Daily Dispatch: March 19, 2010

By Carolyn Phenicie

Check out the Photos of the Day.

Reporter Tammy Mutasa films protesters at the Damascus Gate as Israeli law enforcement looks on.

JERUSALEM –- On Friday we saw the many faces of this holy city: the Jerusalem of memorials, the Jerusalem of protest and the Jerusalem of prayer and song.


Our day began with a visit to Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum. Our guide, Ophir Yarden, told us that the museum was rebuilt after the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in Washington, D.C. in 1993. “How would it look for anyone to have a bigger Holocaust museum than Israel?” Ophir asked. Before we entered the museum, Ophir gave us a brief overview of how the Holocaust has been viewed in Israeli culture from the earliest days of the state to today.

Our tour began inside a large shed called the Square of Remembrance, where a flame burned on a black marble floor inscribed with the names of concentration camps. Dodging several other tour groups as we entered the museum itself, we walked through, reading the printed information and looking at the artifacts, photos and text that accompanied the exhibits. The museum traced the fate of the Jews in different countries as the Nazis began expanding their control. Most went first to ghettos before being sent to concentration camps and gas chambers. It also featured smaller exhibits on the military history of World War II, tributes to non-Jewish heroes of the Holocaust like Oskar Schindler, and a huge wall with photos of the leaders of the Third Reich and their positions within the government.

The museum ended with the Hall of Names, where a deep concrete pit with water at the bottom was surrounded by photos and bookshelves with hundreds of black books, each containing the names of victims of the Holocaust. After departing the museum, Professor Goldman, Dean Huff and Mike Philipps, president of the Scripps Howard Foundation that is sponsoring the trip, continued on the planned itinerary to Mt. Herzl. The student members of the group, however, split off into several groups to pursue the breaking news of the day.

Half the group grabbed a taxi to the Old City, where about 100 Palestinian men were holding their noon prayers outside the Damascus Gate. The Israeli government currently prohibits men under 50 from entering the Old City to pray at Al-Aksa mosque on Fridays, so the men held their prayers just outside the city in a small plaza. The men were also praying en masse to protest the recent reopening of the Horva synagogue, which they felt was an encroachment on the sanctity of Al-Aksa.

Though it was primarily a religious, peaceful demonstration, the atmosphere was tense. Israeli law enforcement officials were stationed nearby, one group on horses and another in full riot gear. Some of the professional journalists had taken protective measures, including toting helmets marked “TV” in masking tape. Ready to practice what they’d been taught all year, the Covering Religion reporters didn’t hesitate to move in and begin photographing, filming and taking notes during the prayer service. The area was strangely quiet save the buzzing of a helicopter overhead and the occasional ringing of cell phones. “This is intense,” said Sam as the service was beginning to wind down. “I’m barely making sense of this.”

As the service began to disperse, the Covering Religion reporters jumped right in and began interviewing participants – some, like Sommer and Omar, who speak Arabic, were successful, but a man flicked a cigarette at Mamta while she attempted to take photographs. Life in the square seemed to quickly return to normal as two shish kebab vendors quickly set up shop in the now-empty square.

Just a few minutes later, the noon prayers ended at Al-Aksa mosque. Women (who were permitted to attend the service) began chanting a traditional Palestinian call for freedom as they exited the Damascus Gate, where they were held back by Israeli law enforcement. Following their journalistic instincts to run toward conflict than away from it, the Covering Religion group again ran toward the struggle.

After the Damascus Gate demonstration, the group split up to spend another few hours of unscheduled time before the Sabbath began. Most of those who had been at the Damascus gate protest went around to other gates of the Old City to see what they had missed earlier and then took a taxi to the outskirts of the city to the Shafat refugee camp where they had heard there would be more protests, but decided not to go in when the taxi driver warned that one member of the group might be denied entry because of his citizenship.

The group then headed to Sheikh Jarah, an East Jerusalem neighborhood where there was a peaceful demonstration of another type entirely. Israeli protesters joined Palestinians to demonstrate against a recent Israeli Supreme Court decision allowing Jewish settlers to take over homes where Palestinian families currently live, arguing that the homes had originally belonged to Jewish families several decades ago. Sanaz, who attended both protests, said that the Damascus gate event was an act of prayer en masse to protest a perceived injustice, but the other was more secular. “This was a very different event altogether,” she said.

The whole group reconvened later as the sun began to set and Sabbath began. Taking a bus just before travel by vehicle was prohibited by Sabbath laws, the group joined the Aleppo synagogue, a Sephardic Jewish synagogue, for the Friday Shabbat service, where we met our host and guide for the evening, Drori Yehoshua. Men and women separated for the service, with the women climbing stairs and filing into a tiny cramped space, shushed and ushered in by an elderly woman with a deeply wrinkled face. The synagogue had beautiful wood paneling with inlaid pearls and elaborate paintings of ancient scenes on the walls. During the service, worshippers recited the entire Song of Songs, which in the Ashkenazi tradition is only recited once a year.

Following the service, we walked to a different synagogue for Shabbat dinner. Yehoshua sang a Sabbath song in the Western Ashkenazi tradition and then another in the Eastern Sephardic one. Much of the Aleppo synagogue’s traditions were influenced by the faith’s existence in Arab and Muslim countries for many years. “It immediately reminded me of Islamic prayer,” said Sanaz of the Sephardic-melody blessing.

We ate a variety of Kurdish-Turkish dishes cooked by Rimon Ajami, who recently started her own catering business. The food – lots of cold salads, a traditional soup, and chicken and fish entrees – seemed to never stop appearing from the synagogue’s tiny kitchen. After some delicious desserts, the group gathered for a short talk with Yehoshua, who told us that many Eastern Jews are less likely to divide themselves among specific branches of Judaism, like Orthodox or Reform, than Western Jews, and that they are less likely to rely on rabbis for guidance.

After the talk, we ventured back out again in the cold to walk to the home of Oded Levinson, a Hasidic man who welcomed us for songs, desserts, schnapps and questions following Shabbat dinner. Levinson, his family and guests sang several Sabbath songs while the Covering Religion group sat on long benches and listened. Sunil asked him about the large circular fur hat he wore. After he explained that it originated in 19th century Poland, Levinson asked Sunil about his baseball hat. Sunil explained that it was from the San Diego Padres but added that he was not a Padres fan. “I just liked the hat,” he said. Levinson also gave us a long discourse on his views on Israeli politics.

Finally around 11:15 p.m., our exhausted but well-fed group packed up and walked back to the hotel, happy to have a good night’s rest as our trip winds down.

2 Responses to “Daily Dispatch: March 19, 2010”

  1. [...] fact of racial profiling in annexed East Jerusalem. I see that student Carolyn Phenicie also covers this ugly practice here, for Goldman’s class. Good [...]

  2. Pamela Olson says:

    Thanks for this report — it’s far better than most of what we’re getting in the mainstream media. I worked as a reported in the West Bank for almost two years, and I know how overwhelming the place is the first few times you go, or the first few months you spend there. And it seems to make even less sense as time goes on. Finally, with a lot of listening and studying and soul-searching and research and observation, things begin to crystallize to some extent. Fear has a way of hijacking and manipulating our highest instincts, and so do a lot of political leaders.

    The real pity is that so little true understanding gets past the editors at places like the NYT. Most Americans still have no idea about the conditions Palestinians live under, the policies that keep them living that way, and the fact that non-violent resistance to illagal occupation and colonization is blossoming all over the Palestinian territories and all over the world.

    I hope you will continue to report what you see rather than what you think your readers and editors prefer to hear.

    I’m working on a book that’s simulataneously a travel/adventure story, a coming of age memoir, and a “Palestine for Beginners” primer called Fast Times in Palestine. Chapter One is posted here:

    http://fasttimesinpalestine.wordpress.com/2010/03/10/chapter-one

    My blog has other stories from Palestine, including a Beer Fest in a village near Ramallah, that most people never hear about, either:

    http://fasttimesinpalestine.wordpress.com/2009/10/07/beer-fest-in-palestine

    Thanks again, and best of luck.

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