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Friday, April 12, 2024

Guest: Fact Finders trip showcases the beauty and complexity of Jerusalem

Learn more about the Arab-Israeli conflict by taking a Fact Finders trip 

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During the beginning of summer, I had the opportunity to go on a geo-political trip called Fact Finders, a subsidized travel program that takes non-Jewish students to Israel to learn more about the Arab-Israeli conflict. I am one of five Jewish student leaders on the trip, tasked with relaying my individual and unique Jewish perspective to the majority non-Jewish student leaders with the hope of uniting student leaders and building a first-hand perspective of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Despite traveling to many controversial areas in the region, including the West Bank and Gaza border, I have chosen to focus on Jerusalem because, throughout my research, Jerusalem continues to be the most serious point of contention for all parties involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

There is no place on Earth like Jerusalem. Needless to say, the history of this ancient city is notorious throughout the world because of its significance in all three Abrahamic religions. Since Jerusalem is home to all three religions, you can imagine the complexity of the city. The Old City is comprised of four quarters — although they are not quarters in the sense that they are evenly distributed, it is just meant to describe that the city is divided into four parts. There is the Jewish Quarter, Armenian Quarter, Christian Quarter and Muslim Quarter, with the Muslim Quarter making up the majority of the quarters. Each quarter is individually unique and brings its own special light to this ancient city. 

We visited the holy sites of all three religions, including Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, all of which are less than a square mile from each other. As a result of the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, Israel agreed to recognize and maintain Jordan’s special custodianship over Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount. So, there are Jordanian officers that guard the entrance of the compound and who regulate activities on the Temple Mount, while Israel reserves the right to enter for security matters if needed. 

On the Temple Mount, also known as the Al-Aqsa Compound, sits Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, important to Muslims as the place where Mohammad is said to have gone to heaven. The Temple Mount is the third holiest site in Islam following Mecca and Medina, and is said to be the site where Mohammad began his revered “Night Journey.” For the Jewish people, the Dome of the Rock is said to house the foundation stone, from which the world was made and the site where Abraham offered to sacrifice his son Isaac. Unfortunately, non-Muslims are not allowed inside the Dome of the Rock, and visitors are questioned upon entry to distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims. 

Below the Temple Mount sits the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall. It is the western support wall of the Temple Mount, which lies above, and is the holiest site for the Jewish people. Built in 20 BCE as an expansion of the Second Temple, it is the only surviving part of the sacred temple after the Romans destroyed it in 70 AD. In tears, I touched the stone and prayed, pushing notes into the cracks as I held my friends tightly and stood in front of something that many of my ancestors never had the opportunity to see. For thousands of years, every year on our holiest holiday, Yom Kippur, we say: “L’shana haba’ah b’yerushalayim,” which means “next year in Jerusalem” — and here I was. It is customary to write notes and push them into the cracks of the wall, so that your thoughts and prayers can be elevated there, in the heart of the world. 

As you venture in the quarters of the Old City, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is hidden within the Christian Quarter, along with over 40 other holy sites, and captures the hearts of Christian pilgrims of every sect and country as the site where Jesus of Nazareth is said to have been crucified, buried and resurrected. Near the entrance of the church rests the anointing stone. The anointing stone was where Jesus of Arimethea prepared Jesus’ body for burial. Behind the stone is a remarkable mosaic depicting the body of Jesus being anointed following the crucifixion. Tourists from all over the world will kneel to touch the stone that once held the body of Jesus Christ while clergy from the different sects of Christianity roam the sacred halls. 

To fully understand how intertwined these religious sites are in Jerusalem, picture this: To ascend the Temple Mount, which houses Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, you walk up and over the Western Wall. Jordan controls general security on the Temple Mount and armed officers scan visitors while Israel maintains general security over Jerusalem. Opposite Al-Aqsa is the Dome of the Rock, a golden shrine containing the foundation stone. For Jews, the foundation stone is said to be the rock from which the world was made. And for Muslims, it is said to be the place where Muhammad began his revered “Night Journey.” Then, less than a half a mile away, is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, hidden within the streets of the Christian Quarter and a beacon of Christianity for Christians all around the world.  

Everywhere you go in Israel, you never forget Jerusalem. But what you remember most is that as you pray at the Western Wall, the Muslim call to prayer sounds from above at Al-Aqsa; you recall the church bells ringing from next door at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and you remember there is nowhere on Earth like this. You remember that the love for Jerusalem shared by those who visit is transcendent.

I have only included highlights of the trip from my perspective, however, this is an amazing opportunity for anyone interested in learning more about the geopolitics of the Middle East or the Arab-Israeli conflict in general. 

Written by: Sascha Recht 

Sascha Recht is a third-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior major at UC Davis and the Hasbara Israel Campus Fellow for UC Davis. 

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