Friday, April 29, 2016

Reflections on Israel and Palestine, Part Three

(This is another is a series of reflections from my trip with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program to Israel and Palestine.)

My introduction to Israel was an airport shuttle van ride from the Tel Aviv airport to the Gloria Hotel in Old City Jerusalem. The view of Israel during this van ride was of a modern, western society with beautiful highways and a bustling, modern infrastructure. The countryside did not look particularly Holy or particularly conflicted.  The van driver dropped us off on the curb at the corner of a busy, urban intersection in Jerusalem with the directions to walk up the steps, through the Jaffa Gate and take the first left turn to our hotel. This was easy. The walk was short. What I quickly learned was that walking through the Jaffa Gate brought me into a beautiful, mystical and fascinating new world: the Old City of Jerusalem.

The 30 participants of our study tour to Israel and Palestine were spread out over different airlines and different flight schedules. Only my new friend Ann and I were on a direct United Airlines flight which made us the first members of our team to arrive, and gifted us with a whole afternoon of free time. Ann shared my enthusiasm to use this free time well, we quickly checked into the hotel, dropped our bags and starting walking. From my pre-reading I knew about the Old City, and my tourist logic was correct. I would have no problem walking around, no concern about getting lost, and no need for a car or bus ride as long as I stayed within the walls of the Old City. We immersed ourselves in the Old City, not hesitating to explore any twist or turn or small alley of this ancient place. The Old City is now a tourist haven and every imaginable Holy Land souvenir and Middle Eastern sweets and juices are available in the small, store front shops that are tucked in everywhere. The chatter and hospitality of the shop owners and the boisterous fun of sellers and buyers was all joyful; “Please come into my shop, I have a special deal for you today!”

We twisted down alleys, around corners, up and down steps not knowing and not seeking any sense of direction or destination. We came out onto a landing and, to our surprise, a view opened up before us of the Western (also called Wailing) Wall. We had wandered all the way across the Old City. Now our path tightened up a bit with posted signs and explanations, and we needed to pass through a security check-point to enter the plaza and approach the Wailing Wall. Ann and I needed to separate into the divided male and female places for prayer. Just touching the stones of that wall, admiring their heft and size and soaring height was inspiring. The stones carry you back in time. This is a Holy Place; prayer came easy.

Ann and I met up and continued exploring. We were baffled by an ugly, sort of wooden deck which rose up from the Wailing Wall plaza floor and exited up on top of the Wall somewhere we could not see; so we explored it. There was another security checkpoint and this little, wooden walkway delivered us onto the plaza for the Dome of the Rock. My pre-reading has also taught me about this place; the Dome of the Rock is the third most holy site in Islam, the legendary spot of the prophet’s mystical ascension to heaven. 

The geography stunned me; and still does. I had book knowledge about the Old City and the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock. In my theological mind, it seems to me that the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock are the opposite ends of the whole Middle East conflict. What the Wailing Wall is and represents to Jews and what the Dome of the Rock is and represents to Moslems seem to be the opposing parenthesis between which is all the seething conflict that we call the Middle East. What stunned me is that the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock are so close together. Because of their physical locations with the Wall sinking down to the foundations of the world and the Dome reaching up to the heights of heaven there is not a common viewpoint where both are in one’s frame of vision together. When standing in front to the Wailing Wall, it is so high you cannot see the Dome of the Rock above it. When standing on the huge plaza surrounding the Dome of the Rock there truly is no sense and no acknowledgement that the Wailing Wall is one of its foundation walls. In my introductory study there was always either a view and explanation of the Wailing Wall or a view and explanation of the Dome of the Rock; but I did not realize how close together these holy places are to one another until I stood there. The Wailing Wall creates the foundation wall upon which the Dome of the Rock sits. Of course, this makes perfect physical sense; a point that I completely missed in my pre-reading. Spiritually, this proximity fascinated and confused me. How very close; how very far apart.

Of course, today, given generations of conflict the distance between these sites is exaggerated. The Moslems who seek a time of worship and prayer at their Dome of the Rock use an entry point completely opposite from where the Wailing Wall stands. And the entry points for Jews to their Wailing Wall never clearly presents a view of the Dome of the Rock above it. And yet there is this ugly, sort of haphazardly built, wooden walkway which Ann and I wandered upon which carries foolish tourists from the plaza in front of the Wailing Wall to the courtyard surrounding the Dome. They forgot to tell us that these holy sites are so very, very close; maybe we have forgotten to mention that peace is very, very close.

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”   Psalm 122: 6