One of the people I went with is a cultural anthropologist who lives in the Middle East, and teaches courses on Muslim-Christian interaction.
He also happens to be my father. :)
Here are some of his impressions from the time:
"Jerusalem is an interesting, intense, fascinating, exciting, sad, and distressing city.
"I visited there for the second time (the first was in winter '01) last week. A number of things stood out to me on this visit:
"These are all impressions. Jerusalem stirs up so many powerful and somewhat difficult emotions. I was reading Jimmy Carter's "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid," while on this trip, which added poignancy to the visit. I would highly recommend the book."
- There are lots of people - Muslims, Jews, and Christians - who are very serious about their religious faith and practice, and who find Jerusalem a key place to be. You see Christians carrying large crosses through the Old City, following the Via Dolorosa (way of the Cross), worshiping and praying; and you have churches and sites that claim to be places associated with Jesus, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb. You see devout Jews at the Wailing Wall, bobbing and praying. You see Muslims everywhere, and hear the call to prayer 5 times a day; and the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque are the 3rd holiest site in Islam. On the one hand, I think, wow, it's amazing that all of these people are seeking God, and of course they should be free to pursue their pursuit. On the other I think, it's awful that people are fighting and killing each other over their faith, and the conflicting claims (e.g., on particular territory, like the temple mount or the city itself) of their faith.
- You see Israeli soldiers and security, carrying guns, everywhere. You also see plainclothed people carrying automatic weapons - the settlers, who have the right to bear arms. It was rather unsettling to see the Jewish settlers walking through the Arab Old City with automatic weapons - can you imagine whites in African-American Detroit, carrying automatic weapons as they promote a white supremist ideology...?
- You see Israeli flags throughout the Old City, representing houses that have been taken and "settled" from Arabs - colonial outposts, as part of the Israeli plan to take over the Old City and drive the Arabs out. (There is a Jewish quarter in the Old City, but the settlements in the Arab quarters, both Muslim and Christian, is another matter.)
- We saw a large (hundreds) group of Israeli settlers demonstrate in the Muslim quarter. Under heavy police protection, holding back the Arabs, they sang and danced and marched around. Apparently, from what we were told, they do this 1-2x per month, and are saying pro-Jewish and anti-Arab things (the atmosphere felt to us like, "we are here, and this city is ours, and we will have it").
- Jerusalem has been cut off from the rest of the West Bank, even nearby Bethlehem (only 15 min. away). The only Arabs who currently have access to Jerusalem are those that Israel has recognized as residents of Jerusalem. Others, though their lives in the past involved regular coming and going from Jerusalem, and their families are both outside and inside of Jerusalem, are now cut off. In other words, Arabs from Ramallah or Bethlehem, or anywhere else outside of Jerusalem, cannot visit Jerusalem, even if they have family there. Among other things, this separates both Muslim and Christian Palestinians from their holy sites, on any and all occasions.
- As part of the squeezing of the (Arab) population in Jerusalem and elsewhere, there are now heavy taxes on Palestinian goods entering Jerusalem from the West Bank. This is driving up prices and hurting business. We noticed a significant increase in prices from 6 years ago.
- We visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. It's an experience. It helps you to understand the survival mentality of Israelis, and the high value placed on security. At the same time, knowing as we do the suffering of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis (stolen land, demolished houses, imprisonment, interrogation, torture, encirclement by the wall, etc.), Yad Vashem now stirs in us the sentiment, "how can people who went through what the Jews went through in Europe, do what they are doing to the Palestinians?"