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The Disneyfication of the Old City

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Abir Sultan/EPA at NBC News

June 12 light show at Damascus Gate, photo by Abir Sultan/EPA at NBC News

The sherut drops me in front of the dusty Jerusalem Hotel, a former Arab mansion, where I stop for a bottle of water and a deep breath. A breeze wafts through the grape vines that cover the outdoor restaurant and the smell of sweet tobacco and soft conversation calm my exhausted brain.  The #21 bus to Bethlehem is a few blocks around the corner, through dusty construction and open markets, across from Damascus Gate and the grey/cream walls of the Old City.

A woman helps me with my bag, everyone says “sleecha” (excuse the Hebrew transliteration of excuse me), and young men repeatedly give up their seats for older women. The bus driver stops for a late passenger and opens the door. Folks talk in a low hum and Arabic music pulses from the radio.  Forgive my stereotyping again, but I feel a sense of respectfulness and basic decency towards each person. The lady sitting next to me and my pile of backpacks and computer case works as a cook in Jerusalem and commutes from Beit Jala every day. She asks how can she help me (I surmise that I look like someone who needs help) and offers me a candy.  

We pass signs for the City of David where a massive, highly-politicized archaeological excavation and park development is underway, designed to prove that the Jews were here first and thus can toss out the several thousand years of subsequent ownership and history.  We pass Silwan and Sheikh Jarrar where there is an active program to dispossess the local Palestinians and turn property over to right wing Jewish settlers.  As the bus fills to standing room only, my new friend points out a tunnel which goes under a no-man’s land she explains between Palestinian and Jew.  I notice a new somewhat more ominous version of the separation wall, large concrete panels with vertical elements that meet another wall extending out at an angle, clearly constructed to deflect thrown objects or humans attempting to  scale the barrier.

I am met by a friend outside of Deheisha Refugee Camp in Bethlehem where he is working on a three year project titled Builders of Peace, funded by the EU and organized by the Lagee Center in Aida Camp. He is working with 72 college students all over the West Bank and they are now discussing issues of Identity and Memory. He is showing my documentary film, Voices Across the Divide, (www.voicesacrossthedivide.com) which tells the story of the Israel/Palestine conflict through the stories of Palestinians living in the US.  This is complicated on so many levels and I am both humbled and excited. The screening at the camp was met with lively conversations and many questions about the motivations and messages of an American Jew.  I cannot blame them.

We head to the village of Al Walaja, a small town northwest of Bethlehem located on the seam zone where there is an active struggle over the separation wall and the continuing loss of land in the shadows of the Jewish settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo.   In a small community center, the eleven students listen politely, I am washed with a sense of amazement and wonder that my documentary, (with Arabic subtitles), carefully designed for US audiences, has made its way to this remote and resilient place; of what use could it possibly be? How will the students feel about a Jewish woman presenting their story? Have they heard their own histories or has that been swallowed in the memories of the traumatized and the Israeli occupation. I am relieved to hear the students are well versed in history; two are upset that I refer to the war in 1948 as a civil war as that implies that the Jewish immigrants have equal claim to the indigenous Palestinians.  They all want to know what is my message? How do I describe Israel?  We talk and talk. I am glad I have come.

I return to East Jerusalem that evening in a car with Israeli plates rented in East Jerusalem by the Palestinian American wife of my friend who is working on the EU project. She also has Israeli citizenship through her father who is an Israeli Palestinian, but spends the summers with his family in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. We are stopped at a checkpoint, two white appearing ladies, maybe Jewish who knows? Middle aged. Yellow plates, that’s kosher, and waved through.  I always forget the intensity of ethnic profiling in these parts.

Instead of a quick trip, we are soon stuck in massive amounts of barely crawling traffic; it seems that tonight is part of the festival of lights in Jerusalem.  There are all sorts of gaudy, sparkly, twinkly light sculptures and over the top multi-colored light displays, but I am completely appalled by the light show projected on the magnificent, ancient Damascus gate and the stone walls on each side that surround the Old City, supposedly a hotly contested, ancient, sacred site to the three Abrahamic religions. To the accompaniment of rousing movie score music, the stones are bathed in multicolored displays, covered with Persian (ie Iranian) tapestries, large eyes blink and hands move turrets, curtains sweep open, the walls are striped, plaid, bathed in flames, water, cob webs, ancient figures, and monumental machinery, a massive gyration mishmash of bad Disney movies: Arabian nights meets My Little Princess and the Lion King.  It is awesome and awful, tacky and tasteless. I am too amazed and sleep deprived to wrap my brain around this, (fanatic Jewish settlers are plotting to blow up Al Aqsa Mosque and build the third temple while a tacky Hollywood display cheapens the entire place? Really?) and head off on the cobbled stones and dark alleys to the Via Dolorosa and the Austrian Hospice where a clean bunk bed and a large cross on the wall await me. I fantasize that I am joining a convent and this is only the beginning of a life of simplicity and austerity when sleep finally sweeps me away into the land of official insanity.  

Alice Rothchild shared this diary entry with friends from American Jews for a Just Peace and allowed us to run it. We will be publishing other observations from Rothchild in days to come. –Ed.

Alice Rothchild
About Alice Rothchild

Alice Rothchild is a physician, author, and filmmaker who has focused her interest in human rights and social justice on the Israel/Palestine conflict since 1997. She practiced ob-gyn for almost 40 years. Until her retirement she served as Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Harvard Medical School. She writes and lectures widely, is the author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience, On the Brink: Israel and Palestine on the Eve of the 2014 Gaza Invasion, and Condition Critical: Life and Death in Israel/Palestine. She directed a documentary film, Voices Across the Divide and is active in Jewish Voice for Peace. Follow her at @alicerothchild

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31 Responses

  1. just
    just on June 18, 2014, 11:17 am

    Powerful prose, masterful writing.

    Thanks Alice and Phil.

    Seems that lots of Israelis are culturally, architecturally, historically, and archeologically impaired.

  2. DaBakr
    DaBakr on June 18, 2014, 12:22 pm

    @”City of David where a massive, highly-politicized archaeological excavation and park development is underway, designed to prove that the Jews were here first and thus can toss out the several thousand years of subsequent ownership and history”
    Read history.

    @ “always surprised at intensity of ethnic profiling” .
    Of course it is ‘intense’. It is not done for the sheer joy of doing it.

    @appalling light display
    Have you been to ANY european capital lately? These light shows have appeared everywhere from Venice, Paris, London Rome, Germany , Russia and through much f the world I would guess. On many ‘sacred’ sites like pyramids in Mexico to the Acropolis. Sorry your delicate sensibilities have been so trampled upon but these new ‘light shows’ are part of the new popular culture and don’t seem to be on the way out just yet.

    • just
      just on June 18, 2014, 12:47 pm

      “Have you been to ANY european capital lately?”

      Jerusalem is neither “european”, nor the “capital” of Israel.

    • Woody Tanaka
      Woody Tanaka on June 18, 2014, 12:53 pm

      “Read history.”

      You mean the part where the Jews had an independant kingdom in Palestine for about 25 minutes back in the Bronze Age, then the land was serially the property of every actual power in the region for a few score centuries and then, for the last 2,000 years, the land was the property of its Palestinian residents? That history?

      “It is not done for the sheer joy of doing it.”

      You could have fooled me. I think that most of the anti-Arab bigotry and animus among the Israelis is done for the “joy” of it.

      “Have you been to ANY european capital lately?”

      And, as just says, that city is neither “European” nor the “capital” of Israel.

      • DaBakr
        DaBakr on June 18, 2014, 3:53 pm

        define “ownership” in historical sense.

      • Woody Tanaka
        Woody Tanaka on June 18, 2014, 4:22 pm

        “define ‘ownership’ in historical sense.”

        Okay, how about “the thing you no longer have in a place if your ancestors have been living in a different place for 2,000 years.” How’s that?

      • pjdude
        pjdude on June 18, 2014, 9:57 pm

        Yeah if you look at the history if jewish states you get a total of around 260 years…… And that’s including the modern state if israel and the khazars. So yeah jews had about as much of an independent state in history.

      • DaBakr
        DaBakr on June 19, 2014, 1:02 pm

        as soon as I read the word ‘khazars’ I assume I am dealing with an idiot. sorry. your ‘pet’ theory has been discredited so many times its just boring.

        @tanaka
        in other words, like everyone else, ‘ownership’ is whatever you want it to mean when you want it to mean what you want.

      • pjdude
        pjdude on June 19, 2014, 4:53 pm

        My pet theory? that the khazars converted to judiasm? last time i checked that was viewed as a historical fact. that you assumed I was an idiot for your own pathology just makes you look like an idiot. I didn’t say the khazars were the source of european jews which is what I’m gonna guess your raving about. if you’d actually read you’ll note I paired it with the modern state of Israel in an effort to expand the time frame of jewish states. I’m sorry your offended the khazars polluted your faith by converting but denying their faith just makes you look like an idiot.

        the five jewish states: the kingdom of judah, the kingdom of Israel, the hasomodean(sp?) dynasty the modern state of Israel, and the khazar kingdom.

        also my I forgot what i included in my math the 260 years is with out including the khazar kingdom including that would bring to about 460years.

      • Bumblebye
        Bumblebye on June 19, 2014, 5:13 pm

        @pjdude
        iirc, there was a Jewish kingdom in what’s now Yemen, predating the Khazarians, which lasted a couple of hundred years.

      • SQ Debris
        SQ Debris on June 19, 2014, 2:25 pm

        Why begin looking at history in the Bronze Age? Palestine is the only permanent land bridge out of Africa, the cradle of our species. Humans/proto-humans had made the crossing into Palestine 800,000 years ago. A blue pant-load of occupiers has messed with the locals and roosted at that continental crossroads since. The absurdity of any single ethnic group, other than the indigenous people, to claim “ownership” of Palestine is galactic in its proportions.

    • eljay
      eljay on June 18, 2014, 12:57 pm

      >> @appalling light display
      >> Have you been to ANY european capital lately?

      Jerusalem isn’t a European capital – it’s a occupied city in Palestine.

      >> These light shows have appeared everywhere from Venice, Paris, London Rome, Germany , Russia and through much f the world I would guess. … these new ‘light shows’ are part of the new popular culture and don’t seem to be on the way out just yet.

      1. The fact that something is popular does not necessarily mean that it is also good.
      2. The fact that something is done well in other countries does not necessarily mean that a similar thing will also be done well in a city occupied by a supremacist “Jewish State”.

    • talknic
      talknic on June 18, 2014, 2:03 pm

      @ DaBakr //@”City of David where a massive, highly-politicized archaeological excavation and park development is underway, designed to prove that the Jews were here first and thus can toss out the several thousand years of subsequent ownership and history”//
      “Read history”

      Read Israel’s proclamation to the world May 15th 1948 asking for the recognition it got! http://wp.me/PDB7k-Q#staterecognition “the state of Israel has been proclaimed as an independent republic within frontiers approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations in its Resolution of November 29, 1947, and that a provisional government has been charged to assume the rights and duties of government for preserving law and order within the boundaries of Israel, for defending the state against external aggression, and for discharging the obligations of Israel to the other nations of the world in accordance with international law. The Act of Independence will become effective at one minute after six o’clock on the evening of 14 May 1948, Washington time.” Israel has never legally acquired any further territory! What wasn’t proclaimed as Israeli was quite simple NOT Israeli and still isn’t Israeli.

      “Have you been to ANY european capital lately? These light shows have appeared everywhere from Venice, Paris, London Rome, Germany , Russia and through much f the world I would guess.”

      And they’re all atrocious. Jerusalem is the real thing, it needs no light shows.

      • DaBakr
        DaBakr on June 18, 2014, 4:00 pm

        So you think all the current light show displays that are popular throughout much of the world are “atrocious”. And therefore you agree with the author on this. Non disputatum gustabus. However-the ‘light’ does no physical damage, never touches precious historic buildings and is transient and non permanent so it hardly reaches the level of anything more serious then one either likes it or not. Afaict, the whole light show phenom relates to raves and the world of electronica and maybe the members here are too stuffy to appreciate anything like this-especially since they are so focused on negative attribute to Israel. Its not like their beaming naked dancing ladies up on a religious structure in defilement. oh well, i guess everything is a problem even when it isn’t

      • Woody Tanaka
        Woody Tanaka on June 18, 2014, 4:42 pm

        ‘However-the ‘light’ does no physical damage, never touches precious historic buildings and is transient and non permanent so it hardly reaches the level of anything more serious then one either likes it or not.”

        No. Look at the picture. The Damascas Gate is in Palestine, so unless they are agreeing, then the use of their property for any reason is a wrong, regardless of if it’s merely light.

        But beyond that, this structure has connections with at least two great historical figures: Suleiman the Great and the Emperor Hadrian. To despoil it with a garish light show is barbaric.

      • a blah chick
        a blah chick on June 18, 2014, 5:57 pm

        Woody, it’s Jewish light, so DB doesn’t have a problem with it.

      • DaBakr
        DaBakr on June 19, 2014, 1:07 pm

        “barbaric” light. got hysteria?

    • Shingo
      Shingo on June 20, 2014, 1:33 am

      Of course it is ‘intense’. It is not done for the sheer joy of doing it.

      Sheer habit more likely.

      These light shows have appeared everywhere from Venice, Paris, London Rome, Germany , Russia and through much f the world I would guess.

      My guess is that none are part of a celebration of ethnic cleansing and land theft.

  3. wondering jew
    wondering jew on June 18, 2014, 6:31 pm

    Politics aside for a moment, the light show is okay to good. B/B+. Some of the light show is better than other parts of it. But an attempt of artists to use light to turn the familiar but ancient into a backdrop to the modern is perfectly within the realm of art. Some of the displays succeeded more than others, but I commend the idea and the effort.

    • just
      just on June 18, 2014, 6:38 pm

      Opera is also art. And the Met is on US land. The light show is on Occupied land.

  4. Daniel Rich
    Daniel Rich on June 18, 2014, 8:11 pm

    @ Alice,

    Thank you for your levelheaded reporting. A true and dire needed breath of fresh air in a smog-filled world.

  5. just
    just on June 19, 2014, 7:02 am

    As to Bishop and Australia’s newest attempt to “clarify” wrt Jerusalem:

    “”It should not and will not be the practice of the Australian government to describe areas of negotiation in such judgmental language,” he said.

    The head of the Palestinian delegation to Canberra, Izzat Abdulhadi, told Guardian Australia that Bishop had explained to the ambassadors at Thursday’s meeting that Brandis had been “talking about occupied with a capital O as a noun and part of East Jerusalem’s name, which the government did not support”. She said she was happy to say East Jerusalem was occupied with a small “o” as a description.

    Bishop had also told the ambassadors “any policy change from Australia would come from her or the prime minister and not from anyone else”, he said.”

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/19/ministers-condemn-australias-decision-to-call-east-jerusalem-disputed

    So it’s adjective vs noun — little “o” vs big “O”. What utter bs.

    From the article:

    “Abdulhadi provided a translation of the statement he had received from the (OIC) foreign ministers meeting in Saudi Arabia, which said they “condemned the direction of the Australian government not to describe East Jerusalem as occupied” saying it was “a policy in clear violation of international law and the relevant UN resolutions”.

    The foreign ministers said their countries would “follow up and take actions necessary to respond and uphold international law”.

    He said Bishop’s meeting with ambassadors had calmed talk of trade sanctions “for now” but that the ambassadors would be watching Australia’s actions closely and “could consider further action in the future”.

    UN security council resolution 242 was passed in 1967 after the six-day war and calls for “the withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.”

    The OIC was formed in 1969 to protect the interests of the Palestinian people.”

    1) BDS should be implemented right now.

    2) The OIC better get busy and start “protect(ing) the interests of the Palestinian people”! Perhaps they haven’t watched television/read anything, but Palestinians are under siege, suffering mightily, and dying right now!!!

    • Walid
      Walid on June 19, 2014, 7:50 am

      “The OIC was formed in 1969 to protect the interests of the Palestinian people.”

      Don’t believe a word of it. True that it was formed in 1969 when the Zionists torched the al-Aqsa Mosque, but you hardly ever hear of it doing anything about Palestine. Israel takes pride in saying that it has direct or indirect relations with most of the OIC countries as well as those of the Arab League, which is another do-nothing-about-Palestine group.

      The only time the OIC was not comatose was during the presidency of Malaysia Prime Minister, Mahatir Mohamed. He was extremely and aggressively vocal against the Israeli occupation at every opportunity. When he stepped down from the OIC, it went back to sleep.

    • Walid
      Walid on June 19, 2014, 10:29 pm

      Just, the OIC Foreign Ministers’ Meeting wrapped up on Wednesday, everybody went home. The time devoted to Palestine consisted of raising a stink about Australia’s use or non-use of the word “occupation” in how Jerusalem is referred to. It also asked members to help out Bosnia-Herzegovina after their floods and they released the OIC annual report of Islamophobia in the world. Members from the far East were concerned if ISIS could reach them. Very fruitful gathering.

      • Shingo
        Shingo on June 20, 2014, 1:46 am

        The time devoted to Palestine consisted of raising a stink about Australia’s use or non-use of the word “occupation” in how Jerusalem is referred to

        Walid,

        You and others will be pleased to know that the local backlash, along with threats of economic boycott from 18 Arab states have led to the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister backtracking and blaming the attourney general for apparently speaking without authorization.

        Of course, this is a lie. When Beandis first announced the decision to change the terminology, Abbot tied claim it was always Australia’s policy. Yesterday, he and The foreign minister explicitly stated that Australia’s position remains lock step with UNSC242 and the EJ is occupied.

  6. Walid
    Walid on June 19, 2014, 7:51 am

    Car explosion in Jaffa; still unknown if it’s about the usual Zionist mafia settling of accounts between themselves or if it’s something else.

    • Walid
      Walid on June 19, 2014, 8:37 am

      News reported it was a mafia bombing; something about the new generation of mafia guys getting rid of some older members. Progress in Israel.

  7. gamal
    gamal on June 19, 2014, 5:56 pm

    Fifth columnists everywhere…

    “Welcome to Zahal IDF Blog News
    Any real kingdom or empire leaves plenty of evidence,for the most part ruins. There is no shortage of documentation of the ancient Egyptians,Romans,Greeks,Persians or even kingdoms such as Armenia and Axum. The only evidence for any Jewish kingdom is the Himyarite Kingdom of Yemen. How could a wealthy and powerful Kingdom of Israel have existed without leaving ruins? Why’s there no mention of it in the records of neighboring states? Why’s it not mentioned in Herodotus? Or anywhere for that matter except in these fanciful tales they call the Torah. Remember all this bloodshed and violence caused by the on going displacement of the people of Palestine is based on the assumption of an ancient Jewish kingdom,but the only ancient Jewish kingdom was in Yemen not Palestine. If this kingdom ever existed in Palestine where’s the evidence?

    3sc please cite your sources if you’re claiming evidence. I’ve googled up the Wiki on both King Solomon and David and both entries indicate zero evidence. I was most taken aback.”

    http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:4_Z8vpwOxowJ:zahal.com/why-is-there-no-evidence-for-an-ancient-kingdom-of-israel/+&cd=10&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=jm&client=firefox-a

    • Shingo
      Shingo on June 20, 2014, 1:52 am

      In all fairness, apart from the Torah, there is the Merneptah Stele.

    • MahaneYehude1
      MahaneYehude1 on June 20, 2014, 3:42 am

      @Gamal:

      We discussed in the past this issue in details and there are many evidences that the Kingdom of Israel and Judea existed (not that I need those “evidences”). Please, read the comment section here:

      http://mondoweiss.net/2014/01/palestine-1927.html#comment-629323

      Indeed, many superpowers controlled this area like Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Roman Empire, Muslims, Mamluks etc. etc. The Kingdom of Israel and Judea were in control for few centuries only. That’s truth.

      All these empires long disappeared including the Kingdom of Judea and Israel. But, from all these peoples, only one people continue to dream and pray for this land: The Jewish people, the people of Israel:

      From my grandfather prayer book published in Iraq:

      “רָצָה ה’ אלוקינו בְעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלִתְפִלָּתָם שׁעה,
      וְהָשֵׁב הָעֲבוֹדָה לִדְבִיר בֵּיתְךָ, וְאִשִׁי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּתְפִלָּתָם תְּקַבֵּל בְּרָצוֹן,
      וַתְּהִי לְרָצוֹן תָּמִיד עֲבוֹדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל עַמְּךָ.
      וְאַתָּה בְּרַחֲמֶיךָ הָרַבִּים תַּחְפֹּץ בְּנוֹ ותרצנו.
      וְתֶחֱזֶינָה עֵינֵינוּ בְּשׁובך לְצִיון בְּרַחֲמִים.
      בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, הַמַּחֲזִיר שְׁכִינָתוֹ לְצִיון.”

      “Look with favor, L-rd our G‑d, on Your people Israel and pay heed to their prayer; restore the service to Your Sanctuary and accept with love and favor Israel’s fire-offerings and prayer; and may the service of Your people Israel always find favor. May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy. Blessed are You L-rd, who restores His Divine Presence to Zion.”

      Have a nice weekend, Sahbi!!!

  8. Orryia
    Orryia on June 20, 2014, 11:01 am

    Interesting article. However, it seems like some Palestinians didn’t agree with you:
    http://www.israellycool.com/2014/06/19/more-than-arab-girl-photos/

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