Thursday, August 26, 2004


Each time I've come to Jerusalem (this is the third), I've made a special point of going to pray at the Western Wall. No matter how bad, or how crazy, things are here, the wall has always felt holy to me, and I'm always moved when I see it after an absence.

A few days ago, I found out that the big plaza in front of the wall is not so old as the wall, itself. In 1967, almost immediately after Israel captured the Old City, the government razed the entire Mughrabi Quarter of the Old City to create a giant plaza so Jews could flock freely to their holy site. The roughly 130 pious, Muslim families living in the destroyed houses were given between two and three hours notice. They were provided with alternative housing, at a more suitable (to the Jewish Israelis) distance from the Temple Mount, which was doubtless a great comfort.

I've been back to the wall twice since learning this, but I just can't pray there anymore. I've seen a picture of the old space for prayer; it was cramped, but it was undefiled. I would a thousand times rather stand squished in with the observant Jews at prayer than spread my legs comfortably on the rubble of other people's homes and dreams. Unfortunately, I was never given that choice.

There is a story about the people of Chelm, who try to capture sunlight in chests to light their homes. They take the chests outside, open them up, then close them ever so quickly, never understanding where the light went when they open them inside their homes. We laugh at the story, and at the foolishness of the Chelmnicks, yet in Israel we have tried to capture holiness at the end of a gun. How could we laugh so freely at the the first foolishness, yet fall so easily into the second?

When the Hebrew University was newly opened, there was a greatly respected head of philosophy, formerly of Britain, whose name I have (as usual) forgotten. After a number of years in Israel, arguing in vain for just treatment of Palestinian-Israelis, he decided to return to England. Before he left, a man (the gentleman in whose book I read this, I believe) met him briefly and said, "Professor, I understand why you are leaving." The scholar said, curtly, that he doubted it, and the man replied, "If you have to be alone, you would rather be alone among strangers than among your own people." The scholar paused for a moment, and then he said, "I was wrong; you do understand."

Many years ago, when I was only 17 years old, I was still in the Navy, wondering how the hell I got there, and my then-girlfriend was many miles away and well out of reach. I used to wander around the enlisted men's center, sometimes, wishing I were anywhere else. I still remember the exact rock songs playing on the jukebox, as I played them over and over, and the keening loneliness of being so far from the world I knew and thought I understood. That's the feeling I have tonight, and the same songs are coming into my head again after all this time.

I've come home, or to the place where my home should be, but I find that I am alone among my own people. I won't stop coming back, or keeping my little journals and sending my emails, but my efforts, and those of my colleagues in this struggle, are far too little, and too late. Armistice we will eventually achieve, but peace is a distant hope, and justice even less than that. And, though I hope with all my heart that I am wrong, it seems unlikely that this blot on our people's good name will ever be removed.