The Western Wall is divided, men to the left, and women to the right in a smaller section. Some of the faithful slip prayers folded on bits of paper into the cracks in the wall. This site is holy to Jews because it is the retaining wall of the Temple Mount where the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., once stood.
I imagined the messages on those folded prayers passing through different layers of carved stone on their way to heaven. And since the top layer of stone on the Western Wall dates from the time of the construction of al-Aqsa Mosque, situated above the wall, perhaps all the prayers, Jewish and Muslim, commingle as they make their way to heaven. I could only hope that some were prayers for peace.
This area above the Western Wall that the Jews call the Temple Mount, Muslims call Haram as-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary). It is also the site of the Dome of the Rock, which is built on the slab of rock where Christians and Jews believe that Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac, and where Muslims believe the prophet Mohammed ascended to receive instructions from Allah.
A couple of hundred meters away in the Christian quarter, six diverse Christian communities struggle at times over contested space in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, believed to be built on the site of Christ's crucifixion, entombment and resurrection.
Along with 10 other American and Canadian academics, I was recently privileged to go on a walking tour of the old, walled city of Jerusalem. This was part of a Council on International Educational Exchange International Faculty Development Seminar on Conflict and Cooperation in the Middle East in Amman, Jordan, and Jerusalem. Our guide in the Old City, Daniel Rossing, has 40 years of experience working on conflict resolution in Jerusalem, most often with Jews and Christians.
Rossing says the way the Christian sects have worked out a complex sharing of turf in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, divvying up responsibilities for particular pillars, windows, chapels — even lightbulb-changing duties — is a good example of conflict management in action. He sees hope in this "realm of the in between," taking his inspiration from the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who wrote that meaning is to be found in dialog between "I and Thou."
Rossing has often been a facilitator of compromises, once convincing a Romanian Orthodox church, awkwardly situated on the Tribes of Israel Street, to turn the new crosses on the roof 90 degrees, making them less visible, after the ultra Orthodox Jews across the street complained the crosses were an affront. As he points out, "Here symbols and gestures are more important than words."
According to Rossing, in Jerusalem, groups live together but separately, sometimes in a time warp, in different centuries. For example, he says some Orthodox Jews are really living in 17th century Poland. And while all the groups see themselves as victims, they really exist simultaneously as the powerful and powerless, the majority and the minority.
For example, Roman Catholics in Jerusalem number about 3,000, but they are part of a 1-billion strong church. One-third of the city is Palestinian Arab and two-thirds is Jewish, a population powerful in the local framework but that understandably sees itself as a threatened minority in the Middle East.
When I arrived in the region, I was very sick of the "identity politics" of our own primary season, where exit polls were homing in on the narrowest groups of voters, appearing to tear our divided country further apart.
But in the Middle East, identity politics is the serious stuff of daily life. It is tied up with language and accent, with holy sites, and with clothing — including the most specific details, like the white socks and short black pants or round fur hats worn by some Orthodox men. In Jerusalem, people are talking in millennia of history, tying their roots to the specific village their family lived in 500 years ago.
For the outsider, the exotic mix of cultures in the Old City of Jerusalem can be intoxicating. You hear the passionate call to prayer as you wander the narrow stone streets of the souk, where stalls hawk everything from grape leaves, to underwear, to pyramids of spices. Women in hijab stroll past Franciscan priests in long brown robes, Orthodox men with sidelocks, the odd Coptic priest, and the occasional tourist wielding a digital camera. In the Christian quarter, you can buy icons and crucifixes or watch as a penitent drags a cross up the Via Dolorosa; in the Armenian quarter, they sell handmade jewelry.
We were in a food market when the streets were suddenly packed solid with Muslims returning from Friday midday prayers.
It was an older crowd. Single Palestinian men under the age of 35 are not allowed to attend al-Aqsa Mosque, where the second intifada erupted in 2000 after a visit to the Temple Mount by Ariel Sharon. This was just before Sharon was elected prime minister of Israel. He was accompanied by a Likud Party delegation and hundreds of Israeli police; and while he did not enter the mosque, some Palestinians considered the visit a provocation.
Israelis and Palestinians both claim Jerusalem as a capital. Though the Israelis passed a law making it the capital in 1980, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has implied that he would be willing to give certain areas of predominantly Arab East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, a move that is controversial in Israel.
Jerusalem, positioned at the epicenter of three great monotheisms that share many beliefs, is a big piece of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the larger conflicts of East vs. West. The tension in the Old City is visceral.
Abdelsalam al-Majali, former Jordanian prime minister and peace negotiator, explained, "The Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East is not local. It is part and parcel of all the cold and hot wars of the 20th century."
He feels the Israelis and Palestinians have exhausted options and that the majority of Israelis want peace and that it's in the interest of the United States to solve the problem.
When we visited a refugee camp in central Amman, Jordan, run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, we saw the toll this conflict has taken on the 4.5-million Palestinian refugees scattered throughout Jordan, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Lebanon and Syria. Many of them have been waiting to return to Palestine since 1948.
On every side, some hold out greater hope that civic society will finally move the leaders in more productive direction, or find better leaders. Many people we met were spending their lives working for peace and dialog through interfaith organizations. In Jordan, we visited the Bee Research Unit, where Dr. Nizar Haddad is bringing Arab and Israeli researchers together to promote scientific cooperation and to encourage beekeeping. As he says, "Bees just contribute." And raising them requires no land, little investment and can provide nourishment and income for the poor. His slogan is "Bees for Peace."
At the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, the co-director Gershon Baskin explained that he had just returned from taking wounded Israeli and Palestinian soldiers to Bosnia for meetings. All the Palestinians had served time in jail and one of the Israelis was a warden in one of those jails. In the end, the veterans couldn't agree on terms but agreed on two states for two people. The Palestinians wanted the occupation to end and the Israelis wanted the violence to end.
Though this two-state solution has been at the heart of the peace negotiations, there is emerging interest in a single state solution, a democratic and secular state that unites Israelis and Palestinians.
This path is gaining favor among Palestinian intellectuals who fear the ascendancy of Hamas in Gaza, with it fundamentalism and sharia law. The combined Arab population of Israel and the occupied territories would mean that the Israeli Jews would be a minority in a single state, and Gershon Baskin believes that only the two-state solution can work to avert violence on a scale like Bosnia.
But this single-state idea is actually an old idea and one supported by Martin Buber earlier in the 20th century. He advocated a binational Jewish-Arab state based on mutual respect, and supported the idea all his life.
Jerusalem can be seen as a symbol of the possibility of the kind of dialog Buber advocated. The very monuments point to a shared heritage. King David, Christ and Mohammed have all walked its stone streets.
Kathleen Ochshorn teaches English and writing at the University of Tampa, where she also edits fiction for the Tampa Review.