It was Israel’s bloodiest day in years – 18 November, the day two Palestinian men armed with a pistol and meat cleavers attacked an orthodox synagogue in an otherwise quiet neighbourhood of West Jerusalem and killed four Jewish men. I was there – well, in Jerusalem that is – but miles from the crime scene and in many ways a world away from the horrors I had read about online.
It seemed so out of whack, so incongruous. There I was – one in a quintet of London-based journos on a “Jerusalem City Break” press trip – sitting in the comfort of a boutique hotel freshly showered after just returning from a tour of Masada and a float in the Dead Sea, while five miles away people probably still were mopping up the blood from the day’s earlier gruesome events, Israeli retaliation was being planned, and the homes of those responsible for the attack were soon to be demolished.
We had convened in our hotel lobby to meet with a Eli Nahmias, Director of Incoming Tourism & International Relations for the Jerusalem Development Authority, who’d brought for us a stack of brochures and promotional DVDs along with a couple of gifts (a Lion of Judah lapel pin and a business card holder). He spoke of the attack as matter of fact. He said he wasn’t there to “sell” his city to us and certainly couldn’t put any spin on what had happened anyway. He wanted to present Jerusalem to us in a wider context – as a “4,000 year old brand” that’s endured conflict for eons while over the same stretch of time has welcomed and been influenced by a diverse panoply of people from across the globe.
I reckon Eli had a point. And to be honest if I had not briefly checked the news on my laptop in my room before heading to the lobby for the meeting, I probably wouldn’t have had a clue that such a terrible thing had occurred. My day out was normal enough and actually a lot of fun, checking out two of Israel’s most popular tourist attractions. Since the attack, things have been quiet. At least nothing has happened that would make a major news story.
Of course, you would be foolish to assume the synagogue murders were a one-off. Similarly though, I’m not sure (at this moment anyway) that fear of reoccurring tragedies should put you off seeing Jerusalem for yourself. Would word of a mugging in East London keep you from going out in the West End? Would the Ebola epidemic in only three small West African countries prevent you from going on safari in South Africa or Kenya? Would shitty blusterous politicians anywhere hold you back from engaging with a real place in real time and encountered the real people who live there?
If you want to see an epicentre of three world religions, a destination oozing with history, and a city that’s as much a blend of old and new, sanctity and sin, unity and division as anywhere ever was, good luck finding a suitable alternative. Jerusalem is safer than you might realise and more captivating than you can imagine. Flights from London Heathrow via super security minded El Al are only about five hours.
Me, I’m glad to have had a chance to experience Jerusalem for myself. And I would love to go back. It’s a place I’ve known of all my life – where the words and actions of people long ago resonate with the moral decisions and spiritual lives of millions today including those closest to me.
Stick with me over the next few days, as I recount my Jerusalem City Break in a short series of posts.