Daily Dispatch 7: Saying Goodbye to the Holy Land

Photo: A phone call at the Dome of the Rock. Credit: Evan Simko-Bednarski

JERUSALEM — Before we arrived  in the Holy Land, Professor Goldman encouraged us to  travel in three capacities: As tourists, as pilgrims, and most importantly, as journalists. The  eighth and final day  of our Israel journey was emblematic of these complex identities and  afforded us a chance to reflect on our travels. It wasn’t without complications, either, as we began our day by visiting one of the most contested religious sites in the world.

Our group boarded the bus at 6:30 a.m. for the Haram al-Sharif, also called the Temple Mount,  a site of profound religious significance for Jews, Christians and Muslims. We had entered Israel through the “back door,” as our guide Ophir Yarden put it, beginning in the migrant churches of South Tel Aviv. Ending at Haram al-Sharif, he told us, was to make a grand exit through the front.

Visiting hours for tourists at Haram al-Sharif are restricted to only a short window of time in the early morning on weekdays, and it was essential that we get ourselves near the front of the line or else risk not getting in at all. While Muslims can enter the site freely, as tourists we had to enter through a police controlled gate reminiscent of airport security. Two of our number were restricted from bringing in microphones – apparently professional recording equipment is considered too inflammatory in an area that is closely monitored to ensure public order.

It is forbidden for non-Muslims to pray while in the vicinity of the dome, and we were warned to leave behind any religious objects – like the souvenir wooden cross I had bought at the bazaar in the Old City. According to Ophir, the Muslim reaction to Jewish prayer on the Mount has sparked riots in the past. Now, when Jewish groups go to the site, a policeman will often accompany and watch them to ensure that no one so much as moves their lips in prayer.

For Jews, the Dome of the Rock, which sits at the top of the Temple Mount, is the “Holy of Holies” – so sacred that the Chief Rabbinate has decreed that Jews should not enter the Temple Mount for they are lacking in ritual purity. Ophir, an observant Jew, entered the complex with us but would not approach the Dome too closely. Our classmate Rachel Benaim declined to join us past the securitized area.

Israeli Police on Sunday, March 23, with riot gear at the ready on the bridge to Haram al-Sharif/The Temple Mount. On Thursday, March 21, violent protests followed a visit to the Mount by right-wing Knesset member Moshe Feiglin. Photo: Evan Simko-Bednarski

Israeli Police on Sunday, March 23, with riot gear at the ready on the bridge to Haram al-Sharif/The Temple Mount. On Thursday, March 21, violent protests followed a visit to the Mount by right-wing Knesset member Moshe Feiglin. Photo: Evan Simko-Bednarski

Armed riot police stood in the wait as we crossed the threshold into the sprawling courtyard of the Haram. Small groups of Muslims sat in circles reading from the Quran in the quiet murmur of prayer – men with men, women with women. They seemingly paid little notice to the tourists that wandered around the complex.

We gathered for a group picture on one of the staircases leading to the Dome. We sat on the steps until Goldman implored us to get up: “Alright, now go circumambulate!”  The Golden Dome is a bright beacon of the Old City that we had observed from a distance over the past four days, but we were finally standing before it.

Given that the inside of al-Aqsa and the Dome are closed to non-Muslims, we took our time to wander and soak up the sun and relative calm of the expansive site – a respite from the otherwise dense confines of the Old City. It felt relaxed and slow at the early hour, compared with the heavy whirlwind of tourists and pilgrims that flooded our experience of other holy sites in Jerusalem. The calm was broken when an unusually loud chorus of “Allah Akbar” could be heard coming from the Western side of the complex. Our classmate Kali saw what happened – two Jews accompanied by armed police officers were shouted at by a group of Muslims in prayer, with one man angrily waving his Quran at them.

For Muslims, the al-Aqsa mosque on the Southern side of the Mount is the third holiest in Islam. Sura 17 of the Quran describes Mohammad’s miraculous night journey, in which the prophet is transported from Medina to Jerusalem on a mythical beast that he tethers to the Western Wall before ascending to heaven from the Dome of the Rock. There, he leads a prayer before an assemblage of thousands of prophets that preceded him.

In order to gain access to al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, one has to prove to an attendant guarding the door that he or she is a Muslim. This is usually done by reciting a prayer or a verse from Quran. The only member of our class to gain entry was Saman Malik, who is from Pakistan. The inside of the dome is massive and under construction, she reported. She shared with us her photos of the ornately detailed interiors. Only a handful of people were praying inside, she said.

Before we left the Haram al-Sharif, Ophir took a picture of our class as we stood on the steps just outside the Western entrance to the Mount. The group dispersed for a few hours before we would meet for our final lunch together in Jerusalem. Some of us went to the Austrian Hospice in the Old City and enjoyed the panoramic view from the rooftop. Others walked the Via Dolorosa – said to be the path where Jesus carried his cross on the march toward his own crucifixion.

When we reconvened for our final celebratory lunch, three circular tables were pushed together to accommodate the group – 14 students, our faculty team:  Yogi Trivedi, Ophir Yarden and  Gershom Gorenberg and Ari Goldman.

Overlooking the Old City. Photo Kali Kotoski

Overlooking the Old City. Photo Kali Kotoski

They each had some thoughts as our trip drew to a close. Yogi spoke about the layers of journeys we had undertaken. The first tier was a physical journey, but it was also a spiritual journey and a journalistic one. On a more fundamental level, he said ours was a journey toward becoming better individuals.

Ophir said he hoped we each had experienced what the late Krister Stendahl called “holy envy” – to see something in a religious tradition and say, “it’s not mine, but I like it, and I would like to dip in a little bit.” Indeed, our trip was riddled with such moments – a small cohort even decided to institute a weekly Shabbat when we return to New York. Ophir’s personal moment of holy envy came at the White Mosque, in Nazareth. Whereas at synagogue the tendency may be to try to find a seat with ample space on either side, he admired how men at the mosque stood shoulder to shoulder in prayer.

Professor Gorenberg shared that to travel with us was “to see the mundane and normal, even in its strangest aspects, through the eyes of those for whom it was not.” He wouldn’t have thought twice about the minefield outside the Jordan River baptismal site, he said, or the candid conversations that Jews have in between services at Yedidya, if not provoked by our questions. “Thank you for making me more of a stranger in a place I’m used to,” said Gorenberg. “It helps me explain it better to other people.”

When he took the floor, Goldman went around the table, acknowledging each of us individually by sharing a particular moment, or an impression, that was meaningful to him. He ended by telling us that when he writes letters of recommendation, there is a line reserved for those who have traveled with him to cover religion. “You get to know a student well when you’re on the road with them for ten days,” it reads. “And even with that, they’re still great.”

They were welcome words, especially because there have been moments on this trip when we haven’t been our best selves. Together over these past eight days, our group experienced the exhaustion of early wake-up calls and bus travel, sensory overload from religious sites and bazaars, and the highs and lows of reporting in a foreign land. We’ve haggled. We’ve interviewed. We’ve taken thousands of photographs. Some of us had spiritual experiences, and all of us were moved in some way by holy envy. And through it all, we have shared in the journey toward becoming better individuals. We’ve worked late nights together, supported one another, and created lasting memories. Some of those memories are chronicled in these dispatches and captured in photographs, while others which will be known only to us.

Reading the Quran at Haram Al-Sharif. Photo Kali Kotoski

Reading the Quran at Haram Al-Sharif. Photo Kali Kotoski

A final anecdote from our last day involves one of our classmates, Saman, who was the only reporter among us to be granted access the holy sites on the Haram. Saman is a Pakistani woman with a Canadian passport, a talented journalist and videographer, and a Muslim. Like many of us, this was her first trip to the Holy Land – but unlike the rest of us, she faced unique trials. She was held for questioning for three hours at Ben Gurion Airport to prove she wasn’t a threat to Israel, then grilled outside al-Aqsa mosque to prove she was, indeed, a Muslim. Saman never asked for such special attention, but rose to the challenge – including when she was unexpectedly asked to speak in front of an entire Columbia Journalism alumni reception in Jerusalem.

The reception was hosted by Yuval Elizur, Columbia Journalism class of ’54, who claims to be the first Israeli to attend the school. Elizur’s commodious apartment was crowded with alums, many of whom hold key positions in the Israeli press. Irena Choi Stern, who had just arrived in Israel for a family wedding, said a few words of welcome, as did Professor Goldman. Goldman told the gathered alums that much had changed in the J school – the dean, the curriculum, even the name of the building – but added that the students continue to be superb, like the members of the class of 2014 who were traveling with him. One of the alums, saying he didn’t want to put Saman “on the spot,” put her on the spot by asking, as a Pakistani, what her impressions were of Israel.

“I think people feel the way about Israel the way I do about Pakistan,” she said. “It’s hard to talk about, there’s a lot of love for the country, it’s complicated, and it’s complex.” Saman had a lot of practice defining her identify on this trip and was asked to do so again in that moment at the alumni reception. Though she was speaking for herself, she captured a sentiment we could all relate to.

In our conversations with alums at the party, we learned that the Israeli press is staunchly secular and often overlooks religion. It was a reminder of our unique goal of reporting on the Holy Land through the lens of religion, inextricable from politics though our stories may be. We barely touched the tip of the iceberg as tourists, as pilgrims, and as journalists. But by approaching the Holy Land as all three, we hope this publication serves to both introduce strangers to The Land, and provoke those living there to reexamine the mundane through the eyes of newcomers for whom it is strange.

Professor Goldman came along on the bus to Tel Aviv to see us off at Ben Gurion Airport. He was also our guardian when the bus was boarded by an Israeli police officer at the airport checkpoint. When asked by the officer where the members of our group came from, Goldman replied that we were journalism students hailing from the United States, from Canada, from Mexico and from India. The officer, unsmiling, sent us on our way. As soon as the bus doors closed and the officer was out of earshot, Goldman exclaimed, “oh, and I forgot Pakistan!” His timing was perfect.

Lead photo: A man looks out from the dome of the Haram al-Sharif (The Land/Evan Simko-Bednarski)

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