Jerusalem Now

Israeli enigmas for visitors from  abroad

Our UK correspondent Tom Aitken and his wife Ros have been visiting Israel and have been asking themselves the question: ‘Why and how does Israel exist, loathed, as it is, and for understandable reasons, by most of its neighbours?’


‘And what lies at the heart of a nation where religion and secularism are equally keenly espoused?’

Here’s his report –

Snapshots from Jerusalem

By Tom Aitken

Ros and I have recently returned from nine days in Israel where we and 19 others were escorted, fed, watered and kept informed by Martin Randall Travel, who provided a Christian archaeologist as lecturer– and a Jew and a Palestinian as guides.

Here are some impressions derived from part of what proved to be one of the more strenuous ‘holidays’ we have ever enjoyed.

The four quarters

The Old City in Jerusalem is divided into unequal Jewish, Arab, Armenian & Christian quarters. In many ways these areas look very different but beyond that nothing much suggests exclusivity or no-go areas.

Yet Jerusalem is, arguably, a disaster waiting to happen. Its four distinct religious/racial groups nurse long-term differences. But normally, those differences are kept under wraps. Jerusalem needs visitors.

Disconcertingly, religious tensions erupt most predictably in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre around Christmas, when the six groups of Christian clergy who occupy the dark, cramped building (Latin Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrians, Copts and Ethiopians) become frantically possessive over jurisdictions within it.

Actual physical violence is not unknown at such moments.

Anywhere in the Old City, when the muezzin sounds the call to prayer, visitors are well-advised to clear a path through the narrow streets and underground passages while muscular young Arabic men hurtle through en route to the mosques.

Shrine on former Jewish Temple

Talking of mosques, why should there be an Islamic building on the highest point of both Jewish and Christian quarters? The shrine on the former Jewish Temple Mount is easiest to explain.

After the Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 638 AD/CE, they declared the former site of the Jewish Temple, Mount Moriah, to be their Holy of Holies. They had customarily directed their prayers towards it, because, as the 17th Sura of the Koran records, Muhammad had been taken, by night, from Mecca to Mount Moriah, and from there to heaven and back again.

The Dome of the Rock, completed in 691, laid the foundation of Islamic architecture. Nowadays, non-Muslims may visit this area only when no services are taking place.

Archaeological digging is not permitted anywhere within this area.

Consequently, no expansion of our knowledge of the Second Temple (left), build by Herod the Great (and, for Christians) of Jesus’ movements in there, has been possible for many decades.

The small mosque surmounting the Christian Quarter illustrates Israel’s enforcement of the right of all citizens to practise any religion or none, and of the legal provision that any building declared a place of worship is thereafter sacrosanct.

This small house, high in the Christian quarter, was occupied by a Muslim family, who asserted their faith by converting it into a mosque. Henceforward, a mosque it will remain.

Around a couple of corners, as you walk along the walls, hailed cheerfully by people in the streets below, and enter the Jewish Quarter, you may work out the answer to a question posed by our ebullient Jewish guide, Ronny (an immigrant from Sweden, where he was born).

‘How,’ he asked, ‘do you distinguish Jewish houses from Arab ones?

The answer: Arabs shun the contamination inherent in westernized Jewish television (available on cable) and use satellite dishes to get religious programmes from Arabia.

The Jews in Israel who look most obviously like Jews are Ultra-Orthodox men, wearing black suits and big black hats. Many originate from areas of central and Eastern Europe where anti-Semitism was rife.

Charmingly, on wet days they cover their hats with supermarket plastic bags.

More seriously, they will be at the centre of a political row that is just getting started. Until now, unlike all other Israelis, male and female, they have been exempt from the standard three years of compulsory military service and some other social obligations. Their justification has been that they are serving the state by studying Jewish law.

This exemption has now been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Expect difficult times in the parliament, the Knesset, which is polarised between ultra-Orthodox and secularists.