Jerusalem is not a happy place.
Too many people lay claim to the real estate. The Old City, the Jerusalem to
which I refer, is very small, a mere square mile in size. It is enclosed by ancient walls,
some pre-dating Roman times. In one you can clearly see the gate, now bricked up,
through which Jesus passed on his final fatal visit.
The Old City is filled with sites so sacred that millions would die for them. The
most prominent is the Dome of the Rock whose name describes it perfectly. From the
surrounding hills the eye is irresistably drawn to the giant gold beehive sitting atop the
highest part of the Old City. Twice there were temples on the site that were
even more glorious but the Dome is there now and the temples are not.
3000 years ago King David made Jerusalem (population around 13,000) the
capital of Israel. A millennium later the Roman Empire gobbled it up but found it stuck in
its craw. When that Empire fell, the Byzantine Empire filled the vacuum, followed by the
Arabs and Islam. Their hold on the Old City was periodically wrenched away by
European Christians, but it was primarily theirs until 1948.
In 1948 the United Nations declared Israel a state and divided Jerusalem in two.
Half, including the Dome of the Rock, where the prophet Mohammed is believed by
Muslims to have ascended to heaven, belonged to Jordanian Palestinians. The other
half, not including the Temple Mount or the West or Wailing Wall, was designated Israeli.
Then, in 1969, the Arab States of Syria and Egypt attacked. In two days the Israelis
had turned the holy war into a humiliating rout. On the third and last day King Hussein of
Jordon committed his troops to the Arab cause and in 24 hours lost the West Bank and
his part of Jerusalem.
So here's the approximate scorecard: "Pagan," including Roman Jerusalem -
543 years. Jewish and Israeli Jerusalem - 460 years. Christian Jerusalem - 427 years.
Arab Jerusalem - 1193 years. And they're all still there.
One day I was there too. It was late afternoon and I had managed to escape the
group that had obediantly followed a tour guide from obligatory sight to obligatory sight.
I had enjoyed being shown the Way of the Cross, the ruins of David's kingdom and the
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but I knew that it was possible to walk on top of the
ramparts that enclosed the Old City and I wanted to do it alone. At the West Wall the
Israelis had torn down the Arab houses that crowded close, leaving a broad open area
that was filled with tourists and worshippers. One of these had cursed me when I
declined to contribute to the cause for which he was soliciting funds.
As the group ranged along the ancient stones that towered above our heads, I
walked back to the houses left standing after the war and turned into a narrow
street. At the end was a gate I had noticed earlier. It was attached to a tall fence of closely
spaced iron bars and led to stairs that climbed to the top of the wall. Now, late in the
afternoon, it was closed and locked. So I looked for a place to climb over.
The fence ran near the backs of houses that paralleled the ramparts. I walked
along it, away from the street of shops, and was soon alone, or so I thought. Suddenly a
young man appeared on the other side of the fence. Seeing what I was up to, he
beckoned me forward, leading me to a place where the bars had been pried apart
just wide enough for me and the camera that was swinging from my neck to
The boy, whose age could actually have been anywhere from 16 to 25, hadn't
spoken to me but he smiled and waved for me to follow him. He seemed friendly and my
tendency is to assume the odds are in my favor so when he climbed a stairway of mellow
old stone I was close behind. The steps ended at a platform within a low wall from which
there were views on the outside to the hills and inside to the Old City. Lounging with their
backs against the wall were six or eight more young men eyeing me with interest. I knew
I was in trouble.
So I set out to become their friend. Starting with my host, I shook their hands,
introduced myself, told them I was from New York City and asked them where they lived.
Soon we were calling each other by our first names. They were duly impressed with my
home town, I was genuinely interested in theirs. From a threatening gang of Arab
youths they had become a group of nice kids, beaming and enthusiastic. Even, if I
stretched it a bit, wholesome.
After 10 or 15 minutes, when it seemed the time was right, I said, okay, I've got to .
go. I did another round of handshaking, made my goodbyes, and started down the stairs.
I hadn't gotten far when I heard a voice calling my name, "Bob, Bob, Bob!" Assuming it
was a joke I took a couple more steps and answered, "What, what, what?" Then I turned
and found myself staring into the barrel of a very large gun.
If anyone had ever asked me what to do in a situation like this I would have
answered without hesitation, "Give them whatever they want." Instead I was filled with
disgust. There directly in front of me was the boy whose hand I had shaken, who had
told me where he lived with his mother and father, whose greatest wish was to see New
York, and he was pointing a gun at my chest. Was that any way to treat a friend?
So with a deep feeling of disappointment I looked him in the eyes, said, "Yeah,
right," turned and walked away. When I got to the place where the bars had been bent
open, I squeezed through and glanced back at the stairs. Noone was there.
But something else happened as I walked away, something very strange. I
could feel, really feel, a sensation in my back where I imagined the bullet would hit me if
he pulled the trigger. And I thought, "My God, they're right. You really can feel the place
where you think you're going to be shot."
A few months after I came home the itch began. It's located midway between my
shoulder blades and it starts for no reason at all. I've asked others to look for something
on my skin but they can't see anything. Neither could I when I stood with my back to the
bathroom mirror and tried to get the angle of a hand mirror just right. Nor could the
doctor when in desparation I scheduled an examination. It was nothing, he said.
There was no bump, no discoloration, no redness. There was no reason for the
feeling at all, he told me.
"Yeah," I said. "Right."