“The Hopes and Fears of All the Years” (My Christmas Greeting to Friends and Family)

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My brother and sister-in-law’s Christmas tree. Yes, I do know how to have a “Merry Christmas.”

When I was a kid, my parents mimeographed a “Christmas letter” to send to friends and family across America. The letter recounted our family’s important accomplishments and activities for the year, and included “Merry Christmas” greetings. It was a substitute for writing the same message many times, once for each recipient.

For several days I have been trying to write a “Christmas Letter” to email to friends and family across America, “a substitute for writing the same message many times, once for each recipient.”

I wrote about my gratitude for the opportunity to teach a GED class at the Aberg Center for Literacy in Dallas, the joy I have in tutoring athletes at SMU, and other happy events and activities.

Then I wrote, “My year’s activities culminated in joining a Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Witness Visit to Palestine (November 3-11). Learning more about and advocating for the Palestinian people and the unspeakable tyranny under which they live is, as my friends know, more than an ‘interest’ or a ‘passion’ for me.”

The fact is, that Visit, and the reasons I made it are perhaps my central concern of this year (and most years since 2003).

If my life has significance, it lies in large part in my determination to do what I can to bring to my American friends and loved ones awareness of the inhumane and tyrannical reign of terror that has been visited upon the Palestinian people since 1948. Israel’s daily and unrelenting state terrorism precipitously worsened and broadened in scope in 1967 and has been progressively crushing more of the life from Palestinian society and individual Palestinians every year since then.

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The stockings were hung by the chimney with care. . .

At age 70, I have little hope of living to see the end of Israel’s project of Palestinian genocide. I can, however, continue to try to help other Americans to understand the deceitfulness of our nation’s official palaver about supporting democracy and fighting “terrorism” while at the same time supporting and financing a regime and system of tyranny and state terrorism which has almost no equal in the world.

Americans (those of us from the Christian tradition) who, during these Twelve Days of Christmas, sing

O little town of Bethlehem How still we see thee lie . . . . Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light: The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given . . . Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in. O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in . . . .

participate in a duplicity so frightening that I wonder how we collectively can sleep at night. It is no wonder we seem to have a mass psychosis about nearly every problem we face. Willful and ugly hypocrisy cannot help but destroy the hypocrite. And woefully shrugging our shoulders and saying, “But what can I do?” does not absolve us from participation in this pharisaism.

This is not an abstraction for me. In Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and beyond, my friends Samia, Nuha, Omar, Yusef, and many more live this horror every day. Samir, Waseem, Dalell, Noor, Shukri, Mufid, and many more American friends live daily with the memory and the unspeakable results of this brutality.

If I were a man of prayer and contemplation, I would be tempted to join a cloistered order of monks and live out my days praying for Palestinian liberation. If I believed unequivocally the “facts,” the particulars, of the Christmas story or any of its meaning in the lives of Christians, I would find ways to relate them to the current situation.

I know that the majority of my friends and family (and probably most readers who stumble upon this blog) believe in some way that the Biblical accounts of Christmas are true, so I ask you to consider what the words “on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” pronounced to ancestors of today’s Palestinians, might mean in the context of a cruel occupation of one people by another―in exactly the place Christian tradition says those Christmas words were sung by the angels.

I have friends who will accuse me of trying to be “politically correct” by not writing “good will to men” as is traditional (See note** below). The Greek of the New Testament, however, places the responsibility on us. “Good will” is ours to live, not a sentimental gift from God. Peace comes when we live in favor with God―I would hasten to add, whoever your God is.

On October 27, in my daily blog post, I quoted Dr. Ramzy Baroud’s statement about the relationship between the situation of the Palestinians and the “terrorism” our leaders insist we should fear so much (“Palestine Remains the Core Struggle in the Middle East”). I hope you will read the article.

And I hope you will read the Christmas message from Rev. Naim Ateek, founder of the Sabeel Center in Palestine.

A Blessed Holiday Season to Everyone!
Harold

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Lifta Village, Jerusalem. The population was driven out during the Arab-Jewish hostilities of 1947/48. Israeli neighborhoods surround the depopulated village, evidence of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. (Photo: Harold Knight, November 6, 2015)

Note**
From Wikipedia, which, of course, I would not accept as authoritative for a university course in research, but which says succinctly what I could quote pages about from scholarly sources.

“. . . most modern scholars and Bible translators accept the reading of the majority of ancient manuscripts, translating [the passage] as ‘on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests’ (New International Version) or ‘on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased’ (English Standard Version).”

Note two salient features here: the “good will” becomes the attitude of human beings not a sentimental gift from God, and neither of these translations is by “liberal” scholars; on the contrary, they are from “conservative” scholars.

Let’s have another Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT talks, anyone?)

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There’s bombs in them thar hills. Wildcat Hills, Western Nebraska.

The first seven months of my life were, I think, fairly idyllic. Oh, sure, there was a war going on all around the world, but when I was about 4 months old, Germany surrendered so the only war still being prosecuted was with Japan. We lived in Douglas, Wyoming, where there was no direct threat to my family and neighbors from the war.

And then with one horrendous act, the United States changed the world forever. August 7, 1945, when I was 7 months old, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The United States has not had a moment’s peace since that day.

That is obviously a ridiculous over-simplification of history. A ridiculous over-simplification, but not demonstrably untrue. I know the rhetorical truism that one “cannot prove a negative” (“the United States has not had”), so I will phrase my thesis another way. Since August 7, 1945, the people of the United States have lived in a more-or-less perpetual state of fear and discomfort.

I remember my father speaking of the travesty of Harry Truman’s firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. I remember my father’s sadness at the death of Sen. Robert A. Taft in 1953 because Taft did not believe in foreign entanglements as first Truman and then Eisenhower did and, according to my father, Taft should have been President. I remember the Suez Canal Crisis, Sputnik, Gary Powers, the fall of Fulgencio Batista, the Eisenhower Doctrine―all during those ‘50s we so often hear touted as an idyllic time of American stability and economic growth. And I remember the guided missile silos surrounding the area of Western Nebraska where we lived.

Throughout this time (and continuing vestigially to the present day), lurking in the background was the constant awareness of the “nuclear arms race.” Negotiations between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (whose “Godless communism,” was pronounced to be the cause of all of the fearsome brinkmanship leading perpetually almost to war) continued over decades, not to “rid” ourselves of the ever-present threat of bombing each other atomically into oblivion, but to “control” the threat.

When exactly did that threat end? Christmas Day, 1991, with the demise of the U.S.S.R?

Now we want to “rid” Iran of all possibility of making one of those atomic weapons that have kept us so frightened since 1945. Never mind that Israel has a bunch of them, or that India and Pakistan rattle the sabers of annihilation toward each other periodically. And China has as many of the dreaded bombs as we do. And does anyone know what happened to the U.S.S.R.’s bombs and missiles when it dissolved. ALL of them?

I am well aware that the possible carpeting of the earth (thank you, Ted Cruz) with nuclear weapons is no longer the greatest source of fear in the U.S. Now we have ISIS and the other “Radical Muslim Terrorists” waiting for the next opportunity to kill us. I am not being flippant, and I do not minimize that danger although I wish anyone who might be reading this would read this article by John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart.

We have made mortal enemies of vast numbers of citizens of the “Middle Eastern” as opposed to the “Western” world. For 70 (and in the case of Britain and France, 100) years we have run roughshod over not only its economies, but its very political structures, creating nations where there were none and destroying nations where there were. And all the while pumping billions (trillions?) of barrels of oil out of that part of the earth for the benefit of our part of the earth. All in the name of keeping the world safe for democracy.

None of this is unknown to the general populace. I know my writing about it is unscholarly, disjointed, incomplete (and probably so biased as to be laughable). And, yes, I know about Hitler and Stalin, and Emperor Hirohito and all of the other perpetrators of evil against the world.

But the fact is, we have brought much (most?) of our fear and suffering on ourselves. And the NSA, the police departments with armored vehicles, and the metal detectors and terrorism alerts and warrantless cyber-snooping, and . . . . are all reminiscent of the “air-raid drills” we practiced when I was in fourth grades. And about as effective, I’d guess.

We live in a fear-and-hatred-based society. But if we did not ourselves bring about our felt need to fear and hate, we at least have done and are doing nothing to alleviate the need.

And now, it will seem I’m changing subjects by pointing out one of the  best examples of our Western penchant for xenophobia, of creating an untenable Sitz im Leben (“setting of life”), and then blaming the (perceived or real or conveniently created) enemy, the “godless Communists” or the “Radical Muslim Terrorists,” for the fear and loathing in which we live. That example is the State of Israel.

The U.S., the U.N., and the Zionists of Europe and the Middle East created a country by confiscating most of the land belonging to an indigenous people and made a new nation where it did not exist before. 1948. Since that time, and with increased persistence since 1967 when Israel took over all of the land of the area, the indigenous people have protested, usually legally and peacefully, but, at times, violently.

And just as the U.S. convinced its people―and most of the world―that the “other” was responsible for such realities as the Cold War, the Israeli government has convinced its own people and the U.S. that the indigenous Palestinians are to blame for violence and unrest. (Please see this site for current news of the situation.)

Our nation and nations like ours seem loathe to take responsibility for our mistakes, for our ruthlessness, for our self-centered grandiosity as the first step in fashioning not simply the control of arms and war and violence and hatred but the reality of peace and equality.

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Palestinian Bedouins, live in these hills. The village of Sousia, Palestine Occupied Territories. Photo by Harold Knight, November 7, 2015.

“. . . but perfect love casts out fear . . .” (1 John 4:18)

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Antonio Zanchi, The Good Samaritan, 1680

I assume I understand some important concepts of the Bible―at least in a general sense―even if I don’t believe them. I grew up as the son of a Baptist minister and attended Baptist Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and even a “nominally” Baptist University. For a semester I attended a Methodist seminary. They asked me to withdraw because I’m gay (that was 1968, and I don’t know why I was in seminary anyway).

About 30 or 40 years ago, I began seriously thinking about what I hear when others, Christians, speak of Bible basis for their faith/belief. Some theological constructs have such a tenuous relationship to anything I know about the Bible that it’s easy to dismiss them out of hand. The Rapture. Dispensationalism. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. A prohibition on abortion.

I don’t have any trouble with literal beliefs in ideas from the Bible that are obviously meant as mythology. If someone has to believe God created the universe in six days in order to navigate their life on this earth, that’s fine.

All of those nit-picky little “beliefs” are immaterial to me. My relationship with the Bible is only a little more personal than my relationship to Beowulf, Siegfried, and Odysseus. If anyone wants to believe in “The Clear-Eyed Athena,” that’s fine with me, just don’t expect me to join in any sacrifices in an old stone building in Athens.

The ideas I wonder about even in my apparent apostasy are less based in “factual” details that someone might or might not believe, than in what seem to me to be the “big ideas” in the Bible. Some of those “big ideas” I do believe in.

For example, the concept “love” in the Bible. Here are some Bible verses about “love” I remember. I had to look up exact citations, but I remembered all of these verbatim (not exactly―I found the NRSV translation to replace the King James language I memorized as a Baptist kid).

• Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)
• So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. (1 John 4:16)
• There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (1 John 4:18)
• By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness (Galatians 5:22)
• If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15)
• He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

From the news:

[On FOX News Cruz] listened as Crowder outlined “four winning issues for Republicans. . . . Islam, now, is a winning issue: calling it out for what it is.” Cruz nodded vigorously and responded, “Yep.”
___That’s what’s really going on. Cruz isn’t agonizing over the mechanics of vetting refugees. He’s exploiting anti-Muslim anger and sucking up to the Christian right. And he’s doing it while wearing his own disguise: principled leader. (Saletan, William. “Ted Cruz’s Sophisticated Bigotry: This is how you bash Muslims while pretending to be principled.” Slate. Nov. 24, 2015.)

And again:

[Cruz appeared] On Fox News, the day after the attacks on Paris. If there are Syrian Muslims who are really being persecuted, he said, they should be sent to “majority-Muslim countries.” Then he reset his eyebrows, which had been angled in a peak of concern, as if he had something pious to say. And he did: “On the other hand,” he added, “Christians who are being targeted for genocide, for persecution, Christians who are being beheaded or crucified, we should be providing safe haven to them.”
(Davidson, Amy. “Ted Cruz’s Religious Test for Syrian Refugees.” The New Yorker. November 16, 2015).

Finally:

Cruz is ramping up his South Carolina efforts. . . . On Monday, he visited one of his two campaign headquarters in the state . . . He quoted Scripture and prayed with a woman on the phone as Vonnie Gleason, a volunteer in her 50s, looked on with tears in her eyes.
___“His words are so much from the heart,” Gleason said. “He was praying with her like she was his best friend.”
___That ability to connect with Christians gives Cruz “a real good chance, because of all the conservative Christians here,” said Linda McCarthy of Greenville. (Glueck, Katie. Politico. 12/09/15.)

I do not mean to accuse Ted Cruz of anything. I don’t know the man. I’ve never heard him say, “I hate Muslims” or “I hate gays.” However, these positions he has taken are clearly not congruent with

  • There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (1 John 4:18)
  • By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness (Galatians 5:22).

Ted Cruz is rising in the polls for the Republican nomination for President, seemingly poised to give Donald Trump, who has said blatantly hateful things about women, Hispanics, and Muslims, a run for his money. I do not mean to denounce Cruz or Trump (although it probably seems that I am). I’m pretty sure I could have found such items for every candidate.

I merely want to ask a question.

In order to feel secure in a society presumably based on Christian and/or liberal democratic principles, must we forego treating non-Christians and/or those who are not already steeped in liberal democratic principles with the “love” that seems to be at the core of the Christian tradition?

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Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918), The Good Samaritan

“. . . spirit and nature, good and evil are interchangeable. . .” (Hermann Hesse)

Judging from the responses to my writing on December 13, I would say it could possibly be true that much, if not all, of the religious sentiment and belief in the world of homo sapiens originates from a few freakish individuals whose brains work a little differently than most, most likely from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy which manifests itself in experiences of either hyper reality or depersonalization/derealization.

I don’t know if I should be honored, frightened, amused, or simply amazed to be spoken of by my friends in the same company as Meister Eckhart, Ezekiel, Teresa of Avila, the Sufis, and those who understand Maya, the Hindu concept of God. I notice that no one mentioned Christopher Dawkins to me.

At the risk of being so monumentally misunderstood that I will have to crawl into a corner and never show my face or my writing in public again, I want to reproduce three paragraphs here from one of my favorite writings.

Please, if you cannot suspend your belief that anyone who quotes this in any context might seem to be identifying with it, read no farther. I do not imagine myself to be Prince Myshkin. I do not imagine myself to be Dostoyevsky or Hermann Hesse.

I am neither intelligent, talented, wise, nor good enough to place myself in such rarefied company. All I mean to say is that Prince Myshkin is my favorite character in all of literature.

When I am being least frightened by my experiences of depersonalization/ derealization and am trying to put them into a context with which I can live, I think I resonate with Myshkin in a way many if not most people do not. That is not to claim special understanding, simply congruent experience.

When I first stumbled upon Hermann Hesse’s discussion of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, I knew that he was saying in an important and even “exalted” way what I would like to be able to say―and that my writing a few days ago proves that I cannot.

So I invite you to read this not as my attempt to attach myself to Dostoyevsky, Myshkin, or Hesse but as a description of a reality of which I have had fleeting (milliseconds―and I mean milliseconds) experiences at various times in my life, and that have affected the way I think and feel about everything. You have probably had them, too, but for some reason I have noticed them and been shaken by them in ways that most people are not. That’s all.

The “idiot,” I have said, is at times close to that boundary line where every idea and its opposite are recognized as true. That is, he has an intuition that no idea, no law, no character or order exists that is true and right except as seen from one pole – and for every pole there is an opposite pole. Settling upon a pole, adopting a position from which the world is viewed and arranged, this is the first principle of every order, every culture, every society and morality. Whoever feels, if only for an instant, that spirit and nature, good and evil are interchangeable is the most dangerous enemy of all forms of order. For that is where the opposite order is, and there chaos begins.

A way of thought that leads back to the unconscious, to chaos, destroys all forms of human organization. In conversation someone says to the “idiot” that he only speaks the truth, nothing more, and that this is deplorable. So it is. Everything is true, “Yes” can be said to anything. To bring order into the world, to attain goals, to make possible law, society, organization, culture, morality, “No” must be added to the “Yes,” the world must be separated into opposites, into good and evil. However arbitrary the first establishment of each “No,” each prohibition, may be, it becomes sacrosanct the instant it becomes law, produces results, becomes the foundation for a point of view and system of order.

The highest reality in the eyes of human culture lies in this dividing up of the world into bright and dark, good and evil, permissible and forbidden. For Myshkin the highest reality, however, is the magical experience of the reversibility of all fixed rules, of the equal justification for the existence of both poles. The Idiot, thought to its logical conclusion, leads to a matriarchy of the unconscious and annihilates culture. It does not break the tables of the law, it reverses them and shows their opposites written on the back.

(From Hermann Hesse, My Belief: Essays in the Life and Art, edited and with an introduction by Theodore Ziolkowski, translated by Denver Lindley, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974. You can find used copies of the out-of-print book at Amazon.)

So on the back of the tablet of our law that says people may not enter the country illegally is written its opposite that if a child comes to our border having walked from Guatemala, we are to take her in and feed her and keep her warm and safe.

On the back of the tablet of the law that says your religion is different from mine and mine is different from the guy’s who lives down the street is written that we are to get over our sense of rectitude and privilege.

On the back of the tablet . . .

That’s what I really meant to say a few days ago.

“. . . We don’t know whether these rules preexist our universe . . .” (Karl Giberson)

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The Golden Gate, Jerusalem. Ha Rachamim (Gate of Mercy). Built (perhaps) 810 AD, opened 1102 AD, closed 1540 AD to wait for the coming of the Messiah (Ezekiel 44:1-3). Reality? Why does it go to the bother? (Photo: Harold Knight, Nov. 2015)

For about a week I’ve been writing my magnum opus. I’m delving into everything I think/feel/believe about life, death, thought, unconsciousness, physical fitness, eating, making love, and generally being on the face of the earth. It will probably take me another day or two to finish it.

No, really. All of that stuff.

Should be quite a tome, don’t you think?

I started because I finally (after 60-70 years) got around to trying to write a description of my experience of what I’ve always called dissociation. The description asks in part,

I feel my brain. Physically. That gives me a weird sensation of awareness of my entire body — but especially my head — that makes it feel very close and real, but at the same time distant and as if I have no control over it. . . How am I supposed to do anything, accomplish anything, be close to anyone when I feel as if my mind and my body are at war with each other. These are the times I come the closest to wanting to die. Why can’t I just feel “normal?” Every cell in my body is tingling, but it’s as if someone else is feeling it, not me ― I am happening in someone else’s mind.

I’m right in the thick of my magnum opus. What do I think/feel/believe about life, death, thought, unconsciousness, and all of those other things?

Mostly I think none of it is real.

Turns out there are names for the way I think/feel/believe ― straight from the APA black book. When I read my description to my psychiatrist, she obliged me by opening the APA book handing it to me to read.

Depersonalization disorder is marked by periods of feeling disconnected or detached from one’s body and thoughts. The disorder is sometimes described as feeling like you are observing yourself from outside your body or like being in a dream. However, people with this disorder do not lose contact with reality. An episode of depersonalization can last anywhere from a few minutes to many years.

Derealization is a subjective experience of unreality of the outside world, while depersonalization is unreality in one’s sense of self. Although most authors currently regard derealization (surroundings) and depersonalization (self) as independent constructs, many do not want to separate derealization from depersonalization because these symptoms often co-occur. Feelings of unreality may blend in and the person may puzzle over deciding whether it is the self or the world that feels unreal to them.

Oh, and just to clarify what the black book says, depersonalization might be a symptom of other disorders, including some forms of substance abuse (), certain personality disorders such as bipolar disorder (), and seizure disorders ().

So writing out what I think/feel/believe is quite simple.

Mostly, none of it is real.

I read a lot of weird shit. You know, about the Big Bang and all that stuff. Of course I read only dumbed-down science because I don’t know enough to read real science. The other day I read,

One thing we do know now about that mysterious beginning is that it proceeded according to a precise set of rules. We don’t know whether these rules preexist our universe. We just know that they are there “in the beginning” and that they constrain what can and cannot happen. (Karl Giberson, “Cosmos from Nothing?” Christian Century June 10, 2015.)

I’m not in the habit of reading Christian Century. I think if anyone knows what’s real and what’s not, it’s not likely to be someone writing in a journal with “Christian” in the name.

However, Giberson does ask some nifty questions like, “Why does the universe go to the bother of existing?” And in part of his discussion of that question, he says

Our remarkable universe is just the lucky one among stillborn trillions incapable of hosting life. In The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, cosmologist Brian Greene identifies no less than nine independent ways to produce an infinity of alternate worlds, any one of which can produce a universe like ours without a superintellect monkeying with the physics.

But Giberson is skeptical because, “A scientific drawback to these theories is that none of these posited realities have any empirical connection to our reality—at least at the present time.”

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The sky over the Bedouin town of Sousia in Palestine. Why does it go to the bother? (Photo: Harold Knight, Nov. 2015)

All Giberson or Greene or any of those guys need to do to get a glimpse of the posited realities that have no empirical connection to our reality is find a way to experience what an epileptic experiences with regularity.

If what I feel, see, hear, smell, and taste is, in fact, happening to someone else and they don’t know it, does that reality have any empirical connection to our reality? Do I even have an empirical reality?

I know what you are thinking. I’m making up word games or something to try to explain a weirdness in my life for which no explanation is obvious and which is crazy-making to me (in the sense that it drives me crazy, not that I am crazy).

One thing we do know now about that mysterious beginning is that it proceeded according to a precise set of rules. We don’t know whether these rules preexist our universe.

We don’t know whether these rules preexist our universe. What if―just what if?―some of us are given a glimpse of the reality that nothing is real? What if it’s possible to live in a place where the reality we all take for granted slips away in “an episode of depersonalization [that] can last anywhere from a few minutes to many years?”

“Why does the universe go to the bother of existing?”

If I feel depersonalized, why should we assume that I’m the odd one? I may be the only one who has a grip on things, who knows there’s no grip to be had.

Mr. Descartes, doesn’t it make exactly as much sense to say, “I think, therefore I am not?”

Just sayin’.

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The Damascus Gate, Jerusalem, built 1541. Entrance to the Old City. Arab Quarter. Why does it go to the bother? (Photo: Harold Knight, Nov. 2015)