Jerusalem, Ayodhya and the God question

The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock (mosque) in Jerusalem. Photo: VIDYA VENKAT

[I wrote this long read travel essay in 2018 after a vacation trip to Israel-Palestine.]

The streets of Jerusalem lay empty the day we landed there. It was 10 am. The winter sun peeked from in between the puffy, white clouds, but not a single person could be seen walking down the streets. The shutters of shops were shut.

“Is a curfew on here?” a co-passenger wondered aloud, as we stepped out of the sherut, a local shared taxi, hired from Tel Aviv.

“No. It’s Shabbat today. A weekly holiday for Israelis,” the driver replied.

I soon began explaining to my co-passenger how God created the world in six days and on the seventh day he decided to take rest, which is observed as Shabbat, the day of prayer and rest, by believers. The driver nodded in agreement.

“God made the world, alright, so he needed a break. But what did the people do to deserve this break?” my partner chuckled.

The driver nodded with a sheepish grin, “All we do is eat and sleep!”

*

With only places of worship open that Saturday morning, we decided to start our visit with the Sandemans Holy City Tour, offering an introduction to the three major faiths — Judaism, Islam, and Christianity —  that emerged here. The tour group assembled at the Jaffa Gate, part of an uneven wall encircling the Old City. Made of Palestinian limestone, also known as the ‘Jerusalem stone’, the wall shone like marble under the noon sun. It was the last week of December, just before Christmas, and as expected, a good number of tourists from all over the world had descended upon the city for a vacation.

We noticed how the number of armed police stationed at the Gate was disproportionately high, for, except the tour group, comprising mostly outsiders like us, there were few people around. Only a lone street vendor stood peddling baguettes and steamed corn in one corner.

“The Old City is where a large number of ‘P’s live, I think,” my partner whispered into my ear, glancing warily at the 50-odd security men wielding large sniper rifles. We had decided to use only code words for sensitive subjects (‘P’ for Palestine, for instance).

As part of the tour, we walked ‘from one epoch to another’, as Mahmoud Darwish describes the experience in the poem In Jerusalem. The tour guide, a young Jewish woman in her late 20s, started by narrating the story of how Israel came to be.

“Abraham, the first Jew, came to this place called Canaan and started having kids. One of his sons, Ishmael, became the forefather for the Arab nation, another one Isaac, became the forefather for the Jewish nation, and then, several generations later, came the Prophet Muhammad who was the last prophet for Islam. Isaac’s son Jacob became a favourite of God and God changed his name to Israel. Israel went on to have his own children, who grew and formed 12 tribes that became the state of Israel…”

The lady carried a copy of the Hebrew Bible from which she recounted these tales. As we walked through the Jaffa Gate into the narrow, winding streets of the Old City, she spoke of the kings of yore.

“King David (approx. 1000 BCE) had captured this place from the Jebusites, a Canaanite tribe, and that is how the city of Jerusalem was created. David’s son King Solomon built the first Jewish temple, which was later destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II. King Herod (74–4 BCE) was among the most important rulers of Jerusalem who left a wealth of monuments behind in the Judean region.”

Pointing to a tower that rose from among a group of buildings near the Jaffa Gate, she said, “That’s the Tower of David. King Herod built that. Herod had also renovated the structures that remained at the site of the First Temple and turned it into a grand monument.”

After walking for a while, we reached a flight of stairs. We made a short descent and assembled at the landing to catch a glimpse of the view beyond. A pale, silver dome was visible from here, and beyond it rose a small hill. “That’s the Al-Aqsa mosque. And beyond it is the Mount of Olives. Jesus is known to have preached there.”

[ME]: “Do olive trees grow there?”

[GUIDE]: “There used to be plenty of olive trees over there but now we only have graves, as you can see…There is a belief that both Jesus and Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven at this place. So now, there is a premium attached to having one’s grave there.”

Only the well-off and the influential could afford to buy their tickets to heaven by securing a burial place here, we learned. After descending the flight of stairs further, we reached a larger landing area. A golden dome glowing under the afternoon sun came into view. It rose from above a shrine made of blue marble with Islamic inscriptions etched under the dome. I gasped.

“And that is the Dome of the Rock. It was built at the site of the destroyed Second Jewish Temple,” the guide announced.

“The site where the mosque is located is also called the Temple Mount. It was here that the Second Jewish Temple was built (515 CE) until the Romans demolished it in 70CE. Only one wall remained of what used to be the Holy Temple of the Jews. This is the Western Wall.”

“They also call it the Wailing Wall, right?” one of the tourists chimed in.

“Yes, it is a site of mourning for us. But we don’t use that name,” the guide added.

It seemed as though the remark had touched a nerve. Later, I googled ‘wailing wall’ to learn that the part of the Wall which the Jews used for prayer and mourning was only a tiny portion (about 58 m.) of the western retaining wall of the originally destroyed Second Jewish Temple, which is 485 m. long. There is a dispute going on between Israel and Palestine regarding how much of the Wall each gets to keep as a part of the settlement. The guide mentioned none of that.

[PARTNER]: “The Romans did such a shoddy job of demolishing the temple. Why did they leave this wall behind?”

I returned him a glare. Luckily, no one around us understood Tamil. The security at the entrance to the Temple Mount was heavy. Men and women queued separately; coats, watches, cameras, and shoes had to be removed and run through a scanner, and each of us had to walk through a metal detector gate at the checkpoint. After we got through, my partner continued. “Imagine, if there was no Wall, there would have been no fight either…”

It reminded me of a line from Robert Frost’s poem: “Something there’s that doesn’t love a wall…”

The guide pulled out an architectural map from her bag. One page had a tracing paper sketched with the original layout of the Second Jewish Temple, which she laid on top of a page with the current outline of the Temple Mount as it stood now.

“Here, you can see how this place actually looked when the Temple stood here. And this, here, is the Wall that you see before you now,” she explained. She also distributed small paper bits so we could write our prayers or wishes on them. “The paper bits are collected regularly and scattered on the Mount of Olives. We believe your message reaches the heavens from there.”

I took a paper bit, scribbled my own little wish, and pushed it into a gap in the Western Wall, besides the hundreds of bits posted by others.

Clueless as to what the ritual observed here was, I simply stood and watched other women at prayer (men and women had separate prayer sections). Away from the Wall was a bookshelf containing copies of the Hebrew Bible. Some sat down and read out passages from the book, while others leaned towards the Wall, with a hand placed on it, eyes locked in prayer. Some kissed the wall. No one wailed really.

The Temple Mount complex beyond the Western Wall was closed on account of Shabbat. Only Muslims could enter into the Al-Aqsa mosque for prayer on a Saturday. The guide suggested we take the tunnel at the exit and explore the Old City beyond.

We went through another round of security checks. What we did not know, and the guide did not tell us was that this was the entry into East Jerusalem, considered to be an “occupied territory”. Most shops here had name boards in Arabic, so we recognised that this ought to be a Muslim neighbourhood. We stopped briefly at a local eatery for lunch. It offered the usual Middle Eastern fare of shawarma, kebabs or hummus, and falafel wrapped in pita bread. We decided to check out the bakery next door, instead. The warm and welcoming smell of freshly baked bread wafting out of the store pulled us in. We got ourselves thick, round flatbread pieces, each slathered with a generous amount of Za’atar paste (a mix of thyme, oregano, and sesame seeds). It was delicious!

A few quick turns from there, and we got to the Via Dolorosa.

[GUIDE]: “This was the path that Jesus is believed to have walked carrying the cross on his shoulder.”

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Photo: VIDYA VENKAT

There were nine stations on the path, each marked with a commemorative disc on the wall. There were 14 stations in total, the last five fell inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where the path concluded. We stopped at every station and the guide read out stories from the Bible recounting particular events that had occurred at each spot. At Station 5, for instance, Jesus is believed to have collapsed under the weight of the cross, and a man named Simon came to help him carry the cross. Pointing at a dent on the wall, the guide announced: “That mark you see on the wall came from Jesus resting his hand there.” Some devout Christians in our group immediately recited a quick prayer with their hands placed on the wall.

The path concluded at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Built in 337 CE by Empress Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine I, the church looked deceptively small from the outside.

Jesus was crucified here, the guide said, and his body was placed on a stone slab to be embalmed by his followers. As we entered the Church, we saw several women bent over the Stone of Anointing, praying fervently. We bent low and touched the stone, eyes closed in veneration. In one corner of the Stone, people lit candles. Several lamps hung above the slab.

Three days after his crucifixion, Jesus was resurrected from the dead here, the guide said. After a quick tour of the upper floor where the site of crucifixion called the Golgotha was located, we began to walk towards the Zion Gate. The Room of the Last Supper, where Jesus was believed to have dined with his disciples before the crucifixion, was located in a small room near the Gate on the second floor above the Tomb of David (whether King David is actually buried there is disputed).

[GUIDE]: “Have you seen the painting by Leonardo Da Vinci on the last supper? Actually, the real Biblical event itself was nothing fancy as the painting depicts. That was a work of imagination. Actually, the supper was a rather simple affair. This is where he is supposed to have turned water into wine…”

We also stopped briefly at a square in the Jewish quarter where the Hurva synagogue stood. It was a 19th-century monument and didn’t look particularly busy, though on Shabbat one would have expected many Jews to visit it.

The tour concluded at the Jaffa Gate. On our way back to the hotel, I told my partner how it was so unfortunate that all these religions had emerged from the same root but had led to so much division and strife between the followers. The Israel-Palestine conflict was just one big and ugly family dispute. Even within these religions, there was little unity. Earlier that week, I had unsuccessfully tried to book an online entry pass for the Bethlehem midnight mass happening at the Church of Nativity on Christmas eve. Only Christians were eligible I figured, but once I clicked on the drop-down menu of the Church’s ticketing website, it showed at least 20 different Church denominations to choose from, as only those were eligible for a pass…

*

As evening fell and the hour of Shabbat ended, the city returned to life. In the part of Jerusalem where we were staying — at Allenby Square near the Chords bridge — I saw no Arabs around. We observed with interest the attire of the Jewish men on the streets. One could not especially miss the tall, black hats. They reminded me of the Sorting Hat from the Harry Potter movies. And the older men all looked like Dumbledore, sporting long, white beards. Some were dressed in flowy robes, but most were uniformly dressed in black trousers and white shirts, with black overcoats. We spotted some men donning long, curled sidelocks that dropped from the temples on either side above the ears, and some others wore the kippah (skull caps) emblazoned with the Star of David.

On Sunday, we explored modern-day Jerusalem, including its more recent and troubled history, after Israel was established as a separate state in 1948. We returned to the Old City this time to listen to Munir Nusseibeh, a human rights lawyer and academic at the Al-Quds University. I had the good fortune of meeting this portly man with a schoolboy’s charm when he had visited my university — SOAS, University of London — to give a talk on the forceful expulsion of Palestinians from their family homes in east Jerusalem.

Meandering through the bazaars of the Old City, we reached Nusseibeh’s office at the Community Action Centre, a non-profit, community rights-based centre established by Al-Quds University in 1999. There were two Muslim women in his cabin, seeking advice on some property disputes with Israeli settlers as we walked in. We spoke after they left.

Nusseibeh’s office at the Community Action Centre in East Jerusalem. Photo: VIDYA VENKAT.

[ME]: “I have a doubt. Is this part of the city, a part of Israel?”

[MUNIR]: “Well, Israel likes to think that this is part of their state. But for Palestinians like myself, this is Palestinian land. You are right now in east Jerusalem, an occupied territory.”

He showed us the green dotted line on Google maps, that showed where West Jerusalem ended, and East Jerusalem began. This was based on the 1949 Armistice Line that was drawn after a settlement was reached between Israel and its neighbours.

[PARTNER]: “So, do you carry an Israeli passport or a Palestinian one?”

[MUNIR]: “I have none, I’m stateless! What Israel gives us is a residence permit. It allows us to stay here but offers no citizenship rights. Even that can be revoked if the court pronounced that you were not “loyal” to the Israeli state or your actual “centre of life” was somewhere else. The emphasis on loyalty towards Israel forces Palestinians to acknowledge its aggressor as its ruler, though that is against the accepted conventions of international law. There are about 3, 50, 000 Palestinians living in this sort of stateless existence in occupied Jerusalem…”

At SOAS, Nusseibeh spoke about several of his clients who had been thrown out of their homes on flimsy grounds by the court, and the houses were then seized by Jewish settlers from outside. He could help some clients win their cases by helping them to establish through utility bills, etc. that their centre of life was in Jerusalem, but not all of them were fortunate. Nusseibeh’s brother too had to get tourist visas for his daughters so they could come to Jerusalem from the U.S., despite being born here.

[MUNIR]: “In 1948, when the British were ruling us, you know the British always like to leave problems behind… when they were dividing your country (India), they were dividing ours as well… At that time, the Palestinian Jews were 12% of the population. After the end of the mandate, they were 30%. The Zionist movement demanded a separate Jewish state. It could have been settled quite simply. Palestine offered that once it is declared as an independent state, Jews could be citizens. But the British brought the UN in, and at the end of the resolution they created separate Jewish and Arab states. This led to a war between the Arabs and the Jews. By the end of this war, Israel was established but they couldn’t occupy West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. The Jordanian army fought very hard in this place.”

He also told us how the division of the Old City into Muslim, Jewish, and Christian quarters was a largely British invention. Before the British arrived, these three communities lived together in mixed neighbourhoods, unlike what we find today. After the Naqba of 1948, more than half of the Palestinian Arabs were expelled from the city. The refugee crisis it created continues to date.

Palestine’s experience with British colonialism was similar to India’s. Our country too was split into two — India and Pakistan —  before the colonial ruler departed, and the strife between them continues till date, though I must note that India has treated its Muslims far better than Israel, thanks to the secular policy promoted by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. Sadly, that culture is now changing with a right-wing party in power in India, under whom hate crimes against Muslim minorities have visibly spiked.

After meeting Nusseibeh, we headed towards the Temple Mount to take a peek into the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The security here was heavier than what we had seen at the Jaffa Gate earlier. Nusseibeh warned us that it was a disputed site with Jews claiming their right to pray there leading to communal tensions. Luckily for us, everything was peaceful that day.

The Muslims consider the mosque as the third holiest site after Mecca and Medina. The story goes that the Prophet Muhammad arrived here from Mecca, riding on a magical horse, during the ‘Night Journey’ described in the Quran, and ascended to heaven thereafter. The belief that this site is the same place mentioned in the Quran rests on an interpretation of the term ‘the farthest place of worship’ contained in the relevant verse.

As non-Muslims, we couldn’t enter the mosque or the Dome of the Rock. So we just walked around the complex once, took some pictures, and left. I later learned that both the Al -Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock were constructed between the years 691–705 CE when the Umayyad Caliphate was in power in this region, with their capital based in Damascus, Syria.

My partner drew my attention to stories that the Jews were likely to demolish the mosque and the shrine, because these stood at the site of the Second Temple and make way for the construction of a third Jewish temple there. I read a news report in The Jerusalem Post which described a 2018 incident in which a 200 kg. ashlar (stone masonry unit) got dislodged from the Western Wall and came crashing into the mosque complex arousing fears among Palestinians that the Israeli authorities were seeking to destroy the mosque. This immediately reminded me of the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition in India, in which Hindu kar sevaks brought down a 16th-century mosque built in the honour of Mughal emperor Babur in Ayodhya, claiming that a temple dedicated to the Hindu God Rama commemorating his place of birth stood on that very spot before. The demolition sparked communal riots in different parts of India claiming around 2000 lives.

An Indian historian Vikram Sampath wrote an article comparing Israel’s desire to build the Jewish temple and the Hindu right-wing demands for a Ram temple in Ayodhya, associating both these impulses with the desire for cultural assertion and revival of the Jewish and the Hindu peoples. But such a comparison would be deeply flawed. While the historicity of the Second Temple and its demolition under the Romans is less suspect, several historians have outrightly rejected or questioned the claims that a temple ever existed beneath the Babri Masjid.  The story of Lord Rama itself — narrated in the Hindu epic Ramayana — belongs in the realm of mythology. Jewish scholars admit that the Second Temple period is not as well documented in comparison with later periods. They rely on literary sources — such as “anonymous works that imitate or seek to interpret the Bible and were preserved by later Christian works by known authors writing in Greek, such as the 1st-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria and the historian Flavius Josephus; the assemblage of texts discovered in the caves of the Judaean Desert, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls; and other sources” (Weitzman and DeBold, 2016). This evidence, along with archaeological evidence from Jerusalem, Masada, and other sites, has allowed scholars to reconstruct a picture of Jewish history and culture during the Second Temple period. However, in the case of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, little evidence of this sort is available.

A German archaeologist named Alois Anton Führer had recorded in an 1889 Archaeological Survey of India publication titled The Sharqi Architecture of Jaunpur that “Babar’s Masjid at Ayodhya was built in A.H. 930, or A.D. 1523, by Mir Khan, on the very spot where the old temple of Janmasthanam of Ramachandra was standing.” But Führer’s scholarship is suspect. The man was disgraced and expelled from archaeological services later in his career. Hindu right-wing groups, backed by the current ruling party in India, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have used such sources as well as locally produced narratives to lend credence to the demand for building a Ram temple in Ayodhya. A group of historians from the Jawaharlal Nehru University have noted in a 1989 pamphlet titled The Political Abuse of History that the British invented this lie (about the existence of a temple) to divide and rule India and that no sources independent of the British one and available before the 19th century can be accessed to confirm the claim. In the same document, the group of historians also state that available archaeological evidence reveals that the earliest settlements in the region around present-day Ayodhya dates back to about the eighth century BC and were of a rudimentary nature, while the Valmiki’s Ramayana dates his birth to the “Tretha Yuga, that is thousands of years before the Kali Yuga, which is supposed to begin in 3102 BC”. Archaeologists, thus, believe the story of Rama and his place of birth lie outside of the limits of archaeology! In 2003, the Archaeological Survey of India submitted a report in the Indian court that its excavations found distinctive features of a 10th-century temple underneath the demolition site, but questions were raised regarding its credibility. Some scholars have also argued that the original Ayodhya mentioned in the Ramayana stands somewhere in present-day Afghanistan and not in the Uttar Pradesh town where it is now believed to be! Belgian orientalist Koenraad Elst, who is sympathetic to the cause of Hindu nationalism, has challenged this thesis. Ultimately, the truth itself remains buried in the sands of time and it is beyond our means to fathom its depths. What can, however, be stated with certainty is that making such claims serves a definite political end. In his Commission of Inquiry Report 2009, on the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Justice Manmohan Singh Liberhan notes how the act of demolition of the Babri Masjid “were directed for or to acquire political power and thereby achieve politically desirable results.” Over a decade later, Liberhan’s words rang true as the BJP and the Hindu right-wing groups began their clamour for a Ram temple again ahead of the general elections in India in April-May 2019. After the BJP was re-elected to power, the Supreme Court of India passed a verdict in favour of constructing the Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya in November 2019.

*

Travelling across Nazareth and the Galilee region on the third day of our tour, I was again confronted with this anxiety surrounding popular belief and its basis (or lack of it) in history. Only this time, the guide for our tour group, an elderly and petite Jewish woman with a reading glass perched on her nose, was more honest about the veracity of the stories she was narrating. In fact, she began with a careful disclaimer: “Everything I am saying is speculation!”

Our first stop was the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth that was built in 1969. “This is where Mary is believed to have conceived Jesus,” the guide announced. She requested one of us to read out the relevant passages from the Bible. I volunteered. It was the Gospel of Matthew from the New Testament. The story goes that an angel named Gabriel visited Mary and told her that God would perform a miracle and she would bear a son named Jesus who would save people from their sins. In the basement was a sunken grotto that represented the original cave home of Mary. Next to the Church stood a smaller church dedicated to Joseph, Mary’s husband. The guide continued: “There is also this story about the angel visiting Joseph in his dream and asking him to accept Mary as his wife.” The church marked the site of a carpentry shop, where Jesus is believed to have helped his father as a young boy.

[PARTNER] (to me): “Isn’t this ‘Virgin’ birth story similar to tales in Ramayana and Mahabharata of how sons were born through miracle potions and suchlike?”

[ME]: “Yes, it does sound similar…”

[PARTNER]: “But most Hindus would admit that these are just ‘stories,’ the Christians believe it all actually happened, right?”

[ME]: “Errrm. I think so!”

The exchange prompted me to ask the guide as to what evidence was there to prove the historicity of Jesus Christ. The guide was a bit perplexed. She may have hesitated because there were many devout Christians in the tour group, and it was Christmas the next day.

[GUIDE]: “You know most of what we know about the life of Jesus is through stories that people told about him. The gospels were written more than 50 years after the historical date of Jesus’ death, believed to be 33 CE. Historical evidence is limited.”

She added that in Capernaum and nearby places like Migdal, excavations had been made to locate the places where Jesus is believed to have preached. Our next stop was one such site of excavation in Capernaum, where the ruins of an ancient synagogue were discovered in 1838. Jesus is believed to have prayed here. As a practicing Jew, he probably read the Torah.

Next to this synagogue was a chapel with a glass floor, below which was believed to be the house of Peter, one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus.

[GUIDE]: You know there is this story in the Bible, where a disabled man is lowered from a hole in the roof of a crowded house that Jesus was visiting so he could be healed? It is believed this is the house where the incident took place…

Beyond the synagogue complex, sprawled the Sea of Galilee. White mist covered the lake’s placid waters and the sun shone brightly, making us all squint. Before the guide could open her mouth, I offered:

“And here is where Jesus is believed to have walked on water??”

The guide smiled. “Probably. It is a big lake you see, hard to say exactly where he might have done that…”

We made our final stop at the Yardenit baptismal site on the Jordan River. The original site Qasr-el-Yahud, where Jesus was believed to have been baptised by John, was in another location, but it had been closed due to excavation work there. A number of our tour group members changed into white robes and went in for a ‘holy dip’, while we waited by the viewing gallery along the river.

Back in Jerusalem that evening, we prepared for our midnight trip to Bethlehem. Despite all my scepticism about religion and its claims of historicity, the midnight mass at the Church of Nativity was something I genuinely looked forward to. I was going to celebrate Christmas at Jesus’s very birthplace! We booked a bus ride with Abraham Tours. Bethlehem is in Palestine, and we were unsure if entering back into Jerusalem might be a problem, but the tour operator assured us that it would be taken care of. Though we did not have passes to enter the Church, we could view the festivities from the Church square right outside, where most visitors would stand.

The guide, who accompanied us, bore an uncanny resemblance to the popular image of Jesus that we see in pictures. I turned to my partner.

[ME]: Remember the story we heard at the Golgotha about the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his death?

[PARTNER]: Yes…

[ME]: I think I just spotted him!

[PARTNER] (taking a hard look at the tour guide and then turning to me): Shhhh…

We both burst into laughter. The man had shaggy, long hair. Thick moustache and beard grown long. And the contours of his face were so similar to the popular image of Jesus, we couldn’t help joking about it.

The ride to Bethlehem took a little over an hour. On the way, we saw the Wall separating Israel from Palestine, the West Bank Barrier. As soon as the bus crossed over to the Palestinian side, we knew we were in a different place. At the Bethlehem bus station, small shop owners crowded around us trying to convince us to buy Christmas gifts. The place itself bore signs of impoverishment.

At a Christian rock concert in Bethlehem. Photo: VIDYA VENKAT

We had visited the Vatican in 2017, and we couldn’t help noticing how poor in comparison to the Vatican, with its Renaissance frescoes and air of grandeur, Bethlehem looked. I was almost beginning to feel convinced how the place perhaps reflected the true spirit of Jesus Christ, who stood by the side of the poor and the suffering, which the ostentatious corridors of the Vatican belied. Only till I got to the Church. As we entered the Church square, a Christian rock concert greeted us. The music was so loud that we decided to get away and explore the narrow by-lanes of Bethlehem until it was time for the mass to start. We returned at around 11.30 pm and found ourselves a good spot in the square from where we could view the televised broadcast of the rituals taking place inside the Church. Meanwhile, some of the esteemed guests - the VIP pass holders, I suppose - arrived in expensive Jaguars and Rolls-Royces for the ceremony. The TV screen had low volume. There were no singing of carols or celebratory ringing of church bells, just a pastor uttering something on the dais, relayed on a TV screen outside the Church, of which we could not hear a single word!

My feet began to hurt from walking in the Galilee tour the whole day and now standing outside the Church for three hours!

[ME]: Let’s go back and find the bus and just wait there. Enough of this!

Back at the bus station, we ran into Jesus Guide. His name was Joseph, and yes, we were not the first ones to think that he looked like Christ.

[JOSEPH] (with an awkward laugh when we told him): I get that a lot!

*

Back in London, I did some digging up in the British Library and found books both defending - The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders (1993), How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman (2014) -  and contesting -  On the historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt by Richard Carrier (2014), the accepted Biblical narrative of the story of Jesus Christ. In the end, I was not convinced either way, but some of the stories, such as surrounding Jesus’ birth and resurrection, did appear to have in it an element of fantasy. Carrier rightly questions the repeated assertion of Biblical scholars that just because there is no evidence that people doubted the existence of Jesus in the distant past, his story must have been true. An assumption when continuously repeated cannot constitute the truth…

Throughout my time in Israel, I came across narratives - of war, of past humiliation, of assumptions of cultural superiority - that had been constructed to assert claims from time to time. In Masada, we heard one such narrative -  of Jewish pride and assertion. Our tour guide was a young Jewish man, born in Israel, but with a Romanian and Syrian ancestry. He asserted that he was a true Israeli. On our way to Masada, an ancient fortress and archaeological site perched 1500 feet above the Dead Sea, the guide told us stories of how the Jews had faced repeated persecution in Europe even before the Holocaust. This compelled the Jews to seek a land that was entirely theirs so they could lead a life without persecution.

On the second day of our tour, we had visited the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem that documented the story of the Holocaust. Nothing can justify the torture and abuse that Nazi Germany had unleashed upon the Jews. However, a small piece of information in one of the displays got me thinking about how anti-Semitism was not a 19th-century phenomenon though the term probably originated then. A display on the history of the persecution of Jews noted, and I quote:

“Anti-Semitism has its origins in Christianity”.

The spread of Christianity as a faith, and the consequent hatred that came to be directed against the Jews (held responsible for the murder of Jesus), was what had originally led to the rise of anti-Semitism. This revelation about the origin of anti-Semitism made me think about how blind adherence to any belief of any sort can be dangerous. Because it imposes upon us the need to reject everything else; our beliefs harden into a dogma that allows us to then justify anything and everything done under its name. As much as Christianity was culpable for early feelings of hatred towards the Jews, the unquestioning belief of present-day Israeli Jews about their own cultural and intellectual superiority - as the ‘God’s Chosen People’ -  has allowed them to justify the oppression of millions of Palestinian Arabs today.

A timeline of Jewish history as shown by the guide in Masada. Photo: VIDYA VENKAT.

[GUIDE]: “Masada is an important place for us because it symbolises the Jewish quest for national identity and pride. Especially after the Holocaust, Jews did a lot of self-searching. Then they found this old site here at the fortress by the Dead Sea, where the Jewish revolt against the Romans took place between 66 and 73 AD. During this event over 1000 Jewish people living in this fortress committed suicide. They did this to avoid capture at the hands of the Romans. You know, we Jews think we are superior to other people. We couldn’t stand the idea of being under other people’s rule. Masada symbolises the Jewish quest for freedom. There were two periods in history when the Jews ruled here - the Hasmonean period in 167 BCE, and after all those years now after 1948, when we made Israel as ours.”

He continued, “You know every time I come to Masada, I ask my group members to think about the value of freedom. What does freedom mean to you? How would you define it?”

*

In London, I met a Palestinian girl who had spent all her life growing up in a refugee camp in Hebron. I asked her this question, about freedom, and this is what she had to say:

“You know… this camp where I come from is very crowded… something like 10, 000 people squeezed into a tiny space of 0.4 sq. km. There are no facilities like good roads or spaces for recreation. In fact, we cannot even open the windows of our tiny homes to let fresh air in, because it is so crowded and dirty outside… My parents are from Gaza. They got displaced during the Naqba in 1948 and ended up in this camp. Living in that camp means that every time I leave the West Bank, I have to go through different checkpoints. There are surveillance towers watching over us all the time. I studied at an American university in Jerusalem. It sometimes took so long to reach the university, after getting stuck at different checkpoints, that my whole day was wasted. One of my uncles was shot dead by the military because he took part in a protest in which Palestinian refugees threw stones at the Israeli military officers. This was after many Palestinians had been killed in an attack in Gaza. A main road passes by in front of our camp. You never know when violence may break out there. I got a scholarship to study in London, but till the last minute, I couldn’t be sure I’d get a visa, thanks to my uncertain citizenship status… To travel out of Palestine, I have to take a round-about flight of seven hours to Jordan and fly out from there, because Tel Aviv that is only an hour away will not let us enter inside easily. When I think about freedom, I think about the freedom to feel safe. My family and I have spent entire nights sleepless, worrying about Israeli forces barging into our homes and taking a loved one away on some charge or the other. I have cousins, one 18 and another 16, in jail… Six years ago, for the first time in my life, I saw the Mediterranean sea, on a school trip.”

“Being by the sea, under the open, blue sky, that was freedom…”

Published by Vidya Venkat

Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at SOAS, London. Formerly, journalist at The Hindu, Chennai.

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