads that she bought the day before during our visit to Nazareth. She asked the priest to bless them. He held them in one hand while making the sign of the cross over them with the other hand. “Lord, bless these rosaries and the people who use them,” he said and then offered blessing for our group as we continue our studies and journey.

(Godland News / Liz Donovan)

We then drove south through the hilly desert landscape of the West Bank to a baptismal site on the Jordan River known as Qasr al-Yahud. It was here Christians believe that Jesus himself was immersed in the waters by John the Baptist. We arrived around midday, under a hot son and walked to the river along with pilgrims robed in white, their bathing suits visible beneath the robes.

The water in the river was shallow and murky, the color of clay. A sign read “Border Ahead” in multiple languages, and just a few feet across the river was another country: Jordan. Amid the tourists, on both the Israeli and Jordanian sides of the river, were armed border guards.

Pilgrims were dunking all the way under the brown water and then crossing themselves. Other pilgrims stayed on the sidelines, maybe just dipping their hands or feet into the water. Even though we weren’t there to get baptized, several of our group cooled our feet in the waters, careful not to slide on the slippery bottom.

Our visit was brief, as we had to travel to Bethlehem to explore the Church of Nativity. We breezed quickly through a checkpoint as we passed from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The local Palestinian bus behind us was not so lucky and was immediately pulled over. We drove through a gate in the security barrier built by the Israelis more than a decade ago to separate the West Bank.

We arrived in Bethlehem and walked through the cobblestone streets. There were many small square buildings stacked on hills. We went up a small staircase in between buildings and found our guide Salwa. Salwa explained the Church of Nativity is the oldest church in Israel/Palestine and second-oldest in the world only to a church in Armenia. To get inside, we went through a “humility door,” a door so small you have to seriously duck to get through.

Inside, there were cool slabs of stone on the floor and the smell of incense was fairly powerful. It was exceedingly ornamented, with many silver chandeliers and candle holders hanging from the ceiling. The walls were covered with elaborate mosaics and colorful idols hung everywhere.

The birthplace of Christ was actually in a cave, Salwa told us, and not in a manger with wood and straw as it is often depicted in the West. She also noted that Christ’s manger was probably made of limestone, a common commodity in Bethlehem at the time. We slowly made it down semi-circular stone stairs with the rest of the pilgrims. In a small cave in the wall was the birthplace, marked by a silver 14-point star. Many people touched the birthplace and some placed rosary beads in the center and crossed themselves. It seemed to be a remarkable and exciting moment for a person of any kind of faith.

Afterwards, we went to the Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian non-profit, to meet the executive director, Sami Awad. The organization works with the Palestinian community at both grassroots and leadership levels to promote non-violent tactics to achieve the peace process. We took our shoes off and walked into a large open room with red pillows low to the ground surrounding the edge of the space. The walls were covered in signs that read “peace” in multiple languages. We discussed various aspects of the Israel/Palestine conflict and Awad explained his personal ideological shift of Ghandi-ian ideology to King-ian, which meant a shift from advocating a change in borders to a focus on universal civil rights. He also explained the three main reasons he thought were fundamentally prohibiting the peace process: Israeli settlements, disagreements on the definition of “peace,” and restriction of movement. He stressed a sense of resignation common in Palestine and the psychological uncertainty Palestinians faced every day.

But more importantly, he said, is understanding others in the conflict: “Jesus said ‘Love thy enemy.’ We have to know who they are, because love means building oneness.”

Photos from day 4: