A Wall to Unite, A Wall to Divide

September 27, 2012

A surge went through my bloodstream as the reality of my surroundings sunk in. Experiencing this place had been a motivating force in my travels over the last two years, and now I'd finally arrived. I had made it to Jerusalem, a place whose history and importance could fill entire libraries. I gazed over the old city and shook my head in astonishment. The relatively small area before me was immeasurably sacred to three of the world's great religions. Somehow, devout followers of all three coexisted here, although not always in peace. With a deep breath, I descended from my viewing point and made my way down into the medieval streets of the holy city of Jerusalem.

The walled city of Old Jerusalem is partitioned off into sections corresponding to different faiths. The Christian quarter is home to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which stands on the site where Jesus is purported to have been crucified, buried, and resurrected. For many Christians, this is the holiest shrine on Earth. Pilgrims come from all over the world to retrace the path that the cross-bearing Christ is said to have taken through Jerusalem to the place of his crucification. 

Brazilian Pilgrims re-enacting the Via Dolorosa on the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Just south of the Christian Quarter lies the Muslim Quarter, the largest and most populous area of Old Jerusalem. Its narrow, stone-walled streets are bustling with commerce and activity. The spiritual pulse of its inhabitants is just overhead: the Dome of the Rock, the third most holy site in Islam. Muslims believe that it was on this spot that Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Ishmael, and that from here the prophet Muhammed later ascended to Heaven.  

The Dome of the Rock is on top of the Temple Mount, the holiest site in all of Judaism. It was here that once stood the most important temples of the Jewish faith. Right under the Temple Mount is a long exposed section of wall that is a remnant from the original temple complex. This is known as the Western Wall, and has become the most significant pilgrimage place of Judaism. I had of course heard about the Wall's importance before arriving, so I'd had some idea what to expect. But I was still taken aback upon experiencing it myself. This place was as intensely spiritual as anywhere I'd ever been before.  

The most fascinating Jewish area of Jerusalem is just outside of the old city, in the ultra-orthdox neighborhood of Mea Shearim. The insular society that resides here is almost entirely composed of those who adhere strictly to Jewish law, prayer, and study. Males wear varying styles of traditional dress, often marked by black suits, black fedoras, or large fur-trimmed hats. I walked through Mea Shearim on a late Friday afternoon shortly before Sabbath, the weekly time of rest stringently observed by the neighborhood's inhabitants. People strode about purposefully in the thinning daylight, often competing for any available taxis. In addition, many hurriedly made preparations for the upcoming holiday of Shavout. Men bought flowers and sweets, hastening on the street to read large announcements pasted onto every wall.  

For the day of Shavout, many people in Jerusalem stay up all night to study from the Jewish holy book, The Torah, and then descend on the Western Wall for sunrise prayer. I woke up before dawn and made the short walk from my hostel to the Wall, and was astounded to see that I'd been preceded by tens of thousands. If anything could demonstrate how an entire religion can be united through the sanctity of a specific place, this was it.  

Sunrise observers of Shavout at the Western Wall.   The Dome of the Rock is overhead to the left.


Less than five miles to the south of the Western Wall, I'd soon visit another wall that stands with a very different purpose. Instead of uniting people, this wall serves to keep them divided.  

In 2002, Israel began constructing a barrier within the West Bank, citing the need for greater security in response to Palestinian violence. A large portion of the planned 430 miles of barricade is now complete. The majority of the barrier is fencing. Some sections, however, are composed of massive concrete walls 26 feet high, reaching twice as high as the Berlin Wall.  

While the Israeli government attributes the huge decrease in terrorist attacks to the barrier, West Bank Palestinians, most of whom have never violently resisted, have suffered many negative consequences as a result. Their ability to move freely into Israel for work, study, or medical treatment has been deeply hampered, sometimes with tragic outcomes. The restrictions imposed by the barrier and numerous associated checkpoints have seriously damaged the Palestinian economy by strangling the flow of commerce. Just as gravely, a sizable amount of the West Bank actually lies on the Israeli side of the newly constructed barrier, meaning that Israel has effectively annexed huge chunks of Palestinian land.

Before arriving in Israel, I did not realize that the city of Bethlehem was in the West Bank. Bethlehem is known to many as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. This fact leads to a startling realization: If Jesus had been born in modern times, he would be Palestinian. And this barrier would severely restrict his freedom to travel into Israel and throughout the West Bank, just as it does to the more than two million Palestinians living in the West Bank today.  

I visited a section of the barrier that lies just north of Bethlehem, abutting the 'Aida' Palestinian refugee camp. This part of the wall has become a tourist attraction in its own right due to the politicized graffiti adorning its length. Gigantic murals, some the work of professional artists, soar to the full height of the wall in certain places. Some graffiti depicts acts of resistance, some protest the indignities suffered by Palestinians, and some are cries for freedom. Some are bold statements while others are more subtly ironic, but most have one thing in common: protesting the repressive symbolism of the barrier upon which they are painted.  

Many visitors to the Holy Land, Christian pilgrims included, opt not to visit Bethlehem out of security concerns. These fears are misplaced.While the atmosphere in the West Bank is understandably tense, most Palestinians are very welcoming to guests and eager to share their side of the story. And any visitor who wishes for peace in this volatile area owes it to themselves to make an open-minded effort to engage all perspectives. Otherwise, the walls that divide may always overshadow those that unite. 


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