City of Many
01 April 2006

Jerusalem is a city with many layers: the Roman occupation, the Christian Crusades, the Arab Caliphates, the Ottoman Empire and the British mandate.

FROM JESSICA FLEISCHER IN JERUSALEM
Centre of Judaism since 1003 BCE, place where Jesus lived, preached, died and was resurrected and from which the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven-Jerusalem has been occupied, fought over and governed by many faiths; conquered, destroyed, transformed, separated, reunited, established and abandoned. It is holy to three of the world's main religions, has more than 14 names and it is claimed as capital by more than one nation.


Age and mystery
As I walk through one of the 12 gates to Jerusalem's Old City I enter a place of mystery and antiquity. According to Jewish tradition, Abraham's ancestors founded it over 4,500 years ago. It is a city with many layers: the Roman occupation, the Christian Crusades, the Arab Caliphates, the Ottoman Empire and the British mandate.

All this history makes me feel small. It brings back one of the most beautiful Hebrew songs, which I was taught as a Jewish schoolchild in Mexico:

Yerushalayim shel zahav (Jerusalem of Gold).
Oh, Jerusalem of gold,
and of light and of bronze,
I am the lute for all your songs...
I am the least of all your children,
Of all the poets born.


Not just a wall?
Three great holy sites-the Western Wall, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre-can all be found within one square kilometre. The Western Wall (also called the 'Wailing Wall') is what is left of the Jewish Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. It is holy to Jewish people because it is the closest site to the Holy of Holies where the two tablets of the Ten Commandments were kept. Each year millions of people come to touch the Wall and place their prayers, on small pieces of paper, into its cracks.

As I put my prayer in the Wall, I wondered if the paper I left eight years ago was still there. I felt moved by emotions, which I cannot put into words.

Lost utopia?
Since 1909, Israel's kibbutzim (collective communities) have helped to form the country. Many people see them as the only genuine form of communism, where inhabitants share everything and practise the principle of 'from each according to hhis ability, to each accordin to his need'. But their ideology has been evolving, and nowadays it is more a case of 'from each according to his preference, to each according to his need'.

Private income, DVD players and Internet access have all pulled the kibbutzim towards capitalism. Some kibbutzim even appear on the NASDAQ Stock Exchange.

Uncertain
Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has not been particularly known for being a peaceful country. When I visited in January, the country seemed to be holding its breath as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lay in hospital, and elections took place in the Palestinian territories.

The Sixth Herzlyia Conference on Israel's national security took place a few days before the Palestinian elections were announced. Issues like democracy, options for the Israeli- Arab peace process, social policy and economic growth were on the table. The Acting Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, said: 'The existence of two nations, one Jewish and one Palestinian, is the full solution to all the national aspirations and problems of each of the peoples.' A couple of days later the radical Islamic movement Hammas won the Palestinian elections. The same question arises for Israel and for the world: Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

As I write, the Israeli elections at the end of March are in sight. Will they bring any answers or even more questions?

Restless
When I was 18, I lived in Israel for almost eight months and experienced life in a kibbutz, in the army and in Tel Aviv. This time I went on holiday, intending to rest after my exams. But there is something about the country that is restless. I felt drained by experiencing the fear and pain of the Israelis and by trying to imagine the fear and pain of the Palestinians. I couldn't help feeling that all the explanations that I've heard from both sides are not excuse enough for what is happening.


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