Rare Overlap of Holy Days Shows Jerusalem’s Promise and Problems

JERUSALEM — On Friday morning, as clashes flared at the Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem, Muslims inside and outside the mosque were fasting for the 14th day of Ramadan.

A few hundred yards away, Jews were burning leavened bread, a traditional ceremony that occurs just before Passover, which formally started on Friday evening.

A few minutes to the north, Christians were beginning a procession through the Old City, holding aloft wooden crosses, retracing the route that they believe Jesus Christ took before his crucifixion.

For the first time since 1991, Passover, Easter and Ramadan were about to occur all at once — intensifying the religious synergies and tensions that have defined Jerusalem for millenniums.

To some, the overlap embodied the wonder of Jerusalem and the semblance of coexistence between its peoples.

Jewish children collecting cardboard on Friday on their way to a traditional ceremony during which leavened bread is burned.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times
Muslims gathering next to Damascus Gate in the Old City to break their Ramadan fasts on Thursday night.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times
Christians preparing to march across Jerusalem from the Church of All Nations.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

“Jerusalem right now is a symphony of people reaching out to God,” said Barnea Selavan, a rabbi and teacher who had just finished burning his family’s remaining leavened bread.

To others, the convergence highlighted the incompatibilities and the inequities of a city where many Palestinian residents consider themselves living under occupation. Clashes broke out again on Sunday after Israeli police officers stopped Muslims from entering the Aqsa Mosque compound for several hours to allow Jews to enter for prayer.

“Jerusalem is like a salad bowl,” said Mustafa Abu Sway, a professor of Islamic thought who had just left the mosque. “You have intact tomatoes and intact cucumbers and intact lettuce leaves. You don’t have a salad.”

And to some Christians whose Easter Friday procession started earlier than usual to avoid inconveniencing Muslims heading to the mosque, the convergence of holidays underscored the sense of being a minority within a minority.

“We are like a potato mashed between everyone,” said Serene Bathish, a leader of an Arab Christian scout club, who helped organize the Easter procession. “We are between two fires.”

Far from seas and major rivers, and high up in the mountains, Jerusalem, for much of its history, held little strategic significance, militarily or commercially. Its power and relevance most often lay in the spiritual hold it had over millions of people, many of whom had never visited it and to whom it had often meant drastically different things.

Christian worshipers attending a service on Thursday evening at the Church of All Nations, on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times
“We are like a potato mashed between everyone,” said Serene Bathish, a leader of an Arab Christian scout troop. “We are between two fires.”Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

For Jews, Jerusalem is their ancient capital, the seat of King David and the site of two ancient Jewish temples where they believe God’s presence dwelled. For Muslims, it was from that same site that the Prophet Muhammad rose to heaven and on which they built the compound of the Aqsa Mosque, the third-most-sacred site in Islam. For Christians, it is the city where Jesus was crucified and ascended into heaven — where Christianity was born.

The Old City was ruled by the Ottomans until 1917, the British until 1948, and Jordan until 1967, when Israel captured and later annexed it. Much of the world still considers it occupied, and Palestinians hope it will be within the capital of a future Palestinian state.

“Everybody has a Jerusalem in their head,” said Matthew Teller, the author of “Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City.”

“When you get there and you do actually see it for real,” he said, “it can never match up.”

As a case in point, on Thursday night, the eve of the first convergence of the three holidays since 1991 began with an intense traffic jam.

A street market in the Old City, where an estimated 30,000 Muslims, 5,000 Christians and 5,000 Jews live.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times
Israeli police patrolling near Temple Mount, a site sacred to Jews and Muslims, on Friday shortly after clashes erupted at the Aqsa Mosque.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

On the narrow road that circles the Old City, Christians like Ms. Bathish were heading to a service beside the Garden of Gethsemane, an olive grove full of wizened trees where tradition holds that Jesus was arrested on the night before his crucifixion. And Muslims like Professor Abu Sway were heading to the Aqsa Mosque, where tens of thousands had just broken their Ramadan fast at a communal iftar, or meal.

Around the Old City walls, built by the Ottomans who ruled Jerusalem in the 1500s, Muslim families picnicked here and there on the grass verges. They broke their fasts to a soundtrack of car horns, distant chants from the mosque and, later, faint choral melodies wafting from the basilica at Gethsemane.

In front of everyone was gridlocked traffic, surrounding this ancient city with a ring of cars and buses, the mystical encircled by the profane.

Ramadan street lights hanging last week in the Old City.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times
“When you enter the Aqsa Mosque, you feel that you are blessed, that it’s something special that not many people have access to,” said Mustafa Abu Sway, a professor of Islamic thought.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

At Rabbi Selavan’s apartment in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, the scene was a little quieter on Thursday night.

He and his wife, Shoshana, symbolically hid pieces of their last remaining leavened bread — bought from a rare Arab-run kosher bakery in the Old City — around their home, behind chairs and a garbage can and under tables. Then they set about searching for the pieces that the other had hidden.

According to Jewish teaching, Jews must not eat leavened bread during the week of Passover, which celebrates the ancient Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. The Old Testament says that they escaped so quickly, they did not have time for their bread to rise.

To Rabbi Selavan, it was extraordinary to be celebrating the holiday in the city that the Israelites’ descendants eventually made their capital. In his sitting room, he keeps a small oil lamp that he found during an excavation under his home, and that he believes was used in Jerusalem during the time of King Solomon, about 3,000 years ago. It is filled with charcoal that he believes is from the charred remains of the ancient city, after it was razed by the Romans around the year 70.

The Recent Rise in Violence in Israel

Card 1 of 4

Confrontation at a holy site. On the first day of a rare convergence of Ramadan, Passover and Easter on April 15, clashes between the Israeli riot police and Palestinians erupted at the Aqsa Mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount — a complex in the Old City of Jerusalem that is sacred to both religions.

Escalating tensions. The clashes capped weeks of rising violence and deadly attacks in Israel and the occupied West Bank. More than 30 people have died in what is now the biggest wave of violence, outside of a full-scale war, in several years.

A deadly sequence. Before violence erupted in Jerusalem, a shooting on April 7 was the fourth lethal episode in recent weeks. The series began on March 22, when an assailant killed four people in southern Israel. Other fatal attacks occurred near Tel Aviv and in Hadera, a city in northern Israel.

Israel steps up raids. In response to the attacks, Israeli forces have carried out a widespread campaign of raids into towns and cities across the West Bank. As a result, at least 14 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of Ramadan on April 2, including a 16-year-old boy.

“I’m in a rebuilt — partially, at least — Jerusalem,” Rabbi Selavan said. “I’m doing it where it was done.”

Burning leavened bread in the Hatkuma Garden on Friday in the Old City.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times
Rabbi Selavan, left, buying bread on Thursday from an Arab-run kosher bakery in the Old City.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

A half-mile away, hundreds of Christians at Gethsemane, including Ms. Bathish, began a procession from the basilica. They chanted and carried candles through the traffic jam, the quotidian again mingling with the ethereal.

“Stay on the sidewalk!” an organizer shouted in Arabic. “Not in the road!”

The procession passed a tract of church land that the Israeli authorities had recently planned to repurpose as a national park before backing down amid Christian claims of discrimination. Then it skirted the Jewish cemetery at the bottom of the Mount of Olives, before winding through a valley filled with eccentric ancient monuments — the pyramid-shaped Tomb of Zechariah, the conical-roofed Tomb of Absalom — and then up toward the Old City walls.

To Ms. Bathish, it is a privilege to celebrate Easter where it started, and to live a few yards from where Christians believe Christ died.

“But actually, we don’t get to enjoy it that much,” she said. There are an estimated 5,000 Christians left in the Old City, alongside roughly 30,000 Muslims and 5,000 Jews — and they feel squeezed between both.

Having staved off government efforts to repurpose church land near Gethsemane, church leaders are locked in an ownership dispute with a Jewish settler group over buildings on the other side of the Old City.

Fighting these legal challenges and living in a tightly policed area, all while struggling for cultural recognition, is “very tiring, time-consuming, difficult, chaotic, insecure,” Ms. Bathish said. “We’re not enjoying the whole feeling of uniqueness.”

The Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times
Christian worshipers attending the foot-washing ceremony on Thursday at Saint Saviour Church.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

A few hundred yards away, on the promontory where all three religions hold that Abraham tried to sacrifice his son Isaac, Professor Abu Sway, the Islamic theologian, was in his element. With his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren, he listened to a reading of the Quran.

To Jews, he was at Temple Mount, the site of a Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans. But to Muslims, this is the Aqsa Mosque compound, a 36-acre esplanade that includes the golden Dome of the Rock, a shrine marking the Prophet Muhammad’s ascent.

An imam had just read part of the Quran about the Prophet Musa, known as Moshe to Jews and Moses to Christians, and would shortly begin a chapter on Muhammad’s journey to Jerusalem.

Soaking in the moment, “it seems that I am in love,” Professor Abu Sway said. “When you enter the Aqsa Mosque,” he said, “you feel that you are blessed, that it’s something special that not many people have access to.”

But to the professor, that realization was bittersweet.

To Rabbi Selavan, the convergence of the holidays embodied the shared life of the city, and proved the Israeli state’s efforts to preserve the freedom of worship. “The thinking person realizes the freedom that they have under the Israeli government to serve God in their way,” the rabbi said.

But to Professor Abu Sway, the convergence was a reminder that many Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza are not allowed to enter Jerusalem to worship. And the violence on Friday at the mosque, between Israeli police and Palestinian stone-throwers, highlighted not coexistence, but coercion.

“There can be no coexistence,” Professor Abu Sway said, “when you have occupation.”

The Dome of the Rock at the Aqsa Mosque compound at dawn on Friday.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

Myra Noveck contributed reporting.

Back to top button