Not being a main supporter of religious feasts, there is however one celebration I enjoyed attending over the years that I have lived in Jerusalem with my Palestinian husband and family. It is the Feast of the Light, celebrated in the Old City on the Saturday of the Orthodox Easter. At the end of the nineties, the open city of Jerusalem used to be filled with various Orthodox Christians, as well as tourists and visitors from all parts of the world. It was crowded, yes – but I personally never saw or experienced any violence. On the contrary. Once we had managed to make our way up to the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the air was filled with joy and anticipation. Everyone was waiting with candles in their hands for the Holy Light to emerge from the tomb of Christ, to be spread among the people. It was not only a religious celebration, but also a social event. People were happy to see each other; the young Palestinian boys were chanting their songs accompanied by the rhythmic beat of the hand drums. And then, suddenly, the powerful church bells would start ringing – the sign that the Light was out – and within moments, the Light would be spread, from candle to candle, within the crowds around the church, out through the city gates, and all the way to many Palestinian homes and other Palestinian towns. It all happened very fast and it was breathtaking. It was a symbolism of peace, hope and unity.
Last year, the area of the Holy Sepulcher (the church of the Resurrection) was closed off for the security of the previous Greek Orthodox Patriarch, so that he could safely make his way from the patriarchate to the church. (He was a controversial person at the time, and shortly after Easter, he was toppled). We were not allowed to enter the area.
This year, all the gates of the Old City were closed off by Israeli police and army who arbitrarily let some people enter and some not. In the so called “Corpus Separatum” of Jerusalem, once again, Israel gave a clear display of who sets the rules. When we had finally reached the soldiers, and I showed them my Swedish passport, my husband and I were let in. However, my husband’s daughter and son and their cousin were left outside. When we asked the police to also let them in, since we are a family, they checked their passports and asked them where they lived (our children are German citizens and their cousin is a Palestinian with an Israeli passport) and then told us that they could not let them enter. I felt my anger rise and asked them why. “Because they are from Shufat (a part of Palestinian East Jerusalem), and only people who live in the Old City can enter today”. At the same time, I spotted a big group of Japanese tourists making their way in on the side, and I wondered how this was now possible, since they were obviously not habitants of the Old City. “They have a special permission”, I was told. My voice was rising. “But the most important feast of the Christians is taking place here today, and you let tourists enter but not the Palestinian Christians who, the majority of them, have lived their entire lives in Jerusalem! What is this!” I was told not to shout, to which I responded loudly that this was supposedly a democracy in which I should be entitled to shout my opinion as much as I wanted if I felt like it, and now, I wanted to know why they were doing this. “It is our orders that we have to control the crowds” was his next informative reply. I turned around and looked over the quite empty square inside the Jaffa Gate where a total amount of maybe, all in all, thirty persons were moving around. Realizing that he was just making up his replies as we went along, I had the “impertinence” of asking him whether they were doing the same to Jews who came to celebrate, for example, Pesach at the Wailing Wall. He flinched slightly and said that there were never such crowds on those occasions. Not only was the man lying to me, he obviously also considered me an ignorant fool! Loudly, I stated that I found their actions a disgusting display of clear and obvious segregation, that there would come a day when he would feel shame and anguish for his behavior and that I would pity him on that day. His flinch was more obvious this time, but he pulled himself together, thanked me sarcastically and pointed out an elderly police man standing outside the fence, informing me that this was his “boss” and that I should talk to him if I had further complaints. During this entire dispute, our children (youths) unsuccessfully had tried their best to negotiate their way in.
After a while, the police “boss” entered inside the fence, so I went up to him and repeated my question - why were they doing this? He snarled at me to get out! Slightly surprised, I declared that I had no intention of doing so, since all I had done had been to ask him a question to which I found myself entitled to an answer. “I will give you the answer when you are outside the fence”, he hollered. I stated in a loud voice, that I was still not planning to go outside the fence and that I wanted an answer to my question right here. My husband added a few statements about it being obvious that Jerusalem was now entirely under Jewish control, whereupon the “boss” threatened to arrest us both. When we questioned, on what grounds he was planning to do this, since we had not personally insulted or hurt anyone or in any other manner broken the law, he commanded the policemen and soldiers who had gathered around us to throw us out of the Old City. And so they did. Forcefully grabbing our arms, they literally lifted us outside the fence. In my fury to free myself from their grip, I flung out my arms and unintentionally struck the female soldier, who had initially let us enter, on her arm. Slightly shocked at my own sudden strength, I looked at her face, and in her eyes I detected a clear __expression of, not physical, but mental hurt. It briefly took me out of my rage and I reflected, as I have done many times before, that many Israeli soldiers and members of the police force most probably do not agree to what they have been ordered to do. A power process, which has been repeated so many times during history in different parts of the world, but which is equally frightening and devastating each time it occurs.
In utter contempt, I cannot but pity you Israel, for what you have become.