For most people, Israel is a destination that is visited via an all-inclusive tourist bus. That is how I entered Jerusalem for the first time, Jillian as well. We stopped at an overlook to see the Old City, sang a couple of songs, then listened to to religious music on the remainder of the journey to help set the mood. I imagine it is this way for most ‘pilgrims’ of any of the faiths that consider Jerusalem to be their spiritual holy land.
This time, things were different. Things were exactly as they were for every other city in the 29 countries we visited on the way here to Israel. We got on the bus in one city, and rode into the bus station at the next city. We entered Jerusalem without stopping for any scenic overlook and then were subjected to the standard display of security (which, in my opinion, was highly ineffective). Inside the station, the first thing we saw was a McDonald’s…Kosher of course. Much of the city itself, felt just that, like a city. It had some big and fancy buildings. People were going about their business. Tourists buying things in shops. Fancy hotels next to cheap ones.
Walking to the Old City my images of Jerusalem began to change. Outside the Jaffa gate were ritzy shops displaying the best in fashion trends. Inside the gate was shop after shop selling Judaica and other Israeli themed merchandise and souvinirs. I expected the Old City to have a market but I did not expect the Old City to be a market. Prices were high and we had a good laugh at the hoards of people bargaining hard to save a dollar or two. This was not the market we’ve become accustomed to.
Visiting the Kotel, also known as the Western Wall, was the most disappointingpart for me. A visit here, for us, felt a bit obligatory as Jews but what we found was hardly what we expected. Less than 100 meters from the wall, the holiest place in all of Judaism, was some kind of military function. Hundreds of troops were in uniform marching, more like goofing off with some level of forward motion, to a square with machine guns decorating tables.
The ceremony was in Hebrew so we are not entirely sure what it was we were witnessing but between what we saw and what we have pieced together in speaking to Israeli’s after the fact, lead us to believe it was a graduation for the paratrooper division of the Israeli Defense Forces. Since it was this division who captured The Wall for Israel they’ve held their graduation in front of it ever since.
I am not a religious man but I found the display, especially in light of the current turmoil with the Gaza Flotilla, to be deeply troubling. It made me feel as though this holy place was being treated like a trophy of war rather than a religious center. After all the traveling we’ve done I can safely say this was a unique experience, but for the wrong reasons.
In the end we had a nice time in Jerusalem, just as we did in the rest of Israel. As has been true of many places we’ve visited though it wasn’t the place that made it special but the people. We stayed with old friends in Tel Aviv, couch surfed in Jerusalem, and celebrated nice meals with family. These are the nice memories and the ones I most hope to repeat on our next visit.