The Beaten Path: The Western Wall as military parade grounds (part 2)

It’s still beautiful and moving, but recent decades have done something strange to the ‘Kotel,’ our first stop along the deconstructed tourist trail. What happens when a site is the object of both religious longing and military identity?

Read part one of The Beaten Path, ‘An introduction, or how to ruin a good story’

Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami
(By Yuval Ben-Ami)

There are so many advantages to not being a tourist. For one, I know the best way to get to Jerusalem from Tel-Aviv. Busses only reach the main terminal, which is located on the western outskirts of town and requires a further trip by the light rail. The Sherut minibuses, however, go all the way to the city center, a mere five minutes’ walk from the Old City’s ramparts and the beauty therein.

I actually hop off earlier, because, not being a tourist, I know a good little hole in the wall Mizrahi restaurant in which to stop for lunch (“Ta’ami” on Shamai st. Their menu hasn’t changed since 1957). Not being a tourist, I also know a shortcut, so within 15 minutes I make it all the way from the restaurant to the Western Wall, and walk my very full stomach through the metal detector.

From this point onwards, however, I would much rather be a tourist.

The religion of longing

It’s perfectly alright for a historical site to come with baggage. One would be hard pressed to find one that isn’t in this country. Still, I’m a little more sensitive when it comes to the Western Wall. I guess I just deeply love it. It is an authentically Jewish symbol, and I love Judaism.

I love Judaism for the same reason I love the blues. Picture the cliché of an old timer blues musician, taken to an extreme. He’s poor, he’s blind and he’s the victim of a severly racist system. His girl left him and his drinking habit won’t. What does he do with all that? He makes art, beautiful art. Here is what Judaism has been for over two millennia: a creative response to a being extremely unlucky.

There once was a religion that centered on a temple, where sacrifices were performed by priests. The last and finest of those temples was destroyed in 70 AD and left the people irrecoverably scarred. Rather than die out, the Jewish nation reinvented its practices, moving them into the synagogue and the home. The new Jewish religion focused on the very sense of grief and longing, as well as the hope for a mystical undoing of the disaster. It expressed this by poetry and prayer, and a broken glass at each wedding.

The sole and humble ruin left of the temple became an important symbol. It is not even a piece of the temple itself, but a shard of a retaining wall. Herod the Great put four such walls around the hill, in order to reshape the temple’s natural pedestal into a massive shoebox-shaped structure.

Over the years, more retaining walls came to be exposed in excavations: a southern one and an eastern one, as well as a much more vast stretch of the western one. However, none received the same degree of attention and reverence as the portion of the wall that remained visible over the centuries. It is the very modesty of the wall that made it what it is. A good blues tune has four verses and is accompanied by a single guitar.

Enter the red berets

It’s still there, and is mind blowing. The enormous stones tower over the pavement. Doves flock among bushes that have taken root among the cracks. Still, something is missing, something crucial: that modesty.

The temple may be in ruins, but it is in Israeli hands. Since June 1967 and Israel’s conquest of the city, the Wall has become an Israeli national symbol, and by extension, a military symbol.

Military symbols need square footage. Until 1967, the houses of old Jerusalem nearly reached the wall. This was the city’s “Moroccan Quarter,” home to a Muslim community. The neighborhood was knocked down to make room for an enormous plaza. I’ve never gotten a straight story about the fate of its residents, where they went or what kind of reparations they received, if any.

The plaza, a fan of white tiles that spreads out from the wall itself, is maintained by The Western Wall Heritage Foundation as a de-facto Orthodox synagogue. The area nearest the wall is split by gender, while the larger part of the plaza, to the west, is a tightly watched territory. Writing and photography are banned on the Sabbath, the men’s and ladies’ rooms are situated about 200 yards apart, and marked by multiple huge signs, to prevent confusion. For hundreds of years, the “Kotel” functioned perfectly well without any gender separation or religious policing. Those days are over.

The complex is secured by Israeli police and all visitors are screened and profiled. There is so much that’s difficult about this structure of control, especially in the disputed territory of East Jerusalem. There are the political issues, such as the closure of the area to the city’s Muslims, which creates a huge “Palestinan-free-zone” situated between the Muslim quarter and contested Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. There are the religious issues, as reflected, for example, in the struggle of progressive Jewish women to pray according to their tradition. There are countless issues, but what troubles me whenever I’m here is mostly the sun.

You see, there is no shade on the plaza, nor a single proper bench on which to sit (save for a low wall at the very back). The place is not at all hospitable to visitors, which makes one wonder: why is it so vast and what in the world is it good for?

For one thing: it is good for military ceremonies. Thousands of soldiers are brought here every year following their various training programs to solemnly swear their allegiance before the wall. The ancient wall sees more weapons than any other wall around, besides perhaps Jeruslem’s more recent famous wall – the concrete one.

A symbol of tender emotions was turned into a symbol of might. To many Jews, this is the fulfillment of an aspiration. Zionism saved the Jewish people, some would argue — but there is a cost.

The postcard project

For 2,000 years the Jewish people longed for the temple. Today I find myself today longing for the longing. No ceremony is held before me in the plaza, yet nearly everyone present is in uniform. Ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem appears to be taking an inter-holiday break; the tourists are elsewhere and no bar mitzvah drums are beating at the moment. I have arrived at the parade grounds of a military base.

I pass a rare group of civilians: a family of Orthodox Americans, and overhear the mother instruct: “Don’t go to the Arab Souk!”

The soldiers themselves are all members of the artillery corps, here on an educational excursion. A few are training to become guides themselves and take other soldiers on tours. This is only the second site they visit, the first being Independence Park in the heart of West Jerusalem.

I ask what they learned there, and am again struck by how young these soldiers are.

“The instructor said something…” one mumbles, “Hertzl met the Sultan there, no, the Kaiser, something like that.”

“That’s interesting. Did she mention the fact it used to be a Muslim cemetery?”

The soldier mumbles something that could work either as a yes or a no. I decide to let him be. The Wall is enough of a site to deconstruct in one day.

A few feet away, a tourist is shooting a group photo of about 20 soldiers, all of whom are holding up postcards. The soldiers tell me that the tourist is named Sara or Sarah, and that she presented the cards as a gift. I follow her to the next group of soldiers. She explains to them that she is a long time European traveler who is deeply fond of Israel, and particularly of the IDF.

“I asked people around the world to send me postcards addressed to you, to Israeli soldiers,” she explains. “People around the world don’t know what you are going through. They know nothing about the kind of love and mutual support that you share. You are beautiful in the heart, so don’t believe the blah blah blah the politicians say. Stand strong and be proud,” she says as she hands the postcards around.

I wait to speak to Sara and learn more about her and the project but there’s no shade and it’s getting too hot to bear. She is too engaged with the soldiers to be disturbed. I sense that she is close to tears. She is having a religious experience, and as I wait, I realize that I have just witnessed the Wall go full circle: from a place where god is worshipped to a place where the military is worshipped.

Of course, Sara is not the first to arrive here with letters. The most well-known tradition attached to the wall is that of sticking notes with prayers and wishes among the stones. Many people send notes with friends or family who are traveling here, to be folded and placed in the cracks on their behalf. There’s a certain beauty in seeing letters delivered here into human hands instead of into stone cracks, and I can’t help but ask myself: has the wall, that powerful symbol of the Jewish nation’s unrequited love for god, indeed become unnecessary? Should we stop longing? Have we arrived?

Is our destiny truly war?

Read part one of The Beaten Path, ‘An introduction, or how to ruin a good story’