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Diary: A visit to a Jerusalem poet

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Tel Aviv gleamed like a jewel beneath us as we landed at Ben Gurion Airport at night and went through Israeli border control. “Who invited you to Israel? And your wife, what does she do?”

I had not been back to Israel since 1981. In Jerusalem, half an hour away by train, we unpacked at an Anglican-run guesthouse in the Arab sector and entered the Old City through Damascus Gate. In the dark, all that moved in the souk were cats. Bearded Israeli soldiers in Kevlar helmets stood at one end of the Via Dolorosa, where stalls sold crucificial souvenirs and corny T-shirts (“Stoned again”, “Jew-jitsu”). Ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews (who take their name from the Hebrew word for “awestruck”) hurried past on their way to late-night prayer. At the X-ray machine by the Western Wall the blue-clad Israeli police asked from which part of London we came. “Golders Green or Stamford Hill?”

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The wall, more than 2,000 years old, forms the outer western wall of the Second Jewish Temple begun by Herod the Great in 19 BC, and destroyed by Roman legions under Emperor Titus seven decades after the birth of Jesus. Jesus, a Nazareth-born Jewish rabboni, or teacher, was sent to Herod the Great’s son Herod Antipas prior to his crucifixion in Jerusalem.

That night as I watched the Haredi bind the tefillin round their arms and petition the Almighty in front of the Wall’s colossal Herodian stones, I wondered how they differed from the first Christians, a messianic Jewish sect who adhered to circumcision and Mosaic Law and were known as Nazarenes.

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All three monotheist religions view Jerusalem as holy. For Islam, Jerusalem is the third holiest city in the world after Mecca and Medina. High above the Jewish King Herod’s stones is the exquisite al-Aqsa Mosque, from where Muslims believe Muhammad ascended to heaven. The Wall was the place where he tethered his winged steed Buraq after speeding overnight with him from Mecca to the “furthest mosque” (usually understood to be Jerusalem).

The Jewish and Palestinian inhabitants of Jerusalem cannot be said to get on either badly or well; they simply ignore one another. What is clear is that they each have an unimpeachable right to worship in Jerusalem.

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The Wall came under Jewish control following the Six Day War of 1967, when Israel defeated three Arab armies, tripled the size of its territory and occupied the Gaza Strip. The Israeli state would not have been born in the way it was in 1948 without Hitler’s murderous anti-Semitism.

Prince Charles visited Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem in late January. The museum chronicles the Shoah and wartime Germany’s departure from the community of civilised human beings. Never before had a European nation planned the annihilation of an entire people. From the shtetls of Lithuania to the salons of Vienna, all European Jewry was to be extinguished in a blink of historical time.

Talking on the radio recently with Martin Amis about the Italian writer-chemist Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz (and visited Jerusalem in 1968), I maintained that Nazi Germany’s war against the Jewish people remained a unique instance of human infamy. “Agreed,” said Amis.

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We called on the French-born poet Gabriel Levin at his home in Jerusalem’s German Colony, where Lutheran missionaries from the German Temple Society had settled in the 19th century in Ottoman-ruled Palestine. Gabriel had known my mentor-hero Alan Ross, editor of the London Magazine, who died in 2001 at the age of 78, having twice visited Israel and appeared thinly disguised as Commander Ross in one of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels.

To Gabriel, I mentioned my amazement at the continued infighting among the Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian and Catholic priests in charge of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus’s Crucifixion and burial. “Pretty well every traveller to the Holy Land has gone home deluded,” Gabriel answered.

During his two-week tour in 1857, Herman Melville lambasted the perceived hucksterism of the Christian Gospel sites and the “mouldering grottoes” of the Holy Sepulchre in particular, which he reckoned “smelled like death”.

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On Gabriel’s recommendation we ate at Arafat Hummus in the Old City where chickpea dishes are served through a hole in the wall. Palestinians like to call hummus their own, but it was a staple of Jews in Aleppo for millennia before they arrived in Jerusalem in the 1950s. On Friday afternoons in Jerusalem the Sabbath-siren calls on righteous Jews to desist from work; the hurry to finish shopping before sunset reaches a peak at the bustling Mahane Yehuda market (“The Shuk”), where Jerusalemites haggle over giant slabs of halva and tubs of tahini. Wonderfully, the Passover Seder dinner ends with the words: “Next year in Jerusalem.”

I hope to be back.

Ian Thomson is the author of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Head of Zeus)