Issues of law and religion have always interested CLR Student Fellow Jessica Wright 3L, particularly as they relate to the Middle East. The following is a reflection on her recent trip to Jerusalem, during which she considered the religious, legal, and political issues that continue to divide the region.
Our taxi wound around the outskirts of Jerusalem, the city unfolding slowly before us beneath the dusty haze that had lingered since our arrival two days earlier. The Berlin-esque feel of Tel Aviv with its trendy cafes, beach-front hangouts, and laissez-faire attitude seemed a distant memory as we watched Haredim in their long black coats and black hats hurrying down the streets, weaving in and out of a stream of conservatively-dressed women pushing prams. Traffic ground to a halt somewhere between the entrance to Jerusalem and our hotel near the Old City, and our driver informed us that several streets had been closed because of a mass “ultra-Orthodox” protest against the draft.
The draft protest is indicative of larger issues having to do with community and identity in the region. Israel has been called the only liberal democracy in the Middle East, but it is a democracy with an important condition, one that Prime Minister Netanyahu made clear at the White House as I began my sojourn to the Holy Land. He said the only pathway to peace begins with Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state. Of course, as the New York Times observed earlier this year, “this issue underpins all others [and] is exactly what makes it unacceptable to Palestinians. At its heart, it is a dispute over a historical narrative that each side sees as fundamental to its existence.” The question concerning what it means to describe Israel as a Jewish state is as relevant today and perhaps as vexed as it was in 1948.
The first night in Jerusalem, we found ourselves at the Old Bezalel Art School with Israeli friends. Our conversation eventually turned to the significance of the Israeli state and the importance of community. One friend argued that the land itself is significant because it allows one to experience Judaism as a public way of life. The traditional religious rituals become less important, she said, because identification with Judaism is about living in the state of Israel and being part of that community. But Israeli nationalism, it turns out, is not a wholly secular enterprise for most Israelis. Along with flying the flag, serving in the army, and speaking Hebrew, there is a religious narrative upon which identity is ultimately based. The particularities of the narrative vary widely. While sharing the same religious texts, the various Jewish communities within Israel have different histories and customs, and divergent outlooks. The tension between the communities is palpable. Secular Israelis want a modern, liberal state; religious Zionists believe in the coexistence of secularism and the dictates of the Torah; messianic Zionists see the state as a tool for bringing the Messiah; and the Haredim are devoted to isolated learning. And this is to say nothing of the narratives of modern Palestine, which are also focused on conflicts over belief, identity, and community.
These tensions are felt everywhere in Jerusalem – in conversation, on the streets, in the markets, and nowhere more than in the crowded and layered maze of the Old City. Standing inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where six ancient Christian denominations worship daily, one can hear the muezzin’s call to prayer outside. The church itself is just steps away from the Western Wall where Jews pray and celebrate, and very near the al-Aqsa mosque where Muslims gather together. Outside the walls, Israelis struggle to find commonality, to define their State, and to impress upon outsiders the importance of their identity. Inside the walls, one is able to forget those issues for a moment and revel in the diversity of belief in such close proximity.
From the Mount of Olives, one is afforded a panoramic view of the Old City with the construction of modern Jerusalem sprawling around it. Just down the road, one can look out over the West Bank, the security barrier visible in the foreground. It is nearly impossible to come away from Jerusalem without feeling its energy and passion, and without acknowledging its significance for people of many faiths. “Next year in Jerusalem,” I discovered, is about yearning for a way of life. How one defines it depends on the narratives woven by communities of believers. One may think Jerusalem should be a place where all Jews could flourish alongside Christians and Muslims. Perhaps, then, it would be more accurate to say, “Next year in utopos,” the place that can never be. Or maybe there is reason to hope that the communities of historical Palestine can live in peace. As Michael Walzer has said, “high ambition requires a long life, and Israel is a very young state.”