Conflict and confusion

Whoever gave Jerusalem its name must have been a prophet with a devastatingly ironic sense of humor. Jerusalem means “city of peace,” but for thousands of years, it has been an epicenter of conflict and devastation. Today, Palestinians and Israelis both want Jerusalem to be the capital of two respective nations. In part, that’s because the city is also an epicenter of faith, sacred to the three Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. According to tradition, it’s the place where King David brought the Ark, where Jesus was crucified and where Muhammad ascended during his Night Journey. These stories are incredibly powerful, but they’re also disorienting. In Jerusalem, one narrative doesn’t invalidate another – they exist dialectically. So warned Cantor Bob [Scherr] at the beginning of this year’s Winter Study trip when he turned to the 10 of us and said, “The goal of this course is to maximize confusion.”

It’s a maddening place. It gets under your skin. You try to say, “Stop, no more!” but it just serves you up another spoonful of contradictions. It’s beautiful and filthy, sacred and profane. The stakes are at once deeply arresting and blatantly petty. A part of you wants to reject it all as nonsense, while another part is mesmerized. For 10 days, we lived in a French convent in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. We climbed hills. We spoke to people from every possible viewpoint, from Jewish settlers to members of the Palestine Liberation Organization. We ate falafel and hummus until our sides almost burst. It was horrible and wonderful, and all our heads were spinning.

But in the midst of the confusion, something shone. We met with parents from the Bereaved Families Forum, a group of people who have lost children in the conflict. A Palestinian woman and an Israeli man spoke to us about how they were like brother and sister because they shared the same pain. “If we who have lost the most are willing to live together in peace, why can’t everyone else?” they said. They offered a message of reconciliation and hope, not the hope of everyone loving each other but one of fundamental decency and respect.

In Jerusalem, no one hesitates to tell you what he or she thinks. The gloves are off. People feel a connection to the land and their ancestors that stretches back thousands of years – and they make sure you know it. The poet Yehuda Amichai writes that in Jerusalem, “all the eyes of the living and the dead are cracked like eggs on the rim of the bowl, to make the city puff up rich and fat.” Questions of identity, whether religious, cultural or nationalistic are always front and center, and political issues matter. They’re relevant because they affect every day life in palpable ways. Beneath the bravado and posturing, everyone’s simply afraid that his or her way of life and beliefs are being threatened. It’s not always pleasant in Jerusalem, but at least it’s honest.
So in the midst of the confusion, I learned that it’s okay to be angry, and it’s okay to turn to a friend and say, “You know what, I don’t agree with you.” I felt more comfortable doing that in Jerusalem than I do at Williams. I don’t know why on our campus it feels taboo. As we have yet to sustain a meaningful, intelligent, nuanced dialogue about the issues most pressing to our community – racism, sexism, homophobia, classism – I can’t help but wonder what we are afraid of. When people refer to the purple bubble, I used to think of this giant bubble around the mountains, isolating us from the rest of the world. Maybe I’m just riding the effervescent wave of optimism from the Egyptian Revolution, but I don’t think that kind of bubble exists. The real bubble seems to be the small bubble around each of us that cushions us from each other. If we were able to let all of that go, sure, it would be uncomfortable. But maybe the honest “confusion” produced would be preferable to the illusion of “fine.”