The Problem for Old City Settlers

I noticed the pejorative “settler” intentionally used in a brochure advertising tours of settler communities inside the Old City. The intention of the tour obviously was to negatively highlight the growing presence of Jews in both the Muslim and Christian Quarters of the Old City.

I didn’t participate in that tour – though I would like to do so one day – but I did tag along on a tour that was intended to positively highlight both the historical and currently growing presence of Jews in the Muslim and Christian Quarters of the Old City. In other words, it was intended to be the polar opposite of the “settler” tour.

On this tour I easily noticed the anger of Arab shopkeepers (of all ages) as our guide led us through the market. I also noticed that the younger the shopkeeper, the more likely he was to verbalize his anger toward these Jewish interlopers. And thus was born the idea to stop by one of the “settler” shops in the Muslim Quarter and talk with the owner.

A few days later after my Arabic class, I stopped by a “settler” shop and visited with the owner to see what it was like for him to open his business in the midst of people who despise his existence in that spot. I wanted to know how he gets along in this neighborhood. What he told me surprised me.

Our conversation was conducted only in Hebrew, which took some dogged determination on my part since I was in Arabic immersion mode. I thought speaking in Hebrew (rather than English) would help him feel more comfortable with my questions; and I thought accidentally dropping an Arabic word in the conversation would be unhelpful.

He was a very friendly guy whose name slips me at the moment. His religious and political identifications were “provocatively” and openly displayed from the front door to the back wall of his shop, so there was no need to ask if he was Jewish. So, after a bit of small talk, I was easily able to move into the questions that interested me.

“What’s it like to have your business here? Do you have problems with the neighbors?” I asked, wasting no time getting to the heart of my interest. He seemed to dismiss my serious question with a question of his own: “Who doesn’t have problems?” I know everybody has problems, but I wanted to know about HIS problems as an orthodox Jew setting up shop in the midst of Muslim shopkeepers in the Muslim Quarter!

“The problems aren’t the problem,” he continued, “the solution to the problems is the problem.” Now, that may take some time to digest, but it is definitely worth thinking on. This statement moved our conversation in another more philosophical direction, but at this point, I was along for the ride.

While we were talking, I was watching the neighbors to see how they reacted toward him. And though I didn’t really notice any obvious signs of distaste, I didn’t notice any warmth toward him either. Perhaps they had just decided to ignore him. (I think I’ll try to visit the Muslim shopkeepers next.) He tried to persuade me that he doesn’t have any issues with his Muslim neighbors. At least nothing new. That’s an interesting thought.

And then, the surprising statement: “Our problems with the Muslims aren’t as serious as our problems with the Christians.” I didn’t respond; I just waited for him to explain, which he did: “Our problem with Muslims is physical. When a finger is cut off, it’s a problem, but it’s only physical.” “Okay, . . . continue” I thought to myself as I nodded to prod him along. “Our problem with Christians is spiritual. Taking my finger is a problem, but taking my soul is much worse. And we’ve had this problem for 2000 years; much longer than our problems with the Muslims” he explained.

That thought isn’t foreign to me. In fact, any mention of Christian missionaries, Jews for Jesus, or Messianic Jews in the Jerusalem Post or Arutz 7 is sure to draw similar statements in the comments forum. It’s not uncommon to hear religious Jews say (or write) “missionaries are worse than Hitler. He only wanted to kill our bodies.”

What may be surprising to some of my readers, especially those who see themselves as Zionists, was that this “settler” who lives in the midst of daily tensions (social and political) about his presence among Muslims, was so quick to dismiss those problems and highlight what he sees as a far more serious problem: the Christians and their message.

We talked more about the Bible and the messiah, and when he was ready to get back to work, he drew our conversation to a close with this witty thought: “Do you know what Jews say when we’re talking about the messiah with Christians?” Yes, but I thought I would let him deliver the punchline: “When messiah returns, we’ll ask him if it is his first or second visit. Then we’ll know for sure.”

With that, he shook my hand and went back to work.

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