Fanatics in Jerusalem

Jerusalem is a special place, no doubt about it. Given its role as a focal point of the faiths of so many billions of people around the world, combined with its extremely troubled recent history (and indeed its bloody history going back thousands of years), one should not expect Jerusalem simply to be beautiful, or sophisticated, or peaceful, or many other such usual positive qualities one would expect of a great city. Jerusalem transcends such metrics; it does not need to be any of those things to justify its place on the world stage. But approaching the city as a skeptic, from a secular viewpoint, what strikes one most about the city is just how crazy so much of its residents and visitors seem.

A Palestinian Arab described Jerusalem to us, before we arrived, as somewhere fanatical Jews and Muslims flock so that they can hate each other at close proximity. This description gave us a sense of what to expect, but in a couple of key respects I believe it falls short. First, while it is certainly true that Jerusalem attracts the most fanatical, the most radically conservative of many different religions and concentrates them, such that the medium-sized city is almost bursting with both positive and negative spiritual energy, the palpable level of tension does not quite rise to the level of hatred. Disdain, simmering resentment, quiet contempt, perhaps, but the Jewish and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem are clearly accustomed to each other by now, living in peace at absurdly close proximity.

Even more so, I think the Palestinian’s description of Jerusalem was incomplete in its description of the fanatical parties. I saw no indications of Islamic extremism at all; for the most part, the Palestinians of Jerusalem seemed quite moderate in religious practice–comparable to their neighbors in Jordan and nothing remotely approaching the levels in Iran or Pakistan. Nor, despite their valiant efforts, would I say that the Jews take the title of most fanatical in Jerusalem. No, the prize for the weirdest, most fanatical population of Jerusalem goes to… American Christians.

This apparently Appalachian family, complete with many suspendered children, seems to have moved into the roof of a Jerusalem hostel, complete with hoisting of the stars and stripes.

We ran into perhaps the greatest weirdness on our first evening in Jerusalem. We had just arrived in town and were visiting the Garden Tomb, said to be the tomb of Jesus Christ by those who reject the location of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as inauthentic (mainly by protestant Christians who coincidentally control the site and have no “stake” in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). We were standing just in front of the tomb itself when we couldn’t help but notice in front of us a small group of middle-aged American women. We could tell from their accents and clothing that they came from somewhere in middle America, probably from what we would have called a “red state” in previous elections. One was just coming out of the tomb, and seemed to trip, almost collapse, recover, and then almost collapse again and again. We couldn’t tell if she was kidding or if there was something physically wrong with her. Her companions seemed to find humor in this, though, so we asked what was going on. “She’s getting joy bumps from the Holy Spirit, man!” we were told. The woman said this gleefully but seriously–I had to look away in order to painfully suppress my laughter. I went into the tomb (I thought for sure that would put an end to any laughter), and another woman from their group was groaning or chanting, I couldn’t tell which, in front of where the body of Christ would have been. Back outside she related to the others how she could see the purple outline of Christ every time she closed her eyes. “Oh, there He is again!” she cooed after closing her eyes once more. We saw what we think was the same group later, walking the ramparts of the Old City while waving a banner and singing hymns. The same group was seen once more, outside the Cenacle (the room in which Jesus took his Last Supper), cheering as each member ran under the bridged arms of the others as if they would soon be partaking in a homecoming football game–at an extremely high (typically American) volume given the worshipping that was going on at the nearby Jewish Tomb of David.

Let’s hope that it’s the same group–I’d really prefer that there only be one.

Not to be outdone, Catholic worship is on peculiar display as well. Along some of the main streets of the Old City, from St. Stephen’s Gate to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is the Via Dolorosa, along which are the Stations of the Cross that Jesus suffered in his Passion. Now, I understand and respect the serious sentiments that are connected to this walkway–and I was moved by a feeling of pilgrimage as I traced the route, armed with excerpts from the Bible–but religious tour groups, doing the walk with a large wooden cross?

As we passed, we could hear their priest-guide asking whether everyone had had their turn. It was a relief to see that a Filipino group carrying the cross didn’t nail anyone up at the end of their walk, as they do annually in their home country (though Derek’s camera was clearly disappointed).

The level of intolerance among some is striking as well. There was an elderly British man in our hotel, located in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, who spent quite a few hours sitting on a chair outside his room reading from the Bible. Now, many if not most travelers to Jerusalem are motivated by a sense of pilgrimage, and so to read the scripture is not an uncommon activity. We had a brief chat with him, and he explained that he hadn’t read the Gospels in a while and so thought he would re-read them while in Jerusalem. He also went on to explain how it was so sad that “they” (meaning the Muslims) get “so close” to Christianity but “fall short,” believing in Jesus and many of his deeds but not grasping the nature of his divinity. “Oh well, the Lord will separate the goats from the sheep.” Not only was he prepared to bar an entire people from the gates of heaven, but he just assumed that we, apparently non-Muslim and by default Christian, would think the issue as black and white as he apparently did.

One is never sure when the weirdness will strike. In one instance, we were having a perfectly fine chat with a Canadian Christian at Christ Church, about this and that, when suddenly she started staring at us with a very disturbing, “I just drank the kool-aid, how about you?” sort of look. Creepy.

The second prize for fanaticism goes to the Jews. Not all the Jews mind you–Israel as a whole is a fairly progressive secular state–but Jerusalem in particular certainly has its share of the bizarrely ultra-orthodox. Hasidim are all over. The New Yorkers among you are familiar with them of course, as are we from our journeys on the Williamsburg Bridge, in the 47th Street diamond district and to B&H Photo, but I was somewhat surprised at their number. Judging from Jerusalem alone (which of course would be horribly misguided and inaccurate), one would be tempted to think that the Hasidic movement made up a significant percentage of the world Jewry and the population of Israel.

Called one of the world’s “most reluctant” tourist attractions by Lonely Planet, the ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim is but a short walk from the Old City of Jerusalem. Its residents, who came from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century, have recreated a shtetl.

“Jews are NOT Zionists,” in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The residents of Mea Shearim are so conservative that they actually do not support Zionism or the existence of the State of Israel. Needless to say, their relations with other Jewish Israelis are not particularly strong.

Highly visible within the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem (actually, highly visible also in New York and other Jewish centers around the world) is the Chabad movement of Orthodox Jewish Hasidism. Chabad’s institutions seem to serve fairly reasonable educational and cultural aims, but the underlying theology behind the movement is that its actions will bring about the Messiah. Further, some Chabad believers think that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, *was* the Messiah.

Speaking of millenarianism generally: Don’t the sensible, scientific-minded of the world have some sort of responsibility to band together and make sure that the extremists who actively pray for the end of the world as we know it to come, be they Jewish or Shia or Evangelical Christian (see posts of 10.19 and 5.20), have as little influence as possible on the global agenda? Those of us who like life on Earth and want to improve it with the resources at hand–how do we defeat the others, the most extreme and radical elements of our societies, and ensure that they do not drive the rest of us to destruction?

The thing that they’re wearing is called a tefillin. I think it’s pretty weird–how about you?

Lest people think that this post sounds anti-religious, let me note that all of this is coming from someone raised in a Christian faith and with deep sympathies to religion (Derek calls me a “closet Catholic”). We are accustomed to Christian vestments and the hairdos and outfits of the Hasidim–to those who have not seem them before, how does one explain the bizarrely medieval dress of the Christian and Jewish religious? After spending a few hours walking around the Old City of Jerusalem, one would not be surprised to see a fully armored knight ride past. Perhaps the exterior reflects the medieval mindset inside the clothes?

PS: From Tel Aviv, it’s almost hard to believe that Jerusalem is only an hour away. Tel Aviv is most reminiscent of nice parts of New York or San Francisco, and many of its trendiest restaurants seem to include at least one pork item on the menu, as if to signal their non-adherence to kosher rules and therefore their cosmopolitan, secular clientele, and say, “observant Jews not welcome.” Derek says it was one of the best pork chops he’s ever had–I think second best to a certain pork chop in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

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