Muslim families sue Israel for right to bury their dead at a Jerusalem cemetery

This story was first published at Religion Unplugged:

JERUSALEM – Just south of the Old City’s monumental Lion’s Gate lies a smaller portal. White double doors framed by Arabic engraved tablets open to reveal a stone path shaded by a sheet metal awning. Where the overhang ends, the graves begin, hundreds of them overlooking the Mount of Olives, its green slopes dotted with graves of their own. As the sun sets, light slants against the long, flat gravestones. Farther down the path, red poppies grow between the headstones. Two young men in kufis stand by one of the graves, deep in prayer. At dusk, the living, a few solitary visitors, were as silent as the dead, meandering quietly among them.

Photo by Sara Weissman

PIn the hush of Bab al-Rahma Cemetery, it’s hard to imagine the place as anything but peaceful. For hundreds of years, people of faith have been buried just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, a place sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims. But beneath this burial ground, running along the eastern wall of Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Temple Mount, lie layers of religious meaning and conflict. For Palestinians, it’s an active Muslim cemetery. For Israel, it’s a protected Jewish antiquities site. Burials there have been a point of contention in Jerusalem for over a decade.

of Silwan, a predominantly Palestinian neighborhood bordering the Old City, traditionally
bury their dead in the southernmost part of Bab al-Rahma Cemetery. But for
years, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority has technically banned burials in
the area, citing the need to protect antiquities close to the Temple Mount. Palestinian
families who consider themselves the land’s owners are pursuing a lawsuit
against the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the municipality of Jerusalem,
with their next hearing this summer. The hope is, if the Husseini and Ansari
families can reassert ownership, they can reduce Israeli interference at the

“In June, I hope that the court will be open to hearing our arguments and be convinced,” said Sami Harshid, a lawyer who’s been representing families in Silwan for 20 years. “Restricting people and using their burial places is equal [to] restricting any community conducting worship.”

al-Rahma Cemetery has already undergone its share of legal battles. In 1974,
the Israel Nature and Parks Authority classified it as a part of the Jerusalem
Walls National Park, giving the agency authority over the grounds. At the time,
the land was registered under the Islamic Waqf. In 2005, the Committee for the
Prevention of the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount – a group of
Israeli archeologists and scholars – petitioned the High Court to ban burials
in the area, citing the area’s potential archeological significance. According
to Haaretz,
their statement called burials in the area “archeological crimes, which are
unacceptable to any cultured person, irrespective of political stands or
ideological positions,” comparing the Temple Mount to the Acropolis in Athens.

court ultimately rejected the suit but encouraged authorities to protect the
site, causing police to restrict new burials in the southern part of the
cemetery. In 2012, the area where the burial ban was enforced expanded.
Finally, last May, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority completed a fence
around the cemetery, a decision met with protest from Palestinians. Silwan
residents saw it as another move to restrict Palestinian burials, part of a systemic
policy to curtail their rights and erode their cultural landmarks from the
landscape of Jerusalem.

are very frustrated,” Harshid said. “They feel like the authorities ignore not
just their feelings but the real need to have burial space there.”

Photo by Sara Weissman

PJerusalem, in general, has a burial space problem. Centuries of funerals for the world’s faithful have finally taken their toll. As Jerusalem’s Jewish cemeteries fill, its burial society has resorted to some odd, albeit creative plans: burial complexes with multiple stories, graves carved into rock walls, and even catacombs. Muslims are also suffering from the lack of burial space, and people who live in Silwan specifically want to bury loved ones in Bab al-Rahma, both because of family plots there and because of the religious significance of the area.

When her uncle died, Sahar Abasi’s family buried him in her grandfather’s grave in Bab al-Rahma Cemetery, in accordance with a Muslim tradition to have layered burials. It was emotional laying a son to rest with his father. As her own father grows old, she can’t imagine burying him anywhere else. Abasi, the women project coordinator for the Madaa Silwan Creative Center, describes Silwan as the “core” of her life. She’s lived in the neighborhood since she was born.

has a last wish, and this is the last wish for everyone here – to be buried in
Bab al-Rahma,” she said.

be Palestinian on the outskirts of the Old City is to constantly reassert, “We
exist, we have roots, we have heritage…” Abasi said. Living – and dying – in
Silwan isn’t “heaven on earth… Now after their death days, [Palestinians]
deserve their rest, what they didn’t have in their lives.”

thinks Israel is slowly edging out Palestinians from East Jerusalem. The legal wrangling
over Bab al-Rahma Cemetery is just a part of it. “[Israel figured], ‘We’ll
start with the living, and now we’ll start with the dead people,’” Abasi said.

to Harshid, Bab al-Rahma Cemetery has a sort of patchwork of regulations now.
Small areas of the cemetery complex allow for unrestricted burials, while
others don’t allow for new burials at all.

the Southern part, Silwan residents can apply for court permission, but
“Palestinians don’t really trust the Israeli court system,” said Yonathan
Mizrachi, an Israeli archeologist in Jerusalem. Even though police can stop
burials, he finds that most mourners would rather take their chances.

works with Silwan residents as the executive director of Emek Shaveh, an
Israeli NGO that focuses on the role of archeology in the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. The organization often advocates for Palestinians impacted by Israeli

Mizrachi, the archeological claims aren’t enough to ban burials. This is a case
where archeology is a “tool to change the character of the village, to create
kind of a new political order in this area,” he said. In Israel, “Every stone
becomes relevant and raises a lot of tension.”

understands the desire to preserve Jerusalem as it once was. But this
preservationist ideology is applied selectively, he said. No one is arguing
Jews should stop performing burials in Jerusalem to protect potential
antiquities. The argument against burials isn’t just about artifacts. It’s
about the culture of the city.

kind of city do we see when we visit Jerusalem?” he asked. “Do we see a
multicultural city? Do we see an Arab city? Do we see an Israeli Jewish city?
This cemetery reminds us we’re not the only people here.”

is drawn to the conflict around Bab al-Rahma Cemetery in particular because
it’s “an interesting case of violating heritage rights in the name of
protection for heritage,” he said.

doesn’t reject the idea that Bab al-Rahma cemetery has archeological
significance, given its location. But Mizrachi argues that civilizations have
been building on top of each other for centuries. Jerusalem is a growing city.
People live and people die. Some of them are Muslim.

“We have a history of layers,” he said. “The cemetery is part of it.”

Top photo by Sara Weissman

Palestinian Women are Transforming the Shari’a Law Court System

RAMALLAH — In 2009, a woman arrived at the Shari’a courthouse in Ramallah, West Bank and asked to see the judge. A few minutes later, Kholoud Faqih, then 34 and 5’6”, appeared in a black robe and printed hijab to greet her. The woman immediately stood up and said words Faqih would never forget: “I will never allow for a woman to judge me.” She left the room without turning back. Even after struggling for eight years to become the world’s first female judge in an Islamic court system, Judge Faqih was the one being judged.

a recent interview, Faqih reflected on those early days on the bench. “You know
the men, they tested me. At first, they didn’t discuss the cases with me and they
tried to trap me by assigning me difficult ones,” Faqih recounted. “Finally,
they accepted me. But what surprised me was that the women were the ones who
refused to believe that a female could be a judge.”

Qadi (Arabic for “judge”) Faqih is now a celebrity in her own right with an acclaimed documentary called The Judge based on her decade of struggle. “You should see my movie,” she said. Ten years ago, when she was struggling as a lawyer and a mother, she couldn’t have imagined saying those words. “Yes, I faced many, many difficulties to be in this position then.” She reflected now on how many things have changed since, but the change in her she said was this: “I’m a feminist judge in Palestine. That’s why I’m different from the others.”

Where some tried to sow seeds of doubt in her credibility, Faqih, in turn, sowed seeds of inspiration in the women around her who followed in her footsteps and have even exceeded her in the Shari’a court system. Today, Faqih is among the first four women in the world including Faqih’s own former clerk—all of whom happen to be Palestinian—who now serve as judges in Islamic court.

One of them, Somoud Damiri, was dubbed the Chief Prosecutor of the Supreme Judge Department in the Judiciary High Council of the State of Palestine in 2011, the first woman to ever earn this title and the first to speak to an international audience at the United Nations in 2017 on the issue of women’s rights under Shari’a law.

Damiri, 37, was the third female to become a judge in the shari’a system after Kholoud Faqih and Faqih’s collegiate peer, Asmahan Wuheidi, 41. She dealt in women’s equality, divorce, and domestic violence cases every day, but at home she was mother the of four who split the chores equally with her husband. Asked why she chose to join the justice system, Damiri responded fervently saying, “It’s the time. It is our time. That’s it.”  

is also a lecturer at Birzeit University in the West Bank. She remembers
discovering from the school administration that the young women studying law
there would quietly go to the department to request to join her classes. “The
girls look to me to tell them that they can make it and that it will be okay
for them,” said Damiri. She reflected on the questions she got from her female
students in class. “They ask me: ‘Is it easy for you to be with sheikhs (male
judges)? Do they really listen to you? Do they respect you in the courts? What
is it like to be a mother and a judge?’ They ask me human questions really.”

Mid-march was a stressful time for aspiring lawyers at Birzeit University. Hundreds of young Palestinian women and men were taking the three-hour-long bar exam on Saturday, March 16 to enter the law and justice system of Palestine. Among them was 22-year-old Diala Nidal Sayyed.

graduated from Birzeit University three months ago after completing her
three-and-a-half-year law course and took the exam so she could qualify to train
with a lawyer.  It was her female law
professors, she said, who left an indelible mark on her career path. “There
were actually a lot of women professors at my university, and they were so much more effective than men,” she said
with a hearty laugh.

There was one who she unequivocally deemed her favorite: her international law professor, Hala Shoiabi. “Her way to teach, her personality, everything about her made us girls very happy in her classes,” said Sayyed. “She is a role model for me. She didn't take the same ways to teach. We had to act out cases for each other. She made us watch movies about crimes. It was a really new way of learning that opened me up.” Sayyed noticed that her classes at Birzeit were now full of women too, as was the bar exam hall this past March. “In the past, women didn’t even study in school, but now almost 85% of women go to university,” she said. She’s not wrong. Palestine has the highest female literacy rate in the entire Middle East at 94%, according to a 2013 UNDP study. And the rate of female enrollment rate in higher education institutions in Palestine is soaring, despite poor funding and even poorer infrastructure, both of which are at the mercy of the Israeli Ministry of Education.

Photo by Radha Dhar

Internal documents from the Palestinian Bar Association revealed that out of the latest cohort of 630 practicing lawyers in Palestine, only 36% were women. Though it was a far cry from equality, the number was an industry record. “Things are changing and we are supporting that change,” noted Samar Issa, a high-ranking member of the Palestinian Bar Association that keeps records of these demographic trends in Palestinian law and justice and supports women’s growing involvement in it. “We give trainings to women in Shari’a law about their rights,” said Issa. “The first judge in Prophet Mohammad’s time was a woman after all. His wife!” she exclaimed.

Professor Abdelrehman Rehan would agree. He is a professor of law at Modern University College in Ramallah. Rehan explained that Shari’a law how often misunderstood. According to him, it is less to do with stoning as the Western media frames it, and more to do with “personal status” issues like getting a divorce, child custody, and management of financial assets within a family. Among Rehan’s current course offerings is one called “The Rights of the Wife.” Referencing the Prophet’s wife, he explained that the role of shari’a law is simply to guide people spiritually as they live a holy life in each of its stages, fulfilling their duties under the eyes of Allah. In a recent interview in his office at the college, Rehan gestured to his classroom textbook, pointing to the section he would cover the next day. “But the main book of law is this one,” said Rehan, placing a copy of the Quran on top of the textbook.

Amid his lesson plans in Arabic splayed about on his desk, he pointed to the attendance sheets. “I have 26 students now, and 15 of them are women,” Rehan said, counting up to 15, marking the rows on the spreadsheet before him as he went. They had stellar attendance. The prior year’s demographic revealed 13 females in class. But the step forward was marred by a discussion of a backwards practice under weak shar’ia interpretations that gives allowance “for a man to hit his wife, only politely, in extreme cases,” explained Rehan. “But I don’t think hitting is ever ok. The Quran does not tell us to harm a woman,” he stated firmly with brows furrowed. When asked what happens to the judges who do not believe this as he does, Rehan said that they are transferred to a lower court, “But they are never dismissed. I guess, it is a problem.” 

worked in the courts for years as an arbitrator, making decisions on paper for
smaller domestic cases that never made it to higher courts. “I always dismiss
the man who hits his wife. There are other ways to explain to her her duties,”
said Rehan of the matter.

Faqih, also a wife and mother to four, spoke through laughter as her kids interrupted her speaking on the phone from her home in Ramallah. “I’m sorry, I’m cooking and I had to open the door,” she apologized. “It’s an old system, the shari’a law. The time has changed and it has to change too. And we will change it,” she said with pause. One of her daughters, the youngest, wanted to be a judge like her mother at first, but changed quickly her mind to become a doctor, fearing that higher ups in the Supreme Court would not accept her and she would be transferred. Faqih calmed her down. “I told her you can do anything, but you have to be strong. You have to know your rights. You can do anything.”

Top image by Radha Dhar.

16 Israelis and Palestinians Talk Identity, Before Elections : A Photo Essay

As published in The Forward

In Israel, Judaism alone boasts a spectrum of denominations, affiliations and nomenclatural religious-national identifiers. 93 percent of Israeli Jews would say they are proud of their Jewish identity, according to a recent Pew study, but the way they understand and describe that identity - and what it means to be Jewish - can vary drastically, whether it be “Israeli Jew” or “Jewish Israeli”, along with labels like “ultra-Orthodox”, “modern Orthodox”, “Conservative”, “Masorti” or “secular” to name a few.

But how do other religious communities identify themselves in Israel and parts of the Palestinian territories?

We travelled from the northern Druze village of Beit Jann to a cluster of Jewish settlements in Gush Etzion, to interview and photograph 16 people of different faiths about the way they self-identified. In a land where even calling a country “Israel” can be construed as a political statement, those we interviewed described themselves very intentionally while describing their relationship with the state.

Our interviews came at a critical juncture as the country prepares for what is expected to be one of the most closely contested Israeli elections in recent political history. The incumbent, Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likkud party, is looking to win his fifth election on April 9th and eclipse David Ben Gurion’s record as the nation’s longest-serving prime minister. He is challenged by the newly-formed centrist Blue and White led by Yair Lapid and former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz.

With the growing political clout of extremist parties on the right like Jewish Power (“Otzma Yehudit”), this won’t be the first time the country’s identity has become a topic of national discourse. The Knesset’s passage of the nation-state law last May, which affirmed that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in the State of Israel is “unique to the Jewish people,” has provoked similar discussion and controversy.

In this election, identity is everything.

Maayan Mankadi, Beit Horon

Maayan Mankadi is from Beit Horon, an Israeli settlement located a few kilometers away from Ramallah. Mankadi identifies as a modern Orthodox Zionist, and recently got married in Jerusalem. “I’m at the Kotel to pray and to thank God for helping me get to where I am now,” she says. “I appreciate the sanctity of the Torah, but I’m also a regular member of the country’s workforce. We earn a living and serve in the army or complete national service. It’s somewhere in the middle of the two extremes we find in Israel.”

Sawsan Kheir, Beit Jann

Sawsan Kheir is a psychology PhD student at the University of Haifa. Born and raised in Peqi-in, a Druze village in the Galilee, her research focuses on the effects of modernization and the value of faith in Muslim and Druze students across Israel. She defines herself as Druze, Arab, and Israeli. “Since the establishment of the State of Israel,” she says, “the Druze have been loyal to the government and had very positive relations with the Jews because of our shared history of persecution. There is a mutual understanding.” With the recently passed nation state law, Druze like Kheir are nervous. “We are loyal to the land we are born into,” she says. “There are three basic elements of our faith: the land, honor, and religion.”

Avi R, Haifa

Avi, a security consultant from Haifa, considers himself a masorti (traditional) Jew. “I go to synagogue for all the festivals and keep our traditions,” he says. “I am first Jewish and then Israeli.” For Avi, his identity won’t change in the upcoming elections. “My family and I always vote for Likkud.”

Sheikh Jamil Khatib, Beit Jann

Sheikh Jamil Khatib is one of Beit Jann’s four imams. “I am an Israeli Druze,” he says. “First, I am a Druze through my mother and father, then I am an Israeli because I am connected and attached to the land of the State of Israel. I am prepared to do anything for my country and to perpetuate its existence.” Politically, Khatib explains, the Druze in Beit Jann are somewhat divided. “Some support Likkud, some support Meretz, some follow Chadash - you see us in every single political party and this election won’t change that.” Khatib himself is committed to Druze education and cultural workshops for his community, and served as principal at a local elementary school before becoming an imam.

Chaftzivah Bitton, Tzfat

Chaftzivah Bitton lives in Tzfat, and works as an advisor to newlyweds and a supervisor at her local mikveh. “I am an Israeli from a religious household,” she says. “My father was a rabbi, my husband is a rabbi, and we are continuing the traditions of the Jewish people. My identity will not change at all in the upcoming elections. I am Jewish, religious, and Israeli.”

Sheikh Sami Abu Anas, Nazareth

Born and raised in Nazareth, Sheikh Sami Abu Anas is the head imam at the city’s White Mosque. “I am a Muslim Palestinian, living in the State of Israel,” he says. “Though I would always describe myself first as a Palestinian, I was born in Israel. I respect the laws of the state, and respecting the state you live in is a principle that goes all the way back to the time of the Prophet himself.” Anas’ mosque is open to all, but he fears that increased polarization has pushed Israeli Jews and Arabs to more extreme sides of the political spectrum. Nazareth is the largest Arab-majority city in Israel, and to Anas, this indicates that many different kinds of people can live in the same place. “I truly hope that whichever government is formed after the elections makes us feel more included, even if it is Netanyahu’s government. I also have the freedom to express myself here as a Palestinian Muslim, unlike in Gaza or Egypt or Saudi Arabia, for example.”

Sami Shalsha, Nazareth

Sami Shalsha is a caretaker of the White Mosque. “I am an ordinary and simple human,” he says. “I don’t like discrimination or hate, and my religion teaches me that we all must live together in harmony, whether you are an Arab or Israeli or English or Jew or Christian or Muslim or whatever - it does not matter.” Though he lives just around the corner from the White Mosque, Shalsha is originally from the north. “I take care of the mosque every day from 10 in the morning until 7 at night…I also guide the tourists who come visit talk about the history of the mosque. I try and change their perception of Islam because some of them see groups like ISIS as Islamic. ISIS does not represent Islam, and Islam is not a religion that condones murder.”

Shmuel Zengoltz and Matanya Guetta, Jerusalem’s Old City

Shmuel Zengoltz and Matanya Guetta know each other from yeshiva, and come to the Old City together almost every week. They both identify as Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), and Zengoltz, originally from Tiberias, sees his Israeli and Haredi identity as inextricably linked. Guetta feels slightly different: “I am from Jerusalem,” he says. “I am first a Jew, then a Haredi, and then an Israeli, because Judaism has been around the longest, before Haredim and before Israel. No election will change my identity.”

Ahmed, Nazareth

Ahmed makes some of Nazareth’s best knafe, doling it out from a small corner of the famed Mahroum sweet shop. “We are all human beings at the end of the day,” he says. “I don’t like that everyone categorizes themselves as either Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, or Muslim. We all belong to the human race.”

Dr. Maria Khoury, Taybeh

“I identify as a Palestinian in spirit, but I’m Greek Orthodox in blood,” says Dr. Maria Khoury, a Taybeh resident. Along with her Palestinian husband and his family, Khoury runs the popular Taybeh Brewing Company, the Taybeh Winery, and The Taybeh Golden Hotel. “No matter what the election results are in Israel, I think our situation here in the West Bank will pretty much stay the same. I do not think the wall is going to go away. I do not think the checkpoints will go away. I do not think the Israeli settlements are going to go away. We suffer from the Israeli occupation because our freedom of movement is limited.”

Pastor Munther Isaac, Bethlehem

Serving at the Christmas Lutheran Church in the old city of Bethlehem, Pastor Munther Isaac is acutely aware of his own religious and national identity. “I am a Palestinian Arab Christian,” said Isaac. “I am a follower of Christ. And when I think of the elections, I just hope that people choose someone who is willing to have a serious conversation about making peace. Right now, current Israeli rhetoric is reflected by the recent Nation State law. I’m hoping for people who will make the country more inclusive.”

Isaac Simanian, Tel Aviv

Isaac Simanian’s spice shop in the bustling Levinsky market is always full of customers. “My parents were born in Iran,” he says from behind the counter, “but I am an Israeli Jew. I wear a kippah, but it’s important to me that all religions are welcome here.” Simanian plans to vote for the Likkud party in the upcoming elections. “I choose Netanyahu,” he adds. “No one is better than him.”

Zahi Khouri, Ramallah

Born in Jaffa, Khouri is one of Ramallah’s best-known businessmen. He has lived all over the world, and is the founder of the Palestinian National Beverage Company and produces Coca-Cola for the region as well. He opened up the Palestinian Beverage Company as a way to not only encourage local business in the area, but also to provide hope to the community. He is outspoken against Israeli occupation, but doesn’t think the elections will change much. “First, I am a human being,” he says. “Second I am Palestinian. Third, I am a Christian.”

Rabbi Dov Berkowitz, Shiloh

Born in Chicago, Rabbi Dov Berkowitz now lives in Shiloh, an Israeli settlement almost 30 miles north of Jerusalem. “I consider myself a Jew, a father, and a husband,” he says. Upon moving to Israel, Berkowitz never intended to move to a settlement. When he and his wife first arrived, Berkowitz says he was “the leftie here - the peacenik.” But after the first intifada, Berkowitz started to change his mind. “I deeply believe in creating peace with the Palestinians,” he says. “For me, Zionism means many things, but the bottom line of Zionism is that the Jewish people came back to Israel not to be killed.”

Omar Hmeedat, Dheisheh Refugee Camp

Omar Hmeedat calls himself a Palestinian atheist. “I do not support any political party,” he says. “I am even more critical of their agenda and the way they work. I also do not think this conflict should be religious.” Though he does not live there now, Hmeedat grew up in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, just a few miles from the old city of Bethlehem. He is now actively involved in non-political community organizing and urban planning research. At Al-Quds University, Hmeedat is majoring in media studies. “The elections won’t change anything,” Hmeedat adds. “I am Palestinian and will remain Palestinian. Whether I live in Palestine, Israel, or in Europe. This won’t change my identity.”

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, Gush Etzion

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the founder of Torat Tzedek (Torah of Justice) and previous President and Senior Rabbi for Rabbis for Human Rights, is recognized around the world for his commitment to human rights and social justice in the region. He is originally from Pennsylvania, but he moved to Israel in 1994. “I identify as a human being,” he says, “and my Jewish identity and faith are not my wall with the rest of the world, but my bridge.” Ascherman is committed to inter-faith dialogues, and has previously been on trial for acts of civil disobedience. “As a human rights leader,” he adds, “I don’t tell anyone how I’m voting and I don’t affiliate with any political party, but I will vote and I will ask others to vote for a party that is honoring God’s image and every human being.”

Jonathan Harounoff is a master’s student at Columbia Journalism School, an alumnus of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and an incoming FASPE Fellow. Some of his work has featured in The Jerusalem Post, Religion News Service and The Harvard Gazette.

Leah Feiger is a religion, gender, and culture writer living in New York City. She is currently an intern at The Forward, and was previously a freelance writer based in Kigali, Rwanda. Her work has appeared in Ozy, Fodor’s, and Culture Trip, among others. Follow her on Twitter @leahfeiger.

Leah and Jonathan reported this story during a trip to Israel as part of a Columbia Journalism School religion reporting class that is sponsored by the Scripps Howard Foundation.

This story "16 Israelis and Palestinians Talk Identity, Before Elections: A Photo Essay" was written by Leah Feiger and Jonathan Harounoff.

Photographs courtesy of Leah Feiger.

Day #6: Jerusalem

JERUSALEM – Our day on Friday started just inside of Jaffa Gate, one of the seven entrances to the Old City of Jerusalem. We also had an extra addition: Professor Ari Goldman.

The night before, some of us had celebrated Purim by dancing to Israeli music and eating Israeli-Yemenite pastries on the streets surrounding city’s Mehane Yehuda market. Even the next day, as we stood outside Jaffa Gate, people were still carrying holiday gift baskets and dressed in costume. But, instead of continuing our Purim celebrations, we were preparing to explore the holy sites of the Old City.

Arnita Najeeb, our tour guide for the morning, started with the Jaffa Gate to give us a sense of Jerusalem’s complex and extensive history. The gate was originally constructed by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century and was eventually expanded to include a bridge, used by Kaiser Wilhelm II, to enter the city.

From the gate, we were led through the Armenian Quarter, where we learned about the city’s four quarters. While Jerusalem is split geographically into Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Armenian quarters, residents are not exclusively tied to these areas. Jews can and do live in the Muslim Quarter and Armenians do not have to live in the Armenian Quarter.

We eventually arrived at Zion Gate, one of the newer entrances to the city. The gate was officially re-opened in 1967 after the Six-Day War, but the craters and cracks around the arch stand as evidence of the conflict the gate was witnessed.

In telling us the history of the old city, Najeeb presented us with a theme that still resonates today. Jerusalem is, and has always been, a city characterized by the constant building up and tearing down of walls.

“Here, walls do not help people,” Najeeb said. “They make it difficult for people to work and they make people more stressed.”

We then visited the site of the Last Supper, the Cenacle or the Upper Room. In the room, a tour group from Indonesia cried out hymns in a circle, worshiping one of the holiest sites in Christianity.

Located above King David’s Tomb, the Cenacle is also a demonstration of how one site can be overtaken and refurbished by different religions. Across the room, Arabic inscriptions can be seen and a dome-like structure sits at one corner. In the 12th century, while Jerusalem was under Ottoman rule, the Cenacle was converted into a mosque.

Discussions about the intersections of religions in Jerusalem continued outside of the holy sites. Between the Jewish and Armenian Quarters on Ararat Street, Najeeb had us stop. Behind him stood both a mosque and a church. In front of him, back on Chabad Street, were Jewish homes.

“Do you see people fighting here?” Najeeb asked us. “People can live together in peace.”

Weaving our way down the cobbled streets and steps of the Jewish Quarter, we eventually arrived at the Western Wall.

In front of the wall, Jonathan Harounoff, a fellow journalism student, gave his personal insight into a Jewish ritual: wrapping the Tefillin. Two sets of small boxes with leather straps, the Tefillin is meant to be wrapped daily. One goes over the head and one is wrapped around the arm.


( Photo Courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)

“It symbolizes your relationship to God,” Harounoff said. “It’s the ultimate mitzvah, or good deed.”

After viewing the main section of the Kotel, some of us broke off to observe the southern part of the retaining temple wall. The southern part is often referred to as the egalitarian section, as both men and women can pray and read Torah together and without any separating barrier.

The egalitarian section can only be accessed through the Davidson Center, the archaeological site adjacent to the Western Wall. While the Kotel is free, a ticket to the Davidson Center and the egalitarian section costs 29 ILS for an adult ticket.

The southern section is home to one of the best views of East Jerusalem, spanning from the Mount of Olives to the walls of the Jewish Quarter. However, only two other visitors were taking advantage of the view and the egalitarian section. Unlike the Western Wall, at midday on Friday, no one was praying or reading Torah.

A few hours later, after we broke off to report on our own stories, we regrouped at the Western Wall for Shabbat service. The mood of the wall had shifted. There were many more observers than tour groups, and the Kotel began to feel like a true place of worship, rather than a tourist site.

In the women’s section, a line of women stood up at the barrier to hear the men chant and sing Shabbat prayers. A few women sang along and clapped their hands, while others stayed silent and focused on the wall. The praying was individualistic and each woman kept to herself.

The men’s side of the Western Wall featured small groups of men, praying and dancing around tables. Their chants were loud and relatively in sync, although some went at their own pace and lagged behind.

Once they finished their prayers, each of the women would back away from the wall with slow steps. Each woman’s gaze never left the wall.

After the Sabbath prayers at the wall, we made our way up a small hill to our hotel, the Sephardic House Hotel in the Jewish quarter. There we had a “family style” Shabbat dinner with a number of guests, including Professor Goldman’s nephew, and Columbia Journalism Professor Gershom Gorenberg’s wife and son. Our guide and educator, Ophir Yarden, also invited his wife and four of his children. As students, we were treated to a traditional Shabbat dinner, complete with the blessing of the bread and the wine. An hour in, Ophir interrupted our conversations and presented us with a question.

“What is your holy envy?” Ophir asked the table. Theorized by Krister Stendahl, holy envy refers to one’s willingness to admire aspects of other faiths. Ophir took this further, asking us if there were any rituals or practices in other faiths that each of us almost wish we could partake in.

While others took time to reflect on the rituals of other faiths, his son answered immediately.

“I’m jealous that others don’t have to wrap Tefellin,” he said.

Day #8 : Jerusalem

JERUSALEM -- It was a brisk Sunday morning — our final full day of our Israel/Palestine journey — and the skies were gray and wet.

We walked to the back of a long line that extended down the hill adjacent  to the Western Wall, waiting to enter the Haram al-Sharif, otherwise known as the Temple Mount: a site sacred to several religions, but governed according to Muslim authority.

The rain started to pick up in pace. Our classmates whipped their umbrellas out; the women unleashed headscarves to cover themselves before entering the site. We had been instructed that morning to dress carefully: No tight fitting clothes. No shorts. Dresses preferred. And no non-Muslim religious articles. Ophir Yarden, our guide, would soon explain why.

“When things are sensitive, everything is sensitive,” he said, adding that  political tensions tended to make the Temple Mount’s Islamic authorities,  known as the Waqf, even more vigilant than usual.

We approached the entrance. There were metal detectors and an x-ray machine. Nearby is a leather-clad bible and other religious objects, both Jewish and Christian, sitting on a shelf before the entrance. Visitors, many of them tourists, had presumably tried to bring them in, wittingly or unwittingly in spite of the rules.

While we were waiting to pass through security, Ophir filled us in on some of the context. The Temple Mount, where Jews believe Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac, is holy among Jews who believe this to be the site of the First and Second Jewish Temples. For Christians, Jesus Christ was believed to have been found at the Temple Mount after his parents, Mary and Joseph, went searching for a child they thought they’d lost.

But the site is exceptionally sacred among Muslims. For the initial 16 to 18 months of Muhammad’s ministry, his followers  prayed towards Jerusalem. Muhammad’s “night journey” in Islam is also a large contributor to the Temple Mount’s status, during which, Muslims believe,  he traveled from Arabia to Jerusalem at a transcendent pace.

And there are two crucially important mosques in the compound: a black-domed building that faces Mecca, and the gold-plated Dome of the Rock, on the opposite site. Only Muslims are allowed inside.

We made our way across the wooden bridge  to the Al Aqsa compound, which  encompasses the entire space and not just its famous mosque. Before we enter,  Ophir points to riot gear near the stone entryway.

“Hopefully they stay there for the next hour, and the next year,” he said, before ushering us forward.

Ophir  gave us some insight into the tensions over the Temple Mount.  There are many Jews who believe that not only were the first and second temples build here, but that a  third temple will also arise  here one day.

Because of this, security within the compound is especially tight.  Ophir explained  that a religious Jew was arrested last week for praying on the Temple Mount, and that a young girl was prevented from entering the Old City on Purim, because she was dressed as a high priest with a sacrificial lamb. Security forces in the area feared that her costume would start a riot.

Non-Islamic rituals practiced at the Temple Mount are viewed through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ophir said, and through the perspective of cultural encroachment, making seemingly small things tense.

“If Jews were to pray here, there would be resistance,” he said. “It’s a national tension, but religion adds oil to the fire.”

We strolled through the rain, some of us ill-prepared for the droplets that soaked our socks through our sneakers. This was it. The last remaining hours of our trip. Our professor, Ari Goldman, suggested that we pose for a class picture in front of the Dome of the Rock.

We were wet. We were cold. We were layered. We've looked better in other pictures.

We clustered together on the steps facing the mosque’s bright, reflective dome. The awe many of us shared, standing in one of the world's holiest places at the end of our journey, might have escaped the photograph.