Oh, Jerusalem!

I’m not a good chess player. I know how all the pieces move, I understand some opening gambits, and I might be able to see one or two moves ahead. What I lack is any sense of strategy. This week feels a little like my chess-playing.


Of course it’s great news that the US recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel! Yay! (Though let me just note that we don’t need anyone to tell us where our capital is, but it’s good that it is recognized on the international stage.) Even with the recognition, moving the US embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, which has been in process for 20+ years, was still deferred.


(I like to use alternative pictures of Jerusalem. How many times can you see the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock. Seriously, Jerusalem is so much more.)

Everyone knows that if you keep doing something exactly the same way, you will not get a different result. Trump is not a “business as usual” president and the Middle East might just need a shake-up to get things moving.

Alright, let’s assume this is a covert, L-shaped knight move. We don’t know where it came from or where it’s going.

What’s the next move?

Condemnation by leaders around the world, veiled or unveiled threats from Arab leaders, Palestinians protesting.

Ok. That’s probably a rook making a strong appearance in the center of the board.

And then what?

The middle of the board will be messy, so we’ll have to sacrifice a few pieces to clear the way.

Bishops will certainly be involved. Pawns will be strewn everywhere.

Real life is not a game of chess (thankfully!). If it was, it would look more like this.


But I’m still left with questions. Why recognize Jerusalem as the capital now? Israel gains on the international stage to some extent, but there will likely be a price to pay. So what does the US gain?

I’m not a good enough chess player or political strategist to have an answer for that.


(Yes, I went a little crazy with the Pixabay chess pictures.
What does this one mean? I don’t know.)

Free to be you and me in Jerusalem

I’m buried in non-blog-related work, but I decided that I still wanted to take time to write this week because I am constantly amazed by Jerusalem.

This week there were two big gatherings in Jerusalem.  On Tuesday, 1,200 Jews entered the Temple Mount on the fast day of 9 Av, which among other things marks the destruction of both Temples.  This is the most that have ever entered the site on that day.

And a few days later, 22,000 people marched in Jerusalem’s Gay Pride Parade that ended with a rally in Independence Park. (They expected 4,000; I read last night it was 14,000; and this morning it was 22,000.)

The Temple Mount and Independence Park are separated by about a 25-minute walk.

The people participating are possibly miles and eons apart in their beliefs.  Or are they?  This year’s Pride theme was “LGBTQ and Religion.”

The thing is that you can be who you are and still be part of the vibrant city of Jerusalem. There’s a place for everyone here.

Free to be you and me and we can be ourselves in Jerusalem

On the cusp of a slippery slope

In spite of what you see on the news, I still feel quite safe in Jerusalem. However, I’m not crazy and I won’t be reporting live from the Temple Mount.

PANO_20170217_135529 (1)

Unless you’ve been too wrapped up in the drama at the White House, you might have noticed that the Temple Mount has been in the news lately.  This post won’t be a point by point explanation of that, nor will I get into all the vitriol.  The salient facts are:

  • On July 14, two Druze border police officers were gunned down near the Lions’ Gate by terrorists who had homemade guns hidden in the compound of the Temple Mount aka the Haram al Sharif.
  • Jews consider the Temple Mount the holiest site in Judaism. Muslims consider the Haram al Sharif the third holiest site in Islam.
  • Jews and other non-Muslims are only allowed to enter through one gate and I believe they have to go through security (it’s been a long time since I’ve been there). Muslims have access to several gates and undergo spot checks at most.
  • Israel is responsible for the security and the Waqf, a Jordanian organization, administers the site. So when Israel put up security measures (metal detectors and cameras), the Waqf refused to enter and called on all Muslims to boycott the site.
  • Muslims prayed outside the compound, but it was not all “Kumbaya” and strumming guitars in the name of peace, love, and understanding.
  • Israel took down all the security measures and the Waqf still was not satisfied and Palestinian leaders were calling for a “day of rage.” But as of this writing on Friday, prayers on the Temple Mount ended peacefully – though there were plenty of clashes elsewhere.
  • I’m leaving out the attack on the Israeli embassy in Jordan, and the murders of three family members by a knife-wielding terrorist in their house, among other things, which are apparently directly linked to the anger about the security measures.

I’d like to jump out of the 24-hour news cycle and try to look at the big picture.  I’ve written about the UNESCO decisions before (here and here) and I continue to be troubled.

  • I finally found the hundreds of pages of documentation on the Hebron decision and in skimming them, I did not find anything that was blatantly false. One questionable element was that Hebron is in a country called Palestine.

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Screen capture

  • Israel is always slamming these decisions of World Heritage Sites in Danger and I wondered how sites get nominated. Why doesn’t Israel nominate sites?
    • I found out that a state that has signed on to the World Heritage Convention can nominate sites within its boundaries. Both Israel and Palestine are states that are recognized to have signed on to the convention.
    • That means that in spite of Israel’s Knesset law annexing and unifying Jerusalem, Jordan is the nominating country for the Old City of Jerusalem (though it is listed without a country).
    • In that case, Hebron should technically also be nominated by Jordan, yet the documentation shows that it is nominated by “Palestine.”
    • Alternatively, shouldn’t either one of the parties disputing the territory be allowed to nominate?
    • In both cases, Jerusalem and Hebron are not recognized as being in Israel.
  • The Hebron decision, by the way, was schedule for next year, but they moved it to this year under special circumstances. It seems like UNESCO is de facto recognizing that Hebron is in the boundaries of a country called Palestine, thus recognizing both the country and its general borders.  They also recognize Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Battir as part of Palestine too.  As far as I know, there has not yet been a final status agreement between the parties on where the borders would be should Palestine be created in the disputed territory on the west bank of the Jordan River.

Jerusalem and its Walls are a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Danger.  In skimming the conservation report for 2017 prepared by Jordan and Palestine for UNESCO, Israel is accused of breaking the “status quo” all the time.  So two weeks ago, putting in security measures violated the status quo, which is a strict constructionist view of how to maintain the status quo.  The security measures weren’t there in 1967, thus they should not be there now.  Security is trumped by the politics of the status quo.

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Screen capture from the conservation report

Here’s my final point about the status quo and why we have to be so much more diligent about paying attention to UNESCO.  Buried in a footnote on page 39 of the conservation report is this:

Under the terms of the Status Quo on holy sites, a decree fixed the Ottoman Sultan in 1757 and codified in more detail by a British government Commission in 1922, 1929 and 1933 the Wall is a Muslim Waqf property and the Waqf owns the Buraq Wall and the Buraq Plaza in front of the wall. In these decrees, Jews have the right to stand on the pavement in front of it and pray. (Emphasis added.)

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This is what is considered the “status quo.”

So according to documents accepted by UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization – Jerusalem is not in Israel, the Cave of the Patriarchs is an excellent example of first century CE architecture, and the Western Wall is the western wall of the compound of the Haram al Sharif. Oh, and Jews and Christians might have some connections there.

By the way, next week is Tisha B’Av, a day on the Hebrew calendar that marks the destruction of both Temples among other major tragedies for the Jewish people.  I guess we’ll have to see what happens next Tuesday.

Links for more information

Breakdown of what’s happening on the Temple Mount – op-ed.

Old City of Jerusalem listed under Jerusalem – not under any country – and noted that it is nominated by Jordan.

Hebron/Al Khalil Old Town listed in Palestine.


Jerusalem Light Festival

This week I took two evenings to sprint through the Jerusalem Light Festival.  I’m always so proud of Jerusalem and especially our city administration for coming up with interesting and fun cultural events.

This year’s walking paths for the Light Festival went from the southern-facing Zion Gate up to the northern-facing Damascus Gate (yes, the infamous Damascus Gate).  Tours within the Old City meandered through the Christian quarter and the Jewish quarter.  It felt to me like there was an attempt to tie the two halves of the city together, but it didn’t quite work.  I saw quite a few Arabs and a few Jews and tourists when I ventured to the Damascus Gate, but the main crowds were to the south and I saw many Arabs, Jews and tourists there too.

Let me just say something also about the crowds.  The phrases “sweaty crush of humanity,” “barbarian horde,” “madding crowd,” and “oppressive multitudes” come to mind.  I’m getting flashbacks of mosh pits from my university days, but not in a good way.  It’s as if you plan for an elegant reception with light refreshments and the guests come bringing all their friends. They are ravenous, eat everything in sight with both hands and then demand more.

Still, I’m glad that Jerusalem is putting in the effort.  Now the crowds just need to do the same.  Here are a few lovely highlights from as much of the Light Festival as I could bear.

Damascus Gate as a platform for other gates.

A film presentation on the wall near Jaffa Gate.  It used the texture and shape of the walls to make the film more dynamic.  Well done!

Explorations of light that have nothing to do with the walls.

The walls as a platform and, if you look closely,
the crush of humanity, I mean, people enjoying the festival.


It’s not about the Wall

You know when you have an argument with a loved one about something and it turns into a really ugly fight and later you realize that this huge fight was not even about whatever you were fighting about?  It’s actually about something deeper in your relationship.  I think that’s what’s happening this week among the Jewish People with regard to the Kotel (the Western Wall).

What happened?

Prime Minister Netanyahu suspended the plan to expand the egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall.  The English language press in Israel went bananas and Jewish leaders in the US issued strongly worded statements of disappointment.  Op-eds were written that suggested Netanyahu snubbed the whole of Diaspora Jewry and is a liar, that this act will turn into a security threat because US Jewry will no longer support Israel and thus not push the US government to continue to support Israel, that US Jewry will pull their charitable giving, and on and on.

The Israeli press noted that the decision happened and moved on.

A little background

What is the Kotel actually?  It is an exposed remnant of the retaining wall that holds up the Temple Mount complex, where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aksa now stand.  It is *not* a remnant of the Temple itself.


Screencap: Source

Why do Jews face Jerusalem to pray? Jews pray toward where the Temple once stood; they are not praying to a retaining wall.  People place prayers in the Wall, but the Spirit of the Lord does not actually reside there.  He just picks up His messages from time to time.

When did the Plaza become a synagogue? In 1967, when Jerusalem was reunified, the alleyway that was in front of the exposed section was expanded and became the Western Wall Plaza.  That small section of the retaining wall was conveniently located and it was turned into an open-air Orthodox synagogue (it was not a synagogue before).

How holy is it? Based on the logic of holiness bestowed upon the Western Wall, every part of the retaining wall should be considered equally holy: the southern wall (I’ve seen people praying there), the eastern section (on the Mount of Olives side), the Via Dolorosa (the first few Stations of the Cross starting at the Lion’s Gate), the route of the Tunnel tours, and even a little alley called “The Little Kotel,” which is apparently even closer to where the Temple stood.

So what’s the question? Why should anyone demand that an open-air Orthodox synagogue near an exposed section of a retaining wall accommodate Reform and Conservative practice? To my knowledge, no one has blasted into the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem and demanded that it be converted to accommodate Reform and Conservative practices.  There is a Conservative synagogue across the street and everyone seems to be fine with that.

Perhaps we should ask a different question? Why is there any kind of synagogue at all?  Why not just keep the practice of individual contemplation and personal prayer for all people of all denominations of all religions?

The bottom line

This kerfuffle is not really about access to the Kotel.  Just like the fight you had last week with your loved one wasn’t about who would put the dishes in the dishwasher and how you always do it wrong.

This is about acknowledgement and acceptance.

It could start with the rabbinical authority in Israel acknowledging that there are other visions of Judaism – they may need to negotiate about the different ideas of halakha (Jewish law) – but they should also try to square it a bit more closely with the Law of Return (anyone with a Jewish grandparent on either side is entitled to Israeli citizenship, which is not the halakhic definition of a Jew).

Jews living outside of Israel will also have to accept that Jews living in Israel have their own ideas about how to run the country and preserve holy sites and that donations to Israel and putting your name on buildings doesn’t actually bestow the right to dictate policy here.

Fiddler on the Roof starts with Tradition (video above) and by the end a few things get changed in line with the times.  But we keep our balance, like a fiddler on the roof!

My radical proposal

The question of acknowledgement and acceptance is real and I don’t want to minimize it.  It is symbolized in the questions of access to the Western Wall and that is indeed legitimate.

However, the bigger issue facing all of the Jewish people is that UNESCO continuously and repeatedly calls the Western Wall Plaza “The Al-Buraq Plaza” and calls the Temple Mount only by its Muslim name.  If we want to continue our internal family discussions about access to the Western Wall, we need to ensure that it remains a Jewish site.  And we must also remember that the Temple Mount – where Jews are forbidden to pray and are arrested for doing so – is the actual holy site.

Jerusalem of Light

Signs of summer are starting to show up in Jerusalem.  The city put up these fun mini-umbrellas on Yoel Solomon Street.


Later in the evening I stepped out again to see the mini-light show on the walls of the Old City.

And then I walked through Mamilla on the way home.  And it was crowded!  It seemed to be an equal mix of Jews, Arabs and tourists.

The crowds are worth pointing out.  A week ago, a young police officer was killed by a terrorist at Damascus Gate, a northern gate.  Mamilla is near Jaffa Gate, a western gate.  They aren’t that far apart with only the Christian and Muslim Quarters separating them from each other.  Also, it’s Ramadan.  And yet – it’s nearly 10pm and the streets are full.

Jerusalem is beautiful at night and I’m so glad that our mayor and the city council have made it both possible and aesthetically pleasing to be out and about in the city.  We don’t quake in fear in the face of terrorism.  The minute we do, they win.

Jerusalem is known as the city of light.  And for good reason!

Next week we will host the “Light Festival, Jerusalem,” so expect more pictures of the beautiful walls of the Old City from Zion Gate in the south up to Damascus Gate in the north featuring light installations by artists from all around the world.

A nudnik in the backyard

One of my favorite things about Jerusalem is that everywhere you go you find layers upon layers of human history.  It’s a lot like geological layering, but in human history each layer has a story.  I liked writing the Michener history of The Hill of Evil Council and was planning to do that this week, but I’m going to come at it from a slightly different angle.

My office has what might be called a backyard.  It’s an archaeological site, but still it’s a space between us and St. Andrew’s Scottish Church.  Even now, if you didn’t know what you were looking at, it would look like someone had carved into the rock and made a few flat surfaces and cleared some space in the middle.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a good picture of it, but that’s not really what this post is about anyway.

800px-st_andrews_jerusalemJust below the domes of the church – upper right of the image – is the archaeological site. (Postcard from 1930 when the church was completed.)

In short, it’s a First Temple Period burial cave.  In 1979, Gabriel Barkay excavated the site and found evidence of a burial cave, Roman coins to suggest that the 10th Legion had been there during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and mosaics from a Byzantine-era church.  The cave had collapsed because it had been used as a weapons cache during the Ottoman period and most likely something exploded accidentally causing the cave to fall in.  In Jerusalem, that’s a pretty typical backyard.

Once the archaeological team decided they had cleared the site, they brought kids in for field trips to do some amateur archaeological digging.  They brought in a group of 12-13-year-old boys and among them was one nudnik.  A nudnik is a Yiddish word meaning an annoying pest of a person.  I don’t think it’s quite as harsh as it sounds in English.

Anyway, the nudnik is aggravating Barkay and he sends the kid down into a hole and tells him to brush the floor and make it as clean as possible.  The kid, being a nudnik and a boy, gets bored and finds a hammer.  Rather than brush the floor, he starts hammering it.

Our nudnik comes back to Barkay and tells him that he found something.  Barkay is completely incredulous.  They go down and realize that the “floor” was a false floor – or possibly the ceiling fell in and created the illusion of a floor.  Barkay gathers his team and they dig and find one of the biggest and most significant archaeological hauls in Israel.  Lots of jewelry, bones, trinkets, pottery, and most significantly, two tiny scrolls of silver that have verses from the Bible written on them in script that dates from the late First Temple Period (650 BCE – 587 BCE).  On the silver scrolls were written what is known as The Priestly Blessing (“May the Lord bless you and keep you…”).

These scrolls are the oldest artifacts ever found with biblical text on them and they are 400 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls.  (Don’t worry.  They are in the Israel Museum now.)

MORAL OF THE STORY 1:  Don’t underestimate a nudnik!  Imagine that one of the greatest archaeological finds in Israel stood undisturbed for 2,500 years.  None of the thousands of people who built on that hill ever found this treasure.  No soldiers, no tomb raiders, no shepherds, no archaeologists.  It was a nudnik kid!

MORAL OF THE STORY 2:  Looks can be deceiving.  A rocky hillside that functions as a backyard is actually the site of one of the greatest treasure troves found in Israel!