Life in Jerusalem During Operation White Robe

In Jerusalem, sirens wailing, car horns honking, road closures and helicopters passing overhead can often signify a terror attack. Today, though, they're the harbingers of the Papal visit.

By Miles Hartog -- May 12, 2009

300Sitting here in my Jerusalem office, as the spring day heats up to 23 degrees Celsius and I open my window for a breath of fresh air, I catch the sound of sirens wailing, car horns honking, and helicopters passing overhead.
In other circumstances, these might be signs of a serious accident, or worse, a terrorist attack. In this case, these are the harbingers of the Papal visit.

I close the window and turn on the air conditioning.

My office is 50 meters from the intersection connecting Jaffa Street to Jerusalem Brigade Road. Jaffa Street connects the Old City of Jerusalem to the new city center, and Jerusalem Brigade Road connects Mount Scopus and the Pope's helipad to downtown Jerusalem and the Old City, with its many holy sites.

Bottom line. I'm in the thick of it all, and when someone comes to visit, I (like thousands of other Jerusalemites) get the raw end of the deal.

True, Pope Benedict's visit is similar to the visits of Condoleezza Rice and Bill Clinton came to visit in that we have advance notice in the papers and on the Internet as to which roads will be closed and when, what the itinerary is (more or less) and whether it's even worth our while trying to get in to work. Somehow, however, this time it's much, much worse.

Of course you can take for granted that the various and often conflicting timetables issued to the public by the bus companies, the papers, the municipality and the ministry of tourism are all only a "best guess" and may in fact have nothing to do with the actual times roads will close. Add to that, though, the fact that the Pope isn't just a politician going from his hotel to the prime minister's office and back once or twice, but rather a religious pilgrim/tourist (or in his words a "Crusader for Peace") intent on visiting almost every holy site in the neighborhood. And believe me in the past 3,000 years we've managed to pile up one or two of those.

Yesterday, if what I read in the press is true, the Pope had his afternoon rest in the Notre Dame Church, which I can see from the balcony of my office, only 100 meters or so away. Flying proudly over the bell tower and adjacent statue of the Notre Dame is the flag of the Vatican. I don't recall the Israeli flag flying over anywhere where the chief Rabbis of Israel travel, but then they're not given the title of "head of state" along with "head of religion." I guess papacy has its perks. In any case, if you were trying to avoid the papal visit, sights like this make it near impossible.

Yesterday, I had to time my departure from work to the exact window between road closure times as published. At the last minute a friend called and let me know that the police had decided to mix things up a bit and change the road closure time from 6:30pm to 5:00pm (presumably just for fun), so at 4:45pm I made a dash for freedom, and just managed to edge into the seething mass of traffic that was still allowed to move before all came to a standstill. Every side road was closed down, so the road had triple usual congestion, but I made it home in one piece.

During the drive I turned on the radio and heard a part of the Pope's speech at the President's Residence. It was quite surprising, being the first time I'd heard this Pope. The last Pope always spoke in Latin, and with some appropriate accent. This Pope speaks in English, with a heavy, clipped German accent. The juxtaposition of that accent, along with the heavy commentary coming from the local press and public figures about the Pope's stand on the Holocaust, made me turn the radio off immediately. I was listening to the leader of 1 billion followers worldwide, here in Israel, after a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and he still tempered his comments saying that the Jews in the Holocaust were "killed," not "murdered," he's still the Pope that returned a British, Holocaust-denying Bishop to his seat, he's still the same man that was part of the "Hitler Youth" at age 16, and he's still speaking in that German accent. Sorry, too much for me to handle.

Speaking to those around me -- workmates, neighbors, and passersby -- I hear a tone of resentment ringing through. Mostly about the traffic. Partly about the logistical nightmare of simply not being allowed to move around our city according to our needs. But not least because all of this is for a man who represents millions, and in the year 2009, 65 years after the Holocaust and centuries after the inquisitions and the crusades, still can't go out of his way to show the Jewish people in their homeland that Christendom has a special debt to repay to Judaism, and that it could start with a few especially kind words, and perhaps a little less driving around downtown while people are trying to get to work.

Blessings to all people who seek peace, from the Holy city of Jerusalem.

Amen.

And may the traffic be with you.

Miles Hartog is an Australian-born architect, living in Israel since 1993. He lives in Gush Etzion, just south of Jerusalem with his wife and 5 boys (soon to be joined by twins).