© 2010, Father Kevin Michael Laughery, Holy Cross Parish, Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, USA, Roman Catholic Church
Last update and upload: Friday, February 19, 2010

AN INCIDENT IN JERUSALEM

The following is my account of an incident in the Old City of Jerusalem, as I recorded it in my journal.

This was a pilgrimage made up largely of students of the Pontifical North American College, Rome. Our tour director, whom I mention several times, was Father Richard Mackowski, S.J.

[Easter Wednesday] 6 April 1983. This is our last full day in Jerusalem. Actually, yesterday was the last day for the whole pilgrimage to be together. Two people left for Rome today; several took a plane ride to Mount Sinai; the majority went to Masada; and some of us opted to stay in Jerusalem.

It would seem that this journal has been "shot to hell"; I have written nothing since Good Friday, and so much that I have written has been very sketchy. But today I have the leisure to write at length, and I will try to set down everything that I can remember from Good Friday up to this point.

Of Good Friday afternoon, I remember this: I walked down to the area of the Pool of Siloam, and re-reading John 9 there, I prayed for increasing sight for myself and all God's people.

Holy Saturday morning consisted in this: a short but fact-filled walk with Dick through the Old City, following, roughly, the traditional route of the Way of the Cross. The main concern of Dick's talk was to discern the location of the city wall at the time of Jesus, and also the location of the Fortress Antonia where, it is said, Pilate condemned Jesus to death. Stops on the way included a bakery, the back room of which contains a remnant of the old wall, and a Russian Orthodox church. This walk concluded at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.

Saturday afternoon I took a very enjoyable walk with Mike Wensing, Harold O'Leary, and Jim Anderson. We took in the beautiful view of the Old City from the top of the Lutheran Church. From there we walked through the Armenian and Jewish quarters of the city. Separating from Harold and Jim at the Western Wall, Mike and I walked down to Siloam and over to St. Peter in Gallicantu (closed), before once again walking through the Armenian quarter and thence to the Jaffa Gate. From there we walked outside the wall to our hotel, the Rivoli.

After dinner, several of us went very early (9 pm or so) to St. Anne's Basilica for the 10:30 pm Easter Vigil. The music, done largely by students from Collegeville, was very familiar to us and very good. The homilist spoke very well, making the point that the Resurrection is not a matter of saving one's skin, but of entering into a love that is so great that all else in comparison -- even life itself -- is worthless and expendable.

Easter Sunday morning I slept late, then joined Dick and a large group in another vain attempt to get into the Dome of the Rock. Dick then suggested that we go to Mea She'arim, the super-orthodox section of West Jerusalem. About ten of us took him up on the suggestion. This trip consisted in a bus ride from the Western Wall. Once at Mea She'arim, we visited two synagogues, the second of which is of greater importance to me personally, because of the way in which I was unprepared to enter it.

If I had known that morning that we would be going to Mea She'arim, I would have bought or borrowed a hat or something. As it was, I was without a hat, and I said to myself, "Well, we'll certainly get an object lesson in legalism today, won't we?" As we entered Mea She'arim, Dick said, "Wear your hat if you have one." I was the only one lacking a head-covering, and I felt afraid of what would be said to me if any of the locals noticed that I was hatless. I meant no disrespect, but now that I was in this situation, I was interested in seeing to what extent legalism would wipe out charity. And amid the interest, I was afraid that the Jews would think I was being offensive or disrespectful.

Well, we got to this second synagogue (at the first, no one protested my bareheadedness), and as I walked in, a little boy tugged me on the arm, spoke to me in his language, and gestured that I should be wearing a hat. I said in my language, "I'm sorry, but I don't have a hat." I then proceeded up the stairs with the group. On my mind was the thought, "If they want me to wear a hat so badly, then no doubt they will provide me with one." For at the Western Wall, for example, a large stock of cardboard yarmulkes are available to the public. But no one gave me a hat. I proceeded into the main room of this synagogue, which, I learned later, was the most ultra-conservative synagogue in all of Judaism. Entering, members of our group said to me, "Kevin, put on a hat." But I had no hat. I saw one of those very expensive fur hats hanging on a hook, but I was not about to wear it. So they said, translating the gestures of the little boy, "Put your jacket over your head." This I did. I was seething.

There followed a brief talk by Mackowski on what was in the room, and then a frosty interview in English between Dick and an old rabbi, originally from New York City. We heard his views on the coming of the Messiah. He has the notion that when the Messiah comes, his identity as Messiah will be completely obvious to all people. How ridiculous, I thought. Isn't a human person the greatest mystery of all? The Messiah, as I have written in these pages already, is in fact the most misunderstood person of all, even to those who profess to believe in him. Dick said, "We believe in Jesus." The rabbi ignored this statement entirely. Leaving, I gave the rabbi one of my frozen smiles that in no way conceals my anger.

Our final stop in Mea She'arim was to the Petit Musee, a little shop operated by a delightful Jewish man, an acquaintance of Dick. He taught us all to blow a shofar. From him I bought a yarmulke (a most obvious souvenir, to say the least) and a prayer shawl. I remembered how the Neo-Catechumenate communities on Ogle Street [St. Charles Borromeo Parish, London, where I served as a deacon during the summer of 1982] used a prayer shawl as a drape for a lectern when enthroning the Bible.

Easter Sunday afternoon I walked with Mike Mahler, Stan Kacprzak and Alex. Bradshaw to Dormition Abbey. Thence to the Armenian quarter. We came to the Lutheran church. Since 1) I had been there already and 2) I wanted to get back to the hotel and get cleaned up, as I was going to be deacon that evening, I decided to part company with them there. This was about 3:45 pm.

What occurred after this was an event that I will keep in my memory as long as I live. Though it is difficult to remember everything precisely, I will try to reconstruct these moments to the best of my ability.

Almost immediately upon parting from Mike, Stan and Alex, I noticed four soldiers, armed with machine guns, standing in the street near the Russian Orthodox Church. I felt a bit apprehensive, but since I had seen armed soldiers in the streets before, I was not unduly alarmed. Proceeding east, I saw many small children shouting and running in the direction of the soldiers. I continued eastward, in what was for me previously unexplored Moslem Quarter territory, taking comfort in my belief that I was heading in the opposite direction of the excitement. Continuing eastward, I passed another group of armed soldiers.

Finally I found the north-south road connecting the Western Wall and the Via Dolorosa, and I walked north, knowing that I would be at the hotel very shortly. Soon I passed yet another group of soldiers, who were walking south. Then suddenly there came a group of three or four boys, around 14 years old, running south, apparently following the soldiers.

I was walking on the right side of the street I have described (no map I have gives me the name now), and I was at the southern end of an arched-over area, just slightly south of the corner that marks the Fifth Station of the Cross. The leader of this gang of boys ran toward me and, with fire in his eyes, started shouting at me, presumably in Arabic. I was taken completely by surprise, and found myself unable to make any sort of response or move. Then came his fist, which sent my glasses flying. (I never recovered my glasses.) Still I made no response whatever. Now came a blow to the head, with both fists. At last I dropped the things that I had been holding (a street map and a paper bag containing two pieces of Turkish Delight) and made some effort to shield myself. At last I said, "I'm sorry ... I'm sorry ..." Thinking back I realize what I meant by those words. They are my immediate response to a lack of comprehension, and indeed my only real response to what I was undergoing was a sheer inability to understand this unprovoked savagery.

There followed, I believe, two more blows to the head with this same joined pair of fists. The one boy did all the work; but one of the cohort must have given him a stick -- wooden, perhaps a meter long and 4 cm in diameter. I remember grappling feebly with this stick -- merely pushing it away from myself, I think -- and at last beginning to cry out, "Help! Help!" At this point I began to be afraid for my life, for it seemed to me, in this aura of incomprehension, ringing pain to my head, and nearsightedness, that the universe consisted only of myself and my attacker, and there was no indication that they were ever going to finish with me. Besides these blows to my head, my upper left arm was badly bruised. The injury to the arm, I now believe, came also from fists; I am not sure the stick ever hit me. During this entire period, I remained on my feet, perfectly conscious, and was never pushed to the wall which was so close by.

This entire encounter lasted, I believe, about 20 seconds. Then the boys proceeded to run south again. I suspect that they felt the need to flee as soon as they drew blood, for now I was bleeding profusely from a scalp wound, and the blood, streaming down my face, collar, and sweater, signalled to them either that they had done enough damage, or that they were soon to be in danger themselves. I then stood with one hand to the wall, looking south, afraid to move, but scanning the street for some trace of my glasses. There was a lapse of about five seconds, during which I simply stood near the wall. Finally, someone came to my aid. She was a teenage girl, who cried out to me in English, "We're sorry! We're sorry!" Blood continued to drip from my head down to my clothes and finally to my right shoe. I heard other people -- some distance away during the altercation -- join in the chorus of "We're sorry! We're sorry!" and then, again in English, came the word "Hospital!" Two little boys each took an arm and walked me to the Government Hospital, no more than 100 feet away. We passed the Fifth, Fourth, and Third Stations [of the Cross], but not before I made a gesture signifying eyeglasses and stating to the people around me, "I lost my glasses ..." But again came the chorus "Hospital!" and to the hospital we went.

Immediately upon arrival, I was examined by two doctors, who directed me to a table and very quickly gave me two stitches to close up my scalp wound. It was only during this treatment that all my thoughts and feelings began to pull together. I'm fine, I thought to myself. I'd had a bad scare, but all it amounted to was two stitches in the scalp. Even so, I had received a bitter sip of the violent brew that has been bubbling and boiling in this holy city for millennia, and as I felt relief at my own deliverance from a more serious fate, tears began to stream from my eyes even as they stitched me up, for my only thought was this: I HOPE NOTHING WORSE IS HAPPENING TO SOMEONE ELSE OUT THERE. I said as much to the doctor (all the doctors spoke English) and he replied, "You are the third one like this I have seen today -- and you are in the best shape. I saw a 75-year-old woman who was beaten up today. I do not think she will live." (See postscript.)

I was shown to a bed, in a semi-private room with three other men, and I asked that they phone Fr. Mackowski at the Rivoli Hotel. Shortly thereafter, I received my first two visitors, both reporters for some sort of Arab paper that is circulated in the States. They were a native Palestinian and an Arab-American -- the American being about my age. The American wanted to report on my little incident and take my name. I was reluctant, but at last gave in to providing him with my name when it became clear that the chances of the wire services' picking up this story were slight. I drew the line at his taking a picture of me, though. All around, I was not very impressed with this Arab-American, who apparently had to have this native around as his interpreter, because, as he himself admitted, his Arabic wasn't very good. Asked where he was from, he said, "Dallas, Texas." I said, "My roommate on this trip is from Fort Worth." He responded, "Oh yeah? I don't like Fort Worth ..." See what I mean? Woodward and Bernstein he wasn't!

Soon thereafter, Dick arrived. He talked to the doctors and saw to it that I was charged nothing for my treatment. Also, he administered the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick to me. While Dick was there, they served me dinner -- bread, their bean dip called houmas, sardines, soup and tea. Doctors' orders were that I should spend the night in the hospital. I complained of soreness in my arm, which I had only begun to notice. The doctors, watching me move my arm, believed there was no fracture, but decided to do an x-ray anyway.

My neighbor in the next bed was very kind, giving me candy, bananas, cucumbers. I watched him pray twice that evening, on his prayer rug.

After the 6 pm Mass at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, for which I was to have been deacon of the Eucharist, Dick and Bro. Randal brought me communion.

Sleeping was difficult, because finding a comfortable position was difficult, between a wound on the right side of my head and a bruise on my left arm.

Breakfast was served me at 5:08 am Monday -- bread, butter, jam, tea and no utensils. Afterward I went back to sleep. After about 9 am I dressed, awaiting an eventual x-ray. The lady who gave it to me asked what had happened. She came to a conclusion, which amounted to the straightest talk I had yet heard about the reason for the attack. She said: "They thought you were a Jew." And indeed, piecing it together with Dick later, I heard him conclude that these Arab youths thought I was a member of the Gush-emonim, a violent, youthful Jewish group.

The doctor who released me asked me whether I wanted to report the incident to the police. I said, "Yes -- for the record." He asked, "What do you mean, 'for the record'?" I said, "Simply for their information." He said, "I advise you to do nothing. To start with, the police will charge you 100 shekels, and perhaps up to 5500 shekels, and you did nothing! You are the victim and you have to pay!" So in the end, I did not report anything to the police. Never, anyway, had I entertained any illusions of "bringing anyone to justice."

I asked that someone walk me to the Knights Palace Hotel, to which we were supposed to have transferred. This a hospital employee agreed to do. The desk clerks did not know of our group; there had been a mixup. So I returned alone to the Rivoli, where we were in fact remaining for one more night. This was around noon. About 6 pm, the tour group returned from Qumran, and they were overjoyed to see me in one piece. I can't say how happy I was to see them again.

Next day I rejoined the tour, for a morning pilgrimage to Bethlehem. In a very moving homily, Larry O'Keefe spoke of my misfortune -- specifically, of my helplessness -- and said that without the peace of Christ, we are slaves to the rock-throwers and the stick-bangers and the gun-toters of the world. There in Bethlehem we prayed earnestly for the true peace of Christ, manifested so humbly to shepherds guarding their flocks.

What am I to say -- what am I to pray -- after this momentous occurrence in my life? Before saying anything else, I have to recognize the fact that this took place in the same street through which Jesus carried his cross for you and me. Like it or not, this event was/is a grace. Never can I think of the Passion of Christ without the vivid memory of what happened to me in that same place. I pray ever more fervently for the peace of Jerusalem and the whole world, knowing that only Jesus Christ brings us true peace.

[Thursday] 7 April. 11:17 am. Aboard the El Al flight for Rome. We will be arriving in Rome in an hour or so. The scenery below (Greece) is enchanting, but I am a little bit bored right now.

This afternoon I will clean up, unpack, and phone home. I think I will talk ordination first, and then go into the details of the trip.

What did I come to see? The center and symbol, I believe, is the empty tomb, which I finally touched and kissed yesterday afternoon. I came to see an empty tomb -- the promise and guarantee of my resurrection and the resurrection and salvation of the whole world.

Seeing the environment in which it all took place ... this is a grace. For now I see the particular, concrete humanity of the site. I have felt the human condition there. I know something of the factions and hatreds that Jesus experienced. I also know of the beauty of the people, and have some insight into the love that Jesus feels for them and for me.

And so I come away rededicated to working for Christ's Kingdom, which is not safeguarded by walls and soldiers and arms, but which is built up through pain, sacrifice, suffering, giving, loving.

Postcript: Henry Rodriguez of San Diego, who started theology at the North American College in fall 1983, was one of the Collegeville people whom I mentioned when describing the Easter Vigil. He tells me that the woman mentioned by the doctor did indeed die of her wounds.


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