What gives Israel its buzz is that people have rubbed up against each other for nearly 3,000 years of recorded history over the land, over religion, over faith or no faith. All who visit are instantly aware of and naturally drawn into the heightened level of human drama.
At the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the holiest spot of Christendom, responsibility to open and close the door each day has rested with two Muslim families for 800 years. The church marks the spot of Jesus’s crucifixion, his burial, and resurrection. Each day the faithful come and are moved by praying over and touching the unction stone at the entrance to the church. Jewish tradition teaches that the center of creation began at the spot marked by the foundation stone for King Solomon’s temple, and the second temple; At the Western Wall of the ancient Temple Mount, Jews pray every day to the Holy of Holies, the spirit of God that will never leave that place. Jews from around the world have directed their prayers to Jerusalem and the Western Wall of the Temple Mount for centuries; and the temple will be rebuilt when the Meshiach comes to usher in a perfect dictatorship of peace and justice on earth. The Muslims, of course, are currently in possession of the Temple Mount. For them it is the place where Abraham was ordered to slay his son; it is the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven. They make a point of prohibiting Christians, Jews, and atheists from entering the Dome of the Rock or the Al Aqsa mosque.
Adrenalin pumps around the Temple Mount. Yesterday, there was a wedding and many bar mitzvahs at the Western Wall, with much fervent chanting and singing. On the Temple Mount there were several groups of women sitting in circles in the shade under trees, being lectured about the Koran. Either that, or they were plotting the revolution. It’s difficult to say. A group of men on the other end of the plaza worked themselves up to a prolonged and riotous chant of Allah’u Akbars. Israeli soldiers in riot gear lounged in the shade at the entrance, submachine guns at the ready. Less marshall looking groups of police mingled on the Temple Mount plaza. Josh asked one of them what was going on? “The Arabs, they have been restless,” said the police officer.
Today we drove along the separation wall behind East Jerusalem; someplace we should not have been.
The tensions carry across family and it touches friends.
Aaron & Elliot & Danny
Aaron Beller was born in New York City, but has lived in Jerusalem for 40 years. He straddled back to the United States a short time for work, and now lives in Tel Aviv. He’s a mathematician who made a career in map-making. Set theory and computers. He’s retired now, reading great books—currently all of Freud’s writings—and for fun he works on solving a theoretical math challenge that carries a million dollar prize. “It’s been a while since graduate school,” he says. “I’m not sure I have the skills now to solve it.”
Aaron is a middle child, first cousin with Bobbi’s mother. When he was eight years old he shared a room with his older brother Elliot. They had religious arguments. Their father, a lefty atheist, nevertheless sent his boys to Yeshiva. Why do parents do that? Is it to give the children exposure so they can make up their own mind? Or, more likely, is it some deeper connection to the religion that transcends a belief in God. Anyway, the boys did react differently to the material. Aaron took after his father. By contrast, “Elliot was an introvert,” says Aaron, “but religion allowed him to become an extrovert; he has a messianic streak.”
The boys reached an understanding early. “Elliot challenged me: if you don’t believe in God, that means there is no authority, no standards; you have to make it up yourself,” says Aaron. “I thought about this …, and I told him, I think I’m o.k. with that; I prefer it that way.” And so it’s been. Both boys obtained advanced degrees in mathematics; Elliot pursued a career in academia at Bar-Ilan University, Aaron pursued a career in applied mathematics. Elliot became Eliyahu and orthodox and has been a faithful Jew all his life; Aaron has remained firmly secular. Aaron studies mathematics in his retirement, Eliyahu studies Torah. They both live just north of Tel Aviv.
Elliot and Aaron have a younger brother, Danny. Danny became an ultra-orthodox rabbi, and has nine children. He lives with his wife Davida in Jerusalem. He goes by Avraham Dov now. The brothers all get along, yet Aaron has left Jerusalem for Tel Aviv partly to get away from orthodox fervor.
Last night we ate with friends in Beit Shemesh. Gabi Unger, a big talkative bear of a man, picked us up at our hotel and brought us to a new Italian family restaurant run by his adopted daughter and her husband in this suburb west southwest of Jerusalem. Gabi sounds like Arnold Schwartzenegger. He has enjoyed a successful career as a seed company executive, and now consults with various seed companies. “GMO seeds are yesterday’s worries,” he says. “And besides, opposition to GMO seeds only hurts the Third World, which really needs that technology.”
Gabi’s wife, Yaira, was there. She is a coach for business professionals. Her sister Nurit was there also. The two sisters are positive, and assertively secular by necessity because the religious in this country are numerous and pushy (13 percent of the Jewish population is ultra orthodox; one third of the students 18 or younger are ultra orthodox). “Beit Shemesh is on the faultline of the religious secular wars in Israel,” they explained.
There was an ugly incident in Beit Shemesh two and a half years ago, involving haredi men spitting at a small girl going to school because she was not sufficiently orthodox for them. More recently, supporters of the ultra-orthodox Shas party were caught cheating and stealing an election in Beit Shemesh.
Our dinner party was rounded out by Aron. “And who are you with?” I asked. “He is my partner,” said Nurit. There was a slight awkwardness. It turns out Nurit is a widow. Her husband died twelve years ago. “But we won’t talk about that,” she says. “We can talk about him, but let’s not talk about his death.”
Nurit’s husband was a professor and research scientist at the Nahal Sorek nuclear facility. The center conducts research in various physical sciences, particularly the development of many kinds of sensors, lasers, atmospheric research, non-destructive testing techniques, space environment, nuclear safety, medical diagnostics and nuclear medicine. It also produces various types of radiopharmaceuticals for use by health care organizations throughout the country. The couple has three sons and a daughter. One of the sons just completed his degree from Princeton in history and has been accepted by Duke. He entered with perfect scores on the SAT for math and English. All four are wonderful kids.
Josh and Pamela, our friends on this trip filled us in on the details, and on the internet we found the following report:
“Dec 2, 2001 - Prof. Baruch Singer, 51, of Gadera was killed when Palestinian gunmen opened fire on his car near the northern Gaza settlement of Elei Sinai. Professor Baruch Singer was on his way to pick up his son who is serving in the army in the Gaza Strip. Two Palestinian gunmen dressed in IDF fatigues opened fire on his car. He was wounded, but managed to call his wife and tell her about the attack. Singer also managed to call his son and said, "Terrorists shot me. They are a few meters behind me, I think they are coming to kill me." After lightly wounding Singer in the first burst of gunfire, the terrorists raced after his vehicle and shot him again, killing him. Singer's son was later involved the combat in which the two terrorists were killed. Nurit, his wife, and his children remembered how just two weeks ago they celebrated his 51st birthday. He looked so happy.”
“I was afraid that Gabi would turn hard and right, after his brother in law’s death,” said Josh. “But he didn’t.”
The faultlines run deep in this country.