Jerusalem • It is Good Friday, and we are sitting outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City, the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, waiting for the noon service to end.
Knowing that it is also Passover and Ramadan, we engage in light conversation with a stranger on the steps. Have we heard, he asks breathlessly and with a dollop of incredulity, about the offer of 10,000 shekels (about $3,000) by an extremist group to any Jew who could smuggle a lamb onto the Temple Mount (which Muslims call the al-Aqsa Mosque compound) during the Islamic holy month and sacrifice it there as an act of defiance against the “status quo”?
After word spread about this the night before, Muslims were so infuriated by such a potential affront they brought stones to morning prayers to pelt Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall. In the ensuing melee, Israeli riot police stormed up to the mount. Some entered the sacred mosques, we are told, with guns drawn and wearing their shoes (a serious sign of disrespect).
Eager to see for ourselves, my husband, Mike, who is working as a photographer on this story, and I rush from the church to the compound, holy ground to Muslims and Jews, only to be turned away by a cadre of Israeli soldiers blocking the entrance, even to journalists. After rubber bullets fly and peace is slowly restored in this contested sphere, we learn that more than 150 people were injured — mostly Muslims — and some 400 were arrested.
Soon enough, calm returns to the Old City with a collective shrug — merchants continue to hawk their wares to visiting Christians who are retracing Jesus’ final steps and to Jews who have come from far away for the holidays. Those of all faiths who are not fasting find colorful candies to sample, falafel to devour, and racks of animal carcasses to cart away for dinner.
As a religion reporter, I have traveled to the Holy Land not as a tourist or pilgrim and definitely not as an expert during this confluence of religious holidays, but to explore some questions: For starters, apart from zealots and politicians, do adherents of these monotheistic faiths get along in everyday life?
In addition, how do members of minority religions, like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its iconic Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, fit into the historical, social and cultural jigsaw puzzle that makes up Israel-Palestine? And, finally, how does Utah compare to the Holy Land — in geography and in the religious landscape? Both have Jordan Rivers, both have dead seas and both have some similar terrain. Both also have a predominant faith, whose members make up supermajorities among lawmakers and monopolize major offices, leaving a diverse but smattering of minority traditions often feeling like outsiders.
The conflict is ‘not religious’
As we drive to see Rabbi David Rosen, the chief interfaith rabbi for Israel, we notice that the houses in this Jewish area are grander and the gardens more manicured than in the Palestinian neighborhood where we are staying. He invites us to sit on his balcony, overlooking the lush landscape that stretches almost all the way to Jordan, and offers us delectable sweets that he says he will have to discard before Passover because they are leavened.
Rosen is gracious as I ask him about my hypothesis — that the faiths get along on the ground — which he kindly says is “a little bit simplistic.”
What most outsiders refer to as religious conflict “is not religious conflict,” he explains. “It’s just got to do with the fact that people have identities rooted in culture. Culture is overwhelmingly rooted in religion, and religion is exploited within that context to score points, to present your own righteousness and to demonize the other.”
Few Israeli Arabs have an interest in being violent or in exacerbating conflict, he says, but religious identities do drive politics.
In Israel, 73% (or 7 million) of its 9 million people are Jewish, while roughly 2 million (21%) are Arabs (of which 82% are Muslim, 9% are Christian and 9% are Druze), and 2% are non-Arab Christians.
The Jewish populace is divided along a spectrum of belief and adherence, according to Israel’s statistics. Of those over age 20 in 2020, 43% self-identify as secular, 22% as traditional but not very religious, 13% as traditional-religious, 11% as religious, and 10% as ultra-Orthodox.
Even Christian Arabs have their divisions.
They are a “minority within a minority,” Rosen says, so they have a “double interest in being accepted and respected by the Jewish majority.”
Christians in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem (the Palestinian territories) may come from the same families as Christians in the Galilee, he says, but “their political attitude and their attitude towards Jews is totally different.”
Members of the first group must operate within Palestinian society, which means they’re “part of the struggle,” he says. “They need to show their loyalty to the cause, to the Muslim majority.”
To do so, some Arab Christians often enlist “radical, anti-Israel and sometimes even antisemitic elements to be able to show that they can contribute to the cause,” Rosen tells us. “Whereas the Christians in the Galilee, who are the vast majority of Christians in this land, are part and parcel of the fabric of Israeli society.”
I try to get my mind around these groups and their various approaches to religion and the surrounding culture.
Mormonism doesn’t have any official categories, but I can’t help but wonder how the 2 million members in Utah and the 16.8 million globally might break down into camps.
Latter-day Saints account for about 60% of the state’s populace, and members of that faith hold 100% of Utah’s congressional seats and statewide political offices.
But those numbers cannot fully quantify how many Latter-day Saints are “active,” “inactive,” “nonbelieving but active,” “cultural members” or “former members.”
What if they all, like the various kinds of Jews in Israel, built their own communities?
Rules that bind
We learn that religious communities have their own courts to adjudicate complaints between adherents. They also govern marriage and divorce in Israel. There is no civil marriage.
You can get married only as a Christian, a Muslim or a Jew, Rosen says. “There’s no facility for intermarriage.”
That leaves secular Jews, for example, with no avenue to wed inside the country.
“There are plenty of secular Jews who don’t want to be married by a rabbi and don’t want to be involved with religions,” the rabbi says. “Because Israel is a state that has to recognize other modern states, every year people take boat or plane trips to Cyprus. They get married in Cyprus, come back to Israel, where their marriage is recognized.”
It has been, he quips, a “boon to the Cypriot economy.”
Forced and unforced segregation
Driving in from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport along the main highway, we see barbed wire fences and communities on either side. All have distinctly different architectural styles and sensibilities as they populate the Judaean hillside.
That’s because, the rabbi says, all want to be with their own.
If you travel in the Galilee, “you will see Arab villages, you will see Jewish towns, you will see an Arab Christian village, an Arab Muslim village, an Arab Druze village,” he says. “And even within the Jewish towns, you’ll have an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, you will have a modern Orthodox neighborhood.”
Nobody is forcing these residents to be segregated. It has more to do with years of wariness and insecurity.
He’s not talking about the wall Israelis built in 2002 — insisting it was necessary for security — that separates Jerusalem from the Palestinian territories. He means the more personal way communities organize themselves.
“We haven’t behaved very nicely to one another over the course of history here, so we all generally want to be more comfortable with those like us,” Rosen says. “Within the Jewish context, it’s also got to do with your lifestyle. If you are ultra-Orthodox, you don’t want any kind of secular intrusions on your neighborhood. If you’re modern Orthodox, you want to be able to celebrate the Sabbath, the ‘queen of the week,’ in an atmosphere that is conducive. You don’t want to be disrupted by discotheques and by lots of noise, people and entertainment. If you’re secular, that’s exactly what you do want on your Sabbath. You want all that noise.”
With such self-imposed segregation, Rosen says, “you have to make an effort not to fall victim to prejudice and to stereotypes, and therefore you’ve got to reach out across those divides.”
That isn’t easy.
To engage with other communities is something “you’ve got to be highly motivated to do,” he says. “You’ve got to find the opportunity. You’ve got to find those people. You’ve got to reach out to them. Therefore, the vast majority of Israeli Jews do not really meet Israeli Arabs.”
Anyone who suggests that “we don’t live in a society where there is prejudice and where there are stereotypes and bigotry,” Rosen says, “is living in cloud-cuckoo-land. That’s simply not the case.”
For his part, though, Rosen has spent the bulk of his decadeslong career crossing boundaries, building interfaith friendships, offering a hand and a heart to others outside his religious silo. He has prayed with, mourned with, marched with, and assisted people of every faith and no faith.
He even defended the building of the BYU Jerusalem Center in the 1980s against ultra-Orthodox critics and then taught at the Latter-day Saint school for more than a decade.
We see Rosen again a few nights later, this time at the home of Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, for an interfaith “iftar,” or after-the-fast meal for Ramadan. He is sitting next to the president, who seems keen to foster good relationships among the various faiths, and the chief judge of the Islamic sharia courts.
Clearly, the empathetic Jewish leader, though himself modern Orthodox, is comfortable breaking bread with all believers.
A Latter-day journey in the Holy Land
On our first Sabbath in Jerusalem, we meet John and Heather Howell in a bomb shelter deep in the BYU Center, which sits atop Mount Scopus, overlooking the Mount of Olives and the Kidron Valley, and across from the Old City.
The shelter hasn’t been used much, they tell me, because Islamic extremists don’t want to accidentally hit a holy site. Riots have been the bigger danger, they say, along with stabbings and car bombs.
Still, they don’t feel physically threatened, Heather says. “I feel free to run in Jerusalem as a woman alone. I think people are more aware of violence that happens here because it’s such a high-stakes game.”
John, who has been teaching physics at Hebrew University for five years, is the branch president of the tiny congregation of Latter-day Saints in the city. Heather, who teaches English at the same university, serves as a Relief Society president for the district (which includes several congregations). Together they are rearing three of their five boys near the Old City (the older two have already graduated), living along the boundary between the Palestinians and the Jewish community, as well as many expatriates from various countries.
Their sons attend Masorti High School, which was created for nonreligious Jewish kids whose parents still want them to learn the traditions. The Howell boys are the only Latter-day Saints and Americans in the school, and mostly are welcomed, but occasionally feel like outsiders.
During one powerful lecture about the “deep terror of the Holocaust,” Heather says, the teacher said gravely to the class, “Every one of us would be gone if Hitler’s Final Solution had succeeded — except you, James [pointing to her son].”
Music has been particularly unifying.
Before the pandemic, they attended synagogue every Friday night, Heather says. “It was a good way to start our Sabbath. The songs were really beautiful, joyful, very worshipful.”
Their son Paul sings in the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, which includes Palestinian Christians and Muslims, as well as Israeli Jews.
No members of the Howell family own cars here, so they bike up and down the Jerusalem hills to attend church services — on Saturdays — at the BYU center.
The congregation that meets at the center can be as few as seven people or as many as 200, when tour buses or students arrive.
With large crowds, the guard standing outside must guarantee that visitors are actually Latter-day Saints, otherwise it would be against the rules for the center to let them in.
Just below the pipe organ and facing the multistory, crescent-shaped windows, newcomers look out on a breathtaking view of the biblical landscape and the Old City, unlike any other vista in the global church.
Immediately, though, they are singing the songs they know, hearing the sacrament prayers they revere, and listening to the impromptu testimonies of longtime members and visitors.
“It’s a combination of the incredibly exotic and homespun familiarity,” Heather says. “There is truly nothing quite like services here.”
The whole area around the center is “consecrated land,” she says. “I know the church doesn’t own it, but it has been consecrated by the prayer and the lives of the people who are here.”
The Howells have since returned to the United States, but Heather is confident God will keep bringing more Latter-day Saint pilgrims to Jerusalem and to study at that “Mormon school.”
Religion and politics are inseparable
You can’t talk about religion in Israel free of politics, says Kefah Abukhdeir, a Palestinian American activist who lives in East Jerusalem. The two are entwined in everyone’s lives.
Your religion is noted on your birth certificate and that determines your status, the activist tells us, where you can travel and what rights you have. Israeli Jews get automatic citizenship; Palestinians Arabs and Christians get permanent residency. The main difference is that residents cannot vote in Knesset (legislative) elections or run for office. On a resident passport, it also is harder to leave and enter Israel.
“This is basically how the religions are being weaponized and politicized,” Abukhdeir says, “against the population.”
She understands the idea of Jews who were persecuted elsewhere wanting to “return,” but they didn’t take other people’s homes until Israel became a state.
If returning is part of a belief system, OK, “but are you now entitled to property and taking over?” she asks. “It’s like American Indians aren’t going to go back to New York City and say, ‘Hey, this is ours.’”
She recounts a harrowing tale of her cousin being kidnapped and killed in 2014, and how the community came together to mourn him.
Some beliefs and practices separate Muslims from Christians and Jews, she says, “but it’s not my job or my mission to tell you all what you’re doing wrong or that you’re supposed to follow me.”
Growing up in the U.S., she had lots of Jewish and Christian neighbors and got along well with them, Abukhdeir says. But, in Israel, that is nearly impossible, given the power differential.
She would love religion to be personal, rather than political. In today’s Israel, she says, it cannot be.
The future of hope
Later on Good Friday, we meet Kevin Vollrath, manager of Middle East partnerships at Churches for Middle East Peace.
The young leader is attending a midday service at St. George’s Anglican Cathedral a few blocks from our hotel.
We talk about how the government limits the number of worshippers who can attend the Fire Ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and how a right-wing politician wants hospitals to serve only unleavened bread to patients on Passover. (How different is that, I ponder, from the desire to control liquor sales and limit consumption in Utah, where majority Latter-day Saints are taught to abstain from alcohol?)
Vollrath describes battles over houses with Muslim and Jewish families making competing historic claims of ownership.
Living outside of Bethlehem, he has seen firsthand the daily humiliations of Palestinians who have to stop at the wall as they travel back and forth for work.
“It’s pretty clear that Christians largely have an easier time getting permission to leave the West Bank and enter Jerusalem than Muslims (except during Ramadan),” Vollrath says, “It’s all based on their last names.”
We witness that for ourselves when we take a taxi to the purported birthplace of Jesus.
Because we appear to be Americans, the border guards take no time looking at our passports. But they make our Palestinian driver get out, show his papers, and open the trunk. It takes only five minutes or so, but there is a huge line of cars snaking behind us.
In a lot of ways, many Palestinians “feel pretty hopeless,” Vollrath says. “But then when I look at certain aid and peace organizations, I see people acting hopefully.”
It’s not about the future, though.
“When most people say they’re not hopeful, they mean they don’t think things will get better,” he says. “But when I say they’re hopeful, I see people looking backwards to drive their hope.”
They see how far their movement has come or how much they’ve accomplished in their lives, and then hope whispers, “I can still keep going.”
After all these interviews, voices and visions of the ways religion plays out in the public square, we leave with a more nuanced view of how the faiths get along than we had in the beginning.
There are, indeed, pockets of Israeli society where Jews get along with Palestinian Muslims and Christians. In restaurants, coffee shops, tourist hubs, business offices, technology industries, charitable organizations and other enterprises, Palestinians and Israelis often work together amicably. Despite ongoing tensions and discrimination, life for most goes on with some sense of normalcy.
“The reality is that not everyone who is politically oppressed can spend every day fighting it,” Vollrath says. “They just want to go to the park with their kids or worry about sending them to college or taking a vacation.”
As we jet over Israel’s shrinking Dead Sea, I can picture Utah’s own shriveling Great Salt Lake. And I can’t help wondering what visitors to the Beehive State might report to their families back home about the role of religion here.