May 24th, 2013
That’s the view of Jerusalem from my hotel baloney in Mt. Scopus. Not bad, eh? This is my last day and I am heading home soon. It’s been a wild ride, with a stay in Cannes for the annual festival –grey skies, torrential rain, bling, buzz, Leonardo, and superb movies—followed by Israel—temps in the ‘thirties, bright blue skies, ongoing intensity and complexity of geopolitics. Newfoundland and Canada in general seem so tame and safe by comparison.
I am in Jerusalem for the 8th time in the last decade or so. I am on an advisory committee to the Canadian Studies program at the Hebrew University and we hold international conferences every two years, covering a wide range of topics. This was, as they all are, a mix of good and mediocre papers, with more good than otherwise. History in Israel runs deep but the country is new and there is an implicit connection in the relative newness of both nations. The social scientists at the conference, Israeli and Canadian, discussed various economic and social trends, while the humanists talked about immigrant writing and the themes of cultural displacement. A panel on writing that I moderated turned into a fascinating and tense discussion between two Israelis squaring off against each other. This doesn’t happen at other academic conferences, I assure you. I felt like the ref at a wrestling match. Just stay calm, I kept telling myself. They’re both too emotional to find common ground. In a way, that discussion is symptomatic of what lies just beneath the surface here all the time.
It’s hard to imagine how much more complex life can be than it is here. The president of the Hebrew university spoke yesterday about trends in postsecondary ed, and they were remarkably familiar—decrease in government funding, need to cut programs, sustainability—but in Israel everything is always informed by the survival imperative and the enormous pressure on society to accommodate the extreme religious views of the powerful minority. Someone made the wise observation that in all cases of extreme fundamentalism—Islam, Judaism, whatever—it’s feminism that finally challenges and threatens the patriarchal hold of authority. Just before I got to Jerusalem there had been a demonstration at the Western Wall in the Old City, the sacred site of the ancient Temple, where women have been trying to pray alongside their male partners and fathers for decades. The picture above shows the Golden Dome of the Rock in centre frame, only a few metres from the Wall. Women tried to pray again, as they have many times, but there was incredible pushback at the demonstration, and the whole thing got really ugly. Secularism has to accommodate religion, sure, but extremism needs to be confronted. And so it is in so many places all over the world, as we see in the notable example of young Malala Yousufzai who survived a gun blast to the head and emerged as an icon of courage and defiance.
Both men and women are conscripted into the army in Israel, and so there is certainly, and grimly, equity on that front. Both genders carry intimidating weapons and after a while they seem an almost natural part of the urban landscape. Hard to believe but the picture above shows both a Biblical panorama, white and stunning in its Middle Eastern beauty, and one of the most troubled and fraught patches of land in the entire world.
I always learn something here. Of course, one can’t help but be immersed in political discussions of the moment, whether with shopkeepers, graduate students, or the people at the hotel desk, and everyone has a different opinion. I listen hard, like a good visitor, and try to respect all views, no matter how irrational some seem to me. Going to a conference in Israel is a bigger deal than simply sitting listening to papers all day. Of course, it’s astonishingly beautiful and the air sings with crickets and hot breezes. It’s an intense and challenging education, sometimes enough to give you a headache, but every trip reinforces my appreciation of Canada–climate, crooked Senators, and crack-smoking mayors notwithstanding.