ISRAEL: The Holy Land / The silliest religious conflict of them all

Israel is, of course, jam-packed with religious sites – it is the Holy Land. There’s Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Baha’i, Druze, and many more. Sometimes they overlap or are shared (or not, as in the Temple Mount), and some of them are in direct competition with each other.

I’m not really religious, and I was raised Protestant, so to me Bible stories were intended mainly a moral or a metaphor. I didn’t grow up with any devotion to sites or relics, so for me, the idea that many Biblical stories are set in real locations in Israel that you can visit was hard to get my head around. (This is the polar opposite to Jewish readings of the same stories in the Torah – it’s a story of their own people in their own land.)

We went to the Garden of Gethsemane on our first day – it, and the Mount of Olives, where it stands – are not just real places, but contested East Jerusalem sites within eyeshot of the Old City and the Temple Mount.

The “young” olive trees of Gethsemane, not even a millennia old

Likewise, the Sea of Galilee is not just a real place, but it’s a real lake – beaches, restaurants, and Wayze warning of of a fender bender. We stopped at the Catholic monastery at the site that’s held to be the “Pope-ing” of Peter by Jesus – families were zipping by on skidoos, and the shoreline has risen due to dams on the Jordan River downstream (it’s killing the Dead Sea, though.)

Deeper down along the Jordan River, well into the West Bank, is the site of Jesus’ baptism. There are Christian monasteries on both sides of the river, but one bank of the river is under Israeli control, and the other Jordanian.

There was the truly weird “only in the Middle East” sight of Christian pilgrims being guarded over by Jewish soldiers on one side and Muslim ones on the other – though it’s not a particularly tense site, as it was about 43C, and everyone wanted to mainly sit still and quiet in the shade.

You can just see the red of the Jordanian flag on the other side

There were also religious sites that were contested, not over ownership, but exactly where a certain event happened. Up Mt. Carmel in Haifa, there’s the Cave of Elijah – where the Prophet Elijah is said to have hid from Queen Jezebel’s wrath. The catch is, there’s two caves – one mid-way up the mountain is a Jewish site, which Druze and Muslims also recognize … but about 200m up the mountain is a different cave in a monastery, this one held to be the site by Christians.

The Franciscan monastery above the Christian site of Elijah’s Cave

It’s not just between religions where these locations are contested, but inside religions. I took a day trip to Nazareth by bus – again, a very weird thing to me that Nazareth is just a place you can take a bus to. One of the biggest Christian pilgrimage sites in Nazareth is the site of the Annunciation. However, there’s not just one site where it’s held to have happened, but two …and they’re along the same street.

There’s a Greek Orthodox site, with covered in ornate hand-painted murals. Then there’s the Catholic site, with the most oddly heavy, industrial architecture I’ve ever seen in a church – it felt like it would do better as a nightclub in Berlin than a church in Israel.

Of course, Jerusalem is the epicentre of all these religious conflicts – I wrote a bit about my trip to the Temple Mount (and there’s more background on the sites here). These conflicts over religious sites run so deep and can be so bitter, but none is more ridiculous than the control of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

This is the site where most Christian denominations hold that the Jesus’ crucifixion and burial happened. Both sites are inside the church, only a few metres apart.

But unlike most of the other Christian holy sites, the church isn’t controlled by one Christian denomination, but six – Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian, Syriac, and Ethiopian.

They have a centuries-old “status quo” agreement, originally set by the Ottomans, and upheld by the British, Jordanians, and now Israelis. It gives each denomination their own section of the building, and all common areas are held jointly, with any upkeep or changes to be done with unanimous consent.

However, these denominations don’t particularly like each other, and getting unanimous consent to even pick up garbage or restore a painting is nearly impossible. Apparently if a lightbulb needs changing, it’s easier to quietly tell the Jerusalem police, who will then do it at night, rather than come to an agreement between the denominations. Even the keys to the front door are held by a Muslim family, to avoid tension over who controls access.

This tense situation has led to actual brawls among monks, usually over something small, like moving a chair over a “line of control” to get out of the sun, or one monk not being present for a procession.

There weren’t any brawls when I went, but the Catholic monks doing an afternoon service were going at triple speed – maybe if you stand around too long, it’s also a provocation. It’s a ridiculous way to run what is supposed to be an immensely holy site, and even more so since it’s all members of the same religion.

But my biggest highlight was getting to see the emblem of the worst of religious tension, the silliest damn religious conflict of them all – the immovable ladder. It’s a simple wooden ladder, probably forgotten by a worker, but it’s been sitting on the outside of the church since around the mid-1700s. Nobody can come to an agreement to move it, and even when it was once stolen, it was then returned to its exact spot.

It’s the stupidest thing, and I love it.

ISRAEL: The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock

I posted about my trip to the Temple Mount in Israel last month, but I also found these two great explainer videos from Religion for Breakfast that give a lot of good additional background on both the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, and why the situation is all so … prickly.

He also got to go on an extremely rare visit inside the Dome, normally banned for non-Muslims.

ISRAEL: How small it all is

One of the things that I stunned me on my trip to Israel was just how small and close everything is in the Levant. I think it’s particularly hard to vision for Canadians – we’re so used to having huge, empty spaces.

The whole of Israel and Palestine put together is only half the area of Nova Scotia, one of Canada’s smallest provinces. At it’s narrowest, Israel is only 10km wide. From north to south, the country is just 400km long, not much more than the drive from Ottawa to Toronto – a drive I’ve done just to go shopping.

And yet, Israel has 9 million people, plus another 4 mil in Palestine. And about half of all this territory in uninhabitable desert. You can see it in the crammed housing in the Old City of Jerusalem, in the sky-high property prices in Tel Aviv, and from Israelis who don’t support the settlements into East Jerusalem and the West Bank but live there anyways, since it’s the only affordable housing around Jerusalem.

Not just holy sites in Jerusalem

It’s also why the conflicts are so difficult and intractable, including with neighbouring countries. There is very little room to maneuver. One evening, we went ATVing out into the desert in the West Bank (which was very fun and also very dusty).

We stopped at one point to take in the view. From where we stood, we could simultaneously see the individual towers of Jerusalem, the Palestinian city of Jericho, Jordan’s capital Amman, and the north end of the Dead Sea.

Jericho, in the valley, and Amman, up on the far hills

Our trip also brought us up to the Golan Heights. We stayed overnight at a nice little winery kibbutz that happened to be only 3km from the Syrian border. In the morning we went up to a lookout that gave a view into Syria.

Israel and Syira. The white buildings in the upper right are a UN camp.

We weren’t alone, as two UN officers were also using the lookout. They have a camp right on the Israeli side of the border – likely originally to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Syria (the vineyards below were the site of tank battles in the Yom Kippur War) but now used to track the horrors of the Syrian Civil War.

We heard from several people that from the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011 to about 2018, you could hear the explosions and fighting in Syria from the kibbutz, and even see puffs of smoke from the lookout down in the valley. It seemed like a shocking contrast between the peaceful mountain resort feel on the Israeli side.

Interestingly, this is also why Israel has been much more restrained in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine than other western countries. Russia has been supporting the Assad government in Syria and has little desire to see the Syrian Civil War spill over into Israel, which could turn into a much larger war and destabilize the whole region. Right now, Russia also (usually) turns a blind eye to Israeli strikes on Iranian / Hezbollah-linked targets in Syria. So, while Israel is no supporter of the invasion of Ukraine, the home front is taking priority.

A few kilometres away is another lookout, this time into Lebanon, and a different flashpoint. This border is just as heavily armed, and was the site of a much more recent war in 2006 – one between Israel and Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, but deeply entrenched in Lebanon. While there is a ceasefire, it is no peace, and Lebanon is currently facing serious internal instability that could see things spiral out of control again.

The fortified wall is the border between Lebanon and Israel

Even with more stable neighbours like Egypt and Jordan, who recognize Israel and have diplomatic relations (unlike Lebanon and Syria), the proximity and conflicts in the region create from very weird international situations.

On the vacation part of my trip, I took a day trip to Petra, in Jordan. Our tour bus picked us up in Tel Aviv at an absolutely unholy hour (2am) so we could be at the Jordanian border by morning. But then, if the country is so small, why was it such a long drive?

We stopped for gas near the Allenby Bridge, a border crossing about 30km from Jerusalem and about an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv. If we crossed there, it likely could have shaved many hours off our drive (and let us sleep in!). But Allenby is meant to be the main crossing for Palestinians into Jordan and until recently, the only way for both Palestinians and Israeli Muslims to go on the Hajj. Non-Muslim Israelis cannot cross at Allenby, and there are limits on visas and entry for foreign tourists.

So, as we were on an Israeli tour bus, we instead drove 250 km south, all the way down to the Red Sea, where there is a border crossing that Israelis and foreign tourists can cross into Jordan normally. We then backtracked back north, just on the Jordanian side, to get to Petra.

At our crossing by the Red Sea

It was one more interesting real-life experience of the complexities of the geopolitics here. And as for the long drive, it was totally worth it. Petra is stunning.

ISRAEL: The Western Wall and Temple Mount

The day we flew in to Israel, our group poured off the 11 hour flight from Toronto to Tel Aviv, got into a bus, and took a short drive up into the hills of Jerusalem. We were stupid with jetlag, but as the bus came around a turn, we all gasped – we could see the golden Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount.

Metre for metre, the Old City of Jerusalem is probably the most contested and controversial piece of land in the world, and the Temple Mount is quite literally at the centre of it. This is where wars have been fought, both historic and modern, and the competing religious and political forces pulling on this one place continue to make it a flashpoint.

The Temple Mount has the distinction of being the holiest site in Judaism, the location of the Second Temple, the very heart of Jewish life, religion, and identity, before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE as part of crushing Jewish revolts against their rule. To massively oversimplify history, Jews were later banned from visiting Jerusalem in 132CE, and Roman persecution through that time period led to Jewish communities fleeing in all directions, starting the diaspora. Unsurprisingly, this spot underpins the modern State of Israel and the idea of a return to rebuild their homeland.

The outline of where the Second Temple stood over the current Dome of the Rock.

At the same time, the Temple Mount is also the third holiest site in Islam (after Mecca and Medina), and what most of the complex is currently being used for. On the same site where the Second Temple stood is the Dome of the Rock. This beautiful golden dome is the site of Muhammad’s Night Journey, where he ascended to heaven to receive instruction on prayer from God.

The Dome of the Rock, right in the heart of it all

The religious importance of this spot is amplified by the tradition in the three Abrahamic religions that this is also the spot where Abraham almost sacrificed his son (Isaac in Judaism/Christianity and Ishmael in Islam), and even some traditions that this was the site of the creation of Adam.

The Western Wall (aka the Wailing Wall) is the remaining piece of the Second Temple, and is a spot for Jews to pray and mourn the temple’s destruction. The wall itself isn’t holy, but for most of the time since the destruction of the Temple, this is as close as Jews were allowed to come – at times fully banned from the Old City.

After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Jordan annexed the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem. After the Six Day War in 1967, Israel took control of Jerusalem and Jordan’s Palestinian territories. Jordan gave up claims to sovereignty over the West Bank in 1988, though they kept control of the Muslim sites on top of the Temple Mount as part of the 1967 “Status Quo” agreement with Israel, a renewing of older Ottoman religious authority agreements. The Jordanian Waqf continues of manage and control access to the top of the Temple Mount, while the rest of the Old City is under Israeli control and management.

The covered walkway for non-Muslim access to the Temple Mount

Non-Muslims are allowed up onto the Temple Mount at certain times, and both Israel and Jordan enforce a ban on prayer, particularly by Jews. Up until 2000, non-Muslims could enter the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, though no more. There’s also contested opinions among Jews if they should even walk on the Temple Mount for risk of standing on the site of the Holy of Holies, though it’s not a universal belief – there were several Haredi boys that went up with us.

While the Western Wall is busy, the Temple Mount is quiet and peaceful, with families picnicking. I went up on a tour given by my friend Pauline, a professional Israeli tour guide, and we had no issue accessing it in the non-Muslim hours. A couple of elderly Palestinian women from the West Bank came over to chat, and after learning I was Canadian, had a sympathetic joke at me braving the heat. It was a peaceful, friendly moment, and a change from the animosity and violence that frequently makes the news over this site.

ISRAEL: My First Rocket Scare

Tel Aviv from Jaffa

I’m just back from three weeks in Israel – the first week was on a work trip, and then two weeks of vacation (first time out of Canada since the pandemic started!) I covered a lot of ground – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Nazareth and Caesarea, down to the Dead Sea and Masada, up to the Golan Heights, plus trips into the East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Jordan.

I met lots of interesting people – both Jewish and Arab Israelis, Palestinians, Canadian diplomats, UN peacekeepers, and more. I got a glimpse at the diversity and complexity of Israel itself, including the massive range of politics and viewpoints. There’s the secular vs the religious, the political left vs the right, the Jewish communities who came at different times and for different reasons – not just Ashkenazi vs Sephardic Jews, but Yemeni, Algerian, Russian, Iraqi, French, Ethiopian, Bukharan, Canadian, Ukrainian, Argentinian, American, and more, plus all those born and raised in Israel.

There’s a huge non-Jewish population too – 20% of Israeli citizens are Arab, both Muslim and Christian, plus there are religious minorities like the Druze and Baha’i. There’s deep debate in Israeli society not just on the ever-changing conflict with the Palestinian territories, but also domestic matters like the place of religion in society, the size of government, cost of living, the economy, relations with other countries, and much more. Bonus for a political nerd like me, they’re in an election – their fifth in three years.

But last week, an Israeli friend warned me that I was about to get “the real Israel experience” – rocket attacks. Things had started to spin up in Gaza – warnings grew about a threatened terrorist attack in Israel, highways in the south were closed, then news broke that the IDF had taken out a leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza.

The PIJ is different from Hamas, which de-facto governs Gaza. Both are widely considered terrorist groups worldwide (they’re both on Canada’s terrorist group list), and are deep enemies of the Palestinian Authority, who govern the West Bank. With control of the Palestinian territories split, the PA unable to do anything in Gaza, and with both Israel and Egypt tightly controlling their border access to Gaza (as opposed to the more open West Bank), it’s a pressure cooker.

As the news broke, my friends advised me to download a Red Alert app – it gives you alerts for incoming missiles for any part of Israel, including how long you have to get to shelter. In Tel Aviv, it’s about a minute and a half, but in places further south, it’s only a few seconds. My hotel also gave us the rundown and showed where the bomb shelter was, and what to do if you’re caught outside when the sirens go off, and that even if the Iron Dome successfully stops an incoming missile, you should wait at least ten minutes to leave shelter in case of falling debris.

Over last weekend, there were two big rocket alerts for Tel Aviv. I was staying there at the time, but thankfully, I missed both – I had gone on a day trip to Petra over in Jordan one day, and the next day I had just left on the train to Haifa. It was surreal to look at video of people running for shelter on the same beach I had hung out on a few days before.

Petra is super neat, by the way

It was even more surreal, as my tour bus back from Petra dropped people off in Jerusalem, to see what looked like an orange firework far to the south – the telltale spark of the Iron Dome shooting down a missile.

Over the weekend, over 800 rockets were fired from Gaza by the PIJ – it felt truly indiscriminate, especially as the most targeted part of Tel Aviv was Jaffa, a majority Arab Muslim neighbourhood on the south side of the city.

Jaffa

Many PIJ missiles also fell short into Gaza, killing Palestinian civilians, on top of Israel targeting PIJ missile launch sites. The situation seemed even more confusing and messy (though less likely to lead to a full war) since Hamas, despite having it’s own history of similar rocket attacks, didn’t join in. A weird ceasefire was eventually agreed to, moderated by Egypt. The rockets stopped, and people picked up their beach volleyball games and went back to election speculation.

The Israelis have a kind of sangfroid about all this – they speak about the threat of rockets the way we Canadians speak about bad winter storms: be prepared, be careful on the roads, but it’s not the end of the world. But under that bravado, you could feel a taut coil of anxiety. It was truly surreal.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Making Sense of the Central African Republic

Making Sense of the Central African Republic is a collection, edited by Tatiana Carayannis and Louisa Lombard, of shorlarly articles on CAR. It’s probably the most comprehensive book you’ll get on the country, though it was published in 2015 and so misses out more recent developments. There’s articles from a mix of experts, including Central African academics.

It captures both the macro an micro, with articles looking at the broad sweep of CAR’s history and it’s identity – how it is caught between the politics and identities of Sahel countries like Chad and Sudan in the north and the Congo Basin in the south. It also gets into the micro, examining the Pk5 neighbourhood, which has both flourished as a trade hub and been fought over.

The works also build up a larger picture of how a state like CAR ends up so fragile or even failed – the ineffectiveness of peacekeepers, rent-seeking from elites and outsiders, and how natural resources underpin most of the chaos.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Wagner Group and Russia

I keep on touching on France’s involvement in CAR – military, political, economic – but other countries are also competing for influence in the country and over its resources. Russia has a growing presence, as officially they’ve been invited by the Central African government to train troops to combat rebels and insurgents. This is some bold reporting from Al-Jazeera in 2019, including meeting with Russian military representatives in the same place where Russian journalists were killed investigating the same:

However, it’s not just military trainers. Russian mercenaries, particularly the Wagner Group, have been in active combat in CAR. There have been reports of violence and killing of civilians, and Russian mercenaries been taking hold of Central African resources, ostensibly to protect them from insurgents. Again, more bold journalism, this time Vice in 2021, including an interview with the insurgents themselves:

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Elephant Path: Njaia Njoku (2018)

Elephant Path: Njaia Njoku (2018) is a documentary that is beautifully done, takes a turn you don’t expect, and has some serious “how on earth did they get this footage” moments. It follows conservation staff at an endangered forest elephant preserve in southern CAR as they deal with poachers and the day to day work of elephant conservation, and then face armed Séléka rebels taking over the preserve and the town.

The setup at first makes you think it’s going to focus on the white American researcher, but she is reluctantly evacuated to snowy New York when the rebels arrive, and instead she is peripheral to the story, helplessly worried for the elephants and her colleagues in CAR and using her audio research to document the slaughter.

Instead, the documentary focuses primarily on her research partner, Sessely Bernard, who is a forest tracker, and how he works with both the sanctuary and his own Bayaka (pygmy) community to protect the elephants. The documentary also spotlights Zephirine Mbele, who is the head of an “eco-guard” armed unit that targets ivory poachers.

When the Séléka arrive, many of Sessely’s community retreats into the forest to survive, and the eco-guards are hopelessly outgunned, and unable to save many of the elephants from organized ivory raids by the insurgents. It’s a heartbreaking film, but with glimmers of hope, and the footage is incredible.

There’s footage of a show-trial of local poachers (a literal witchhunt), which is then mirrored by the astounding footage of the newly arrived Séléka commander laying down the law to community leaders and the eco-guards. I have no idea how anyone was able to get that footage without being shot – it’s almost surreal to have film-quality footage of actual armed insurgents taking over your community.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Podcasts

Along the Chari River on the northern border with Chad – Source

A mix of podcasts I’ve been listening to this month on the Central African Republic – some English and some French. There’s a lot of reporting on conflict in CAR, but there’s also some good podcasts and interviews out there by Central Africans.

The Talking Point: Looking at Central African Republic (CAR) – (En) A South African podcast from 2019 that gives a good overview of CAR’s history that sets it in the larger regional context, looks at la Françafrique, the competition between French and Chinese interests in CAR’s natural resources, and current political dynamics. So much of CAR’s post-independence political history is a process of balancing outside interests – France, Russia, China, South Africa, Chad, and more – and this podcast helps make sense of it.

Elo Africa: Au coeur des conflits en République Centrafricaine – (Fr) A Gabonese podcast interviewing Bernice, a young man who fled as a child from CAR in the early 2000s because of ethnic violence. Bernice is Yakoma, a small ethnic group from the south of the country. The previous president, André-Dieudonné Kolingba, was Yakoma and had heavily favoured his own ethnic group for government patronage – when he was removed from power, the Yakoma faced attacks and persecution. Bernice speaks about his experience as a refugee, his education in Cameroon, his return to Bangui as a young man, and the current political situation there.

Smart Peace: Central African Republic – (En) CAR has been called the “world champion of peacekeeping” as it has had a non-stop revolving presence of French, UN, African Union, and EU peacekeeping missions. NGOs and peace organizations are trying various tactics to build stability – Smart Peace is a project by Conciliation Resources that looks at facilitating local solutions to peace. This podcast adds further detail to the reasons of CAR’s instability – instead of looking at big leaders or movements, they look at communities and how individuals navigate instability and build their own networks in the absence of institutions.

Juridiquement Vôtre: L’année 1236, la Charte de Kurukan Fuga – (Fr) Dr. Jean-François Akandji-Kombé is a Central African law professor, currently teaching at the Sorbonne in Paris. He has a series of podcasts, some on law and citizen engagement, some on Central African current events, and some on African legal history. This really fascinating podcast is on the Kurukan Fuga, the 1236 constitution establishing the Empire of Mali. It’s one of the oldest charter of rights, from the same era as the Magna Carta, and is noteable for setting out women’s rights (including political participation), laws on sustainable hunting, and inheritance and status rights. Dr. Akandji-Kombé frames it as an reclamation of African history and using this history to build a more stable legal tradition for African countries, and as a counter-argument to a narrative that constitutionality is a foreign import.

Reportage Afrique – Centrafrique : la course aux chenilles dans les forêts de la Lobaye – (Fr) A short trio of episodes through RFI’s Africa bureau on caterpillars as food in CAR – the first is on gathering them in-season, the second on the supply chains to get caterpillars to market and the risk of deforestation, and the third on cooking with caterpillars and their place as an effective and environmentally friendly source of protein – and a beloved one. I liked the smoky flavour of dried ones when I made yabanda, but I’d love to try them fresh!

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Résistances Rythmiques (2017)

Résistances Rythmiques is a short documentary on Central African musicians and how they’re using music careers as an alternative and as a tonic to the violence in CAR. Many of these artists describe themselves as “anti-political”, but really, they’re quite political. It’s only that “politics” in this context means violence, insurgencies, and ethno-religious divides, while music is a way to bring communities together, support CAR’s culture, and promote peace.

Some speak about friends or brothers who have joined the anti-Balaka insurgents and who have died in the fighting, and most just want peace and stability. The older artists are very clear eyed that the recent hate between Muslim and Christian communities is new and driven by the various insurgent groups – CAR had been comfortable with being multi-ethnic and multi-religious until very recently.

It’s also a great primer on Central African music and musicians – rap, rumba, traditional music (including ngombi harps) and the tradi-moderne music of Montenguéné.

It’s available on Youtube here (can’t be embedded), though only in French.