A tale of two walls
Muhammad travelled there in one night. Richard the Lion Heart refused to see it. For centuries Jews have dreamed of returning there “next year”. It is perhaps the most desired city in the world, and certainly one for which many rivers of blood have been spilt. Today, I arrive by an electric train and my first sight is a shopping mall, followed by a traffic jam.
But, as soon as you see the Old City of Jerusalem you realise it still has whatever magic has led three faiths to declare it holy. From the outside, it is the picture we all have, the crowded city on a hill, with a skyline of church spires, the Western (Wailing) Wall of the Jewish Temple; and the golden roof of the Dome of the Rock. But it is the wall of the city that still grabs the attention, still very much in use and enclosing the city in full. When you cross the wall, you feel you have gone back centuries, in crowded streets full of cries and traders. But the traders are selling ice cream and tourist trinkets. Then a street sign – “ Via Dolorosa” – the path Jesus Christ is supposed to have travelled carrying his cross, reminds you again that you are in no ordinary city.
And a city whose history shows all too clearly the dangers of intolerance. With my name I am reminded of the Baldwins from Flanders who led the First Christian Crusade, bringing thousands of Europeans thousands of kilometres with the ideal of reclaiming Jerusalem from the “infidel”. When these warriors of Christ finally seized their dream in 1099, they celebrated by killing as many of the Muslims and Jews in the city as they could, over two days.
Today the most apparent division is between Muslim and Jew. The Dome of the Rock, Al-Aqsa Mosque and Western Wall are all in the same compound, where you need to pass extensive security checks to enter and at all times are under the gaze of armed Israeli soldiers in flak jackets and helmets. The 40th anniversary of the taking of the Old City and East Jerusalem by the Israeli army is this month.
And on leaving the old city you face the 21st century way of division. Just a short drive away, near the spot where you have the most beautiful view of the sun setting over the old city walls, is the new wall in Jerusalem. Ariel Sharon’s “security barrier” is a 3 metre high wall, complete with security guards, barbed wire and graffiti, straight out of 1960s Berlin. In Jerusalem it goes directly through residential areas. On driving back to Tel Aviv, the motorway at times has the wall on each side. Where it has not yet been built there are billboards with pictures of it, as if they should be advertising “Coming Soon”. Even though the highest court in the world, the International Court of Justice, in one of its most important judgements, has ruled the construction of this wall on occupied Palestinian land to be illegal, nothing appears to have stopped.
Will the new wall finally segregate the holy city and give final “victory” to one of the three religions? The history of the Middle East, like anywhere else, suggests that attempts to separate religions and peoples will fail, and walls will be breached, but at the price of blood and hatred. For a city as small as Jerusalem integration must be the only solution, but it is not a solution that has been tried in a long time. I will return to discuss whether Israel can be made a truly integrated society.
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