Yom Yerushalayim – “Jerusalem Day,” the day we celebrate the “liberation” and “reunification” of Jerusalem in 1967, is rapidly becoming one of my least favorite holidays.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad we won the war in ’67. I’m glad I can walk around the Old City, I’m glad Jews once again live in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, I’m glad I can pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall, the holiest place in the world for Jews.
But there’s a lot about the holiday I don’t like.
I don’t like how it’s become a rallying point for the right wing and racists, and I don’t like how it’s become de rigueur for those same right wingers to go on provocative marches through Muslim parts of the Old City just to “make a point.” The fact that they need police protection to make that point kind of shows what’s obvious: Jerusalem is STILL a divided city.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu gave a speech at Ammunition Hill, the site of fierce fighting in ’67, proclaiming, “On this hill, 45 years ago, the united heart of our people began to beat again, with full power. Our heart will never be divided again.” Fifteen people were arrested at Damascus Gate, five Arabs for throwing stuff at the marchers, as they passed by the main gate in the Arab part of town, and ten Jews for chanting racist slogans at the Arabs.
A few days ago I went to an event in honor of Yom Yerushalayim which was held at the Knesset and sponsored by MK Haim Amsalem. One of the speakers was Yishai Fleisher, a well-known media commentator who lives in Arab East Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives. He gave a very articulate talk about how he tries to live in peace with his neighbors, and he’s not an “occupier,” he’s a “re-occupier” if anything, surrounded as he is by Jewish graves, in a place with a Jewish history going back 1,500 years.
He made a moving pitch for why he feels connected to that hill, with its history. Which is all well and good…but what about the Muslims who abandoned their homes in West Jerusalem – in Katamon – during the War of Independence? We’re not talking about some “historical” connection, we’re not talking about just a religious and spiritual connection, but we’re talking about their grandparent’s homes. Why did they abandon those homes? They were scared to death during the war, scared of Jewish terrorists. A lot of people fled after the bombing of the Semiramis Hotel in Katamon that killed 26 people, almost all civilians.
Now that Jerusalem is “reunited,” why should it be OK for Jews to “reclaim” homes in Sheikh Jarrah – in the heart of Arab East Jerusalem – but it’s not OK for Arabs to reclaim homes in Katamon or Talbieh?
Instead of being a celebration of the fact that I can once again pray at the Western Wall – which does merit celebration – Yom Yerushalayim has become a celebration of the Occupier, asserting dominion by force.
When the right wing politicians talk about never dividing Jerusalem, they are talking about a “Jerusalem” whose boundaries bear no resemblance whatsoever to the historic Jerusalem. The municipal boundaries of “Jerusalem” now include towns that are far away from the real Jerusalem.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we should blindly go back to the ’67 lines. Israel clearly must retain control of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, and access to and protection of important religious sites, such as the cemetery at the Mount of Olives must be assured. At the same time, until we’re ready to be a city of all its citizens – and let Arabs as readily reclaim homes in West Jerusalem as they want to let Jews reclaim homes in East Jerusalem – we’re better off acknowledging the division that exists. Maybe in a generation or two integration can happen naturally. But we’re not there yet.
When the Messiah comes we can all live together in one unified city in peace. In the meanwhile, we need a different solution.