Silence speaks volumes in the Holy City

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The Independent Online

It is easy to forget that the turn of the century was not, in fact, a global event of burning fascination to all who inhabit the planet. That much was obvious in Israel, where the Christian clock first began ticking 2,000 years ago. A stroll around a few square miles of the Holy City on the first day of the new millennium reveals a place that is as strangely divided by culture and religion as it ever was.

It is easy to forget that the turn of the century was not, in fact, a global event of burning fascination to all who inhabit the planet. That much was obvious in Israel, where the Christian clock first began ticking 2,000 years ago. A stroll around a few square miles of the Holy City on the first day of the new millennium reveals a place that is as strangely divided by culture and religion as it ever was.

At 8am in Mea She'arim, the quarter occupied by Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox haredi community, you would not know the new century had dawned. The same total hush fills the narrow streets on every Sabbath. Not a car was moving. Even the traffic lights were switched off, out of deference to a ban on using electrical equipment. A few bearded men, in black hats and suits, prayer shawls and sidelocks, were walking to the synagogues, reading the Torah as they went.

There was no mention of the year 2000, not a shred of bunting or a stray champagne cork. But the haredim are conscious of the march of alien Western culture. The computer has particularly worried them. Posters in cartoon format show a young Orthodox boy, watched by proud parents, learning to use a laptop. By the final frame, he has lost his curls and skullcap and turned into a wild-eyed beast, corrupted by the vile influence of the internet.

An hour on and a mile away in Arab east Jerusalem, we could also have been in the Middle Ages. The narrow streets of the Old City were heaving with shoppers. The previous night the Palestinians in Bethlehem and on the Gaza Strip turned out in their tens of thousands to celebrate, but in large part as a reminder to the outside world of their demand for statehood. "The millennium was no big celebration for us," said Omar Abu-Ghazaleh, a money dealer. "We cannot have any big joy until Israeli occupation ends." Besides, most Arabs are Muslim, and for them the year is 1420.

There were some millennium parties in Jerusalem: that much was obvious from the empty beer cans and general detritus in Mounbaz Street, only a few hundred yards from Mea She'arim. There is a pocket of bars in this corner of town, a seam of naughtiness amid the very devout.

Ultra-Orthodox Moshe Cohen was unhappily picking his path through the rubbish on his way to pray at the Wailing Wall. His thick grey beard did not hide his dismay. "We don't make parties like this," he said, wrapping his shawl tighter. "This is work of the foreigners." For which, read Christians.

Not all the Christians in Israel are outsiders. Greek and Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Anglicans and others have been in the Holy Land for centuries, struggling to assert their claim in the land of Christ against a stronger Jewish and Islamic presence. Among them are the Ethiopians who gathered to worship yesterday at their rotunda church, on the edge of Mea She'arim. They have been in the region since the 4th century, explained Father Bekuri as his congregation filed into church. Butyesterday was no more a millennium celebration for them than for their neighbours. Under their dating system the year is 1992; it began in September.

Had they wanted to party, the rabbis would have made it difficult for them, just as they did for everyone else. As the New Year approached, the rabbinate made clear that hotels could lose their crucial kosher certificates if they violated the strict laws of the Sabbath. Secular Israel might yearn to cheer in the new century, but in Jerusalem (though not in wicked Tel Aviv) the autocratic religious authorities were not going to kow-tow to this festival of Christian, Western, consumer culture. Thanks to them, the dawn of 2000 in the Holy City was almost a non-event.

Almost, but not entirely. While the rest of Jewish Jerusalem was bathed in repressed silence yesterday morning, scores of young Israelis were still pounding the floor at a club off Jaffa Street, in splendid defiance: a mass of dyed hair, sequins, nose rings, micro-skirts and stomach studs, grooving to a deafening beat.

Inside, a blonde woman had fallen asleep on the bar; a tall boy with green hair, stripped to the waist, was dancing on the bartop, wreathed in a beatific grin. "This is excellent," said Shirley Cohen-Mintz, 24, a management consultant in Tel Aviv. "We are just having a great party, like the rest of the world."

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