I actually can’t believe that the day I’m writing about was only our third day in Jerusalem. Our days have been packed full of the most fascinating, beautiful, and exhausting sightseeing I have ever experienced. I think we were all on the same page by the end of Monday: we were so tired we could barely move, and yet there was nothing we could possibly have given up about our day. We started the day at 7:30 AM by walking to Ir-David, or the City of David. As the oldest part of the city of JErusalem, the archeological dig that remains was full of a rich history from possible temple stones that had been pushed off the side of the temple mount when the Romans ransacked the city in 70 AD to a Mishnah (or a purification pool used before Jews climbed the temple mount in the second temple period) to the stairs and walls built by King Herod as part of the Temple Mount on which he built the second temple. Going back a little farther, we also saw walls that may have been part of Solomon’s palace during the first temple period and a government area that included some pretty nifty ancient toilet seats. As we saw and learned about some of the oldest ruins in an already impressively old city, two things other than awe for the ancient and interest at seeing another site that we’d been talking about for a whole semester came up for me. The first was a realization of the presence of yet more political tension surrounding this (not necessarily sacred) site. Although the historian giving our tour assured us that politics did not play a part in the actual archeology and assessment of the uncovered structures, it was difficult for many of us to accept that. The archeological dig at the City of David is funded and run by a Jewish foundation: it doesn’t seem like the most unbiased source for findings that have the potential to corroborate or disprove a religious narrative that so many people have such a passionate, personal, emotional stake in. The site became yet another example to me of how the science of historical work is, first of all, not a science because of the innumerable ways that any finding can be interpreted, and second of all, can be so impacted by whatever political situation exists in the state at the time when history is being uncovered. Furthermore, and the second thing that came up for me during this tour, the political tensions that exist in Jerusalem seemed paralleled by the tensions between the archeology of the City of David and the desire of those interpreting findings and presenting them to the public to fit what they were finding into the biblical narrative presented in the Old Testament. The parallel here is in the relationship between the people in charge, an existing narrative or status quo, and an unwillingness to consider the fact that things might be different than they have always been.
Following our trip to the City of David, we were certainly all ready for a late lunch, so we ate (more falafel, if my fellow travelers were anything like me) and then headed for two slightly less ancient experiences. The first was a tour of YYBZ, the organization that set us up with scholars as our guides for most of the sites we are seeing on our trip. We heard about different educational opportunities and pratices that are being opened up because of their organizations resources.
Finally, to finish the day, we met with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the leader of Rabbis for Human Rights. I am not sure if I can quite sum up how inspired many of us felt after leaving this conversation. One of the struggles of being in Jerusalem has certainly been feeling equipped to experience the sacred sites and to take in more about the history of such a historically and religiously complex city, but not knowing how to react to the political situations that exist in this rich city. Rabbi Arik offered some insight into how he and his group have reacted to the Israel Palestine conflict in Jerusalem by standing up for human rights of both Palestinians and Israelis based on their (the group’s) Jewish values and ideals which are rooted in a belief that each person is created in the image of God and deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. I am paraphrasing and oversimplifying, to be sure, but Rabbi Arik’s passion as he spoke to us about rebuilding Palestinian houses that had been torn down by the Israeli government and standing in front of bulldozers looking to do the same thing was incredibly inspiring and infectious. Not many people we have spoken with have offered much hope regarding the political situation in Jerusalem, but after listening to Rabbi Arik, I can tell you that as long as he is working here to be used as God’s hands in bringing human rights, equality, and restoration, I have infinitely more hope than I had before I knew he was here. One sentiment, first offered by Rabbi Abraham Heschel, but quoted to us by Rabbi Arik was that “in a democracy, some are guilty but all are responsible.” Rabbi Arik followed this quote by telling us about one time that he stood in front of a bulldozer that was going to demolish a Palestinian family’s home- he said that “the Torah which [he] had sworn to uphold was being demolished with the house and the image of God was being thrown in the rubble and in that moment [he] had no choice but to stand in front of the bulldozers.” Religious difference have had suh a dividing power in this community, and yet here we should all be taking note of how not just despite religious differene, but because Rabbi Arik was not afraid to reach across religious and ethnic divides because of his religious beliefs in a better world, he was able to embody an outstanding example of social justice, kindness, and tenacity in teh face of a seemingly hopeless situation.
To close, I include one more quote from our conversation with Rabbi Arik, “This kind of work is done by those of us who enjoy banging our heads against the wall, but if we keep going for long enough, sometimes, the wall breaks.”