IsraelYom Yerushalayim

Yom Yerushalayim 5783

Fifty-six years ago yesterday on the Jewish calendar something amazing happened.

A war was raging on multiple fronts, with Syria in the north, Egypt in the south, and Jordan in the middle. In the midst of fierce fighting, Jordanian resistance evaporated, and for the first time in 1,897 years the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, the holiest spot in the world for Jews, was under Jewish authority. The Romans laid waste to our holy Temple in the year 70, and the Western Wall, part of the retaining wall under the Temple, became our holiest space. After a succession of foreign rulers – Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, Persian, Mamluk, Turkish, and British our holiest of places was once again under our control.

Listening to the recording of the radio call from the soldiers, yelling, “Har Habayit b’yadeinu! Har habayit b’yadeinu!” “The Temple Mount is in our hands, The Temple Mount is in our hands!” gives me chills. 

Not only were our holy places under foreign control for nearly 2,000 years, for the previous 19 years, ever since the War of Independence in 1948, Jews could not even visit the Western Wall. The entire Old City of Jerusalem was part of Jordan, and Jews were not permitted to enter.

I especially love going to the Kotel on Shavuot; after staying up all night studying, at 4am I join the thousands of Jews walking through the streets of Jerusalem to read the Ten Commandments at the Western Wall at dawn. It’s always a powerful spiritual moment for me.

I am filled with gratitude that Israel won the war in ’67 and was able to reunite Jerusalem. I’m happy that Mamilla, right outside the walls of the Old City, is now the location of some of the priciest real estate in Jerusalem, instead of a no man’s land where no one wanted to live because of the constant danger from Jordanian snipers.

Yesterday, as we sang a festive Hallel at our daily minyan with Cantor Boaz, I was, in a way, grateful to be in Montreal instead of in Jerusalem on Yom Yerushalayim. I find it much easier to celebrate the holiday here than in Jerusalem.

It breaks my heart that Yom Yerushalayim has become my least favorite Jewish holiday, at least when I’m in Jerusalem.

It may be hard for people who don’t live in Jerusalem to understand, because you don’t see what the holiday has become. It has become a day for the celebration of the ugliest, most nationalistic, racist side of Israeli society. I’m saddened by the fact that we have not learned how to live in peace with our Palestinian cousins. The “settler youth” that dominate the parade that was held on Thursday march through Muslim neighborhoods and raise hell, curse people, and do damage. They destroy shops, attack random people, curse and spray graffiti with phrases such as “Death to Arabs.” This is not what Judaism stands for.

Sadly, this isn’t new. What happened this year is the same thing that has happened every year for some time now. The headline of the lead story about the march in The Times of Israel reads “Triumphalism and ethno-nationalism take center stage at Jerusalem Day events — Heartfelt joy for the return of the Jewish people to their ancient capital is being overshadowed by an antagonistic, nationalistic animosity toward Jerusalem’s Palestinians.”

The article reports that tens of thousands of young religious Zionist men and women from around the country marched and celebrated, with the celebrations getting ugly as they entered Damascus Gate in the Muslim Quarter. The police ordered Palestinian stores to close. In at least one incident Jewish marchers beat Palestinian residents, and in another incident, they attacked journalists who were there to record their horrible behavior. There was plenty of hate on both sides; one 15-year-old from the West Bank said, “It bothers me that they’re in my country,” while a Palestinian woman from East Jerusalem said that Jerusalem is a Palestinian city and Jews have no national rights in Jerusalem or Israel.

Black flags of the racist, far-right Lehava organization were plentiful, waved by youths chanting things like “May your village burn” at Palestinians. The revelers threw water bottles and flagpoles at Muslim journalists. The same far-right and ultranationalist politicians who are at the march every year were there again this year, only this time they came as cabinet ministers and high government officials.

The parade is not a small fringe event. It’s not as if a small group of white nationalists decided the best way to celebrate Canada Day would be by marching through a reserve and cursing First Nations people. This is Israel’s central celebration of Jerusalem Day, and instead of highlighting how wonderful it is that Israel allows all faiths to have access to their holy sites, it’s a political fight between right wing politicians and settlers on the one hand and Palestinian terrorists on the other. 

Instead of celebrating “united Jerusalem,” the event shows just how little unity there is in the holy city. And not only disunity between Arabs and Jews; disunity among Jews, with some of us being revolted by what the day has become, and others waving flags in Muslim neighborhoods and hoodlums engaging in violence and vandalism. In the Arab community, divided between those who just want to live in peace and those who want to fight. 

And there are other problems besides the parade that make Jerusalem Day not as joyous as it might be.

There have been protests for years in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, protests that highlight the unjust property laws in Israel. Jews who hold title to property in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah are evicting Palestinian families who have lived in these homes for over 70 years. There were some paperwork problems under Jordan, and title failed to properly pass to the Palestinian residents.

Most people at the protest feel the families should be allowed to keep the property. The reason being that Palestinians who lost homes in West Jerusalem are not allowed to reclaim their property. 

The Israeli law legalizes one way theft. The Talmud tells us that “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine,” is “midot Sdom,” the traits of Sodom, the kind of attitude that led God to destroy the city.

I actually think that allowing Palestinians to reclaim property in West Jerusalem would open a can of worms we don’t want to open, so even though it would ethically be the right thing to do, practically I don’t support it. But if we’re not going to let them have their property back, we should not allow Jews to do that either. People get displaced in wars, and it’s sad, but it’s impossible to put everything right years later.

Jerusalem today is a city physically united and spiritually divided. Just walk from Jaffa Gate to Damascus Gate and you can see the difference yourself. In a ten minute walk you go from Israel to Palestine. The signs switch from Hebrew to Arabic, and kippot are replaced by kafiyehs. 

And the divisions within the Jewish community are profound. The Haredi want to impose their views of Torah on everyone else – no women praying in tallitot at the Western Wall, no secular Jews going to the movies on Shabbat. Throwing stones at cars driving on Shabbat and spitting at Christian priests.

The secular want to force the Haredi to learn secular subjects and serve in the IDF.

Right wing settlers funded by an American billionaire “Judaize” Arab neighborhoods, needing armies of armed guards for protection.

Arabs throw stones at settler cars.

The government insists Arab East Jerusalem is “united” with Jerusalem, yet it refuses to provide an equivalent level of municipal services – schools, parks, paved roads, garbage pickup – to the residents.

Wouldn’t it be better if the city were physically divided and spiritually united?

Here’s my prayer for Jerusalem on Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day:

Ribono shel olam, Master of the Universe
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob
God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel and God of Leah
God of Jesus
God of Mohamed
Help us find the teachings of love in Your Torah, Your Bible, Your Koran
Give us compassion and understanding
Show us how to live in peace, each according to their custom
Grant us the wisdom to know how to share our holy places – we all want to honor and praise you
Bring our leaders to the path of righteousness, caring for all, responsible for all the holy city’s residents
Bring us peace
True peace
May Jerusalem truly be Ir Shalem, a city whole, not divided by hatred, the true City of Peace


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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