Question: how do you explain the Middle East conflict to kids?
This past week I have been visiting Israel with my children. It is their first visit to the country of my birth, so we have been trying to cover all the main tourist highlights: walking Tel Aviv’s beachfront, floating in the Dead Sea, wandering the narrow cobbled laneways of ancient Jaffa.
And, of course, exploring Israel’s top tourist attraction, the Old City of Jerusalem, a living organism where modern life co-exists alongside remnants of bygone Ottoman, Crusader, Byzantine and pre-Christian times. A place that is always an intoxicating mishmash of religions, cultures, architectural styles, ruins, relics, and over 5,000 years of history.
On a full day walking tour there we hit all of my favorites: the excavated ruins of the Cardo, a Roman road that once ran through the length of the Old City; the iconic Tower of David; a stroll alongside the Old City’s golden walls; and the crowded, bustling Arab market at its heart.
Along the way we shopped, gawked, snapped endless photos, and stuffed our faces on the world’s best falafel, incredible hummus, and my personal Old City must-eats: k’nafeh (a totally delicious local desert of semolina and cheese), and hot sahleb (a custard-like drink made from the root of a native plant).
But, despite the plethora of wonderful sights, smells and tastes on offer, it was almost impossible to avoid bumping into signs of “ha-matsav” (“the situation”, as the regional conflict is euphemistically referred to in Hebrew). Sometimes overt things like soldiers, police, and security check-points. But often also less tangible things, like the invisible division of the Old City into four distinct quarters (Arab, Jewish, Christian and Armenian), or even the competing Hebrew and Arabic names attributed to most sites.
This prompting a barrage of questions from my children: Why are there soldiers everywhere? Who owns the Old City? Who are the Palestinians? Are Palestinians also Israelis? Why can we visit the Western Wall but not the Dome of the Rock? Can a Jew live in the Arab quarter? If Jerusalem is the capital of Israel why is the American Embassy on the beach in Tel Aviv? (Yep, all 100% real questions, courtesy of three inquisitive kids aged between 10 and 13…).
Of course, I wanted to provide them with answers. But how could I even begin to explain a centuries-old dispute where even experts, who devote a lifetime of study to it, don’t have ready answers? How could I make things simple, in a way that young minds would understand? And mostly, how could I be dispassionate, so that my own emotional investment in the very things I was trying to explain didn’t wind up coloring everything I had to say?
Fortunately, however, we concluded our day’s walking tour at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a wonderful place that provided an unexpectedly good explanation of a few key concepts to my kids. In a way they got. Well, at least sort of.
If religion is your thing, the Old City of Jerusalem is for you.
In one compact square kilometer you will find the Western Wall, last remnant of the Temple of Solomon, considered the holiest site in the world for Jews. Literally above it is the gold dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the world’s third holiest Muslim site, sited on the very spot where Mohammed rose to heaven to receive the five pillars of Islam. And a few hundred meters down the road is the Holy Sepulchre, a church built on the exact same mound of dirt on which Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected, making it the holiest site in the world for most Christians.
As a result, the Holy Sepulchre is the only church in the world where six different Christian denominations practice their faith side-by-side. You will find Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Syrian Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox clergy, worshippers and devotional items all squished inside the one overarching structure, which in any case is not that big.
But don’t think that makes for a case of one big happy Christian family – far from it. Rather, intense territorial fights between these various groups have gone on at the Holy Sepulchre for as long as anyone can recall. Over time invisible border lines have been drawn up, to meticulously divide the space between the fractious denominations. Right down to who manages or has the right to use every individual stone, lamp, column or brick in the building.
This has practical manifestations wherever you look. For example, at some time in the distant past the resident Ethiopian clergy, being less powerful than the other groups, got relegated to living on the roof of the building. There they constructed a mini-Ethiopian village of their own, complete with trademark African huts, which persists to the present day.
Another example: the Coptic section of the Church is richly decorated in gold and gilt mosaic. Then just three feet away, on entering into a different denomination’s turf, the walls suddenly become Spartan, bereft of any decoration at all. Each to their own, as they say….
It gets more sinister than this, however, real fast. As our tour guide pointed out, in the Holy Sepulchre passions run so hot that fights regularly break out. Between different groups of worshippers, and clergy, too.
My kids, ever the sceptics, immediately went to the video evidence for proof of this claim (otherwise known as google and youtube, streamed to their mobile phones). Within seconds we were reading about an incident in 2002, when a Coptic monk moved his chair from its agreed spot into the shade, on account if it being a really hot day. The Ethiopian clergy were not at all happy about this “hostile move”, and fisticuffs ensued. Eleven monks (you know, guys who are supposed to be role models for the rest of us) were hospitalized.
Or like in 2004, when one group’s chapel door was inadvertently left open, when it should have been shut. In response to this heinous act a fight broke out, and there were injuries and arrests. Or like on Palm Sunday in 2008, when an almighty brawl broke out between Armenian and Greek monks, necessitating police intervention.
And then there is the case of the infamous “immovable ladder”, a set of wooden steps rather incongruously leaned up on a ledge, directly above the front door of the church. They lead from nowhere to nowhere, and were allegedly placed there 300 years ago by someone in the Armenian Apostolic Church, which “owns” the ledge. Although no-one knows why for sure.
Ever since, this ladder has been a source of immense conflict, the Armenians asserting it is their right to put whatever they like on their ledge, and everyone else saying the ladder is an eyesore and should thus be removed.
So why is it still there? Because in 1853, the Ottoman authorities in charge of Jerusalem, sick to death of the intermittent fighting between the various denominations, issued a decree known as the “status quo”. This mandated that nothing could ever be changed at the Holy Sepulchre without unanimous agreement of all six groups who make use of it.
This “status quo” was reinforced by the later British colonial overlords, who in a very English way created a charter of how things should be done at the Church. An exhaustive list covering important things, like which group gets to worship where, and when, but also incredibly mundane things, like who can hang paintings on which wall; who rings the bell each morning; and who is responsible for cleaning each step of the staircases. And once again prohibiting any change without the full agreement of every group.
This means the Armenians enjoy an effective veto over the fate of their ladder. A veto they have steadfastly invoked for centuries, no matter how meaningless the ladder’s presence might otherwise seem. And which is why, as the nickname suggests, a relatively trivial object has indeed become “immovable”.
All of which might seem funny, but it is definitely not a joke. In 1981 an unauthorized attempt was made to remove the ladder. This happened again in 1997, when it disappeared for a few weeks. On both occasions intervention by the Israeli military was required, to stop things escalating into full-blown rioting.
But at least in this absurd state of affairs, without a warring Jew or Muslim in sight, a few key concepts became much easier for my kids to understand.
Like the concept of space, and sharing it. Inside of the cramped confines of the Holy Sepulchre my kids could see with their own eyes the reality of different groups making claim to the same ridiculously small patch of turf. And how, just like in the Church, the dispute over territory in Israel requires a different understanding of space, that necessitates creative thinking, complex rules, and sometimes even a “referee”. Because simply drawing a line down the middle and saying “you kids all need to share” often doesn’t work.
Like perspective. Not knowing much about the histories and competing claims of the various Christian groups, and not being aligned with any one of them in particular, meant that in the Holy Sepulchre we became third-party observers. And from that position, it quickly began to feel like no one was especially right, and no one was especially wrong. Everyone had their own beliefs; everyone had their own stories; everyone had behaved badly at times. But that didn’t mean everyone also didn’t have a legitimate reason to be there.
And finally, like symbolism. As my kids were quick to point out, the “immovable” ladder is eminently movable – in the words of my son, “that’s dumb – anyone can just pick it up and move it, anytime.” But they soon got that it is not really about the ladder itself, and rather about what it means. And hence why something as trivial as a functionless piece of wood can become so important to so many people.
This struck me as being a pretty accurate description of so many elements of the bigger picture, too. Where so often things that are considered “important” and “not negotiable”, once peeled right back to their basics, are actually quite silly.
It happened to be Palm Friday on the day we visited, a time when Christians traditionally flock to Jerusalem. Always crowded and bustling anyway, the Holy Sepulchre was thus bursting at the seams. We mingled with visitors from every corner of the globe, many of them waving palm fronds in symbolism of how Jesus was greeted on his entry to Jerusalem, over 2,000 years ago.
As we were leaving the Church, we turned to look back at it one last time. The sunny front courtyard in which we stood was jam-packed. Literally thousands of people were milling about, of every shape, size, color, religion and nationality. There were clergy, worshippers, and tour groups from all over the world; Israeli and Palestinian police keeping guard; guides, merchants, souvenir vendors, and kids selling snacks and bottles of water. It was incredibly noisy and chaotic, but the mood was festive and joyous, and everyone seemed really pleased to be there.
And then our guide pointed to the massive front doors to the Holy Sepulchre, and told us one last story. Of how in the 11th century, the Muslim ruler Saladin assigned the job of opening and closing those doors to a local Muslim family, and the job of holding the keys to those doors to another local Muslim family.
This was supposedly to ensure that no one group controlled the main entrance. And also, to enshrine impartiality – being Muslims, the families charged with these important duties had no vested interest in the Church itself. A medieval system of “checks and balances” that has stood the test of time, such that today, almost a thousand years later, descendants of those same two Muslim families continue to perform the same functions. And everyone else seems perfectly cool about it.
A fitting reminder to my kids, and I guess to all of us, that different folks can actually learn to get along. Sharing and coexistence is, ultimately, something we can make happen, even in the smallest, most emotionally charged of places. And no matter how complicated a problem may seem, peaceful agreement is, in fact, always possible. There will be a solution that works and endures. It just has to be found.
I guess something in all of this must have registered with my children.
As my 11-year-old daughter astutely observed a few days later, when driving through the barren unpopulated Judean Hills on the way to the Dead Sea: “Honestly Dad, I can’t understand why anyone would fight over a desert no-one lives in. I guess it’s the same as how people argue over that ladder no-one uses.”
Sometimes, kids really do say the darndest things….