From Byword- India Today (January 20)
The most complex word to explain is surely normalcy. The standards of 7,000 years flutter over the beautifully-lit battlements of Jerusalem. The sun sinks; the temperature plummets; the decibels fade: it has become a city of silence. The living trip warily around the dead, who are exalted in prophets' tombs, or massed in graveyards, or echo within memory and prejudice in competitive, combative narratives.
Jerusalem is the theatre of the final judgment for Jews, who will either descend to gehenna (Arabic: jahannum) down the hill, or pass through God's gate of mercy above. Christians lament the betrayal of their saviour, Jesus, not merely by Judas, whose guilt drove him to suicide, but also by Peter, who choked whatever anguish he may have felt. They mourn the crucifixion and celebrate resurrection. Muslims glory in the ascension of Prophet Muhammad to heaven from the rock on the mount at the spot where Solomon built his great temple.
If faith was not enough, Jewish' Crusader and Arab empires have left their mark on stone. Dinner conversation creeps through the intricacies of claim and survival, possession and legitimacy, construction and decay, before it gets lost in the labyrinths of ultra orthodoxy, Salafist exclusion, aggression, response and the diminishing core of secular liberalism.
Fear, pride, bitterness and the excitable phantoms of suspicion hammer away at Jerusalem's humanists. Time has not been kind; it has created new barriers in the city famous for walls. Today's divisions, marked in cement and electricity, cut through emotions like frozen laser beams. Sunrise through a red haze over east Jerusalem brings light, but not much clarity. The horizon is lost in the Judean desert, among the Jordan hills, battlefields of a war in all its creative facets.
Within the city, a turn of a street defines the difference between the first world and third. But the first is not always a modern world. The last time I saw the Wailing Wall of the Temple, devotees mingled; this time they were separated by gender, testimony to the rising grip of ultra orthodox Jews upon the holy city. Their numbers have been estimated at some 2,40,000 in a population of 7,00,000; roughly the same number consider themselves secular Jews. The rest are largely, but not solely, Muslim Palestinians. They live in Jerusalem because they are determined never to leave. They do not, however, participate, awaiting instead another tide to shift the destiny of unborn children. A century is a mere page in a long history.
Palestinians lost their part of Jerusalem in the 1967 war. Since then, the defeated have been in search of alibis and victors have been in search of peace. If the first is delusion, then the second is destabilising. Attrition debilitates one tiny nerve a day, but eventually it leaves both sides unnerved.
Israel might be able to deal with Palestine, but how long can it deal with the world? It can't build electronic walls against London and Paris. I picked up Haaretz, Israel's leading newspaper, established in 1919, just after the Balfour Declaration that set the stage for the creation of Israel in November 1948, on Tuesday, January 17, for breakfast reading. Here is a mix of the day's news. In London, Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg condemned Israeli settlements on Palestinians' land as "deliberate vandalism". In Paris the Foreign Affairs Committee of Parliament had published a report accusing Israel of using water as "a weapon serving the new apartheid". 450,000 Israeli settlers, it pointed out, used more water than 2.4 million Palestinians. Vandalism. Apartheid. These were words being used not by the Muslim Brotherhood but by friends of Israel.
The enemy, in the meantime, had switched generations. Hackers based in Saudi Arabia, with net names like Group XP and Nightmare Force, had exposed details of thousands of Israeli credit cards, blocked access temporarily to El Al, the national airline, and engineered the crash of the Tel Aviv stock exchange website. The young Arabs behind this technological warfare promised much more, even as Israel's tech-security elite scrambled to build yet more walls, this time in cyberspace. On the edit page of the same day's Haaretz, columnist Yitzhak Laor said all he needed to say in the headline over his short, sharp piece: "Arabs have never been equal under the law". Many would find such news good reason for not reading a newspaper. But there is an uplifting part of the story. Israel has a free press, guarded vigilantly by Israelis with a strong liberal conscience. It is such a welcome fact in a dictator-rich neighbourhood where a whisper has often been the only instance of free media.
Conflict is always dangerous to the survival of a liberal. But it is only when the liberal voice commands that peace will obey.