Written by Marlin Vis
Friday is the day of the week when everyone is most on edge. It is the Muslim “day of prayer,” and in the evening, the beginning of Sabbath (Shabbat), the Jewish holy day. Primarily, given that Christians make up only about 1.5% of the population, Sunday is simply the first day of the week.
This Friday I walked through the Old City, from Damascus Gate, East Jerusalem, to the City of David, on the Southeast edge of East Jerusalem (It’s confusing, trust me!). Damascus Gate is, along with Jaffa gate on the West, the most active gate in the city, especially for Muslims. Hundreds make their way to the “Holy Sanctuary,” home to Al Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the Temple Mount for Jewish people.
I walk in the midst of them, men, women, and children, past the doubled Israeli guards at the top and bottom of the gate entrance. Most of the shops on the way are closed until after 1 pm, the end of prayers. We walk past beggars lined along the crowded street. There is a man with a stub below the knee, wrapped in light brown elastic wrap. Then there is a woman holding in her lap a child that is clearly severely disabled. Next an older woman dressed in a dirty, black robe with a green headscarf is sitting cross-legged with hand out. There is a woman I recognize sitting along the way. I remember a conversation with her years ago. She is a widow, she said, from Bethlehem. I stopped to put 10 shekels in her hand. She blesses me in the name of “the Messiah,” she remembers me, believe it or not, and she knows I’m a Christian. Each of the beggars, I hate that term, but can’t come up with anything clearer, has his/her hand out and is chanting, “Allah Kareem!” God is generous! The sense is, I think, God has been generous to you, so you should be generous to us. Actually pretty good Calvinism.
The Israeli military presence is overwhelming. They are grouped at every intersection along the way. They are all older than other days. These are the professional men and women, those who have literally been through the wars. They are vigilant, guns up in ready position, trigger fingers along side the trigger guard. The Muslims pay them little or no attention, no stares or glares, no conversation with them, no greetings, no nods; simply walk on by chatting and laughing as they go on to their prayers. The soldiers’ eyes dart, mouths in a grimace, alert, aware, and tense. Once in a while they stop a young man and check his ID papers, but this is not hostile, just routine for all.
What to make of this? It’s hard to say, really. Is this normal for the people here? Yes. They live together with the boundaries clearly defined. But they do live together. One has the power of guns, the other the power of … what? Nobody is without power! So what power do the ones without the power of guns have? I don’t know for sure, but maybe they have the power of not having the power of guns. I expect that is naïve and an oversimplification, but I’d like us to at least consider this as a part of the status quo equation. The Israelis carry the stress of having to continually control the Palestinian population. They do so in many, many ways, but primarily it is through the power of military might, superior physical strength, much the way a man might control a woman. Having your boot on someone’s neck must seem like the preferred position, but think of having to keep it there Friday after Friday, week after week, year after year. That boot gets heavy for each participant. But the one on the bottom does not have the responsibility of control. They can actually relax. But the one on top has to keep the pressure on, all the time. That can’t be good for your sense of worth as a person or a people. That has to wear you down a bit, especially given the fact that you as a people know exactly how it feels to be the one pressed down.
One day, I believe there will be a new normal. And that day will come when the one wearing the boot decides it is not good to be in this position. They will initiate the change, and only then will change come.