Israel's public championing of itself as 'the only democracy in the Middle East' does not tally with its 2016 ranking from Freedom House as 'partly free,' scoring only 7 out of 30 on legal environment and 14 out of 40 on political environment. Defenders will say this is biased. What if I was to talk about the Israeli 'state's tyranny and racism'? Or write about how in Jerusalem 'occupation screams from every stone'? I'd be written off as anti-semitic (or a self-hating Jew), deluded, benighted and so on. But these are comments I read in Jerusalem in Ha'aretz, the liberal Israeli newspaper that's no more extreme in its views than the New York Times or the London Guardian.
On my last day in Palestine, I went to Jerusalem's Old City. I have fond, if somewhat Orientalist, memories of the quarter from my visit as a teenager. Visiting now is a very different experience. The Old City is East Jerusalem, notionally under PA control. Israeli flags and troops are nonetheless visible everywhere. Entrance to the Western Wall is via checkpoint, while visitors have only brief access to al-Aqsa.
By chance, the day of my visit was Jerusalem Day, when Israel celebrates its occupation of the city in 1967. Large crowds of Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews moved through the Old City at a jog, chanting and wearing Israeli flags tied around their necks like football hooligans. The only option was to get out of the way.
Tourists are largely confined to two main routes through the Old City and checkpoints prevent you from meandering. I arrived at the entrance to al-Aqsa, only to find it barricaded by Haredi. It seemed that they hoped to enter the mosque in numbers or, failing that, to prevent casual visitors from entering. There was more chanting and an air of tremendous self-confidence. These people knew that they were not going to be challenged by the state, or more exactly that the state was theirs.
In the Western Wall enclosure itself (above), soldiers in battledress with their weapons flirted with passers-by and gave visible form to the occupation. The enclosed wooden walkway is how non-Palestinians gain access to al-Aqsa, whose dome is just visible above the Wall. Other than such fleeting glimpses, the Palestinian city and its central glory, al-Aqsa, are invisible to tourists.
Standing in the line, wondering if I might still get through, I remembered a conversation with Habshe, a refugee and activist from Aida Camp. When I told him where I was going, he wistfully recalled that he had not been allowed to visit al-Aqsa since the Second Intifada of 2002. What was the better course, I wondered? To defy the Haredi picket or to refuse to enter under these conditions? Boycott, we wrote in 2015, is an ethical guideline, not a law, whose goal is "creating a space for another set of social relations to emerge — ones that have justice, freedom and liberation at their heart." With regret to not see the architectural wonder, I walked away from the line.