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Jerusalem: Something old, something new

| Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Once again, the annual rite of second semester has come and gone, and by all the photos on Facebook and stories I’ve heard, spring break 2014 was one for the books on both sides of the Atlantic. Mine was too, but for slightly different reasons.

Like most of the London program students, I headed to the Mediterranean, but with a slightly different destination in mind than Spain or Italy. I hopped on a flight to Tel Aviv in order to visit what is quickly becoming one of my favorite places in the world: Jerusalem.

Last summer, I was privileged to be a part of the Jerusalem Summer Program, in which a group of 17 Notre Dame students studied theology and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict while traveling around the Holy Land for six weeks. I initially signed up just to get my second theology requirement out of the way and had a bit of trepidation about the program and the area, but looking back on it eight months later, I realize I couldn’t imagine my college experience without that trip.

At the end of six weeks, our group came back with inside jokes, pseudo-memorials, nights full of great memories and a ridiculous amount of pictures. But above all, we returned home with a connection to this place which is so full of natural beauty and incredible history, yet torn by continual violence and social strife. Over the rest of the summer and the fall semester, I found myself wanting to return, to be able to dig deeper into the Holy Land, in order to better understand a part of the world which, while inspiring, continues to baffle me overall.

Thus, while looking into spring break plans from London, I asked our program leader from the summer about getting to Jerusalem from London, and two months later found myself on an easyJet flight to Tel Aviv.

Words can hardly do justice to Jerusalem; indeed, books and volumes have been written on the subject, making it impossible for me to add to what has been written on King David’s city in this space. However, there are three aspects that continue to stick out in my mind as to why Jerusalem is a unique place well worth exploring.

First, Jerusalem is truly a meeting point of the East and West. In West Jerusalem, there are brand new shopping malls, gourmet restaurants and a nightlife scene that rival that of the best European cities. However, venture into the Old City and one is immediately immersed in the bustle of the souks and a maze of streets that would confuse Marco Polo. It’s incredible that these two diverse environments can coexist in the same city, yet they do, and the result is a crossroads where a visitor can truly choose the sort of experience he or she wants.

Second is the religious aspect of Jerusalem, for no where else in the world is a city the focal point of three religions which account for the belief systems of half of humanity. Perhaps the best evidence of the religiosity of the place is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus’s site of crucifixion and tomb are traditionally placed and where six different Christian denominations claim partial control of the church. This naturally leads to chaos, with multiple services going on at all hours, and a strict status quo which has lead to frequent brawls among the priests of the different sects. Tensions run high between the three faiths as well, the result being a city that feels as if it’s on a knife-edge between the three Abrahamic religions.

Finally, there is the social aspect of Jerusalem, revolving around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Many of my friends in London have made the trip to see the Berlin Wall which divided Communist from Capitalist during the Cold War. Well, I see their defunct barrier, and raise them an active wall, which effectively relegates an entire people to a second class status and existence. The presence of deep, mutual hatred in the so-called “Holy Land” is surreal and the conflict it sprang from is as politically loaded and corrosive as any the world has ever known.

So Jerusalem at its core is a crossroads, and a place of religious and social conflict. All of which may make you wonder why I am so attracted to the place I’ve been twice in a year. The answer is simple: Jerusalem has taught me to be critical, think for myself and use conflicting evidence to draw my own conclusions. Yes, Jerusalem is a divisive place, but it forces the visitor to have an opinion on a variety of different subjects and have a reason for that opinion. The city makes the visitor open his or her eyes and engage with the world around him or her in a way I never had before and still can’t adequately explain.

Despite my two crazy and exhilarating, yet confusing, trips to Jerusalem, I do know one thing for certain.
Thanks Jerusalem, and JSP 2013, for changing me and making me a better thinker, person and citizen of the world.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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