i. I am standing, a few miles north of the Holy City, on a rise of ground that slopes off to one side towards the Jordan River, on the other towards the Great Sea. Like every rise of ground in this angry and holy land, it is covered over by a vast sea of the past and present commingled and churning. When the Crusaders crested this hill they could see the walls of their goal, or so the story goes, though today we can see only the ever expanding sprawl of modern Jerusalem, rising and falling over hills where a few decades ago there were only olive trees and flocks of sheep and goats and little villages. But we are not looking out over the rolling hills that spill out, east and west, from along the invisible Green Line that divides—in theory at least, one that that grows less relevant day by day—Israeli and Palestinian territory. We are watching, my friend and I, in transfixed anger, a momentary act in the interminable drama that plays out on this hill and in so many other places in this land, day after day after day, the long ugly drama on endless repeat. As the sun sets over the great corrupting sea to the west, I find myself right in the thick of that drama, feeling emotions to which I am unused and which terrify me even as they shoot through my body and heat my blood. I clench my fists, fight back hot tears, fight back the urge to pick up a stone and crack someone in the head. Instead I curse under my breath, tell M. that I am going back to the car, and hurry down the hill to the rental, parked precariously on an incline. I climb inside, grab the wheel, and weep angry tears. M. follows close behind and we drive off in bitter silence, processing what we’ve seen and felt and how very ordinary it is for this land.
ii. I was staying for several days in an Airb&b rental on El-Wad street, one of the main arteries of Jerusalem’s Old City, in an apartment being rented out by a French archeology student whom I never met. M. was staying there as well, while taking Arabic lessons. We had spent this particular day taking a break from the Old City and its tensions, the strain of soldiers on every corner with heavy weaponry slung in front, the constant watch of cameras on every other rooftop, perched above the street, the heaviness that percolates through the air, the loud silent confrontation of the settlers’ bristling rooftops. I could not then and cannot now imagine what it must be like to live here as a resident, to have this be your reality every day and night. After a week it was too much for me. Perhaps you adjust. Perhaps you bottle it up until it snaps. During my stay I wondered more than once what I would do were I in the place of a Palestinian Jerusalemite, or an Israeli settler. I don’t know, but I can speculate, and it’s not very pretty.
After picking up our rental car, at an agency down the street from the King David Hotel of lore—every block, every stone here has some world-historical significance, it gets old really, and I’m a historian—we cross through the Separation Barrier into the West Bank, then through another checkpoint, past a settlement, eventually winding down to Ein Prat National Park, our main destination for the day. Like almost everywhere else here it goes by at least two names—in Arabic it’s Ayn Farar, close, but not quite the same, as the Hebrew. Unlike most places around this city, though, it is an island of calm and coexistence. Apart from a couple of Japanese tourists who arrive as we are leaving, we are the only foreigners. Israelis and Palestinians—more of the latter than the former, at least today, it seems—are enjoying the cool waters of the springs and creek cutting through the desert, or are out hiking along the steep wadi, or enjoying a picnic in the eucalyptus groves planted during the British Mandate (growing alongside the ruins of a Byzantine church, in the shadow of a still functioning monastery inhabited by monks of Eastern European extraction…). There are no guns or uniforms or political slogans in sight. The settlements that cling to the ridgetops in this part of the West Bank are invisible, having receded behind the crags lining the wadi. We climb into caves used by late antique hermits, trail gazelles up a hill to a village site dating back, so they say, to the late Neolithic, sink into the marvelous papyrus reed jungles that hug the course of the stream. The conflict is far away, and here, at least, we feel as if there are possibilities open beyond merely tracing new permutations in the never-ending struggle.
iii. We spend the rest of the day exploring, down to Jericho, motoring into town past the languid Palestinian Authority checkpoint, get a bite to eat, and try to find an Umayyad ruin. We end up by the Jordan instead, at a site claimed to be where St. John baptized Jesus, but which today is dominated by a looming Israeli military instillation and mine-seeded zone, a parking lot full of tourist buses, and gaudy new churches across the holy river on the Jordanian side. It’s a strange and vaguely disturbing scene, and I remark that I feel like I’ve scene it all in a dream. Or maybe it’s just because it is a landscape like something in a dream—a scatter of elements, exaggerated in size, dropped along a significant slice of landscape but which does not appear like you (think) you remembered it. Next we drive along the Dead Sea, past the Qumran Caves, then back up into the hills to Nabi Musa, the resting place, in medieval Islamic tradition, of the Prophet Moses. Some Bedouin are sipping tea and swatting flies in a sort-of cafe structure in front of the shrine, so we have some tea and swat flies too, then wander around the place, most of which is off-limits because it’s being renovated. Before leaving we walk out through the sprawling cemetery into the barren Judaean Desert, which is also like a dream, but a rarer and more memorable one than the scene along the Jordan. From Nabi Musa we plot our course back to Jerusalem, as the sun will soon be setting. Flipping through a brochure of Israeli national parks we had picked up earlier, looking for sites we might still hit, we notice that a site called Nabi Samwil does not have a closing time or an admission fee, and is close to the city, so we decide to go there. Turning back onto the motorway that rises from Jericho to Jerusalem—the very road that provided the setting for the story of the Good Samaritan—we loop north of the city and turn off onto the hill of Nabi Samwil, which, confusingly, is the name for the mosque-shrine, for the national park the Israelis have declared, and for the tiny Palestinian village which clings, just barely, to the hill, most of the village having been demolished when the Israelis declared a national park. But when we arrive we only know a little of this.
We are surprised, then, to find the parking lot, which is perched at a precarious angle on the hillside below the summit, nearly full, and a steady stream of visitors filing past a tangle of security people up to the cluster of structures and ruins that crowns the hill. These visitors are almost all Hasidim, for, as it turns out, the shrine of the Prophet Samuel has in recent years become a major locus of devotion for Hasidic Jews in the area. It’s a remarkable location, with ruins going back to antiquity, though its centerpiece is the religious structure—variously built, claimed, and modified by Western Christians, Muslims, and Jews—that crowns the hill, and around which are the remains of a magnificent Crusader castle. The above-ground part of the structure is, in part, a mosque, though when we explore our way up a set of stairs onto the roof we discover—of course, why not!—a group of Israeli soldiers who command us to go back the way we came. The dreamscape continues… Coming upon the eponymous Tomb of the Prophet Samuel, we enter the vestibule, which is newly renovated, shiny, hygienic, a marked contrast to the Muslim and Christian holy places I’ve visited on my stay. Because I do not turn down the opportunity to be in the presence of the holy dead, I make my way down the stairs to the tomb chamber itself, while M., feeling a little nervous, stays behind. The little room which contains Samuel’s cenotaph is crowded with Hasidic men and boys in the midst of their devotions. Some turn and look at me, and not in a welcoming manner, or so I surmise, so I beat a retreat, silently paying my respects to the interred prophet.
We wander around the castle remains, a subject of especial interest to me, then work our way back to the parking lot. Walking past the little cluster of security personnel at the entrance of the site, we notice that things feel off. There is something going on with the young Palestinians who frequent the parking lot, pushing a fruit and snacks cart, and leading a donkey that, I assume, they offer for rides and photographs, a sort of compact version of the camel ride attraction seen elsewhere. As we approach, the fruit cart is hurtling downhill—the parking lot is very steeply sloped—and the teenager tending it is chasing it.
Then we notice the gathering crowd of young Hasidic men—teenagers, too, mostly, it seems, but a few adults are hanging towards the back, watching—and we realize that the loose cart was not an accident. Some of the Israeli youth, some of whom are speaking in New York-accented English, we notice, are harassing the Palestinian youth, kicking or trampling the fallen produce and goods, trying to prevent the recovery of the cart. One young man has appropriated the little donkey, which he is whipping and yelling at. His friends half-jokingly tell him to stop—he’s hurting the little creature, which is cruel, they say (what of the hurt to the Palestinian kids, I want to demand of them?)—while others in the crowd hurl insults at the Palestinian kids, in English and Hebrew. Someone is filming the scene on her smartphone. The crowd is downright jovial; my stomach is turning. The Palestinian teenagers try to recover their property and fend off the harassment, the Israeli kids knocking produce from their hands and taunting them. I can’t help but notice on the faces of the Palestinian youth a look I’ve seen a lot in and around Jerusalem, a mix of resignation, of sadness, of a trace of defiance, but mostly defeat. A couple of older Palestinian men show up—as it turns out, the mostly destroyed village of Nabi Samwil now sits out of view on the back of the hill, behind some telecommunication arrays, and they have probably heard the commotion. Or maybe this is a regular occurrence.
But I don’t stay to watch and see what plays out—maybe the security personnel broke things up. Maybe things escalated. I don’t know. I am afraid that if I stay any longer I will react in anger, and do something unwise and possibly bad for my health, possibly get myself arrested. So I leave. The dreamland has veered into nightmare, and I am ready to wake up.
iv. That evening I called my wife and little son back in America on the video chat, after having had some dinner and then having drunk a shot or two of vodka. I don’t actually care for hard liquor, and almost never drink it, but there were a couple bottles in the place and I needed something to take the edge off. I try to tell the story of what had happened to my wife but end up crying again.
The incident haunted me for the rest of my stay, and I still think about it, months afterwards. Did it fundamentally change my perspective? No—I was already, and had long been, a critic of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and the treatment given out to Palestinians. A skeptic of my account might claim that I was predisposed to see injustice on the Israeli’s part, or that I overlooked some other contingency, and so forth. There were things I didn’t know, to be sure, but upon learning them they made my outrage greater—the recent history of Nabi Samwil adds further layers. I won’t recite it here, since it’s easy to discover online (and I encourage you to look into it, since Nabi Samwil’s history is in many ways an encapsulation of post-1947 history and its tragedies and complications and outrages). And of course each person on that hill that evening had a story, layers of experience and actions and beliefs and feelings, distilled from the long and bitter conflict, stories that came bubbling up in an outburst of violence, like so many such outbursts that manifest in this narrow, crowded, contested land.
What did change for me—and I feel selfish and shallow, really, for spending time on my feelings, but here it is—was the degree to which I now felt immersed in this conflict, the degree to which my abstract political sentiments and academic knowledge now had visceral reactions and feelings coursing through them. I cannot claim that I understand ‘what it’s like,’ but I’ve a better idea. I’ve a better idea of what it feels like to stand in the face of cruel injustice, to taste the bitterness of occupation, to feel powerless and defeated. I can understand better now why someone might want to resort to violence, and I recoil at that understanding and fear my own capacity for anger, for hatred, for retributive violence, that I felt in those moments and in reflection afterwards. And even though I was really just a bystander, albeit an emotionally involved one, I’ve a better sense of just how hard to fulfill Christ’s command to love our enemies is. I wanted to sock someone in the face, I wanted to scream, How can you do this? How can you hurl epithets that, a few things changed, could have been hurled at you in another place and time, not that long ago? This casual hatred, this degrading violence, how do you keep it up, how do you square it with acts of devotion, with worship of God? But I know that the answer, in part, lies in the very tangle of history and the flush of the passions that in the very moment I, too, am feeling, even though I am neither Jew nor Muslim, neither Israeli or Palestinian.
I’ll end this essay without offering any easy answers, without any plan of action, or political pronouncements. As I have grown older, and experienced more of life in more places and zones of conflict and trouble, I’ve felt my capacity for making pronouncements and proclamations dwindle away. What I can offer is what I’ve seen and felt and the bits of knowledge I’ve scraped together. I do not offer my reactions as models or exemplars, but as points of connection and understanding. Maybe one day, God willing, I can offer more.