Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in a semester-long series. For the first time in about six years, the BYU Jerusalem Center has opened its doors to 44 BYU students. Stephanie Schaerr is writing about their experiences in Jerusalem.
Last Tuesday, two yellow bulldozers scooped earth from the ramp leading to the Haram el-Sharif, or Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City. While police and newscasters surrounded the activity, the sound of jackhammers commingled with the midday Muslim prayer call.
A news van waited just outside the gate, and I watched as a photographer posed a policeman to become the foreground of a symbolic shot with the controversial construction zone over his shoulder. He was to be a protector of the peace, standing before a potentially incendiary situation between the religious groups who venerate the Western Wall and the Al Aqsa mosque, which would both appear in the background. But there was little to protect the peace from. Last Tuesday, as we toured the familiar area with our History of Judaism professor, the square in front of the holy complex was calm.
But the peace would not last long.
The news came to us as I sat down to eat my falafel sandwich at lunch Friday. David Whitchurch, our religion professor, came into the cafeteria and announced protests had broken out in the Old City. We poured out of the doors onto the balcony to see smoke rising from behind the Dome of the Rock mosque and to hear dozens of small explosions as people lit fireworks from their East Jerusalem apartment windows to show either support or protest. Sirens squealed intermittently as angry yells rang out from the complex that houses both the Al Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, and the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism.
Worried and saddened by the situation unfolding before our eyes, we did what we always do – we sang hymns like “Lead Kindly Light,” “Be Still My Soul” and “Where Can I Turn For Peace.”
Though we were distressed, we were not in danger. As always, our security personnel kept us safe. The Old City and East Jerusalem had been off-limits for several days in anticipation of protests against Israeli renovation work occurring near the Western Wall that some Muslims think will damage their own holy site. The protests lasted about an hour and a half Friday, but they picked up again Saturday with young Palestinians setting garbage cans on fire and pelting stones at a Canadian tour bus. To our sadness but for our safety, we will likely be restricted from entering those areas for a while to come.
We watched CNN during the initial disturbance Friday, and the pictures we saw were some of the most disheartening ones I’ve ever seen, simply because over the past month I’ve grown to know and love the people here. As I watched the footage of angry faces and tear gas, I thought to myself, “These are not the people I know.” These are not the ones who have opened their arms so wide to welcome us into their shops. They’re not the ones who have stopped us in the street to ask us about our lives or to help us with our Arabic. The Israeli police who now seem so menacing in their riot gear are not the attractive young men I’ve been tempted to flirt with when I’ve seen them walking through the city. These people with angry faces are strangers to me, and I want my friends back.
Stephanie Schaerr is a former metro editor for The Daily Universe. See dailyuniverse.byu.edu for her past columns about her experiences in Jerusalem.