I’ve received a number of texts, emails and calls expressing concern about my safety after Trump’s announcement declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his intentions of moving the US embassy. Thank you to all of you for getting in touch, and I am sorry not to have written here sooner to assure you that I’m absolutely fine. It has not been political instability and unrest that has caused my silence, but a rather nasty flu virus that kept me close to home for a week.
Many of you have asked what it is like being here at this time. It’s felt like this: When I lived in Japan for a year after university, I got quite used to experiencing small earthquakes. But each time one happened, especially if we were in school, there was that brief moment as the ground shook when everyone froze, waiting to see how long it would continue, how bad it would be, ready to move quickly to safety.
When news broke that Trump was planning his speech, it was like one of those first tremors. We were all on edge. We live in a tinder box and the tiniest spark can start a fire. No one knew whether Trump’s announcement would be like adding petrol to the pile and lighting a match. And to some extent, we still don’t. We still don’t know what the wider repercussions will be.
We don’t know how our neighbouring countries might respond.
We don’t know how long the protests in East Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories will last or whether they might become increasingly violent.
We don’t know if this (in addition to Israel’s destruction of another tunnel) will lead to another war with Gaza.
We don’t know whether news of the unrest and uncertainty will drive away tourists and pilgrims just at the time that tourism was starting to recover from the last Gaza war.
There have certainly been cries from Hamas for a new intifada, from Hezbollah calling for the end of Israel, from Fatah urging days of rage. There has been exuberant triumphalism from the Israeli right. There have been clashes between Israeli soldiers and police and Palestinian protestors. You’ve seen it on the news.
But (and I’m speaking from my position here in the Galilee where protests have been considerably less intense), a weariness and wariness seems to surround this latest flare up. Friday was tense, but Israel chose not to restrict access to Al Aqsa Mosque for Muslims going to pray. Violence has been isolated, in the places we sadly have come to expect it; it has not spread. (Edited to add: I’ve just spoken to a couple of volunteers working in the West Bank who have said that there has been a heightened Israeli military presence monitoring activities in areas where the military rarely goes, especially in parts of Area A, the cities under the civil and military control of the Palestinian Authority.)
Ordinary people really just want to get on with their lives. We all want to go out to eat, to shop, to work, to study, to be with friends, to pray without fear. And setting aside the freighted, complex political statement regarding Jerusalem as a symbol, on which every single person living in this country will have a strong opinion, what we all share is the fury that a completely unnecessary, yet inflammatory, pronouncement was made with such carelessness, without any acknowledgement that Jerusalem is an actual city, in a real-life part of a physical world, where flesh-and-blood humans have to live with the consequences of words.
Not all protests have been violent. It’s important to remember that. Because those stories don’t make the news. Bethlehem shut off its Christmas lights in Manger Square in response to Trump’s announcement. In this season when we talk about light shining in darkness, the absence of lights makes the night very dark indeed. And a friend sent me a picture of two young Muslim women sitting outside Damascus gate, feeding Maklubeh (a dish of rice and chicken) to all who passed by. Asked by journalists why this meal, why this place, they replied that it was in protest of Trump.
We don’t know what will be in the coming weeks. But the young women’s ‘feeding of the masses’, as my friend put it, is a beautiful act of resistance. It is a moving reminder of how simple hospitality and generosity can be a profound symbol of shared humanity. When you see the images on the news, when you hear the clashing stories of anger and triumph, when you think there is only despair … friends, remember these two women, and know that there is always hope.