Diana Tenenbaum is a participant on the Masa Israel Teaching Fellows (MITF) program in Jerusalem. Here are her reflections on Jerusalem
Jerusalem is a city of contradictions, and that is an understatement if I have ever uttered one. I cannot tell if it is because I have only been here for five months that I am so aware of this. Perhaps the feeling will recede in time, as my psyche slowly begins to absorb and ignore the underlying tensions that infuse this city. Or perhaps the feeling will simply escalate as my time here continues. Perhaps I will steadily uncover even more layers of conflict and disconnection.
They certainly didn’t warn me about this on my Birthright trip.
Maybe in no other place is the Israeli – Palestinian conflict felt in precisely the same way that it is in Jerusalem, this city that is holy to so many and yet blood-soaked in many ways. It is a very unscientific way to classify it, but for me, all of the facts and information boil down to an undeniable feeling of cracks. That is the best way I can think to describe it. Around the city, the fabric of reality -of the past battles, of the strained here and now, of the insecure future – seems damaged by these cracks. They are sharp, created by prejudice and division and mistrust. They are spawned by these poisons, and they leak them back into the city. Perhaps I have always had a melodramatic flair, but it makes it feel very hard for me to breathe at times.
Honestly, sometimes I want to leave. I want to get away from it all and go home, though I never thought I’d miss American culture and politics. But I have realized that somehow the divisions in American society feel less hate-filled. Less sharp. Less hopeless. I feel a lot more hope and possibility for fixing the cracks in American society. Here, the poison feels chronic and complex and terminal.
History has shown that I am perhaps both very right and very wrong about that last sentence. On one hand, how can it be terminal? This land and its people – Jewish, Muslim, and Christian – have continued on for centuries without reaching any final, awful conclusion. Yet, chronic – yes, history shows that this poison is also indisputably chronic. This is evident through the repetitious stream of prejudice, violence, and war that has permeated this land since the very beginning, and with no end in sight. More than once, I have wondered why God chose to make the holiest of His land also the place where humanity engages in its most inhumane and ungodly acts. Or perhaps the true question is how humanity has managed to take God’s ordained holiest land and pervert it with so much hatred and blood.
I think that there must be answers to these questions here; yet after nearly 5 months, I have mostly only succeeded in finding more questions.
Yet simultaneously, I am constantly in awe of Jerusalem. Often, unbidden, the thought floats across my mind: Oh, how I will miss this place when I leave. This is usually followed by the question How is it possible to feel so critical of a place and love it fiercely at the same time?
I come from New York, from the suburbs right outside of New York City. I have shared subway cars with people from dozens of walks of life, brushed shoulders with them in Times Square as languages from all over the world filled my ears. Do not misunderstand me—I recognize that New York is by no means a utopia of acceptance, completely free of prejudice. There is de facto segregation, crime, violence, and discrimination. And yet, there is open-mindedness as well. Diversity. Coexistence and connection across cultural and ethnic borders. A prevailing attitude of live and let live that is simply often lacking in Jerusalem. I am not saying it doesn’t exist, but you have to look for it, peek within the cracks of the Old City cobblestones, strain your eyes, and pray for it.
And yet, I have so many reasons to hope for this city. The first week I went to my reform shul for Shabbat services, there were Jews, Muslims, and Mormons there, and we all sang psalms of peace together. Organizations like BINA, Kids4Peace, Tag Meir, and many more help bridge gaps between peoples and make positive change. These efforts exist, and I believe they make a difference.
I must mention that perhaps above all else, it is impossible for me to gaze at the Old City and not feel a deep, resounding sense of love and belonging inside my very bones. My gaze sweeps across the skyline and strips away layers with every look. What is underneath me, and what is underneath that, and what is underneath that – and what will this street that I am presently standing on be underneath in another 500 years? Nothing is permanent, and yet we are all still here. All of us. Is that not miraculous and complicated and precarious and beautiful?
Yes. Yes, it is all of those things and so many more. But that is not simply a fact or a reassurance or a marvel. It is also a burden and a duty. Like wings, it should have weight on our backs. What will the subsequent narratives be?
The answer is simple: they will be whatever we create them to be.
In spite of everything, I love this city and have not once regretted any moment of my time here. And so, whether I am walking across one quarter of the Old City to another or simply riding a bus through modern streets to get to work, I find myself hoping: I hope we wage fewer wars. I hope we decide to pick up pens rather than bombs. I hope our gazes can sweep the skyline of the Old City – vital to so many of us for so many reasons – and decide that we are sick of conflict, weary of hatred, and disillusioned with disunity. I have learned that it is not so simple. And yet, in many ways, I still believe that it is.
Sometimes, living here, peace seems like an impossible, immovable mountain. But if I have come to any conclusions from living in Jerusalem for five months, it is this: It is our responsibility – and it is well within our capability, in ways both large and small – to move this mountain.
And sometimes, when I ride the bus, I watch as all of our bodies sway, jolted into involuntary – and often uncomfortable – movements by forces that seem greater than what we can control from our individual seats. And yet, sometimes, I think that these movements look like we are all dancing to the same song.