Category Archives: Jerusalem

The Ultra-Orthodox and National Service

Israel’s Jewish ultra-Orthodox community is up in arms as government plans to extend mandatory national military take shape.

Sign stating that the enlistment of the ultra-orthodox into the Israeli national service (civil or military) will NOT happen – Mea Shearim, Jerusalem.

It’s hard to think of an experience more surreal than wandering through the bustling streets and alleyways of Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods. It’s not only a step back in time, but entering a world so entirely detached from the rest of Israeli society.

On a recent trip through the neighbourhood I came across this large protest sign denouncing the government’s attempts to introduce new legislation forcing ultra-orthodox men into national service.

One of the ways this community remains so detached from the rest of Israel is the current and long-standing exemption young ultra-orthodox men and women receive from the mandatory national military service (two years for women, three years for men), a cornerstone of Israeli society. Whilst all other young Israeli men and women are enlisted to serve in the Israeli Defence Force, ultra-orthodox men are free to enter religious schools (known as yeshivas) where they pursue a life studying the bible, forever removed from the realities of modern-day Israel.

Needless to say the ultra-orthodox, often vocal against government attempts to interfere in their religious way of life, are likely to put up quite a fight. As one of the community’s leading rabbis bluntly put it, “We must give our lives against the drafting of yeshiva students [to the army]. In an issue that belongs to the heart of Israel, there are no compromises.” (Thousands of ultra-Orthodox protest in Jerusalem against Tal Law replacement, Haaretz, 25/06/2012).

Ultra-Orthodox protest against Haredi enlistment in the IDF, Jerusalem, June 25, 2012.

Ultra-Orthodox protest against Haredi enlistment in the IDF, Jerusalem, June 25, 2012. Photo by Shiran Granot (Haartez)

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Posted by on June 26, 2012 in Jerusalem, Jewish Life


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A Summer of Discontent

In the space of a couple of days last week I attended two protests in central Jerusalem; one evening the annual gay pride parade followed a couple of days later by the even larger housing demonstration.

Yes, it’s the summer of discontent for sure.

I am not sure how much the news of these latter protests have reached the wider world but here in Israel the sights and sounds of chanting students alongside tented villages has become all-pervading.

The cause: initially it was the issue of rising housing costs that face students and young people that had protesters erecting tented villages along Tel Aviv’s main boulevard and in parks and squares in other cities. As the number of tents multiplied their grievances began to touch upon wider issues of social justice. And now a day doesn’t go past without a myriad of other single-issue demonstrations tagging themselves onto the protests. It’s not entirely surprising as Israeli society has become increasingly unequal and unfair despite its strong economy and low unemployment levels (Israel’s Economic Miracle (or is it…?). For all the bravado that successive Israeli government have put on about the state of the Israeli economy and the dynamism of its hi-tech sector it has been failed miserably in addressing the societal inequalities that have steadily built up over a generation. As is happening across Europe and North America there is a sudden realisation that the young generation today are going to be worse off than the generation before them.

No one really knows where this is going and how long it can last. The government is unlikely to cave in as none of the coalition parties have anything to gain from jumping ship and the central-left parties are still too disorganised to gain any advantage – besides elections are still a year and a half away. Then there is the spectre of a September show-down as the Palestinians push for statehood at the United Nations; not to mention the possibility of rocket attacks from Lebanon or Gaza and whatever other security threats may exist.

Life here is definitely hotting up (as is the weather)…

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Posted by on August 4, 2011 in Domestic Israeli News, Jerusalem


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Jerusalem Day: Selected Poems of Yehuda Amichai

Jerusalem is full of tired Jews,
always goaded on again for holidays, for memorial days,
like circus bears dancing on aching legs

Yesterday the city celebrated Jerusalem Day. Another Israeli national holiday that follows an already long list of holidays that run in quick succession over the course of the spring: Holocaust Memorial Day, National Memorial Day, Israeli Independence Day – each one more overtly political than then next, each ensuring that a founding element of the Zionistic narrative is entrenched into the Israeli psyche.

So yesterday the city thronged with flag-waving crowds, commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem and the establishment of Israeli control over the Old City in June 1967. Yet Jerusalem, from my eyes, still remains a divided city – Jews in the West, Arabs in the East, with a million miles seperating their worlds; there is no unified Jerusalem.

While there are plenty of blog posts out there documenting the marches and the unpleasant racist/nationalist chants (Watch: Jerusalem Day’s racist march, escorted by police), I thought I’d rather share these two poems by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai that caught my eye (thanks to @JessicaMontell) and kind of sum up the sense of history in this frustrating yet enchanting city.

Jerusalem is Full of Tired Jews

Jerusalem is full of used Jews, worn out by history,                                                                                  Jews are secondhand, slightly damaged, at bargain prices.                                                                       And the eyes yearns toward Zion all the time. And 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.

Jerusalem is full of tired Jews,                                                                                                               always goaded on again for holidays, for memorial days,                                                                             like circus bears dancing on aching legs.

What does Jerusalem need? It doesn’t need a mayor,                                                                                    it needs a ringmaster, whip in hand,                                                                                                         who can tame prophecies, train prophets to gallop                                                                                 around and around in a circle, teach its stones to line up                                                                              in a bold, risky formation for the grand finale

Later they’ll jump back down again                                                                                                                to the sound of applause and wars.

And the eye yearns toward Zion, and weeps.

Ecology of Jerusalem

The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams                                                                       like the air over industrial cities.                                                                                                                    It’s hard to breathe.

And from time to time a new shipment of history arrives                                                                             and the houses and the towers are its packing materials.
Later these are discarded and pile up in dumps.

And sometimes candles arrive instead of people,                                                                                        and then it’s quiet.                                                                                                                                 And then sometimes people come instead of candles,                                                                               and then there’s noise.

And in enclosed gardens heavy with the jasmine                                                                                   foreign consulates,                                                                                                                                     like wicked brides that have been rejected,                                                                                                  lie in wait for their moment.


Posted by on June 2, 2011 in Jerusalem


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Sights & Sounds of Easter in the Holy City

Sights & Sounds of Easter in the Holy City

On an uncharacteristically wet and windy day in Jerusalem I spent the day wandering the streets of the Old City taking in the sights and sounds of the Good Friday celebrations. Thousands of Christian pilgrims descended upon the narrow cobble-stoned streets of the Old City, many of them re-enacting the final steps of Jesus Christ as they walked the Via Dolorosa, crucifix in hand, onto the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, purportedly the site at which Jesus was crucified and buried.

Aside from the mass of pilgrims the Israeli police force was out in force to manage the throngs of people. Numerous streets were blocked off, and the police had a busy time trying to explain to pilgrims, tourists and Arab & Jewish residents alike the long detours up and down smaller side streets people would have to take to get from one part of the city to another. Aside from being caught up in the procession at one point (see photos and video below) we avoided the worst of the masses and rain showers by seeking refuge in the Austrian Hospice cafeteria and eating amazingly sweet and heavy Arabic knafeh in Jaffar’s Sweets in the Muslim Quarter.

Happy Easter / Passover to everyone

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A snippet of the Good Friday parade along the Via Dolorosa.


Posted by on April 23, 2011 in Jerusalem, Uncategorized


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In the Eye of the Storm

Every once in a while I have to pinch myself – can it really be that I am living in Jerusalem? Sometimes it can be hard to equate this city I am living in with that same mystical city that first entered my imagination back in religious study classes at school and later became perplexed  by as I became aware of its place at the epicentre of so many of the Middle East’s religious/political conundrums.


A brief trip back to the UK not so long ago coincided with onset of the Middle Eastern revolts and the downfall of Hosni Mubarak’s Egyptian own ancient regime. Whilst Jerusalem, and much of the world, remained powerless onlookers there was an undeniable fear and trepidation – “a quiet panic” – that quickly spread throughout the Israeli political and military establishment. How could and should Israel act as a stalwart of Israel’s security crumbled in front of them? With Israel’s long-term peace with Egypt (and the rest of region) up in the air yet again, journalists, politicians and experts were hauled into TV studios across Jerusalem to give their two pennies’ worth on how this will affect the most hotly contested of all conflicts. How peculiar it was to be watching events unfold on the  BBC/Sky News/Al Jazeera knowing full well that we would soon be replacing the comfortable, peaceful and predictable surroundings of English suburbia for whatever the future now holds for Jerusalem, Israel…the entire Middle East no less – fear or hope?


US author James Carroll in the Boston Globe (Caught in the eye of a political storm) conjured up an apt image of what it was like in Jerusalem those first few days post-Mubarak:

As news comes of yet intensified demonstrations in Iran, Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen, a ferocious sandstorm howls through Jerusalem, a gritty fog swirling across the most contested place of all. Weather is mere nature, yet Jerusalem seems like the tranquil eye of the larger political storm. There is tension for sure. How could the tectonic plates shifting below the entire Mideast not cause tremors here.


If Jerusalem is the still quiet eye of the Arab hurricane, it is also an eye through which to view the great dilemma: Is tumultuous Mideast revolt to be seen with fear and hope?


With this month’s storms raging on the horizon, Israelis have reason for wariness, and Palestinians are right to be impatient at promises unkept. Americans are understandably alert. Yet Jerusalem itself remains the best reason for keeping an eye not on fear, on hope.


One of the saddest things about living and seeing first-hand the realties of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (albeit only from the Israeli side) is the way it gnaws away at your once (naïve) optimism and transforms it into (realistic) pessimism. As much as you may try to normalise life here (an art Israelis have learnt to perfect), the perceived peace in Jerusalem is illusory, too easily punctuated by the brutal attacks and incitement against Israelis alongside the sustained levels of oppression and dehumanisation of the Palestinians. In such an atmosphere it can be hard to continue labelling yourself as an optimist.


So while from the outside Jerusalem does look to many like the peaceful eye of this Middle Eastern storm I can’t help but think something has to give. On the streets of Tunis and Cairo oppressed populations rose up against their own oppressive ‘normalised’ state of affairs, seemingly out of the blue – could it be happening here sometime soon? Watch this space…


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Maps of the West Bank and Jerusalem

For someone who has an endless fascination of maps, Israel offers some quite mind-boggling complex examples. Take  this map below which arrived in my inbox this morning – the latest map on the West Bank compiled by Israeli NGO, Peace Now.

The map highlights construction in the settlements and outposts and shows that there has been a considerable increase in new construction in the settlements over the last year. These new projects must be stopped if we are to have a two-state solution. (Peace Now)


The division of the land into a myriad of brown and blue/white areas  – indicating Palestinian and Israeli controlled territories respectively – goes a long way of showing how intractable the peace process has become over the years. It’s hard to imagine how a viable Palestinian state could redrawn from such a map…

Having only travelled a handful of times in the West Bank (mainly to and from the Dead Sea, Jericho or Ramallah) it’s impossible for me to grasp the realities of living in a territory divided and jumbled up in such a manner. And those times I have, holding a British passport I don’t have to worry about being denied entry at Israeli checkpoints and can cross freely into Palestinian controlled territories – something which Israel bars its citizens from doing (on security reasons).

And then the map of Jerusalem (see below) where coloured lines run through and around Jerusalem demarking the varied ways in which Jerusalem has been, is and could be divided. Of course on the ground these lines are nowhere to be seen and it’s hard to tell if where you are standing is part of internationally recognised West Jerusalem, East Jerusalem, the latest the latest illegal suburb/settlement. It’s all a bit confusing. Case in point, The Hebrew University: geographically in East Jerusalem and once part of Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem (1949-67); now, however, an essential part of Jewish Jerusalem but still technically located on the ‘wrong’ side of the pre-1967 borders (i.e. the internationally unrecognised part of Israeli-controlled Jerusalem).


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T.E. Lawrence’s Encounter with Jerusalem

The rather well worn copy of the book I borrowed from the depths of the Hebrew University library

Jerusalem was a squalid town, which every Semitic religion had made holy. Christians and Mohammedans came there on pilgrimage to the shrines of its past, and some Jews looked to it for the political future of their race. These united forces of the past and future were so strong that the city almost failed to have a present. Its people, with rare exception, were characterless as hotel servants, living on the crowd of visitors passing through. Ideals of Arab nationality were far from them, though familiarity with the difference of Christians at their moment of most poignant sentience has led the classes of Jerusalem to despise us all.

And such is T.E. Lawrence’s first entry on Jerusalem in his part travel journal/part history book, the “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” As “Lawrence of Arabia” remains to date one of my all-time favourite films I thought it only right and proper that I finally seek out the words of the famous man himself.  Sitting here at the heart of the Middle East with the desert heat from Saudi Arabia gently frying us all there really couldn’t be a better time or place to dig into this 700 page account of British military history which has, for better or worse, helped shape the Middle East as we know today.

Although the book describes events from over 90 year ago, its accounts of the Middle East and its people seem as poignant today as they did then. Take Lawrence’s description of Jerusalem (then part of Greater Syria – no Israel, no Palestine);  the idea of a city held captive by the religious and nationalist forces of the past and the future, so strong that the city “almost failed to have a present” ring true today as it did then. You can’t escape the past embedded in this city at every turn, its people, the names of geographic locations, the street signs; they all speak of a city that has forever changed hands. And the future…? Well, we all have opinions about what that should look like. Either way living in the present is not something easily achieved in Jerusalem.

I wouldn’t have expected a military man such as himself to be able enthral the reader literary flare, but his account of the region, its geography, the Arab hierarchy, the sights and smell of Bedouin life and the blood and sweat of a desert campaign are compelling and colourful as anything the film masterly portrayed. The enjoyment is only increased by having David Lean’s film imprinted in one’s mind: each desert scene is accompanied by that rousing orchestral score; Alec Guinness provides the voice and subtle intonation of Prince Feisal; each and every Arab sherif is depicted by Omar Sharif’s and Anthony Quinn’s characters; and of course Peter O’Toole’s one-of-a-kind portrayal of Lawrence is laid out for you on every page. And to take things even further the whole reading experience is enhanced when, as I was this past weekend, sitting with a view out of the desert sweating it out in the 40° heat.

I shan’t bore you any longer with my fascination with time and life of T.E.Lawrence, for now, but I am sure to write another line or two once I finally finish the book, especially if it offers any more nuggets from yesteryear’s Palestine.

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Posted by on August 9, 2010 in Israeli History, Jerusalem


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