Jerusalem: How Religion Complicates Things

Today is my final day in Jerusalem, a city like no other on earth.  In the past four days, three of them have been holidays.  Friday was Shabbat, and Sunday evening to Monday evening was Yom HaZikoran, Israel’s Remembrance or Memorial Day when Israelis remember their fallen soldiers and the victims of terrorism.

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More than 23, 000 soldiers have died in the short history of the modern Jewish state.

Immediately after Memorial Day ends, Independence Day begins, a celebration of the birth of Israel in May 1948.  Last night I stood on my balcony to watch the fireworks display.  Independence Day will end today at sundown. 

On Memorial Day, I got to see a prime example of how religion complicates things in this ancient city.  I  went to the Mt. Zion area just outside the city walls to visit the Tomb of King David and the Cenaculum, or Upper Room, where Jesus observed the Passover meal with his disciples the night before his crucifixion. 

The Tomb of King David was not difficult to find.  A bronze statue of the king stands not far from the entrance  to
the shrine.

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The shrine occupies the lower floor of a 14th century Crusader-era building.  The Ottoman Turks took possession of the building in the 16th century and turned it into a mosque.  Since the 1967 War, the building has been in Israel’s hands.

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The shrine is gender-segregated so that Jews can pray before the king’s draped coffin if they wish.

When it was time to go up to the floor immediately above, the Upper Room, I was informed that it was closed due to renovations underway for the upcoming visit of Pope  Francis May 24-26.  What a disappointment!  And why did it have to be specially renovated for the Pope?  This closure underscored for me the Vatican’s long  and intense campaign to be granted sole sovereignty of the Upper Room.  The Vatican would like to turn the room into a place where Catholic pilgrims can celebrate the Catholic Mass.  So far, the only Catholic to celebrate Mass there was Pope John Paul II during his visit to Israel in 2000.&nbsp.

As one can imagine, many Israelis do not want the building which houses David’s Tomb to be given to a foreign authority.  And what about Christians other than Catholics?  Why should they not also have the privilege of taking Communion in the Upper Room?

I hope Israelis will stand firm and keep the building, both floors, as their purview.  The irony to all this is that experts question whether this building is really the site of both King David’s Tomb and the Upper Room.  In this part of the world, that doesn’t seem to matter. 

And so, this is what the Upper Room loks like from the outside.

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Images from Israel

This is my sixth day in Israel now.  Today is Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, a good time to reflect on what I have seen and experienced so far.  Three things in particular stand out in my mind. 

My flight from Frankfurt landed me at Ben Gurion airport outside Tel Aviv in the early hours of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  At 10 a.m. that morning, a siren began to wail.  All the cars on the busy street in front of my hotel stopped promptly, their drivers got out and stood motionless, heads bowed, for two minutes.  Pedestrians on the sidewalks stopped as well.  I knew that people throughout the length and breadth of Israel were performing the same rite at that very moment in time.  I stood at the hotel window, hoping the people on the street below  would regard me as a fellow participant, and not merely as a gawking tourist.  How does one even begin to remember adequately the staggering loss of six million innocent victims at the hands of the Nazis? 

Another particularly poignant moment for me was the visit in Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives.  The gnarled olive trees I saw were the same ones under which Jesus prayed and agonized over his coming betrayal and death. 

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It is thought that the gnarled olive trees even predate Jesus’ time.

On my way from the Old City to the Mount of Olives, I had passed the only one of the seven gates into Jerusalem that is closed up:  the Golden Gate.

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In 1517 when Suleiman the Magnificent rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem (the walls one sees today), he deliberately closed up the eastern gate to Jerusalem, the gate now known as the Golden Gate.  He had heard rumours that the Jewish Messiah would enter Jerusalem through the eastern gate.  He summoned the rabbis who confirmed this.  To prevent this ever happening, Suleiman sealed up the gate and established a Moslem cemetery in front of the gate, believing no Jewish messiah would ever pass across Muslim graves.  Too late, Christians would say!  The Messiah has come.

There is so much to see and experience in Israel.  The Jewish  Sabbath provides welcome respite from the flurry of sightseeing, however enjoyable that might be.