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Pope Francis is heading to the land of arguments

Israeli border police walk by Christians on the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem this year (CNS)

Israel is where you can encounter the physical reality of religion. In one short trip, I prayed at the spot where Jesus was born, stood at the foot of the mountain where he fed the 5,000 and touched the rock into which his cross was planted. To all those atheists who say “Jesus wasn’t even real”, I’ve been to his house – an unassuming little place in Nazareth where the Biblical stories and archaeological evidence cohabit. Seeing all those wonders requires elbows of steel. The queues of Orthodox pilgrims were not unlike those that sprang up when the first McDonald’s opened in Moscow: thousands of old Russian women pushing and shoving their way to the front in a frenzied dash for a taste of the divine. Yes, I may have swung the odd punch, but only ever in self-defence.

What’s equally striking is the physical reality of the Israeli-Arab conflict. A trip to the Western Wall in Jerusalem is instructive. Jews believe that this is one of the walls of their sacred Temple and they come here from all over the world to pray, pushing their handwritten petitions into the cracks of the warm, smooth stone. Jews were barred from the site until 1967, when they captured the Old City during the Six-Day War (you can still see the bullet holes). They formalised their ownership of the Wall by bulldozing the 770-year old Moroccan Quarter that stood in front of it.

It was a horrendous piece of vandalism, but all in keeping with the history of the Holy Land. Most Christian sites comprise a Jewish building upon which was built a Byzantine temple, over which was laid a Crusader church, followed by some 1950s architectural horror. (Squatting over St Peter’s house is a UFO-like chapel that confirms Erich von Danikan’s wettest dreams: Jesus was a spaceman!) Likewise, over the Western Wall juts an ugly wooden ramp that provides precarious access to the Temple Mount. Therein, tradition states, Abraham bound Isaac and the Jewish Temple was torn down by the Romans. After the Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 637, they built the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock atop the sacred ground – and today Jews are not supposed to pray within its confines. They have to pretend to talk to one another instead, muttering litanies under their breath.

The Holy Land ought to be a place of joy and resurrection. Instead it has witnessed an unceasing cycle of violence as different sects have claimed its soil for themselves, often trying to suppress the memory of past owners beneath religious architecture. There are thousands of bodies buried beneath these walls. What of modern Israel? Is it an apartheid state, as John Kerry suggested it could become? The answer is complex. Technically, no. Jews and Arabs live side by side – about a fifth of Israelis are Arabs and even those Arabs who have refused to take citizenship have a right to municipal services and to take part in municipal elections. In no way does Israel’s constitution compare to the South African one; there is no legal attempt to grant varying degrees of citizenship or rights according to ethnicity. And you see nothing of the kind of “petty apartheid” that existed in the segregated South: two drinking fountains, sitting at the back of the bus, etc.

But there is a bloody great big wall running through the middle of the country that divides Jews and Arabs by geography. For Israelis, it represents security – blocking the path of suicide bombers and reducing the number of civilian casualties to a trickle. Parts of the Israeli Left welcomed the construction of the wall as a way of affirming Palestine’s status as a self-governing entity, helping to build that “two-state solution” that wannabe peace makers are always talking about. But the reality is that the wall fixes in concrete the barriers between Jews and Arabs. Prior to the wall, Arabs travelled into Jewish areas to work and socialise. Now, they have to go through armed check points. Their towns are surrounded by barbed wire, while good land continues to be seized by radical religious colonists. Again, to underscore, the intention behind Israeli state policy was never racist and never to hurt the Palestinian people. But the barbed wire only highlights the perversity of the situation. If Palestine is not a fully independent state and there is no policy of forced separation – why the wall? And if the wall is part of a policy of separation, why not grant Palestine full sovereignty and end the building of new Jewish settlements? Israelis would rightly counter with the question “why will those who believe so passionately in the Palestinian right to self-determination not recognise Israel’s?” Two distinct, proud peoples are trying to claim the same land, and the closest they can come to an arrangement is to dominate each other in bitterly surrendered spheres of influence. The Jews can have the Western Wall, the Muslims can ban prayers in the Temple Mount.

The problem is accentuated by personality. My goodness, I’ve never met people who so love to argue. A typical Jerusalem street scene goes something like this. Pedestrian walks in front of driver (red lights are a challenge in Israel, not a warning). Driver nearly kills him, leans out of window and shouts at him to try walking with his eyes open. Immediately the onlookers split in two: half think the pedestrian is a lunatic, the other half think the driver is a fascist. Voices are raised; fists clenched. A couple of cars actually pull over and park in order to join in. Then, after five minutes of barely suppressed violence, driver and pedestrian are suddenly slapping each other on the back like old friends. The crowd melts away; the traffic slowly starts to move again. The adolescent Israeli conscript who has been watching the whole thing through half-moon eyes, goes back to sleep.

I left Israel with a feeling that outsiders will never entirely understand the stakes in this conflict because its history is not our history and we can never truly grasp what it means to the people involved. Of course, we can’t walk away from it – we can’t abandon fellow human beings to bloodshed. But the western neoconservatives who rush to the defence of the IDF when it kills civilians, even children, rarely appreciate that the Palestinians are a real people with inalienable rights who have been reduced to the status of refugees in their own land. Likewise, the zealots who call Zionism racist and boycott Israeli academics must have little appreciation of the moral necessity for the existence of Israel. The Jews have a right to a homeland, a right to live free from fear. They have built something out of nothing and turned a desert into an oasis. No third party has the right to look at what they’ve done and say: “You don’t belong there.” Indeed, commenting on all of this as an outsider feels insultingly presumptuous. Like picking sides between the jaywalking pedestrian and the speeding driver.

It might all overwhelm a man without any faith, but a week in Israel cures you of the mirage of disbelief. Jesus Christ was real, he was born in Bethlehem, he did die at Golgotha – we have ample physical evidence of all of these facts. It is not the matter of speculation that the prophets of secularism would have you think. So if Israel really is the birthplace of miracles then we can afford to have hope that it will eventually find peace. To tread the shores of Galilee and taste the sweet waters that Jesus walked on is proof enough that anything is possible in the Holy Land.

Tim Stanley is a historian and columnist for the Daily Telegraph. His latest book, Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration between LA and DC Revolutionized American Politics, is published by Thomas Dunne, priced £16

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (15/5/14)


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