Posts Tagged ‘Jerusalem’

On The Ground:

stock-photo-16681817-jerusalem-and-tel-aviv-road-signsAs expected, Jerusalem is vastly different from Tel Aviv. Weather: sure, architecture: definitely; however the cultural variations are most stark. Certainly the intersection of Arab/Palestinian communities with Jewish ones is among the most distinct and economically disparate faults of the Israeli government, but when chatting with a lot of locals in Jerusalem I’ve found that the commingling of various Jewish sects often creates more friction that an outsider might expect. I envisioned most Israeli Jews living in relatively peaceful coexistence under the banner of a  Jewish State, happy to be among a social majority. Though there aren’t protests in the streets, per se, there is evidently a lively and heated debate between more secular Jews and their ultra-Orthodox counterparts over issues of economic integration and “sharing the burden“. As a function of neglecting a formal education in English, math, the sciences, and computer skills, these ultra-Orthodox communities are vastly under-qualified to enter the modern workforce and are additionally exempt from serving in the military (as all other Israeli youth are mandated). The ultra-Orthodox are growing at a much faster rate than secular Israelis due to an exponentially higher birth rate, and are demographically gobbling up neighborhoods in order to sustain their expanding communities’ needs. These communities then implement conservative norms such as forbidding the operation of vehicles on the sabbath, enforcing strict codes of social conduct, and many others. One interesting quote I heard from some locals was that “we get along better with the Arabs than we do with the Orthodox,” and I was very surprised to hear such a claim. As someone who expected Jerusalem to be a city personified by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I found it interesting that Jerusalem suffers from internal dissension as much (if not more) than it does from various foreign pressures from its neighbors and the international community.

Touristy Stuff:

No trip to Israel would be complete without the standard trips to the Old City, Dead Sea, and various other notable locales. I had the privileged opportunity to be shown a slew of holy and historic cites by a fantastic tour guide named Natalie (who’s contact information I would be happy to pass on). Evidently, Israel takes its tourism very seriously and implements a very rigorous certification requirement  entailing 2+ years of training for all official tour guides. The quality of the tours we received really reflected this commitment to excellence, and Natalie demonstrated a keen expertise in all aspects of Jerusalem’s history. We toured the Western Wall, al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock (where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Issac/Ishmael – depending on your faith), among other noteworthy sites. Even as a very secular person, I couldn’t help but be moved by some kind of magical mysticism surrounding a city as vested in religious and anthropological history as Jerusalem. We visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the location of Jesus’ crucifixion and eventual ascension into heaven, and needless to say it was a very powerful place to behold. They have places where you can reach your arm in and literally touch the rock that Jesus’ cross was fastened to, and I was sure to rub all sorts of Holy juju onto myself wherever I could. A large amount of the biblical history of Jerusalem was beyond what I could recall from my brief stints in childhood Catechism class, but it was certainly fascinating to learn bits about the original City of David, the various demolitions of Jerusalem by various marauding powers, and the evolution of Jerusalem’s society as a result of generations of conflict.

More Interesting Visits:

Some high points of my trip to Jerusalem, and Israel in general, include visits we made to the Golan Heights and to Rosh Hanikra (a city on the northwestern border with Lebanon). Being able to see Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon from various perched vantage points, I photoreinforced my understanding that Israel simply cannot afford to be wavering, timid, or overly defensive in its national security strategy. The Golan Heights is an occupied territory in northeastern Israel that was claimed from Syria as a result of the 1967 Six Day War. Though there has been relative peace between the two nations over the past few decades, a bloody civil war continues to wage inside Syria and now along its border with Israel. Regional instability emanating from the revolutionary tides inside Syria, Jordan, or Egypt have the ability to destabilize Israel if for no other reason than sheer proximity. Former treaties, agreements, and détente, with the Mubarak and Assad regimes to Israel’s south and north are now at risk, and this concerns Israel tremendously when analyzing the prospects for peace in a post-Arab Spring Middle East. At multiple points when driving north or south along the Israeli coastline, the border with the West Bank is no more than 9-10 miles to your east. I had a chance to study Afghanistan and Pakistan security challenges this past semester, and the concept of Afghanistan as a source of “strategic depth” for Pakistan continually came to mind when surveying how territorially narrow the Israeli homeland actually is. There is no place for Israel to fall back to, and major population hubs are a matter of miles (if not meters) away from contested/hostile territories. This sobering fact forms the backbone of Israel’s obsession with security, and it is no longer surprising to see the preemptive measures Israel’s military is willing to take to protect the country. I have yet to come to a conclusion on how I feel about this strategy as I find myself perpetually grappling with the legal and realist arguments for courses of action or inaction.

Onward:

The delicate balance of multiculturalism, vigilant national security, and religious sanctity makes Israel the most unique country I have visited thus far in my journeys. Israel occupies a unique place in the world politically-speaking by being the only true democracy amidst a sea of dictatorships, monarchies, and fledgling democracies who’s fates are not yet known. In terms of government organization, provision of civil services, and generally liberal attitudes and lifestyles, there is little to suggest that Israel is not a “western” country. However, as you barter the prices of melons and candies in the shuk, suffer the fate of a thousand car horns in the crowded streets near the Old City, and realize just how little personal space you have in lines for restaurants and ATMs, Israel appears very Middle Eastern in nature. In a way, Israel was the perfect springboard into my next stop: Cairo, Egypt. Israel possessed just enough Middle Eastern charm, coupled with various western creature comforts, to make the culture shock less severe than it could have been. Politically, I’m glad I was able to observe the domestic dynamics and international concerns facing Israel before living in an Arab country. Israel and Egypt possess a highly interesting history characterized by very high highs and very low lows that have cumulatively shaped the current relationship in profound ways. Much has yet to be seen about the fate of Egypt-Israel relations under President Morsi, and I am excited to see (from the sidelines, of course) how that relationship unfolds. Surely I will encounter plenty of critics of Israel during my stay in Egypt, but I will encounter them knowing that the Arab-Israeli conflict does not alone define Israel or the region. Israel grapples with environmental concerns, internal political debates, territorial disputes, and even rifts among its native Jewish communities- all in addition to a stagnant peace process and constant potential for military conflict. I look forward to experiencing Cairo for all that it is and is not, and sharing my journeys with all of you in the weeks to come.