A couple of days ago I went to my old school’s Christmas carol service. As usual the service included all the key readings from the Christmas story. They were the same as ever, but my relationship to them had changed. I don’t remember the first time I heard the Christmas story but I must have been very young. I must have been very young when I first heard of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but at that time they were places that only existed for me within the Christmas story. They were quasi-fictional cities where it was perpetually Christmas and angels bobbed about in the sky.
This October I visited those cities. Sitting in a carol service singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, it was difficult trying to reconcile the Christmassy Jerusalem and Bethlehem of my imagination with the reality. There are no angels bobbing around. Far from God seeming particularly close in these Biblical lands, it feels more like God and most of humankind have turned their backs on them entirely.
So when school-children all over the UK are, like I did, learning about the magical ancient Middle East with angels and wise men and miracles, I want to take this opportunity to tell three stories that took place in and around the real Jerusalem this October, two of which I witnessed for myself and one of which was related to me by a man I met in the Old City.
The Soldiers and the Women at Lion’s Gate:
For the week I was in Jerusalem I slept on a roof top in the Old City not far from the Dome of the Rock. On my second morning I woke up to hear a popping sound accompanied by angry voices chanting “Allahu akbar”. It later transpired that the popping was a mix of gunfire from Israeli soldiers (shot into the air as warnings, not at the protesters) and fireworks thrown by the protestors at the soldiers. For the rest of the week the entrance to Temple Mount was closed. Tensions were rising.
I decided to go to the Mount of the Olives since I could not get in to Temple Mount and so tried to leave the Old City via Lion’s Gate but found my way blocked by a small temporary barrier guarded by three Israeli soldiers. There were four women standing at the barrier. Three were middle aged and wearing Islamic dress. One was younger and wearing typically Western clothes.
The younger woman was saying to one of the soliders “I need to get through.”
“No, you can’t.”
He didn’t answer. She looked at him for a moment then tried to get through. The soldiers moved in closer. She couldn’t pass them.
“I need to get through.”
“Where are you from?” The soldier asked her.
“You can’t go through.”
Just then the soldier noticed my friend and me. We’re both white.
“Tourists?” He asked.
“Where are you from?”
“You can go through,” he said, without hesitation.
My jaw dropped. Obviously I knew that the Israeli army oppressed and persecuted the Palestinians, but I expected this persecution to be something they would try to hide. I did not expect to see it carried out so shamelessly.
The anger boiled inside me and my blood rushed to my head. For a second, little black spots clouded my vision.
The young Palestinian woman looked at me. I looked back. I don’t know what she was thinking.
“If they can’t go through,” I said to the soldier, “then we can’t go through.”
The Man at the Checkpoint:
This story was related to me by a man I met at my hostel. He agreed for me to tell his story but asked that I do not give his name.
This man is Czech. His last name is Arabic but he speaks only Czech and some English. He was staying in Jerusalem but had gone to Ramallah in the West Bank for the day. On the bus on the way back to Jerusalem he had come to a checkpoint and Israeli soldiers had boarded the bus asking to see passports.
When the soldiers came to him they thought he was Arab and spoke to him in Arabic. When he did not understand them they grew suspicious and asked him, in English, to get off the bus to be checked more thoroughly.
The soldiers told him to go to an office and he set off in the direction he believed that office to be. After he had walked a few paces he heard angry shouting behind him.
He stopped immediately and turned round.
There was an Israeli soldier behind him. The soldier’s gun was pointing at his head.
“I’ve never been so scared in my whole life,” he told me.
It turned out he’d walked in the wrong direction.
When finally he was given the all clear and was allowed to go through the checkpoint he asked where the bus was.
“It’s already left,” they told him. All of his stuff was still on the bus.
The Woman on the Mount of the Olives:
I wanted to go to the Mount of the Olives in Jerusalem to watch the sunset. My friend and I reached the top of the hill just as it was getting dark. We saw a woman at the top who looked to be having some sort of breakdown. She was sobbing, wailing, clutching on to a railing with both hands, walking but almost collapsing as she did so.
We decided to go and see if we could help. Before we reached her, though, a car pulled up alongside her. Three men jumped out and began pulling her and forcing her towards the car. She cried out and fought against them but before long they overpowered her. They bundled her inside and drove off at high speed.
My friend and I memorised the car’s number plate and I called the police. The woman who was abducted was Muslim and the neighbourhood was majority Palestinian but we had to call the Israeli police as there are no Palestinian emergency services in Jerusalem.
The woman who responded to my emergency call spoke limited English. We weren’t getting anywhere so I said “I speak Arabic”, thinking that we might go faster this way.
“No. No Arabic.” She sounded almost offended that I’d suggested it.
I was stunned – perhaps naively. How can you have an emergency response team that speaks no Arabic in a city where roughly one third of the residents are Arabic speakers, the majority of whom do not speak Hebrew?
I didn’t believe this phonecall had helped anything so I spoke to some policemen on the street. At first they were keen to listen and to help. Their interest, however, died when they realised the woman was Palestinian and not a tourist as they had first thought.
By this point I had very little hope. If something awful was going to happen to that woman, it would probably have happened by now. Still, I wanted someone to listen to what we had seen and to take it seriously. I wanted someone to care about that woman.
As a last effort we went to the police station just outside of the Old City. To get into the police station you need to first explain why you are there to a security guard outside. The security guard, however, speaks no Arabic. Unless you are a Hebrew speaker, it is very difficult to report a crime. We waited half an hour before they found an Arabic speaker to translate into Hebrew for us. Eventually we were let into the police station. One policeman listened to us and took us seriously. The rest were unconcerned. Nothing was done. The security guard was laughing at us.
When I got back to my hostel in the Old City I told the man at the reception, a Palestinian, what had happened. I asked if there was anything else I could try, someone else who could help.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “The police are the police. It was a Palestinian area; they aren’t going to do anything.”
I left Jerusalem the next day. On my way to catch the bus I passed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified. The image of the woman crying so uncontrollably as she was forced into the car was still playing on my mind. The way that no one cared said something horrible about our ability to dehumanise one another so effectively that the suffering of others becomes unremarkable. I looked at the church as I passed and wondered whether we’ve come anywhere since we hung a man up to die on the cross, or if through the suffering of others that crucifixion continues.