In this part, I’d like to give some impressions on the Jewish and Muslim areas in Israel and save the Christian parts to new week, Christmas Eve.
Israel is the Jewish state and as such is dominated by Jewish life. Of the 7.6M or so people who live there about 5.7M are Jewish, 1.2M represent Arab citizens including Muslims, Christians, Druze and Samaritans and finally about 300K non-citizen Arabs who live in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights (Wikipedia).
I spent all of my time in Israel in Jerusalem which has to rank as one of the most fascinating places in the world. Its 3/4 of a million people is about 60% Jewish, 38% Muslim and about 2% Christian, but that ratio is declining as the Arab birth rate is higher than the Jewish birth rate. More on that later. As you are probably aware, up to 1967, it was a divided city, the West being controlled by Israel and East Jerusalem controlled by Jordan. After the 6 day war in 1967, Israel captured East Jerusalem and reunited the city. This has been a source of controversy and conflict ever since. For those Arabs and Palestinians who lived in East Jerusalem, it has afforded them some greater opportunity for employment and greater freedom of movement around the area.
In some cases, some Arabs elected to become Israeli citizens and carry an Israeli passport. In other cases, they retained their Jordanian passport but have an Israeli identity card. This identity card allow them full access to Israeli
social benefits including healthcare, social security, schooling and other benefits. But, the one of the biggest benefits seems to be the ability to move throughout the city and its environments with relative ease.
My taxi driver and guide, Sami, is a native born East Jerusalem resident who carries a Jordanian passport and Israeli identity card. He works for an Israeli taxi company and tour company and he is allowed to go basically anywhere he needs to. For example, he was able to take me to Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank without any problem. Israeli citizens are forbidden by law from entering the West Bank and Gaza area. Except of course for those Israeli settlements built on West bank land, but that is done a bit differently.
The Old City
The Old City of Jerusalem is clearly the main attraction in Jerusalem. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, the site of significant religion meaning to three of the world’s major religions, the site of conquest, occupation and renewal and lately, the site of significant controversy.
I chose to do a half day tour of Jerusalem because it would afford me an overview of the sights there and then I could go back and visit those that interested me the most. But because of my time constraints I didn’t really make it back inside the Old City.
The bus tour began on Mount Scopus. It is called Scopus, because it is one of the highest points in Jerusalem and affords a good overview of the city. It was used by various armies’ as a base of operations because of the view of the city.
Today, Mount Scopus houses a large British military cemetery, the Hebrew University, Botanical Gardens, Hadassah Hospital and, the BYU Jerusalem Center, commonly known as the Mormon University. What is interesting is both the bus tour driver and Sami, my taxi driver, mentioned it and its history. Seems that the Mormons are well known in Jerusalem! We stopped for a brief time to take pictures of the Old City, but it was raining pretty hard that day so they are not the best pictures.
Then we went down into the Old City and parked the bus to begin our walking tour. We walked down to the site of the Western wall or Wailing Wall, as it is also known. This was quite an experience for me. The Western Wall is the second holiest site for Jews. The first being the Holy of Holies located atop the Temple Mount itself, where Jews are forbidden to go. The Wall, which is actually a remnant of the wall of the courtyard of the Temple. Over the many years of history, Jews have been allowed to go to the Wall and forbidden to go to the Wall based on who controlled it at that time. But as of the 1967 six-day war, the wall has been under Israeli control and full access is available.
Of the 45 Stone courses of the wall 17 courses are buried under ground and date back to the Second Temple period under King Herod, about 19 BCE. The remaining 28 courses are a mix between the Herodian period, from the 7th century and the Ottoman period in 1866.
Jews believe the Holy Spirit or Divine Presence rests upon the wall. Jews who pray there are expected to mourn the loss of the Temple, thank God for His mercy and say their daily prayers there. One can see the religious Jews of Jerusalem there morning and night saying their daily prayers. On Monday and Thursday, Bar Mitzvah ceremonies are held for the 13 year old boys. Men and Women have their separate areas of the wall in which to pray and all are expected to cover their heads and dress modestly. The plaza in front of the wall was enlarged in 1967 to 20,000 square meter and can accommodate 400,000 people. One must pass through a metal detector and have your bags x-rayed upon entrance to the plaza.
I have to say that that my visit to the wall was one of the highlights of the trip. To be able to pray at the wall was a special experience. And while I do not hold any extra special significant to a prayer at the Wall to one at my bedside at night, it was still a wonderful opportunity. The words and thoughts flowed easily from my mind. I left a note in a crack in the wall as a million people do every year. It was a special message to my Heavenly Father and to the people of Israel.
The rest of the walking tour consisted of visiting the four quarters of the city, the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian Quarters. Each is different in its own way, with the restaurants, bazaars and shops. The homes look different and are of different vintages. The Jewish homes are generally newer because they have been destroyed over the years depending on who had control of the area. We stopped and had a falafel for lunch, which was on the best pita beard I ever had. The pita bread is far superior to the packaged stuff we get in the states. There was a Moroccan quarter at one time but it was torn down to improve access to the Western Wall.
Our next and finally stop was the Church of the Resurrection, the holiest site of Christianity. But I will save that for next time.