Last Wednesday, I took the afternoon off work to go to Glenn Beck’s Rally to Restore Courage in Jerusalem with some of my friends. I think it’s important to add a disclaimer here: I am by no means a supporter of Glenn Beck’s. I went, rather, to see what the far right that I always belittle is like in reality because, truth be told, I don’t know any extremist right-wing individuals. I do have a number of religious and conservative friends – of all three Abrahamic faiths – but for the most part they tend to be liberal in their views of humanity and their treatment of people.
That being said, the most interesting aspect of the event was its atmosphere, not the speeches or Beck himself. We were unable to get seats where Glenn Beck was actually speaking, at the Davidson Center, because tickets there had to be purchased (some went for as much as $5000). So instead, we arrived early at the viewing center in Safra Square with one extremely reluctant friend in tow (“I don’t want to contribute to the numbers there! Then, I feel that I’m contributing to the success of the rally!”). What was being said was not exciting, in fact, I couldn’t even bother to tune in to the details of Beck’s speech himself. However, before the event began there were interviews with a number of people who were attending and what they said was deeply upsetting. The crowd around me cheered when people made statements such as “there are only two sides here, and we choose to stand with good instead of evil, we choose to stand with Israel” and booing when someone mentioned Obama’s call to return to the 1967 borders. Two of my friends in attendance were so upset they left after about 45 minutes, I stayed a little longer and then, fed up, went with another friend in the hope of finding the opposition protest. Which we didn’t find.
However, the day wasn’t wasted. Jerusalem is, I keep saying, a magical place. There is always something new to see, something you haven’t stumbled upon before. My friend and I, in the search for the opposition protest, ended up in a pretty much exclusively Arab area where there were no other foreigners, right outside the al Aqsa compound (there are a few entrances, but tourists can only use one, by the Western Wall). Of course, we weren’t allowed in by the Israeli security, so we kept on walking and ended up in front of a door above which”Birth place of the Virgin Mary” was painted. We stepped in and a young boy unlocked the entrance to a cave for us which we stooped to enter. I love caves, there’s something serene and beautiful about them. We didn’t visit the little church/shrine area that was being cleaned, upstairs, just walked through the various caverns/rooms below the ground. There wasn’t much to see, to be honest, but somehow there was something about it that was so magnificent. Maybe it’s just because I absolutely adore religious history.
We continued to walk through the crowded, lit up and decorated (for Ramadan) streets of the Old City towards the Western Wall, where we were to meet with the two friends who had left the rally early. At the wall, there was a graduation ceremony for foreigners who “volunteer” (they pay to do so) in the Israeli army. As always, still unused to the presence of soldiers and big guns (I refuse to become accustomed to it) I snapped photo after photo of the graduating soldiers. We then headed together to Abu Shukri, which supposedly makes the best hummus in the Old City (and some say in the world) and waited in a large crowd – once again, we were the only non-Arabs present – for hummus and falafel in a takeaway bucket (right before iftar it’s impossible to sit and eat there) to eat on the roof of the Austrian Hospice while watching the sun set over the Old City. The hummus was good, but a little too citrus-y for me. The falafel was the best I’ve had in my life.
My friends, exhausted, then decided to go home, I sat at the Jaffa Gates on the parapets watching the night around me and waiting for some friends from Tel Aviv to arrive. At about 9, I decided to do my own thing in the meantime and went to meet my friend in the Old City who was opening his shop, and we had a little chat. He told me that he had tried to go pray at al-Aqsa and that, though he is a Jerusalem resident of the Old City, his entry was refused by the Israeli soldiers because they were letting only men and women over the age of 50 enter to pray. Two days later, this article in Haaretz appeared stating that many people were denied entry on Friday, the last Friday of Ramadan, and were in fact stopped at Qalandia – resulting in minor clashes. The number of people at al-Aqsa for Friday prayers this year was half the usual amount. This refusal also shows clearly that the statement made at Beck’s rally that Jerusalem is now open to all faiths to worship equally is blatantly untrue. The Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa complex may be run by a Muslim body, but rights of access to the complex are controlled entirely by Israel.
I also bumped into a Palestinian American man I had met a few weeks earlier near the cafe he works at and sat down for a chat with him. It was great fun, and we had a very interesting discussion about perceptions of women – both foreign and local – within the Arab community in the Old City. He reaffirmed that my behaviour – stating that I’m married within the first 10 minutes of conversation, dressing appropriately and keeping my distance and not touching men, even in a friendly manner – is the right way to set a solid barrier and make it clear that friendship is the only thing I’m interested in. It was a relief to hear, because I had begun worrying that perhaps I was being paranoid and behaving unnecessarily, but he said “no… what you’re doing, it just makes it easier for everyone.” Don’t be mistaken – as many have – that I condone harassment for women who don’t dress appropriately, I don’t. No woman should be touched or made to feel uncomfortable. However, it is equally important that we foreign women be respectful and behave in accordance with what is appropriate according to the traditions of any place we go to, both for our own comfort and for the comfort of those we engage with. For myself, I’m not just a tourist visiting Jerusalem once, I go back again and again, I interact with the people there and I want to feel comfortable and be able to engage – as a friend – with the inhabitants of the city. For that reason, I find it easiest to make it clear what my limits are and what kind of person I am in both explicit (stating I am married) and implicit (the way I dress and interact) ways, and from there a genuine friendship can develop.
Finally, at 10:30pm, I fought through the crowds and made my way out of Damascus Gate. I must say, it’s incredible. I was alone, the only foreigner in East Jerusalem, at night, and not for one moment did I feel in danger. Harassment was limited to some people shouting “Hello!” from cars and a couple of hisses and whistles, but no inappropriate comments or touching – which I know are to be expected in places like Morocco or Egypt – and everyone, as always, was so friendly. In fact, while I stood, looking bewildered and completely out of place, on the street waiting for my friends to pick me up, the only person who approached me asked me if I was lost and okay. I then headed with my friends to some bars in the West and to a completely different part of the city, though equally beautiful.
This is why I love Jerusalem. Because all of the city (not the municipal area) is so beautiful, because it’s easy to move from East to West, from Israeli to Arab, and in the middle of it all, in the Old City, to see the mixing and coming together of three of the world’s great religions. The other part is that everything there feels special. From the East to the Old City to the West. There is something so very special about being in Jerusalem. I think it is my favourite place in the world.