You grow up reading and hearing about a city. A wonderful city run by divinely chosen Kings with prophets as advisors.
You read about the city’s splendid sceneries and its chosen dwellers. You read about the city’s battles with assailants, its victories, its failures, its destruction, its reconstruction, and its destiny.
You sing songs about the city without ever imagining setting foot on it, but still wishful that one day you will dwell in it. The city is engraved in your imagination as a legendary magnificent place that you forget to pause and consider the wheel of history, ever turning and giving places new meanings every passing day. The Jerusalem of my imagination does not exist!
I arrived in Jerusalem in early summer of 2016 and booked myself into a beautiful facility between Bethlehem and Jerusalem to ease my travelling in the West Bank and in Israel proper. Jerusalem is perhaps one the most visited city in the world with about 3.5 million tourists annually. Some people visit as religious pilgrims, some for research, and others for satisfying their curiosity. I was there partly for my graduate school research and partly to satisfy my biblical curiosity.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims have a stake in Jerusalem. The religious plurality of the city is clearly visible as one walks through the streets of the Old City, which is divided into a Jewish Quarter, Christian Quarter, Muslim Quarter, and Armenian Quarter. This division gives visitors a glimpse of the challenges of religious plurality in a city like Jerusalem.
But due to a past act of violence against Muslims, the place had become a perfect representation of the futility of religious pluralism in Israel and Palestine.
During my first week in Jerusalem I visited the town of Abu Dis in the eastern part of Jerusalem. I was with a colleague, an orthodox Rabbi and longtime resident of Jerusalem. As we entered the town I noticed a big billboard written in Arabic. The board was a warning for Israelis entering Area A of the West Bank, which is managed by Palestinian Authority (PA). Following Oslo II agreements, the West Bank was divided into Area A, governed by PA, Area B, governed by both Israel Defence Forces(IDF) and PA, and Area C, governed by IDF.
I wondered why the billboard was in Arabic, yet it was meant for Jews who mostly speak Hebrew. Furthermore, I did not see a need for these notices given that Israelis rarely visit West Bank and Palestinians are restricted from accessing most parts of Jerusalem and Israel proper.
Our host in Abu Dis was a Muslim teacher running an after-school program. We were hoping to collaborate with him to set up a summer camp for children. At first, we discussed about the summer camp and then our conversation shifted to religion. We realized that all Abrahamic Faiths were represented: My colleague was Jewish, our host was Muslim, and I professed Christianity. We discussed about shared prophets in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We realized that there is a lot of differences in the meanings we attach to shared prophets. Unfortunately, pundits of interfaith dialogues would always want people to focus solely on common beliefs among these Abrahamic faiths. My view is that interfaith understanding will be enhanced when people focus on the differences in their religious traditions.
Part of the Walls of Jerusalem, that surround the Old City of Jerusalem. Photo: Author.
Although Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are often referred as “Abrahamic” faith’s due to their common ancestral heritage and their belief in one God, I have always wondered whether these religions worship the same God. Years ago, Stephen Prothero, a professor of Religion at Boston University, wrote: “For more than a generation we have followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into fantasy world in which all gods are one…but this idea of religious unity is wishful thinking and it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naïve theological groupthink – call it Godthink – has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide.”
A few days later after Abu Dis visit, I visited another ancient city that reveals the challenges of focusing on shared religious traditions. I drove through the Patriarchs road to visit the cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs — tombs of Abraham, Rebecca, Isaac, Jacob, Leah and Sarah in the old city of Hebron. The site of the Cave of the Patriarchs is located beneath a mosque. Both Jews and Muslims consider the place holy. But due to a past act of violence against Muslims, the place had become a perfect representation of the futility of religious pluralism in Israel and Palestine.
Jews and Muslims could only access the caves from different entries to avoid any form of contact. The presence of heavily armed soldiers contradicted the serene atmosphere expected in holy places. Christians were only allowed to access the cave from the Muslim side but since I had visited during Ramadan, I could not access the caves from the Muslim. I had seen an almost similar arrangement on the temple mountain where there is the golden dome and the wailing walls. The Jews had access to the wall and the Muslims had a special entry to the mosque above the wall – they were not permitted to access each other’s holy sites.
My visit to the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque was even more eye opening. The mosque is the third most holy place for Muslims after Mecca and Medina. All around me there were Muslims praying and a huge presence of Israel Defense Forces. I wondered how different ethnicities can coexist in Israel if they kept erecting barriers and thus separating themselves from each other.