When foreign correspondents come to Jerusalem they often ask me for advice on stories and places from which to witness the various conflicts that play out in this city. Next time, I’m going to buy them a ticket to the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo.
I go there every Saturday afternoon with my two-year-old son. But perhaps because our favorite animals (the cute little prairie dogs) have hibernated, I noticed that the zoo is a microcosm of all the things I covered here in a decade and a half as a journalist—conflicts which have turned up in my Palestinian crime novels, too.
Because despite being a writer of fiction, this is stuff you can’t make up. Read on, and you’ll see what I mean.
Conflict number 1: Ultra-religious Jews and secular Jews.
On the enclosure that’s home to the peccaries, there’s a sign in Hebrew and Yiddish. “Das ist nisht a khazir,” reads the Yiddish. “This is not a pig.” That’s because the large number of ultra-Orthodox Jews who cram the walkways of the zoo during the week would freak out if they thought there was a pig running on the sacred earth of Israel. (There used to be a pig farm in northern Israel where the swine were elevated on wooden platforms so they didn’t touch the holy land.)
The zoo’s original idea was to display only animals that appeared in the Bible. A special prize to any reader who can find me a peccary in the Bible. (The Chosen People wandered a long time, but I believe they didn’t claim to have made it to Central America.)
Conflict number 2: Secular Jews and ultra-religious Jews.
Of course, on Saturday afternoon, when I usually hit the zoo, there aren’t any ultra-Orthodox Jews there. They’re either dipping back and forth in prayer at the shtieblach or sleeping off a big Sabbath lunch. The fact that people like me can go to the zoo during the Sabbath is a secret from the ultra-religious. A woman passing through the gate asked about that fact recently. The guard explained, “We’re told to tell the dossim [rather negative Hebrew slang for the ultra-Orthodox] that we’re closed on the Sabbath.”
So you can violate the Sabbath if you keep it a secret and adopt strange little dodges to stay within the letter of the law. The zoo doesn’t sell memberships on the weekend. It does sell tickets. But not from its regular ticket booth. It sets up a little kiosk a few yards away, so that it can claim that its ticket office is truly closed on the Sabbath. Just in case any of those dossim bother to ask…
Conflict number 3: Israelis and Palestinians
Just down from the elephant enclosure the zoo is preparing a new exhibit. It looks quite exciting. There are pools of carp and water falls. Rumor among the regulars is that we’ll soon be able to stroll among sea lions down there. As I was gazing longingly over the new layout (have you got it by now—I’m even more excited by the weekly zoo trip than my son), I glanced down at the checkpoint.
A small white hut, a raised bar and green-and-white concrete blocks, it looks rather like the old Checkpoint Charlie, except that it’s at the bottom of a deep, dusty valley spotted with olive trees. Checkpoints looked this way when I first came to Jerusalem 13 years ago. Most of the main ones have since been turned into enormous terminals, filled with security gear, designed to prevent potential suicide bombers from walking or driving right up to Israeli soldiers. But this checkpoint hasn’t changed. I sighed with something like nostalgia for the old days.
“That’s the West Bank right there,” said my wife.
“Yeah, this road goes around the back of that hill and into the Sidr checkpoint at the top of Beit Jala,” I said.
It’s a beautiful drive, even if the names signify conflict. This is the way I used to go to Bethlehem during the intifada. It takes you to the Christian village of Beit Jala where I set much of my first novel THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM.
I pointed toward the hillside. “That rectangular, cream-colored building. That’s Cremisan, the monastery in Beit Jala where they make wine.”
My wife didn’t ask me if the wine was any good—she’s the one who benefits most from the fact that I’m tee-total, if you see what I mean. But I saw her eyebrows rise. I wondered if she was thinking how nice it is that wine is grown in a town that has Hamas members on its city council.
Conflict number 4: Arabs and Jews
Most of the week the bulk of the visitors to the Jerusalem Zoo are either the black-clad ultra-Orthodox Jews and their crowds of children, or East Jerusalem Arabs, their women’s heads covered. The Arabs bring crowds of children too. It’s one of the few public places where these two groups mix. The city’s hospitals are the others main locations for such frissons. If I was naïve, I’d say it’s a sign that beneath everything there’s hope that these two peoples can live together in peace.
But I’m not naïve, and the hospitals aren’t so nice. I just like zoos.
Conflict number 5: Lemurs and humans.
Lemurland is an enclosure of olive trees at the zoo where you walk through on a path surrounded by the animals. The ring-tailed lemurs are supposed to frolic delightfully while you watch. They don’t seem to have received that message. They keep jumping on people. Lemurland is closed briefly every time the lemurs get into someone’s bag of corn chips.
Are the lemurs mad? Perhaps they’re angry because, though they’re caged up at the Biblical Zoo, they didn’t get a mention in the Bible. Strange, because that doesn’t seem to bother the meerkats.