We're Not in Kansas Anymore

Dispatches From a Country Under Siege

We're Not in Kansas Anymore

Dispatches From a Country Under Siege

We're Not in Kansas Anymore
Notes from different corners of the world.
June 3 2002 6:17 PM

Dispatches From a Country Under Siege

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Overlooking the Western Wall, just inside Jerusalem's Old City
Overlooking the Western Wall, just inside Jerusalem's Old City

When you travel in Israel, you constantly have to reassess Western notions of space. In the United States, you can drive seven hours and never leave California. In Israel, you can drive two hours and cross half the country. There are places in Wyoming where you'd drive that far to pick up your mail.

As a result, it's almost impossible to drive anyplace in Israel without crossing, passing, or seeing disputed territories. What this means is that my parents—who live in one of the least controversial regions in Israel—still manage to live only 25 miles from Gaza and less than half a mile from the Green Line. This is why it's often incredibly difficult for Israelis to tolerate American "solutions" to the Mideast conflict: Israel's neighbors are always a stone's throw away.

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All this squished-up-ness means you cannot walk in the Old City of Jerusalem without passing several dozen Arabs on the street. When people talk about erecting a wall to separate Jews from Arabs in this land, they sometimes gloss over the fact that everyone lives on top of each other. Dividing this country isn't like separating oil from vinegar; it's like trying to separate ranch dressing.

You see it a hundred times a day here: Today, as we walked toward our favorite Indian restaurant in Jerusalem, we passed a Muslim man on his prayer rug, praying toward Mecca. He was under a tree next to a streetlight. This is the kind of cultural polyphony that makes Jerusalem so magnificent: seeing the Greek Orthodox priest lining up behind the Hassid who is waiting behind the Bedouin at the ATM machine. Leaving the Hadassah hospital today, we watched an Arab couple guide their toddler through the courtyard and moments later watched as a Jewish man in civilian dress carried a small girl through the same courtyard, gun holstered at his side.

As we drove last night past the Old City to Mount Scopus—overlooking the hills of Jerusalem—we could see Jewish suburbs out one side of the car and Arab towns on the other. The fact that you can stand on the campus of the Hebrew University at Mount Scopus and point out the Jewish and Arab villages and suburbs spread below you like a game board is still quite amazing: There's Silwan, there's Gilo, there's Abu Tor, there's French Hill …. And unless you're supremely neutral, no matter which side you're on, it's hard not to translate that broadly into: There's my cousin's house, there's someone who wants to kill me, there's my uncle's shop, ah, and there's someone else who wants to kill me.

Imagine standing at the U.S. Capitol and looking across the mall to the Washington Monument, except it now belongs to someone who has sworn to see you dead. This is how Jews and Arabs live in Jerusalem, and there is no wall, no moat, and no line of armored vehicles separating them. Most of them do not throw stones, stick knives, or shoot guns at each other most of the time. The place where Jews and Arabs would most like to be slaughtering each other is in Jerusalem's Old City, where the Dome of the Rock sits literally on top of the Western Wall. But Jews and Arabs here just tighten their jaws and edge past one another. This isn't love. But it's not war yet, either.

In light of all the hatred and vengefulness, what is most amazing is the amount of restraint one witnesses here, almost every minute of every day. And the lack of land points both to the problem and the solution: The fact that this country is too tiny to carve neatly in two means that in spite of themselves, most people have learned to get along.

Dahlia Lithwick finds the only bad seat in the Israeli Supreme Court
Dahlia Lithwick finds the only bad seat in the Israeli Supreme Court

In other news: I toured the Israeli Supreme Court today, a fantastic spot teeming with loud voices, blinding sunlight, and staffers in jeans. (It needed only a falafel stand to be perfect.) I kept trying to imagine the U.S. Supremes presiding in this open, bustling setting, but in my daydreams, they all disintegrated in the direct sunlight or were pinned helplessly under the swarming crowds. Israelis treat their justices like celebrity cattle. We treat ours like the Dead Sea Scrolls. The courtrooms here are all so welcoming toward visitors, spectators, and reporters, that it was difficult for me to find a column in the press section with which to obscure my view. Luckily, we tracked one down, and I was able to approximate my dispatching conditions from back home. 

Dahlia Lithwick, a Slate senior writer, is visiting her family in Israel.