MAY 24, 2018, JERUSALEM – It’s mid-afternoon on Ben Yehuda and the broiling sun cooks the cobblestones of this storied street. I stroll from the vaunted Pinati hummus den, and as I seek out a coffee shop I pause before a large group of women who stand in silence around a small jail cell. Two members of the group slip inside the creaky door, and sit on red leather seats and hold up signs.
“Agunot?” I say aloud to the woman next to me.
She nods, and keeps on staring straight ahead, and I begin to think of all the agunot in the world – or “chained women,” who have not been given a get, and are officially prohibited by Jewish law to remarry.
There seem to be signs everywhere in this city, and many of them have something to do with politics. On nearly every block, placards rise up to honor Donald Trump – who is considered a hero among most Israelis. “Trump is a friend of Zion,” the posters proclaim. Curiously, the words sit atop of the Lion of Judah, the official emblem of Jerusalem, and adjacent to a collage that brings together a merged American and Israeli flag, a map of the country that includes the West Bank, and David’s Tower in the Old City.
Like in America, everyone seems to be talking about Trump. A couple of hours later, I find myself in front of a computer where more people are praising him. I’ve tuned into the live dedication of the new US Embassy, which is being held a couple of miles from where I sit.
Robert Jeffress, an evangelical pastor who has previously told his flock that Jews are going to hell, approaches the podium. He closes his eyes and begins to preach and the scene grows more surreal. “We have separation of church and state,” I think to myself, growing nudgy and hoping that all of the talk of God will cease and the political speeches will resume. There is more praise of Israel, of Bibi, and our president. “We want to thank you for the tremendous leadership of our great president, Donald J. Trump,” Jeffress says, his eyes still closed.
I am all for the US embassy being re-located from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem but antsy about any theological references at an official US federal ceremony. Does that make me unpatriotic, and less of an American? Meanwhile Jeffress has found his footing, and keeps preaching about “our Father,” and Jerusalem. “And we pray this,” he tells us, “in the name and the spirit of the prince of peace, Jesus our Lord. Amen.”
Ivanka and Jared and Bibi and the assembled politely applaud and before I have a chance to ponder why the Embassy was dedicated in Jesus’ name, it gets even more surreal. Now there’s a split screen, with a feed from the Gaza front showing hundreds of Palestinian rioters hurtling themselves toward the black smoke on the Israeli border. The insurrection seems like a made-for-TV moment, and the commentators repeat the mantra that much of the media has accepted – that the Palestinians are rioting because of the embassy move.
I know better. As someone who has spent months reporting from United Nations refugee camps in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus and even Gaza, I know they’re rioting because they have been raised to believe that they will return to villages that have not existed in Israel since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. I wonder if the media realizes that the official name of the event is the Great Return March. I wonder if they know that the Palestinian’s insistence on creating their own Right of Return – which would bring 5 million refugees and their descendants – has been a central part of the Palestinian narrative. That narrative is taught in schools, where teachers insist that Israelis and Jews have no right to current-day Israel, and along with political and religious leaders, exhort students to riot – essentially a form of brainwashing and child abuse.
The next night I seek perspective and meet an old friend, Steve Levine, who runs an Internet radio show from his apartment in the Jerusalem hills. Levine, who grew up in Springfield and has a brother in Swampscott, played piano with Shlomo Carlebach and worked in Information Technology in New York before making aliyah years ago. These days he works as a janitor in a shul in Rahavia, and loves every second he spends in his Jerusalem.
We discuss the Gaza rioting, and war in general, in between cuts of the Grateful Dead, and the Tony Mack Band – who sound a lot like Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. “I just can’t believe that killing is still an option for man. I would have thought that it would have ended by now,” he tells me. He also suggests that I make aliyah and move to Jerusalem. “Don’t get too comfortable over there,” he says.
It’s past midnight and Steve calls a taxi. I stand outside in the warm Jerusalem night and listen. A tiny white cat darts across the road and disappears under a white car; two teenage girls speak French as they saunter into the darkness. Air conditioners hum in an electric harmony. The wind picks up and my eyes move toward a large tree that’s bathed in streetlight. It’s crooked and its parched leaves grow more wrinkled as it bends toward the sky. It is old, and I wonder how many conversations have been held in its shade.
I decide that the tree – hardly the most graceful in this old neighborhood – suggests hope. Every year it goes for months without rain and still its leaves somehow return, its branches remain sturdy. Its humility is humbling. When I get in the taxi, the driver suggests a fixed price of 50 shekels. Usually I haggle a bit, but I remember the tree and a wave of gratitude washes over me. The driver is doing me a favor, delivering me back to the other side of the city. I nod.
“OK,” he says, before driving us off into the darkness.
Steven A. Rosenberg is the editor and publisher of the Jewish Journal.