Tram L1 is busy. It glides smoothly from its mid-route stop at Damascus Gate, in the shadow of the Old City, west towards Mount Herzl - passing through the European suburbs of West Jerusalem. An armed soldier stands carelessly at the front of the bus, sub-machine gun suspended on his back, disconcertingly casually assertive. Plain clothes security officers, conspicuous in the concealed anti-stab vests, stroll seemingly indifferently between the carriages.
Mount Herzl is the end of the line. Alighting here, the path descends towards a concrete prism-like structure that penetrates the mountain from one side to the other. Entering the structure, with its changing sequence of spaces and shaded and sloping floors, gives the illusion of a descent deep into the mountain. A dramatic sun-filled exit opens to thrilling views of the ever expanding white city of Jerusalem. This is Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum and memorial.
It is a sobering and chilling place to be. The planned destruction of European Jews is presented with graphic and sensibility numbing clarity. Conversations are hushed. Newly conscripted members of the Israeli Defence Force are inducted into their story.
The precision of the Nazis’ intentions, plans and actions to eliminate the Jews are made all the more discomforting by the very ordinariness of their administrative procedures, exemplified by the functionally minuted proceedings of the Wanasee Conference on 20 January 1942. At 56–58 Am Großen Wannsee, fifteen men signed off finishing touches to the Final Solution. The meeting lasted ninety minutes.
The Nazis had a complementary policy - to reduce the ‘superfluous population’ of the conquered territories by 30 million people, through starvation, in an action called the Hunger Plan. Cities and their ancient heritage would be razed and the land allowed to return to forest or resettled by German colonists.
Yad Vashem tells a dark story of the barely comprehensible, casual brutality and soulless inhumanity of ethnic cleansing on an industrial scale. It marks the culmination of a millennia of persecution, mistrust and profound betrayal. It is the history that provides the raison d’être of Israel’s national state. It is the founding story determining a world view, a social psyche. How can it not be? The glimpsed expansive modern city sprawling over the hills of Jerusalem affirms an agenda of settlement, permanence and security - at all costs, for today and for tomorrow.
To ride tram L1 east beyond the Damascus Gate, to the still under-construction terminus at Heyl Ha-Avir, is a journey through invisible borders. The bus acquires Arab passengers - mainly women. Heyl Ha-Avir and the adjacent Pisgat Ze’ev Center, with its overtly guarded shopping mall, mark the current boundary of the fluid city limits. Everywhere is new roads and urban infra-structure, carving across a fast vanishing ancient landscape of terraced fields and olive groves. This land was under Jordanian rule until its annexation to Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. The building, under international law, is illegal. Arabs live here, but the Israeli ‘westernization’ of the territory is remorseless - little is set to remain of indigenous culture. This is land undergoing determined colonisation.
The founding narrative of modern day Israel has spawned another story - less often told and less well known.
On a cold Wednesday afternoon on 10 March 1948, eleven men, veteran Zionist leaders together with British trained young military Jewish officers, met in the ‘Red House’ in Tel Aviv. Their task was to sign off finishing touches to Plan D (Dalet in Hebrew). That same evening, military orders were dispatched to Israeli military units to prepare for the systematic expulsion of the Palestinian Arab community from vast areas of the country. Plan D was the carefully drafted, documented and sanctioned plan for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. It authorised and launched forcible eviction through large-scale intimidation. Siege was laid to villages and population centres. The communities were bombed and homes were set on fire and demolished. Mines were planted in the rubble to deter expelled inhabitants from returning. Prior to and during the 1948 Israeli/Palestinian war, and during and at the end of the British Mandate in May of that year, 800,000 Palestinians were displaced. There were massacres and rapes. Water supplies were deliberately poisoned. Chemical warfare was covertly endorsed. In time, villages and centres of population would be razed and the land forested or resettled by Israeli settlers. 85% of the Palestinians living in the areas that became the state of Israel in 1948 became refugees in their own land.
‘Nakba’ (‘The Catastrophe’ ) is the Palestinian term for the dark, little told story of the barely comprehensible, casual brutality and soulless inhumanity of ethnic cleansing on a national scale, perpetrated within the disinterested sight of the British authorities, the United Nations and the international community. Mistrust and profound betrayal was to determine the Palestinian world view, its social psyche.
The glimpsed expansive modern settlements sprawling over the hills of Israel/Palestine, together with the separation walls and checkpoints and ghettoization of Arab settlements, affirms a subsequent ongoing agenda for Palestinian insecurity and loss of ancient identity for today and seemingly, for tomorrow.
When the divided communities of Israel/Palestine meet, both identify as victims of persecution and international and local betrayal - a tragically divisive destructive common identity.
And yet within this dysfunctionally divided but alluring land there is yet another story. A small, quiet, unobtrusive narrative. A tiny seed containing an alternative world view; a nucleus embodying a vulnerable vision of hope for a shared future.
Vitally supported by Embrace and other agencies, Arab Christians, descendants of the Semitic people who were amongst the first disciples of Christ in this land, are living out, precariously, an incarnated story of reconciliation and risky encounter across the divisions of religion, culture and history - together with others of good will.
Nurses are being trained, children with multitudes of special need are being educated and reintegrated into their families and communities. Projects that enable life affirming and life changing encounters between young Arabs and Jews are being realised. Violence as response to violence is being challenged and channeled.
The potential for catastrophe looms large. The international community continues to wring hands and remain obdurately blind to deliberate policies of injustice and marginalisation - but a courageous and cheerful hope refuses to be conformed and constrained by tram lines of history, mistrust and fear.
Nanor, a young Palestinian participant in a Musalaha Arab/Jewish desert encounter adventure writes:
‘We let the emotional wall between us crumble, hoping that one day the Separation Wall will come down as well. Together we stepped into the fairytale of God’s creation and we took a piece of it back with us to reality - a foundation of a bridge built’
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels.”
For the sake of my family and friends,
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your prosperity.
James Mercer is the Vicar of All Saints’, Harrow Weald in the Willesden Area of the Diocese of London. He has been chair of trustees and co-founder of a ‘drop in’ cafe serving disadvantaged young people in a city centre and the founder of a Forest School working with marginalised young people in West London.