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Jewish New Year: A Tale of Two Jerusalems

Jerusalem24 Noelle Mafarjeh, Ehab Tahboub and Nadeen Alshaer – Last Sunday night marked the start of the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), a 48-hour celebration that opens a 10-day period of festivities and religious commemorations known as the Jewish High Holidays.

Also known as the High Holy Days or the Ten Days of Repentance, they fall on the first ten days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, beginning with Rosh Hashanah – this year, September 25 to 27. The new year is followed by the Fast of Gedalia, a half-day fast which is only observed from dawn of the third day until dusk of that same day, followed by a special Shabbat that bears its own name, Shabbat Shuvah. The tenth day – and the last – is the Biblically-mandated fast of Yom Kippur, a strict day of rest and of fasting.

But while the holiday is a festive occasion for Jewish people around the world, as well as for Jewish Israelis, a very different picture plays out for the Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem, who see heightened restrictions, police presence, and tensions all round in their home city.

No business as usual

Rosh Hashanah is an Israeli public as well as a religious holiday, and all schools, government, and public institutions are closed.

For the Palestinians living in the Old City of Jerusalem (who comprise some 90% of its 36,000 inhabitants) and for whom school, work, and life are meant to go on as usual, “these are not easy days,” says Jerusalem24 correspondent Reema Mustafa. “For them, it’s seeing additional checkpoints within and without the Old City. For them, it’s seeing clashes near their home.”

One Israeli public institution that does remain open – and even more active than usual – is the police and military, with an additional 5,000 officers and troops stationed around Jerusalem during the holiday.

“It feels like you’re going through a military zone,” Jerusalemite activist Adnan Barq tells Jerusalem24. “In every corner and on every street you have at least four to six soldiers.”

And it’s not just soldiers carrying weapons. Head of the Police Operations Department, Colonel Ofir Bender, recommended during a radio interview last week that Jewish worshipers carry their personal weapons when attending places of worship and synagogues during the Jewish New Year, due to a “high likelihood” of incidents happening during times of worship.

“You can see more civilians holding weapons,” says Reema, “like we saw when Israelis went to pray in the Kotel [the Wailing Wall] two days ago, there were a lot of people holding weapons.”

Reema points out it is of course impossible to know whether the civilians carrying weapons now are long-time or first-time firearm license-holders, and whether they are actually answering Ofir Bender’s call to bear arms.

A Palestinian man walks in the Old City of Jerusalem, which is under heavy security during the Jewish new year, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. [Credit: AP]
It is also not the first such call that has been issued by a high-ranking Israeli official: in March this year, then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett issued the same suggestion to the public following several attacks by Palestinians in cities inside Israel. Over the following two months, the number of firearm license applications soared in Israel.

But while a visibly greater number of firearms in the possession of soldiers and settlers on the streets of Jerusalem may make certain Israelis feel safer, for the Palestinians who frequently find themselves at the other end of the barrel, a different reality presents itself.

“From the Palestinian point of view, they see it as a trigger for increasing the violence,” says Reema, underlining the inherent distrust of Palestinian Jerusalemites for Israeli soldiers – and even more so, settlers – to make sparing or judicious use of their weapons. “Sometimes, they can just shoot Palestinians without any reason.”

A trip to the grocery store

Rosh Hashanah meals typically include apples dipped in honey to symbolize a sweet new year; the head of a fish to symbolize the prayer; dates, black-eyed peas, leeks, spinach, and gourd. Pomegranates are used in many traditions, a symbol of fruitfulness like the pomegranate with its many seeds; and round challah bread is served, to symbolize the cycle of a full year.

These and other traditions are alive and well: Israelis consume about 76% more apples during the High Holidays than on any average week of the year. And the quantity of pomegranates sold during the holiday week constitutes a full 15% of the amount of pomegranates sold during the entire year.

A simple trip to the shop for apples, however, entails a very different experience for Jewish Israelis preparing for a feast and for the Palestinians living a few streets down in the Old City.

“When I go to the grocery shop, I of course carry my ID,” says Adnan. “The soldiers keep looking you up and down as if you are of a different breed. They stop us randomly and ask for our IDs. They treat us as foreigners. They want you, as a Jerusalemite from the Old City, to keep all of your identification cards with you all time – like they don’t already have a tablet with all the information.”

While checkpoints and ID checks are nothing new to Palestinian Jerusalemites, the additional restrictions to Palestinian movement are especially tough during Jewish holidays.

According to Reema, “this is exactly a reflection of what happens during Israeli or Jewish holidays. For example, we saw this morning that a lot of Palestinians coming from inside Israel to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque were prevented from entering – while Israeli settler groups were allowed inside.”

Adnan continues, “I’ve been witnessing this since I was at school because my school is close to Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

The restrictions will stay in place until the end of the High Holidays.

Orthodox Jews pass Israeli soldiers in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem. [Source: The Guardian]

“Like strangers in our own city”

While this new year saw a lower number of incidents within the walls of the Old City, some of these incidents were particularly violent. An elderly Palestinian man sustained head injuries when an Israeli soldier shoved him onto the stone pavement, and the soldiers around initially prevented paramedics from administering him with first aid.

But while assaults leading to physical injuries are a reality Palestinian Jerusalemites must contend with, other, more routine incidents can feel like violence as well.

Adnan gives free flow to his frustration as he talks about being repeatedly stopped for ID checks by Israeli soldiers as soon as he leaves his front door.

“If you tell them you don’t have your ID card, you can tell them your ID number and they can check it on their tablet. So they can just input your ID number and see your information. But they refuse, and request you should carry all your ID papers all the time.”

“Why? If you have my number, you have this information on this stupid device that you have,” exclaims Adnan. “So it’s like a way to make us feel like we are just strangers without our identification papers, as if we are strangers when we are actually 80 meters away from our own house.”

An Israeli border police officer stands at her post near al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem that is under heightened security for Rosh Hashanah, September 26 2022. [Credit: AP]
The current situation in the Old City, including the increased police and army presence, is the culmination of several weeks of increased tension in Jerusalem and the West Bank, says Reema.

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid held a meeting with King Abdallah II of Jordan in the days ahead of the holiday, presumably to stave off tensions and a potential escalation. This will have been of particular interest to Lapid, as the political establishment in Israel is still facing a reckoning following the May 2021 uprising of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship alongside Palestinians of Jerusalem and the West Bank, following repeated Israeli violations at the Al-Aqsa Mosque which eventually led Hamas to engage Israel in a deadly exchange of rockets and missiles which killed over 260 Palestinians in Gaza, including 67 children.

King Abdallah called for “the respect of the status quo” at Al-Aqsa during this year’s High Holidays.

While the status quo – which implies respect for Jordanian custodianship of the site as well as a ban on Jewish prayer taking place within the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound – was repeatedly violated during the 48 hours of the Jewish New Year, Palestinian Jerusalemites recorded a relatively low number of injuries and arrests conducted by Israeli forces during the holiday. However, Reema emphasizes that if the situation on the ground changes, everything can change, and fast.

“This is something that plays out in the field,” asserts Reema. “They cannot control the situation through politics.”

Freedom of worship – for some

An important religious tradition that takes place during Rosh Hashanah is the blowing of the shofar, a trumpet made of the horn of an animal. Signifying amongst other things the coronation of God as King of the world, the shofar must be blown multiple times over the two days of the Jewish New Year, and ideally in a synagogue during prayer services.

But while tradition suggests the shofar be blown in the synagogue, extremist settler and religious groups and far-right figures have taken to blowing the shofar at Muslim holy sites in the Old City (even offering financial rewards for whoever does so) particularly Al-Aqsa Mosque which they say sits on the site of the ancient Second Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Some extremist settler groups regularly call for the destruction of Al-Aqsa Mosque to enable the construction of a Third Temple in its stead.

The decades-old consensus between Jordan, Palestine and Israel, according to which Jordan holds custodianship of the holy site and the Islamic Waqf administers it, forbids Jewish prayer at the site.

While in recent months, this agreement is breached on a near-daily basis by religious settlers breaking into the courtyards of the Mosque under the protection of Israeli police, “it’s really painful” when this happens on religious holidays, says Adnan.

“When we talk about Al-Aqsa Mosque we don’t talk about worshiping only. We talk about the place where we grew up, and where we hang out. It means everything for us.”

Adnan explains that while Jewish prayer is enabled and encouraged by Israeli authorities, Palestinian freedom of worship – both for Christians and Muslims – is curtailed even more during Israeli holidays than it usually is.

“On the last Holy Fire Saturday for Christians, a limited amount of Christians were allowed to go to the Holy Sepulcher church to pray,” recounts Adnan. “This was all an excuse to limit the reach of Palestinian Christians in the Old City to their own church. They are separating us, as Palestinians who want to go to pray in the church, from tourists who come from Europe or anywhere in Israel, who can just pass directly on to the church.”

“When it comes to Islamic celebrations, they also level up the security,” continues Adnan. “By now, it’s very normalized. But when it comes to high tension days, it’s different, because you see how they are preventing Muslims from entering [Al-Aqsa Mosque] while Jewish people can have their tours inside. It’s really painful because for us Al-Aqsa is not only a religious place to pray.”

“In the Old City we are all living in really small houses. We don’t have a backyard. So the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque and its courtyards are not only a mosque for us, they are also a backyard, a second home for every Palestinian of Jerusalem.”

“So when we talk about Al-Aqsa Mosque we don’t talk about worshiping only. We talk about the place where we grew up, and where we hang out. It means everything for us.”

Palestinian youths hold their skateboards while standing on a rooftop in Jerusalem’s Old City February 7, 2021. [Credit: Ammar Awad/Reuters]

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