Reporter's notebookCoronavirus and the capital

Jerusalem muted, a little bereft, on 1st Friday of the ‘keep your distance’ era

At the Western Wall, only a few were at prayer; kids were neither in school nor out and about; at least the rival protesters in Paris Square were reassuringly present

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

The Western Wall and Temple Mount, viewed from the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, March 13, 2020 (LH/Times if Israel)
The Western Wall and Temple Mount, viewed from the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, March 13, 2020 (LH/Times if Israel)

Midday Friday in Jerusalem is usually a time of population overspill. Parents are picking up their kids from school. The shops and supermarkets are packed with folks doing their final pre-Shabbat buying. Popular cafés have lines of people crowding their doorways. And the jammed streets are a discordant symphony of honking horns.

This Friday in Jerusalem was different. Not Yom Kippur different. Not barren roads, empty stores and abandoned cafés different. But strangely muted; a little underpopulated; markedly less noisy, less vibrant than usual.

Traffic on Emek Refaim, the main street of the German Colony, was light and moving smoothly — unheard of for a Friday. People were out, shopping and pausing to chat, though in what looked like fewer numbers than usual. Still, the Neeman café and bakery reported brisk business, albeit slightly down on the Friday norm; “people seem to be coming in waves every few minutes,” said a young employee. Jerusalemites still need their challot.

With schools cancelled as of last night, most of the kids were plainly at home rather than out and about. Pre-schools have been allowed to stay open, but there was no rush of parents outside several in the Talpiot, Baka and Germany Colony neighborhoods of southern Jerusalem; reports have indicated that at least some pre-school teachers took their own decisions to stay home.

The road up the steep hill to the Old City alongside Sultan’s Pool was almost empty. The plaza outside Jaffa Gate had just a handful of people walking into the Old City from the sparsely populated Mamilla mall, where a near-empty Aroma café has placed hand sanitizer next to the till. And the Arab market down into the Old City from Jaffa Gate was uncommonly quiet; we passed just two small tour groups, one from Italy, as we walked all the way though toward the Western Wall and Temple Mount.

Most of the people in the alleys were Palestinians, mainly men, returning from prayers at Al-Aqsa, where services were reportedly kept shorter than usual. “There were fewer people than usual, but apart from that, nothing remarkable,” a bespectacled, middle-aged Jerusalem Arab man reported.

According to AP, about 10,000 worshippers attended prayers. Sheikh Omar Kiswani, the director of the mosque, said most prayed in outdoor courtyards, and a 13-minute sermon was devoted to raising awareness on how to prevent the spread of the virus.

The plaza leading from Mamilla into the Jaffa Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, March 13, 2020 (LH / ToI staff)

A day after Israel’s chief rabbis told Jews to contradict millennia of Jewish yearning and not attempt to pray at the Western Wall below the mount, the Kotel plaza was indeed largely vacant, with barely enough male worshippers for a minyan [prayer quorum] when we happened by, though midday and early afternoon Friday is hardly mass prayer time even in normal periods. (During Shabbat, authorities there are to limit entrance to an enclosed area and set up tents that accommodate up to 100 people. But the Western Wall Heritage Foundation says there will be no restrictions on worship in the main plaza as it constitutes a “wide, open space.”)

Some of the cafés in the Jewish Quarter were doing reasonable business, though the shops in the Cardo were empty. One man stood in the doorway of his jewelry shop there, hands clasped behind his back, rocking slowly back and forth on the balls of his feet, looking sadly upward, his gleaming store empty behind him.

On Thursday evening, just before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the school closures, warned that “tens of thousands of Israeli lives” were at risk and told citizens to “keep your distance” from each other, the capital’s Mahane Yehuda market was already markedly emptier than usual: tourists have either been barred or are leaving; many foreign youngsters on short- and mid-length educational programs have headed home too; and many locals were evidently warier about going out. The stallholders’ shouted exhortations to us all to buy their fish, halva and strawberries went largely unheeded.

The candy store on Agripas Street, routinely packed late into the evening, was shutting its doors when we arrived at 7:30 p.m. Asked, “Because of the virus?” the young woman on one of the cash registers shrugged and pointed to the sidewalk outside: “No sales.” At a parking lot adjacent to the shuk, the attendant said custom was down by two-thirds.

Business looked a little better as we passed by the shuk on Friday, but still far less frenzied than the norm.

Not everywhere was radically less teeming, however. Café Yeshoshua on Gaza Street still had its tables packed, outside and in. The small traffic circle outside Talpiot’s Hadar Mall — where the mall, the supermarket across the street, several popular stores and kiosks and a web of pedestrian crossings converge — still had its perennial 10-car jam.

Rival demonstrations in Jerusalem’s Paris Square, March 13, 2020 (LH / ToI staff)

And at Paris Square outside the King’s Hotel, two small knots of demonstrators were, as ever, trying to outshout each other on either side of Ramban Street. On one side, it was the Left and the Supreme Court who were the cause of all our trouble. And on the other, it was the Occupation.

Even when facing a global pandemic, reassuringly, some things in the capital of Israel never change.

With reporting by the Associated Press.

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