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Feeling and Frustration in Jerusalem

March 24, 2009

by Spencer Kline
Feeling and Frustration in Jerusalem

When I started trying to write an article about my experience studying abroad, I initially didn’t know what to write about. The obvious choice would be to describe the political drama that characterizes this region. In a city where even its name is a contentious issue, I could write reams upon reams about this subject alone.

But that’s not what study abroad is all about. I haven’t learned anything special about the Mideast peace process just because my classroom happens to be located on the front lines. More importantly, this isn’t my area of expertise, and others surely could write more informed articles on that tangled mess than I ever could. What you gain from study abroad isn’t academic. Instead, you learn how it feels to live in a foreign country far removed from the bubble that is CMC. How it feels to walk down the streets of Jerusalem late at night: that’s something I could have never learned in an ivory tower. So in truth, it’s the day to day existence and not the politics of Jerusalem that I’ve become well versed in.

Deciding where to begin a description of Jerusalem might be the hardest part. Ironically, this city’s most defining characteristic is that it has none. Each neighborhood is a world unto itself, completely different and separate from its surroundings. Walking just few blocks can transport you thousands miles and hundreds of years.

I am most familiar with the district where I lived—Arab East Jerusalem. This portion of the city really could be located anywhere in the Middle East. The women are veiled, the men smoke cigarettes, and the call to prayer comes from Mosque mounted stereo systems. When you’re in East Jerusalem the name of city even changes. You’re in Al-Quds now, forget all about Yerushalayim. If you’re a girl and you walk through this neighborhood wearing a t-shirt and blue jeans, expect to be gawked at. But don’t worry. They don’t mean any harm, you’re just a novelty.

If you walk just a few blocks to the west, you’ll find yourself in Mea Shearim—Jerusalem’s orthodox Jewish neighborhood. In this neighborhood one could easily begin to believe they’ve been transported back to 18th century Poland. At least until the 90 degree heat brings you back to reality. All the men have long beards, black coats, and solemn faces. But most importantly, the residents of Mea Shearim take the commandments of the Torah to their literal and logical extreme. Even ambulances get stoned if they drive through here on Yom Kippur.

Directly adjacent to Mea Shearim is Jerusalem’s Old City. A visitor can’t help but be immediately overcome by the imposing 16th century Turkish walls surrounding the oldest section of Jerusalem. Inside exists not only an area of untold religious significance, but also what is perhaps the most fought over square mile in world history. Whether you’re leaving a prayer in the Wailing Wall, visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, or simply admiring the Dome of the Rock, even the most callous atheist can’t help but feel little a moved. Only the storekeeper trying to sell an overpriced souvenir reminds you that you’re still in the 21st century.

However, as much as I love the Old City, my favorite part of Jerusalem is located about a half a mile to the west. The world famous Ben Yehuda Street, once the site of numerous suicide bombings, today has become a veritable party plaza. Here both a hookah and a shot of vodka come complementary with your first drink. The Discotheques are wild and bring back memories of my time in Germany as a 17-year-old. There even is a gay club, with the humorous name Bonita. Why it’s in Spanish I’ll never know.

Now I undoubtedly could keep going on and on. I’m sure there are plenty of neighborhoods I did not explore during my six months. Jerusalem is one of the most varied and diverse cities on the planet, and a person could spend their whole life here without seeing it all.

Yet, the same diversity that makes Jerusalem so fascinating is also what tears this city apart. The neighborhoods I have just described truly are separate: the people who reside in one neighborhood know nothing of the people in the others. When I spoke with an attendant at the Arab supermarket where I sometimes shop, he had no idea it was Yom Kipper, though the nearby Jewish streets were closed. On the other hand, my Israeli relatives were completely unaware of the ongoing celebration of Ramadan, despite the holiday lights strung along the vacant Arab store fronts. This lack of knowledge comes as little surprise, though: the city is so divided that the Arabs and Jews even have separate busing systems.

This brings me back to politics. You can talk forever about whose right, whose occupying whom, and who started what, but in my opinion all these questions miss the crux of the problem. The Arab-Israeli conflict will never come to a conclusion so long as both parties attempt to completely compartmentalize themselves and avoid all contact with the other side. Only once Arabs and Jews engage in conversation and commerce will an end to this conflict be in sight. And I’m not talking about the politicians; I’m talking about the everyday people on the street.

What disheartens me most about this place is that the average Arab and the average Jew seem quite similar to my western eyes. Both speak a Semitic language, and both share relatively similar values. Even the extremes are no more different than an atheist and an evangelical christian, two groups who manage to coexist quite peacefully in America. Yet these two sides—Arab and Jew—seem cursed to fight forever because of proclamations written in books published thousands of years ago. Sometimes I get so frustrated it makes me sick.

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