Sunday, February 3, 2013

King David's Sunrise

Standing on the edge of King David's City looking up towards the walled city of Jerusalem, the early morning light warmed my thinly clad body.  The cold wind atop the Mount of Olives and the shady purple chill at Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi's Church of All Nations in the Garden of Gethsemane had mercilessly indicted my jacketless indiscretion made an hour earlier in rain-soaked Tel Aviv.  "I'm going to the Dead Sea in the afternoon and I'm sure it will be warm there," I had thought to myself leaving my coat hanging warmly in the closet.  The ageless beauty of 1,000 year old olive trees provided a serene juxtaposition against the mosaic of violence so celebrated in the graphic images of separation and death that tarnish this land's legacy.  Yet the sun soaking into my black shirt seemed to welcome my arrival in this complex land.

Just to the right of the bullet riddled Zion Gate stretches the southeastern wall with three arched former gates long sealed with the white limestone that served variously to protect and divide.  Just inside, the Armenian Quarter was waking to another sunny winter morning largely shielded from the wind.  I walked along the Roman cardo watching black clad men and boys coming or going from their Shabbat celebrations while I pondered the otherwise silence of the morning.  Stone walls rose from polished stone streets.  The young guard at the entrance to the courtyard that stretches out in front of the HaKotel HaMa'aravi - the Western Wall of the rebuilt temple - embodied more calm hospitality than the sum of all the TSA agents I've encountered in U.S. airports.  A few worshippers were praying at the Wall while small groups of faithful were reading, chanting and milling about.  Calm.  Peace.  On this day, old Jerusalem seemed to conspire to quiet rest.  I wasn’t expecting anything in particular and the day rose to transcend any expectation I could have had.

I can't think of any place on the planet that has been more powerful than Jerusalem.  And this particular hill - sanctified and sacked variously in the 3,000 years since a shepherd king chose it as "the" city - seems to have within it the persistent capacity to polarize unlike any other place.  To see the scrub to the east stretching into the desert toward Jericho and the Dead Sea contrasting the verdant green on the windward side of the Judean Hills facing the Mediterranean adds to the mystery of the selection of this particular place.  If one were considering ready access to fertile soil, a few miles west would have been prudent.  If one were considering access to population-supporting water and sustainability, several more miles west would have been even better.  By placing it where it landed, David's selection makes Jerusalem an enigma.  This place of powerful civilization is wholly dependent.  Without natural fortress, means of sustenance, command of water, or ready supply of fuel, the power of this place exists solely through attribution of a consensus of humanity.  This fact was not lost on its many assailants.  If one were to pick a more besiege-able location only Las Vegas comes to mind.  From the Babylonians to the over 50 subsequent wars and destructions, the strategic value of this place is to control not the wealth of land, water, air or any physical resource.  No, the value of this place is entirely the power derived from the wealth of story-telling - the ultimate intangible asset located on the white limestone hills.  The wealth of Solomon pales at the economic, social, political and industrial catalyst formed by the power of stories borne in this land.  From the 'Holy' Roman empire through the present day, mercenaries of all forms have trafficked this real estate for economic and social spoils unrivaled in recorded history.   

A haunting paradox revisited me somewhere between the ornately gilded 11th or 12th Station of the Cross in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  The sacred fault line cracking the rock of Golgotha attributed to the earthquake that followed the crucifixion death of Jesus was quite possibly the most profound metaphor I observed during my sojourn among the ghosts of antiquarian stories.  That Constantine and the Crusaders would venerate the site where Romans executed a Jew thereby absolving their complicity and implicating the Jews is both epic and ironic.  That 2,000 years and countless bloody conflicts later this same artifact of division would still galvanize and polarize a billion people merely confirms the assertion that story-telling is the unassailable creator and destroyer of value in our species.  But lurking in the earthquake was the realization that everything that modern conflict inspires is derived not from story-telling but by the recitation of fractured, incomplete, selected stories. 

This morning's Jerusalem Post dedicated the whole of page 3 and most of page 5 to Iran.  With images ranging from the Qaher 313 stealth fighter; to a belted, padded space monkey; to Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi; to U.S. interlocutors Secretary of Defense Panetta and Vice President Biden, readers were reminded to fear and ridicule the Islamic Republic.  The page 5 headline screaming, "Iran's supreme leader: 'Set Israel on fire'", was 'news' when Ali Khamenei was reported to have said this to then Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar in 2001 but was prominently displayed 12 years later as today's news!  Fanning the flames of division is so simple when one applies selective editorial license.  A bit of ink on my Shabbat dinner north of Tel Aviv with welcoming Orthodox Jews who are prominent members of the Persian Diaspora and 'news' of Persian King Cyrus the Great's 538 BCE authorization to rebuild the Temple could lead to a recognition that We the People may benefit from the complexity of the whole story.  When thusly informed, the sound-bite political tempests that cost real lives and the fleeting wealth of nations may lose their bluster in favor of the vast sea of humanity whose voices could rise on a tide of rational discourse.

On the day I visited Jerusalem - named by the Sumerian cuneiform calligraphers meaning "founded in peace" - I experienced peace.  Visible armed security intrusion was worse in New York's Penn Station than any of the many places I wandered yesterday.  Contrary to propagandists of all forms I was as welcome in the Muslim Quarter as in the Jewish Quarter variously greeting people with 'Shalom' and 'As-Salāmu `Alaykum' and receiving warmth and welcome in return - even the one time I think I said the 'wrong' one in the 'wrong' quarter.

Have millennia of conflict left injustice enough to fill the Dead Sea to sea level with tears?  I'm sure of it.  But let's get one thing on the table.  If any of us is serious about peace in this or any other land with conflict, the foundation stone upon which that future will come will not include selective story-telling.  If the celebrated King David isn't also the human politician who had a 'sex-scandal' with a certain bathing beauty resulting in the King Solomon whose temple remains so important today, it's our loss.  If the Persia of Cyrus the Great and Khamenei cannot be seen as much for the merits of its people as for the autocracy of its self-proclaimed leaders, we're the poorer.  And if We the People fail to inform ourselves as to the past and present beneficiaries who enrich themselves exorbitantly at the expense of millions by arming the conflict they perpetuate, we are the one's who will bear on our account the tyranny done in our name for our alleged interest.

There are two tales of Israel that will stay with me.  The consummate hospitality of a generous Persian Jewish patriarch who welcomed a stranger to his home for Friday night's Shabbat dinner - complete with over-flowing food and elegant ceremony - will be one light that will burn in my memory.  The sunlight pouring across the City of David and warming me while I walked in Jerusalem's quiet streets on Saturday morning will be the other.  In time I'll see if these memories become a "greater light to rule the day…, a lesser light to rule the night," or whether I'll just remember the Lights! 

1 comment:

  1. My favorite line in this piece:

    "Contrary to propagandists of all forms I was as welcome in the Muslim Quarter as in the Jewish Quarter variously greeting people with 'Shalom' and 'As-Salāmu `Alaykum' and receiving warmth and welcome in return - even the one time I think I said the 'wrong' one in the 'wrong' quarter."

    May we all tell more of this kind of story...of the people who want to experience and *be* peace!


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave