faith and loathing in the holy land
Within the walls of Jerusalem lies a grotto of timelessness, a place where the presence of history beckons in the alleys and every corner contains a scrap of sacredness to covet. Monks cross themselves under sanctified arches as pilgrims shuffle forward on canes, overcome by a silent wonder at their presence in the City of God—a place where Jesus trod and Mohammed flew.
In the labyrinth of the Old City, thin slit doorways recede into rooms of expansive, cave-like hollows, where the casual visitor can salvage their piety through the purchase of a Christ bobblehead, a commodification of holiness. The hardened hands of shopkeepers roll balls of falafel, calling out to entice passers-by. Widows in veils and robes drawn tight squat low with baskets of fruit, hands extended for alms, not budging when flies crawl across their skin.
The gravitational pull of the city draws everything and everyone toward the Western Wall, the scaffolding that sustains the history of the Jewish people. The only remnant of the second Temple, the Wall has endured the Babylonians, the Romans, the Moors, and a host of other occupiers, destroyers, and desecrators in the eyes of the Jewish people. Press your hand to the Wall—carved in the time of Herod the Great two millennia past—and the cool stone invigorates the spirit, quickens the heart. Men died for the opportunity to touch it. Their hands, the hands of an entire people, have smoothed the surface down over the centuries, the current of their spirituality like water across rock. Their prayers are written down and deposited into the cracks, the paper dreams calcified by time into the stone.
The holiness of Jerusalem is seductive, even to the secular. When I first arrive I think myself, as a fairweather Jew who avoided bar mitzvah, immune to the power of the place. But I am not. No one is.
Still, I find that the vitality of the place is less in the Wall and more in the people. On Friday nights, hundreds of thousands of families and children alike draw close against the Wall, chanting the prayers and blessings embedded in Shabbat tradition. Secular, reformed, orthodox, ultra-orthodox—all men can join hands as strangers and family and dance with the abandonment of those encompassed by a greater being. Women are forced to pray in a separate section of the wall, another reminder of the power of faith to determine who belongs in a space and who doesn’t.
Peace upon you, ministering angels, messengers of the Most High, of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. So they whisper, so they shout, so they sing.
As a reporter for the Jerusalem Post—supposed truth-seeker and factfinder—I realize I am inherently at odds with the Land, where logic submerges, compassion erodes and only faith remains firm, blinding and potent, ever intoxicating since the time David made his covenant with the Lord. You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel. For many here this is the only truth of the Land: that the Lord would build a kingdom for the sons and daughters of David, an everlasting and unconditional promise fulfilled by faith.
Behind the Wall, above and out of reach, lies the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in all of Islam. In the Arabic scripture etched beneath the famous golden dome, words proclaim with the deafening power of the prophetic: There is no god but God. He is One. He has no associate. …Who so disbelieveth the revelations of God will find that Lo! God is swift at reckoning!
When Israel gained control of Jerusalem from Jordan following the 1967 War, contractors were quickly hired to tear down the Moroccan Quarter, an Arab neighborhood, to make room for the thousands who would come to pray for the first time in centuries. The first time I looked at the plaza in front of the Wall, I didn’t know what had been there before. Most visitors don’t. Like a desert, the geography of the Holy Land is always shifting, morphing and transforming to the needs and reality of those who possess it. Destruction and resurrection are its two endlessly recursive acts.
A few miles away from Jerusalem lies Bethlehem, the Other City with the Other Wall, with another people—the Palestinians—and another history. The Other Wall is a new construction of brooding concrete, built by the Israeli government. Unlike the Wall in Jerusalem—a giving wall, a purveyor of holiness—the Other Wall is a structure of separation and denial. There are no dreams within this wall; instead, the people paint the silhouettes of the faces of the dead. The Other Wall was constructed in the time of the Second Intifada, explicitly designed to keep out those who seek to do ill. But it also serves to threaten, to impose its own borders.
The graffiti artist Banksy came to the Other Wall, saw it as a canvas on which to paint the themes of resistance and oppression. A dove in a bulletproof suit. The silhouette of a little girl in a dress holding a balloon and rising up above the wall. A keffiyeh-wearing boy holding flowers rather than a rock.
These famous images are found on both the Other Wall and in shops all around, where you can purchase postcards of these sketches for a few dollars. The shopkeepers even lend you graffiti canisters to write your own message on the concrete. Fuck Israel, someone writes. Palestine forever, says another.
Taxis take tourists into the refugee camps that have existed for decades on the outskirts of the Other City. These are the descendants of families that were displaced during the Palestinian Nakbah, or Israel’s independence movement of 1948. Both descriptions are true in their own way, though antithetical in their implications. When I arrive at Aida, a camera around my neck, a tour bus rolls in and a flock of sunscreened German tourists steps out and begins snapping pictures.
Exiting the camp, visitors pass under an archway with a symbolic key at the top, symbolizing the “right of return” of refugees to their original homes. There is a list of all the children from the camp who have been shot or killed since the camp was created.
The list goes on, and on, and on.
I take a photo and pocket my postcards.
On Onward Israel, the program subsidized by the Israeli government I participated in that summer, we entered the West Bank to visit the memorial of three Jewish boys kidnapped and killed by Palestinians while hitchhiking. Although Israel has controlled this territory, which might otherwise have been the Palestinian state, since a war in 1967, we were not allowed to enter the West Bank outside the trip for safety reasons. In order to report for the Jerusalem Post, I obtained a waiver to bypass this rule.
My first time on my own in the West Bank, I visit the settler outpost of Migron. Outposts, the precursors to settlements, are technically illegal under Israeli law (and international law). But they are still given Israeli Defense Force (IDF) protection and, with it, running water and electricity.
Based on what I’d seen in the media, I expected that as soon as I set foot in the West Bank I would enter into a cross fire between Arab snipers and Jewish zealots. I catch myself feeling somewhat disappointed. At first glance, it feels pretty similar to the rest of what I’d seen so far of the Holy Land.
Entering Migron, I find a nine-year-old girl waiting for me in front of a small caravan. It is the makeshift house of a warm, motherly American Jewish woman named Aviela, who has lived here for several years. She had to relocate her home a few hundred yards down the hill after the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that it was illegally built atop Palestinian-owned private land.
There in her home, I finally ask the question that has troubled me ever since I set foot in the West Bank—what compels you to live and die on this barren windswept hillside?
She smiles, and takes me to the top of Migron. She carries a pistol.
The hill of Migron contains the unburied skeletons of her old outpost. We walk through, past the swing set, her daughter’s grade school, the community center—hollowed out and whittled down, their mark left upon the hilltop nonetheless.
In the first book of Samuel from the Old Testament, Saul and his men once camped “under the pomegranate tree which is in Migron” before they faced the Philistines (1 Sam. 14:2). An ancient army, that is, once passed through this place for a night. We read the Torah, and then we can walk across the very land we study, she says.
Aviela explains to me that the inviolability of her belief extends far beyond the City and the Western Wall. For it is not simply enough to worship, to study, to devote oneself to following Hashem; one must tread upon His soil—every inch, from the river to the sea. One finds this faith embedded within the earth that comprises the Land itself, where every valley and rise represents a footnote or a paragraph in the history of God’s chosen people.
We go back down, and I feel that in attempting to understand her answer I am descending into something impenetrable.
The settlers keep a fence around their part of the hill, barbed and tall, to keep out the unwelcome. Sometimes Palestinian men come to the edge to graze their sheep. Mute. Wary. Observant.
The Jewish people here lock up their caravans at night, beneath the hill they were forced to descend from. One day, they fear, a ghost will rattle their doors, demand to be let in.
The Route 60 highway out of Jerusalem parallels the separation wall running under Bethlehem, with a monstrous concrete wall rising up to block out the city entirely, preventing rocks and flaming cocktails from falling on the road below in times of unrest. The horizon is filled with dusted townships spiked with minarets, while atop the bumps of its hills the red roofs of the settlements superimpose themselves upon the horizon. Arab farmers graze sheep along the roads and Bedouin communities encamp in gullies with tin roofs and exposed garbage. There is a willful opaqueness here that blocks out what the Other Wall cannot.
In the valley of one of these hills, in a place called Sussiyah, I meet a Palestinian man living in a tent on the last of his farmland in the shadow of a settlement. He was forced to move from his home after an ancient synagogue was found underneath it. Now, he owns his land, but under the complicated West Bank legal system he cannot build a home on the land he possesses. His home is razed periodically by the IDF. He walks over the hills now, resting on his cane and glancing wearily at the settlement overlooking his tent—this man who has weathered the changes of the Land like a tree atop a stormy hill.
I pass by these people and through these places, around cement blocks alongside roads that prevent cars from going into Palestinian villages. Red signs warn Israeli citizens that it is illegal for them to enter these places and that they risk death and arrest for doing so.
Israeli soldiers, no older than 20, rest with their guns at bus stations. They wait for something to happen. The Palestinians in the West Bank cannot break down the Other Wall, cannot remove the settlements or change who has guns and who has stones, but they can prevent the Israelis from ever getting comfortable. And that is what they do. They nurture their anger carefully, use it as a bellows to keep the slow-cook fire of resentment full of sparks and red hot flickers.
On a reporting assignment one morning, I arrive at Kiryat Arba, a settlement within walking distance from Hebron, the first capital of King David.
The day I come, the flame of revenge has once more scorched the village—this time with the killing of a Jewish child. I find her mother hunched and convulsing in the kitchen, surrounded by neighbors. In the early hours of the morning a Palestinian teenager crept through the window of the young girl’s room and stabbed her as she slept. Stabbed her with a rage, with a hatred, the girl’s grandmother told me later. The room itself remains tainted in the aftermath, with the sheets bundled up and the scrapes on the wall from the struggle blackening the white of the paint. The window is open enough for the light, hot wind that kisses the peaks of the Judean Hills to pass across the landscape punctuated by the small minarette from over there. The other place. Where another mother weeps.
Beneath the flag unfurled and sorrowful against the wind, the settlers summon voices. Young girls in skirts to their ankles wilt at the knees. They are shrill with notes of love as they begin the Mourner’s Kaddish.
My flower, the best of the best, the righteous mother wails. She runs fingers along the top of the box that holds her daughter, over the golden star of David as she whimpers, gestures to the sky. Behind her, the others follow, and even the soldiers close their eyes, beside old men who rock on their heels with foreheads creased, tugging their beards.
They put down rocks in piles to mark a life purloined. I learn that within this plot will lie a girl named Hallel who wanted a puppy, danced in a troupe, had two sisters and a grandmother whom she would call every Saturday to wish a warm Shabbat.
With the vanity of the hopeful, I attempt to make sense of things in this place where everything has two meanings, every event two emotional truths. Generations have been shaped by these encounters, the cumulative history of grievances that solidify into righteousness and mask a pervasive terror of the Other.
I can sense this from the story of the boy who killed Hallel. News reports indicated that after his uncle was shot to death by IDF soldiers after trying to ram a car into a bus station, the boy began to obsessively post memorials on his Facebook page. Who knows exactly what the uncle experienced in his own life, what led him to his death. But the death of the boy—already claimed as a martyr by his mother, who will receive compensation from the Palestinian Authority—will doubtless provide inspiration for someone else caught up in the misery and frustration of living behind the Other Wall.
I watch Yehuda Glick, a famous politician with bullet scars in his chest, as he speaks over the body, his words enlivening the hundreds—Hallel…Yaffa…Hallel, a pure soul, a child, a princess in white. This beautiful girl who they took from us. They will never have this land, they will be punished for their evil.
In the cemetery, as the settlers murmur death prayers, a guttural cry from a Palestinian muezzin’s call to prayer breaks through. Mournful and resonant, the voice contains the same longing and yearning for the land as those who occupy it. The righteous mother lifts her head, shields her face from the desecration of her daughter’s death.
Not even then can she escape the terrible intimacy of the land.
After a murder or a stabbing, the army blockades the small outlying Palestinian villages that connect to the West Bank’s singular highway, forcing the non-Jewish residents to use the dirt roads of the backcountry. The blockade is part collective punishment, part attempt to limit the movement of would-be assassins between sympathetic villages. A week later, I visit one: Sair, known as The Capital of the Martyrs.
There I discover a small, closed-off town where dirt, tires, and cement blocks asphyxiate the single entrance. A guard tower on the outskirts peers down, like a gun rammed to the town’s head. The pharmacy and grocery store are closed. The kids have been out of school for a week. No one leaves. No one enters.
The soldiers come at dusk, knocking on doors, breaking windows searching for the gunmen suspected of slaying a local rabbi—shot down as he drove along the highway—but the gunmen have disappeared into the night.
In the center of the town, a grim man lets us into a gated courtyard. Leads us to the exhibit where the graves of Sair’s dead citizens are displayed. The town knows what it means to absorb losses, saturated as it is with absence: the dead bodies of its cousins and sisters and sons. Flowers rest on cement-encased bones, the petals dried on the graves as if withered and pressed into the soul of the town itself. I stare at the concrete marked with the names of the deceased sons and daughters of this town, observe how the residents of Sair seem to horde their dead, using each grave as irrevocable proof of their resentment, their suffering.
A few days later, the settlers of the West Bank take to the streets—the oppressors protesting the oppressed.
Olive trees bear witness to the parade flags waved in defiance. Soldiers hustle through the trees, scanning for figures that they assume itch to snipe or stab. The deep bass of Israeli nationalism emanates from the speakers the settlers carry aboard a flatbed truck. The parade is not one of joy, but triumph, meant to show who controls this place, occupies this road, writes the narrative. At that moment, I find myself silently condemning the profound arrogance, the dehumanizing entitlement of the marchers.
The settlers of Kiryat Arba march down the heart of the West Bank, the two sons of the slain rabbi among them, walking across cement formerly awash with his blood. They stop, and a satisfied silence comes over the crowd. Not even the mosques make noise. It is the hour of reclamation that deems them the righteous ones—they recite the death of the good father and the young girl, the flower of Kiryat Arba.
Pressing forward, the settlers maintain their unwillingness to ever yield. The settlers on Route 60 will remain, will persist, will endure. I cannot help but feel the Land must despair at the sight of them, sensing they are doomed to succeed in their own self-destruction.