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Dr. Catherine Chatterley

View of Jerusalem from Yad Vashem
Photo by C. Chatterley

The Western Wall
Photo by C. Chatterley


By Dr. Catherine Chatterley, Jan 27, 2014

Editor's note: Dr. Chatterley just returned from her first trip to Israel as part of the Canadian PM's delegation. In the article below she reflects on her experiences at some of the places she visited.

Click here for photographs of Jerusalem in a slideshow made for my students.

The Muristan

Most of the shops in the Muristan (streets and shops of the Christian quarter) are owned by Palestinian Muslims who cater to Christian pilgrims by selling all sorts of icons, sacred objects, and jewelry. I met a family with several stores very close to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and spent an hour talking to two brothers in their 50s and their father, who as a young boy fled Jerusalem for Hebron in the midst of the 1948 war. I was shopping for (Christian) gifts for my parents and when they discovered that I was Canadian they were very curious to know why the Prime Minister was visiting the area. They served me fresh lemonade, gave me a bottle of Holy Water from the River Jordan (where Jesus was immersed by John the Baptist—think mikveh rather than baptismal font), and showed me all sorts of photographs of the father with the Jordanian King—he owned a travel company in his early years.

The Muezzin sang the afternoon call to prayer while I was in the store and it was really beautiful in that context. I asked the son if he had to go to the mosque now and he explained that people do their own thing in that area of the Old City. Some people pray in their stores or not at all, but it is best to pray at the mosque, he said.

The father was a very dignified man in a shirt and tie with impeccable English. He expressed his frustration with the politics of the region, with the Israeli government, with the Palestinian leadership and its corruption, and with the American peace process, which he did not seem to trust or value. I empathized with their frustration and exhaustion.

Then, the father told me in no uncertain terms: “there are ten million Jews in the United States and they run the world.”

I thought, oh boy, you have no idea who you have sitting in your shop.

I corrected him and said, “No, there are six million Jews in the US and six million Jews in Israel, with a total population of 14 million in the world. And Jews do not run the world—this is a fallacy.” I explained that all democracies have lobbies and that whether we like it or not this is how the political process operates, especially in the US. Israel has a lobby but so do many other nations and industries and causes. I tried to explain that the same WASP elites are in powerful positions in the Americas and Europe, just as they have been until recently in the Middle East. Overall, and despite centuries of persecution and exclusion, Jews have been a successful but tiny minority in the modern West, and while diaspora Jewry certainly supports Israel, they hardly control the world.

I am not sure whether my words had any impact on their thinking, but I hope they did. I gave them CISA’s website and told them to check it out. They continued to recognize me by name in the Muristan and welcome me in for tea in subsequent days on my way past their stores, clearly demonstrating an incredibly dignified hospitality and a willingness to have a civil discussion. 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Old City is truly one of the most fascinating places on earth and its holy sites are mythological in their spiritual profundity and historical significance. I felt a deep sense of peace in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre despite the enormous crowds and somewhat chaotic atmosphere. People tell you that it will be impossible to pray or meditate in this gigantic structure for these reasons, but that was not my experience at all. There is today a broad consensus that the tomb of Jesus is actually located in the Aedicule, while debate continues on the actual location of Calvary (Golgotha), the site of Jesus’s crucifixion. Both the tomb and the site of execution were outside the city walls at the time (somewhere between 27 and 33 CE). The Church of the Holy Sepulchre houses the tomb, Calvary, the Anointing Stone (where Jesus’s body was washed and anointed before burial), the scourging pillar, and the area where Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, is believed to have found the True Cross.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has a very complex history having been destroyed by Muslim armies, several fires, renovated constantly, and eventually expanded to incorporate, under one roof, a number of individual chapels. Today’s structure is largely the product of renovations by the European Crusaders. The church is shared by several denominations: Eastern Orthodoxy (most adherents live in Eastern Europe, Greece, and the Middle East), Oriental Orthodoxy (including the Coptic, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Syriac, Malankara Syrian, and Armenian Apostolic churches), and Roman Catholicism. It is also the main office for the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Several Protestant sects recognize another site called the Garden Tomb (outside the Old City in East Jerusalem) as the location of the crucifixion and tomb, although there is very little scholarly support for this view.

Still today two Muslim families named Joudeh and Nusseibeh keep the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In the morning, a male member of the first clan opens the church and a male member of the second clan locks the church doors every evening. Very little changes here because of the deep divisions and battles for control between these Christian sects as symbolized by the “Immovable Ladder,” lying under the window at the front of the church since the 18th century, and the church’s system of Status Quo: an understanding that no cleric of the six ecumenical Christian orders may move, rearrange, or alter any property without the consent of all six orders (Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Coptic Christians, and Ethiopians).

The young Greek Orthodox monks who administer the visits to the tomb inside the church, letting ten or so people in at a time, are pretty crusty characters. The physical brawls that have happened between denominations over perceived slights and conflicts over territory are not so surprising once you meet the young men who maintain the place. However, I noticed one of these young men affected by a dark-haired young woman holding a little girl (yes, the image of Madonna and Child was too obvious to ignore) and he allowed them to cut in line and enter the tomb immediately. It was quite interesting to observe.

Every Friday Franciscan monks (a Catholic monastic order established by Saint Francis of Assisi) lead a pilgrimage along the Via Dolorosa retracing Jesus’s steps through the 14 Stations of the Cross, beginning with his condemnation by Pilate at the Antonia Fortress (now a courtyard of the el-Omary Madrasah, an Islamic school) and ending with his burial in the tomb of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Legend tells us that after the Muslim conquering of Jerusalem in 637, Caliph Omar refused to pray at the church because if he did the church would be automatically turned into a mosque; instead, he prayed in the courtyard. Later, in 1193, the Mosque of Omar was built beside the church in memory of this event. The bloody First Crusade of 1099 clearly demonstrates the great risk taken if one were to threaten this holiest site of Christianity.

Muslims are among the visitors to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as Jesus (Isa) is a recognized prophet in Islam and his mother Mary (Maryam) is also a deeply respected figure who is not only mentioned by name in the Quran but has the 19th chapter (sura) of the text named after her. Unfortunately, the same reciprocity is not extended to Christians and Jews in the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, which non-Muslims are not allowed to enter. In fact, the Prime Minister (who they made an exception for) did not enter either site because his Jewish guards could not go in with him on this recent visit to Jerusalem. I am told that some Christians have entered these sites early in the morning but access by non-Muslims appears to be unpredictable at best.

The Yad Vashem Standard

Yad Vashem is the finest Holocaust museum in the world and it is hard to imagine any other institution surpassing it. Not only is this due to the unique content of its collection and its meaningful architectural design, but also to the history of the place itself and the impact made by so many of the survivor-historians associated with Yad Vashem since its founding in 1953.

The museum, and the field of Holocaust Studies, is losing the last members of this founding group of individuals whose scholarly knowledge, multilingualism, connection to the lost world of Jewish Europe, and personal experience of the Holocaust made them indispensible experts. Last year, a major loss was Israel Gutman, academic advisor to Yad Vashem, scholar of and witness to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, who survived Majdanek, Auschwitz, and Mauthausen.

The sole focus of our tour through Yad Vashem was the systematic destruction of Europe’s Jews, which is precisely what the Holocaust was. There was no hesitation or confusion on the part of our excellent tour guide, no contrived attempts at a forced universalism or multicultural inclusionism—the museum focuses specifically and unapologetically on the history of the Jewish Holocaust. It also ends with sections on the Jewish refugee crisis, displaced persons camps, the rise of Zionism, illegal immigration into the yishuv, and the future establishment of a Jewish state to solve this crisis created by WWII. 

Some of the truly unique artifacts displayed in the museum result from the fact that so many survivors ended up living in Israel after 1945. Three strong examples are Abba Kovner’s revolver, which he carried as leader of the Jewish Partisans around Vilna after 1943; the camera used by Zvi Kadushin to photograph life in the Landsberg DP camp after the war (he also took photographs in the Kovno Ghetto covertly from 1942-44); and, Ka-Tzetnik’s prisoner uniform from Auschwitz. Ka-Tzetnik (also known as Yehiel De-Nur) wrote novels about the Holocaust that were controversial due to their pornographic content. He came to public prominence for fainting during his testimony at the Eichmann Trial.

A facsimile of Schindler’s List is displayed—the original list is in the Yad Vashem Archives. A Danish bicycle and rowboat used in the rescue of Jews in October 1943 are part of the exhibit as well. At the end of the museum, the Hall of Names is a powerful effort at acknowledgment and remembrance, reminiscent of Yaffa Eliach’s Tower of Faces in the USHMM, which memorializes the people of her hometown of Eishishok. In this repository, Yad Vashem attempts to house the names and identities of each and every Jew killed during the Holocaust.

Finally, we approach the end of the museum leaving through the glass door at the end of the long concrete A-Frame, and walk out into fresh air and an incredibly beautiful view of Jerusalem in the here-and-now. Moshe Safdie is an architectural genius. Without compromising or reducing the horror of what we have just witnessed in the museum, the visitor leaves and looks toward a Jewish future characterized by survival and continuity.


The Israel Museum

The archeology and history galleries of the Israel Museum thoroughly document the Jewish presence in the region for thousands of years as well as that of the neighboring peoples and empires and the most ancient human presence in this important land bridge between Asia and Africa.

The Greek and Roman sections exhibit the most incredible mosaic floors and also display two key artifacts: the ossuary (bone box) of Joseph Caiaphas, the High Priest who charged Jesus with blasphemy according to the Gospels; and a piece of stone with a Latin inscription that refers to Pontius Pilate, fifth Roman Procurator of Judea. These items are of great historical significance because they offer hard physical evidence of the existence of these men, who are known to us through literary reference.  

There is a Judaica gallery that features artifacts and ceremonial objects from Jewish life across the world, and there are rooms with reconstructed original synagogues from India, Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Poland.

The Shrine of the Book displays fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, found in Qumran between 1947 and 1956. These are the oldest copies we have of the Hebrew Scriptures, including every book except the Book of Esther.

There is also a model of Jerusalem in 66 CE, the year of the Great Revolt against Rome, and it includes a replica of the Second Temple that is used in many documentaries on the subject. It was brought to the Israel Museum from the Holyland Hotel, where it was a display commissioned by the owner Hans Kroch in memory of his son, who died in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.

Chagall in the Knesset

By parliamentary standards, the Knesset is an extremely modest structure. Given the socialist values of the founding generations in Israel I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise. Marc Chagall, however, designed one room used for state functions. From 1965 to 1969 Chagall created three huge tapestries forming a triptych that covers the wall behind the podium and they are truly spectacular.

Reading right to left, the first tapestry illustrates Jacob's dream, the revelation on Mount Sinai, and the Akeda (the binding of Isaac) symbolizing the covenant between G-d and Israel. The center panel adds the Land of Israel to this covenantal relationship with Moses receiving the Law and travelling toward the Promised Land. King David plays his harp, a village burns symbolizing the Holocaust, and Aaron faces a candelabrum signifying the state. The last panel focuses specifically on Jerusalem as the center of Jewish experience through history.

Jerusalem: The Eternal City

Without question, Jerusalem is one of the most interesting places on earth, especially for a historian. It truly is the meeting place of the three great monotheistic faiths. The history of each tradition and its relationship to the other two binds them together inextricably in a complex web of hatred, violence and competition, but also human friendship and respectful accommodation. An interesting and very readable history of the city is Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Whatever agreements result from negotiations about this city, the holy sites of Jerusalem must always be protected, preserved, and made accessible for people of all faiths.


Dr. Catherine Chatterley directs the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (CISA) and teaches history at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada.




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