“Tensions are coming to the surface”

Israel has vaccinated almost half its population against Corona. At the same time, the vaccine distribution also poses a political question: What is one's attitude to Palestine? Impressions of a German priest in Jerusalem in the current "Himmelklar" podcast.

Clear as day: Jerusalem is a fascinating, chaotic and also hectic city. How is the situation with you after months in lockdown?

Monsignor Stephan Wahl (priest and author in Jerusalem): The situation is of course very restrained. For the first time I have experienced Jerusalem for a year without tourists, without pilgrims. Jerusalem only with the inhabitants themselves, which of course has its own charm and its own character. But it is actually cruel and terrible on the other side, because many people who live here live from the tourists and from the pilgrims, especially in the Old Town. For several months, they have been completely at a loss, because it just does not go on.

A certain resignation can be felt everywhere. One shimmies from lockdown to lockdown. Meanwhile we have three lockdowns behind us. And the difficult thing is: There is no perspective. No one knows exactly: when will it continue? When will pilgrims come again? When can we open up the stores again? When can the guides start their tours again? When can I finally get off the insurance benefit I might be on to tide me over and start earning some real money again?

All the worse, of course, for the people who don't have Jerusalem ID, who are from the West Bank or Gaza, who don't get these insurance benefits. They also have to struggle daily to make ends meet.

Clear as day: Are you in the complete lockdown at the moment or can the stores open individually then nevertheless?

Election: The third lockdown is now being relaxed bit by bit. Since a few days we can move freely again. There was a curfew: one kilometer, that is 1000 meters, was allowed to go away. That is now gone. Since the weekend, businesses beyond grocery stores can open again, such as museums.

However, sporting events or fitness centers and swimming pools are only opened to people who have already been vaccinated. There will now be a green passport, a "green passport" given to people who have had the second vaccination. They can then do more than those who do not yet have this inoculation.

For us as Christians, an important step is that recently the restriction for church services has been lifted. From now on, you can worship with ten people inside a room and 20 people outside again. This has for example a nice consequence for the Redeemer Church, the evangelical German congregation here in Jerusalem. Until now, it has always celebrated services on the Internet, since Sunday they can invite again in the cloister and there celebrate services outside.

Himmelklar: Israel is the most advanced country in terms of vaccination. With over four million, almost half the population has now been vaccinated. In the meantime, the state almost has to make an effort to find people willing to be vaccinated. Have you been able to vaccinate yourself yet?

Election: I am now vaccinated for the first time. This is basically a very bizarre situation. On the one hand, we have the problem in Germany that there are too few vaccine doses. My mother, for example, is 85 years old and was vaccinated last week, thank God. But it has already been postponed once because there was nothing there.

I was vaccinated last week Tuesday on the advice of an Israeli friend that at the town hall for three days anyone could come: Anyone who wanted could get vaccinated, regardless of whether they had insurance or how old they were. You just get in line. If there would be such an invitation in Germany, there would probably be a huge queue, where you would have to wait for hours to get to it. I have not waited here ten minutes.

So that was no problem at all for me, it happened very quickly and now I just have to wait until the second vaccination. Of course, I freely admit that it is a good feeling to be vaccinated. Especially because I am not taking anything away from anyone. It's not a privilege, it's not a priest's privilege or anything else, but anyone who is here in the country can do it. Even the illegals in Tel Aviv are vaccinated. They rather have the problem here at the moment that the rest who are not yet vaccinated don't really go for vaccination.

Clear as day: What do the lockdowns and the vaccination process mean for the coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians?? Recently, the United Nations asked the Israeli government to share the vaccine with the Palestinian territories as well.

Election: The situation is still very difficult and a bit confusing. I know that Israel is now annexed to Palestine 2.000 of 5.I'm sure that we've delivered about 000 doses of vaccine that were promised, especially to medical personnel. And I know that Palestine itself 10.000 doses of the Russian vaccine "Sputnik V" were delivered via the airport "Ben Gurion" in Tel Aviv. There is also indirect cooperation, but the difference between the vaccinations in Israel and Palestine is still enormous, of course.

Clear as daylight: Does all this then make the situation even more tense? Or is that "business as usual" in this conflict?

Election: I think the tensions that exist under the surface are becoming particularly clear now. If the Palestinians would now ask Israel to send over surplus vaccine, that can be indirectly misconstrued as a des facto recognition of the occupation. And conversely, if the Israelis say, we're going to send you over a lot more than you have, again, that can be interpreted as the Israelis showing their position of power more clearly than might be politically prudent after all. This is a quandary.

Sky clear: We are in Lent, Easter is coming up. Last year, Easter was held for the first time under corona conditions. Do we already know what Easter 2021 will look like?? On Palm Sunday, for example, there is always the big procession, which is usually attended by tens of thousands of visitors.

Election: So I haven't seen or received any guidelines on what that looks like, but I ame that there will be no procession. Last year it already did not take place. And that will not be this year either, I guess. As Christians, we will certainly not provide an excuse for big events, because that is very much criticized in the country anyway.

We had the problem the other day that there were two major rabbinic funerals by the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, in Jerusalem, where 10.000 people have gathered. The police simply watched because they knew: We can't do anything, otherwise there will be a bloodbath.

So the Christians will hold back there very much. Our new patriarch, who we have finally had since the end of last year, is actually known for being very smart and careful in his approach. Unfortunately, also in Germany the traditional Palm Sunday collection for the Holy Land cannot take place as usual. But at the German Association of the Holy Land, there is the possibility to donate online.

Sky clear: Why are the ultra-Orthodox critical of all these Corona measures?? It's not really a question of religion, whether you keep your distance and hygiene.

Choice: These ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim, are actually a minority. They make up twelve percent of the population, 1.2 million approximately. But they have a massive political significance, because they always tip the scales in terms of the new election campaign and the new election. They know that. And that also gives them a certain authority. That's why they are always very self-confident when it comes to announcements from the government or the state.

They recognize the authority of their rabbi rather than the authority of the minister of health, because they have a difficult relationship with the state itself anyway. There are also problems with the military service, for example. And if one of the rabbis says: This funeral is important, you all have to come, then the government can say what it wants. Then everyone goes there.

Himmelklar: And that's probably where the infection thing comes in, right??

Choice: Yes, for sure. It is no secret that 40 percent of the virus carriers in the country are Haredim. That is massive. And I already notice in the comments in the newspaper or on the radio that the anger of the secular Israelis naturally increases more and more. They say we let them lead us around by the nose, and you do nothing. Let me say it drastically: If people gather in too large numbers at demonstrations against Netanyahu, then the police will take radical action against them. But at such funerals, they hold back, because they think: For God's sake, there's murder and manslaughter, and we do not want to provoke. There is an inequality, which of course leads to great difficulties in the country.

Sky Clear: What are the plans from the Catholic side for Easter?? One can already say something about it?

Election: If it remains as it is at the moment, then it will also be with these ten or more people. 20 people regulations remain. That means, there will be no big church services and it will probably be similar to what it was last year, that a lot of things will be broadcast by the media.

I found it very remarkable at that time, especially in the Holy and Easter time, that the services from the Patriarchate were also transmitted to the streets of the city. There were speakers everywhere. You could at least hear what was going on in the individual churches. I don't think that will change very much this year. There will be a restrained Easter. But Easter as such does not come in quarantine. So Easter will take place.

Sometimes I think, I don't want to have it like this every year, but for oneself it is also a reflection on the actual thing about Easter or also Christmas. There is very little packing. It is very little outward, but instead more the question to oneself: What is the most important thing that makes you celebrate this feast in your innermost being?? This is an unintentional retreat time.

Himmelklar: What brings you hope in the current situation?

Election: Hope brings me that one recognizes piece by piece that the numbers decrease. This means that the spread of the virus will be contained, so that people can breathe more freely again and also move around. And I really hope that the isolation situation will be eased for many people. Because that's hellish for people who live alone or suffer from depression.

I have great hope for relief, so that people can breathe new air and go back to their daily lives as normal.

And the greatest hope is that with everything that happens, here in this city that has experienced so much, we can also always say: We have gone through so many problems and irritations and setbacks. But faith will help us to get over this lean period.

The interview was conducted by Renardo Schlegelmilch.

The interview is part of the Podcasts Sky Clear – an interdiocesan podcast project coordinated by MD GmbH in cooperation with katholisch.de and our site. Supported by the Catholic Media House in Bonn and APG mbH. Moderated by Renardo Schlegelmilch and Katharina Geiger.

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