I fear for Israel; or, Jerusalem wanted to hate me.

Jerusalem Old City“I need a little more time to know for sure how I feel about Jerusalem…” was all I could say after I left there last year. Months went by, and I never came back to it. So how did Jerusalem feel?


(After visiting precious friends in Tel Aviv) I had been walking the ancient and potent city for two days, taking pictures, trying to talk to people, trying to touch the city, to see what this place was, to understand that heaviness in the air. I was tired and thirsty.


Jerusalem, Israel, frankincense and myrrhAcross from a small shop selling frankincense and myrrh, a big copper kettle held a handwritten sign saying “Iced coffee, better than Starbucks!” Laconic as a Bedouin by that point, I grunted a dusty “heh”; an iced coffee sounded like a more kingly gift than the biblical wares behind me. The owner was staring at me. “You have iced coffee?” I gestured at his sign.


"Stupid picture" I guess.

“Stupid picture” I guess.

“___ shekels.” He quoted me a price two and a half times the normal price of coffee in the city, that area included, and was clearly unwilling to bargain. I wonder if I would have gone for it in Nicaragua, Tanzania, or Nepal. Maybe. But here? No way. I twitched a smile, said “Thanks anyway” and started to walk away.
“Come back when you want to buy, not take stupid pictures.”

Even then, in Ecuador, Latvia, or Malaysia, I would have walked away. But Jerusalem? What IS that heaviness in the air?


“It’s too expensive.”

“This is the normal price. You pay this everywhere.”

“No, everywhere a cup of coffee is __.”

“Coffee for __? No. You find that, you come tell me, I will buy it too.” His hands karate chopped the air.

“Two streets that way. Or three streets this way.” My hands chopped back. This is not how I normally conduct myself, squabbling with shopkeepers in the street.


Jerusalem Old City street standBut there is something in the air in that city, in that whole country (I’d noticed it in Tel Aviv too). Like a residue of aggression, an oily eagerness to fight, a testiness perpetually on the lookout for an Other, delighted and validated to identify an enemy.


It’s insidious and subtle, pervasive and relentless. It’s exhausting.


When our bus took a minute to back up, the woman next to me started ranting in uvular friction, spittle spattering my forearm, intent on punishing someone, though whether it was passersby or the driver, I don’t think even she knew.


I rode the tram up onto the hill, bag on my back, and as my stop approached, I moved toward the door. A guy who’d been standing to the side stepped away from the pole he had been holding and took the one I was headed for, leaving me tottering in the aisle, despite the fact that he wasn’t getting off. Now squarely in my way, he neither moved nor responded as I edged past with a polite “Excuse me; sorry.”


Jerusalem Old City street, IsraelDown the hill, the guy making falafels took my order, set it down, and chatted with his coworkers. Another customer came up, ordered, waited a minute, got their food, left. He went back to chatting. Another customer: same. Eventually he strolled over, assembled my falafel and dropped it at me, ignoring me. Did he look surprised when I thanked him in English? “Oh, you’re not one of Them?” his eyes may have said. “Oops” he may have thought.


I’ve walked Sri Lankan streets where Tamil and Sinhalese were killing each other not too long ago. I’ve strolled sunburned avenues where Burmese Buddhists have rioted against Muslims. Sarajevo streets where the “Blood Roses” of mortars still marked the concrete. Explored El Salvadoran alleys were Salvatruchas purportedly kill with impunity, and been warned in Quito that armed assailants waited half a block further down that way. I spent hours on Turkish streets where Turks and Kurds paced past PKK graffiti, and sipped çai five kilometers from the Syrian border while refugees slogged along, feverish eyes searching for a destination of sanity, two days before car bombs in a similar city killed 51 and injured 140.


Israel (at least Tel Aviv and Jerusalem) has a good graffiti scene

Israel (at least Tel Aviv and Jerusalem) has a good graffiti scene

And still, I have never felt anything like the constant latent aggression of Jerusalem. Less, but still present in Tel Aviv. (In fact, every one of those other places seemed MORE peaceful after their encounters with violence. They had seen it, and not liked it.) Small moments, tiny interactions, all pushing towards a level of hostility unlike anything I’ve ever felt. And hope never to feel again.


That is not a healthy way to live. Hatred and dehumanization are anathema to all that is good in the human spirit. Goodness and the human spirit still live there…always have…but I fear for that region. I fear for my friends, for all our brothers and sisters who breathe that toxic energy, held apart by spiritual apartheid, living in fear and violence. For when religion is used to sanction the darker sides of humanity, true horror is unleashed among us.