Section: Features

Notes from Abroad: Jerusalem, Israel

Notes from Abroad: Jerusalem, Israel

Courtesy of Emily Birnbaum

I want to start this article with the phrase “politics aside.”

Politics aside, I want to write that the country of Israel is magnificently beautiful. The Mediterranean Sea, which hugs Israel’s Western shores, is a warm and glistening blue. The Golan Heights, a region in Northern Israel, looks like a dream, with hazy mountains sloping up from a half-green, half-desert landscape. Jerusalem, where I am studying abroad this semester, is built almost entirely of Jerusalem limestone, a material renowned for its elegance.

But in Israel, there is no “politics aside.” Each place in Israel bears the weight of two realities: its ancient past and its war-torn present.

The Mediterranean is lined with ports that were brutally conquered by ancient empires, including the Romans, the Byzantines, the Crusaders and early Muslim dynasties. The Golan Heights saw clashes between Syrian and Israeli forces in 1967, which resulted in the deaths of 115 Israelis and 2,500 Syrians. Jerusalem is sliced in two by a tall cement wall separating Israel from the West Bank, which is internationally recognized as a Palestinian territory.

Here, beauty comes with a side of politics.

Although I am interested in the politics and history of Israel, I did not come here for that. I came here to get closer to my Jewishness. Israel is, after all, the only Jewish nation in the world besides my hometown of Bethesda, Maryland. Since coming here, however, I have discovered it is impossible to engage with Judaism without engaging in the “Israel Question”: Do I support Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people? I have no answer to this question, but I do have experiences that speak to it.

I spent Rosh Hashanah on the Jewish settlement of Efrat. (A settlement is a Jewish Israeli community built on Palestinian land.) Between helpings of native Israeli fruits, I listened to settlers describe the connection they feel to the land that the international community has deemed Palestinian territory.

I spent a Sunday in Hebron, a Palestinian city with Jewish settlements in its center, talking to a Palestinian man whose home is situated between two Jewish settlements. He told me that, despite this threatening situation, he will never leave his house because his family has lived in it for the past 800 years. Another man had me touch his broken skull, which is permanently deformed after Jewish settlers attacked him twice.

I visited the Western Wall, arguably the most important site for the Jewish people, through a system of underground tunnels that Israel dug after its victory in the War of 1967. I prayed directly in front of the spot where the original Torah scrolls sat thousands of years ago. I know I experienced holiness there.

I am taking a class taught by a Palestinian man who tells us about the hopelessness, pain and abject poverty of those living in Palestine. He cries and yells, teaching us about Palestine’s national sense of loss.

I have experienced the depth and intensity of Jewish religiosity in this land. Here, the buses shut down on Shabbat. Here, there is a month-long break in October for the Jewish High Holidays. Here, there is a mezuzah, the piece of parchment that Jews traditionally hang on their doors to signify that their homes are Jewish, on almost every doorpost — even in my dorms. This is not the case in any other country.

Israel is, if nothing else, unique. Jerusalem crackles with the intensity of its religions, politics and people. Every night, as I watch the perfect Middle Eastern sunset melt over Jerusalem limestone, I feel acutely that history is happening here. 


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