It is Good Friday. Actually, it is a great Friday. About 25° C (77°F), sunny, light breeze in the air. While I was thinking of how to begin this piece, Sebastian Engelbrecht of Bavarian State Radio beat me to the best opening. "Today, in Jerusalem, everybody is equal. It is Good Friday for Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and Protestants; Passover for Jews; and Muslims will attend Friday prayers. People from all over the world are streaming into Jerusalem." There is no more important city in the world today for the faithful, whatever their faith. Others will write about the religious aspects of the day, Yes, those are impressive celebrations, and it is a joy to see so many people peacefully professing their faith in so many different ways yet always directed towards the same God. The people most responsible for insuring that all runs smoothly today will, if all does run smoothly remain almost invisible. The Israeli military, border police, and local Jerusalem police have carefully planned how to insure that all the groups which need access to areas in Jerusalem's Old City have it. Roads have been blocked off to insure smooth traffic flow. When an Israeli soldier on traffic duty tells you that you may not pass, he is speaking with the power of Gandalf, the wizard in Lord of the Rings. The only thing missing is his wizard's staff. Watching the woman in the picture try to argue her way past (that is her cab behind her) brought smiles to our faces, and, eventually, she was going to have to find another way to where ever she was headed. The way she was gesticulating, it seemed she was going to have to go all the way to Amman, Jordan, to reach her destination.
On foot, through the Zion Gate, our favorite way into the Old City, there was no traffic. There were almost no people! We passed one group of pilgrims, and we entered the City as if it were any other day. We headed straight for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where we figured the crowds would prevent us even getting close. Evidently, we were very early because we ended up at the final checkpoint before the Church. We noted the knots (as in at least ten) Israeli security guards at the intersections and along the final streets leading to the Church. The guards were clearly relaxing, having a little breakfast, and in general, not paying much attention to the crowd. Now, this is misleading. There were always at least four men (no women today) watching carefully, insuring that all went smoothly. We passed traffic barricades ready to be moved into place to help guide the pilgrims towards the Church. One road we walked on had huge awnings over it, crowd barriers to help keep order, and big screen tvs ready to go for services. The awnings were to try to shield the faithful from the intense sun. The security personnel were ready for anything. Riot helmets were on shoulders or in backpacks, kevlar vests were packed with all the gear needed for the day, including at least three water bottles, and first aid kits visible on every soldier.
Noa and I stayed around long enough to enjoy the crowds, watch one group of pilgrims after another complete their march on the Via Dolorosa, and then decided it was time to move along. The crowd was growing quickly and we didn't want to be on the wrong side of the barriers trying to explain to an Israeli policeman why he should let us through....
So we headed back into the alleyways and made our way through the Cardo to a spot we know has a great view of the Western Wall and Temple Mount. There were more Jews around due to Passover festivities. But, there were almost no visible security personnel. Oh, a solider here and there, but nothing out of the ordinary. Down at the Western Wall and up on the walkway leading to the Temple Mount, there was the usual Friday complement of guards and police.
The one interaction we chose not to view was further back along the Via Dolorosa. Christians marching the Stations of the Cross have to walk West to follow the route. Muslims trying to get to the Temple Mount, a traditional gathering place during and after Friday prayers have to cross the Via Dolorosa heading South. Israeli security folks evidently stop the Christians every few meters with barricades to allow the Muslims to cross. Watch tonight's news to find out if all went well.
Why a focus on Israel's military today? On this Great Friday, they are demonstrating why, under any proposed peace plan, they should remain the only military force in the Old City. Unlike the Jordanians who barred Jews from the Old City for the 19 years they were a military presence and unlike the Palestinians who seem hell-bent on creating violence in the Old City, the Israeli military allows equal access to the important sites in the Old City to any peaceful person who wants it. They have done it since 1967, they continue to do it today. Well done, gentlemen (and, because we know there are women working invisibly behind you, ladies.) I can hardly wait for Sunday.....Easter and the end of Passover on the same day!