03 June 2015

Hobnobbing in the Holy Land: When I Realized How Much I Hate Jerusalem

When I was in Israel last March, I went to Jerusalem too. That was the next leg, after being in Tel Aviv. So after spending four nights in Tel Aviv, we headed to Jerusalem to spend four nights. I have to say that it is not my most favorite city. In fact, I hated it. And this post explains why.

See, months before coming to Israel, I already had a nagging feeling that there is something in this land, in this geographical area, this territory, that didn't sit well with me. At that time, I cannot put a finger to it, but it is this weird unexplainable feeling of disgust, directed towards the land, which has caused so much suffering and hate to stem from it. Perhaps watching the following video will make things clearer what I mean by that.

You know, the interesting thing is that I could easily have skipped Jerusalem (and Palestine, for that matter). I didn't have to politicize my Israel visit. But there is a reason why I did my visit the way I did it. When you're dating an Israeli, one cannot help but be asked what one's opinions are about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And it is very easy to just rely on news sources and read. Sure, the news have their own biases, one cannot avoid that. Even Israeli news outlets have differing bents to what they portray. Just compare how events are reported by the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz. Anyway, so at some point, I decided that I had to make my own opinion about the whole thing, and part of that endeavor involved visiting Jerusalem, where everything radiates from, as well as the other side of the Green Line, which is Palestine, of which I will definitely blog more about at a future time.

I felt that in order to get an opinion about the topic, I have to see things for myself. Hence I set off, with Jerusalem being the first port of call.

I spent four days in Jerusalem. There were aspects of it that I enjoyed. The archaeological heritage of the city is just quite vast and immense, and one can definitely fill four days here with simply visiting historical sights. I will touch on those topics in more detail in later posts, but for now, I will talk about other things that bothered me.

Perhaps the thing that bothered me the most was the effect of religion on citizens' lives. See, religion is everywhere here in Jerusalem. The air is thick with it. You see religious people walking the streets, and while there are many forms of religious devotion, there are particular forms that are quite visible in the city.

First, you see the numerous Orthodox Jews. The most conservative of them definitely stand out from the crowd. You typically see them with plenty of kids in tow, dressed in modest clothing. You see implements of Judaism everywhere, especially on Shabbat. You get to know the Shabbat cellphone, the Shabbat elevator, among other implements. You slowly realize that Judaism is a religion that places a high emphasis on formalism, and from an outsider's perspective, one gets the idea that Judaism is a religion that is obsessed with formalistic rituals as a way of expressing one's faith.

I especially didn't like the fact that Judaism is imposed on every citizen and visitor here, even in small doses. Public transportation doesn't run on Shabbat for example, which is rather unthinkable in other countries, where public transportation still runs even on Sunday. Hotels do not have housekeeping services during Shabbat. It especially irritated me that civil society imposes restrictions on its citizens, when these restrictions are based on religion, and one cannot expect everyone to believe in this religion.

I am not being anti-Judaism here, I am just being anti-religion, and Judaism is simply one religion that made a negative impression on me. Let's talk about Christianity for a second. I visited several religious sites in the city as well, most of them inside the Old City. I observed devout Christian Orthodox believers flood into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They are also obsessed about form. They kiss the pillar at the entrance of the church, and then they go ahead and kneel right at the foyer so that they can kiss the Stone of Anointing, believed to be the piece of stone where Jesus' body was anointed before burial. Plenty of devout visitors go around the church, believing that this was the place where Jesus was killed. While I was there, I almost felt like I was out of place, having an out of body experience, wondering what the heck I was doing in a place that was so steeped in religion. I had a hard time reconciling the images of devout worshipers with the reality happening outside, where everyone just believed that they were correct and the others were wrong, and therefore they need to be killed. Just look at how many religious conflicts there are in the world today and in the past.

Let's talk about the Old City of Jerusalem. There are several quarters, depending on what your religion is. Jews would not want to be in the Muslim Quarter, and vice versa. As a foreigner, I felt quite immune and safe from these invisible boundaries, yet I had several acquaintances who would hesitate from turning into a street in the Old City, simply because they were not Muslim and the Muslim devout were exiting the Temple Mount en masse.

I hated Jerusalem. In my opinion, it is a physical manifestation of everything I abhor and despise about religion. In my opinion, it is a very sad and depressing place, where everyone just thinks that they cannot live in peace with another person as long as the other person doesn't share their vitriolic dogma. It would take some very good persuasive skills for someone to talk me into going back to Jerusalem. Because for me, Jerusalem does not appear inviting at all. Instead, for me Jerusalem symbolizes everything I find disgusting about dogma and religion, which has been the root of human suffering for ages.


  1. I understand your perspective, as an atheist. That said, much like you, I would fully expect a place like Jerusalem to be 100% focused on religion. I'm trying to think of a similar place I traveled to... nope, even in Latin America, if you don't feel like hearing about Jesus, well, just don't go to church (and expect some businesses to be closed on Sunday and on major catholic holidays).

    I wonder how Catholics are viewed in Israel and in Jerusalem...?

    1. Zhu,

      Interesting question re: Catholics. But I think it is hard to answer, since there are confounds to that question. There is a significant Palestinian/Arab population that is Christian, yet I have a hunch that those groups are marginalized as well, due to the fact that they are Palestinians/Arabs and not Jews. I think the majority of Christian visibility is due to religious tourists, who typically just come and go. That being said, I have read news recently about Christians complaining that they couldn't practice their rituals due to some hindrances set in place by (Orthodox) Jews, but don't quote me on that.

      See, the thing that makes this difficult is that there is a huge overlap between the concept of being a Jew as being a part of an ethnic group, and the concept of being a Jew that denotes someone practicing Judaism. It's hard to disentangle the two concepts, yet my hunch is that it is the religious factor that is actually the culprit here, rather than the ethnic factor.

  2. I enjoyed your report on Jerusalem. I never had any wish to visit this town as I guess it would be as you described. I remember sitting next to a Jewish man from Morocco in a plane who told me that he had emigrated to Israel and regretted it as he was Jewish but not religious and felt prejudiced upon because of his non religious views. The video you showed was great – loved it.

    1. Vagabonde,

      Yes, even secular Jews are slowly drifting away from the city and moving outside. We have a few friends who still live inside Jerusalem, and yet are already thinking to move out, because of the gradual shift in Jerusalem slowly being a more and more religious city. As you've said, there are people who are secular and feel they are prejudiced against because of their lack of religiosity.