A colleague of mine told me that every Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) her husband makes a big, wonderful party to celebrate with his army buddies—who served with him in the Six Day War. I could never replicate such an awesome celebration. I do not share the war stories; I cannot remember the heart-wrenching pain of each loss; I never knew the incremental feelings of exuberance with each staggering success. No, a private affair would be lacking for one who learned about the events of 1967 via history books. It seems most appropriate to celebrate communally whether at schools, neighborhoods, or, in the most logical place of all: Jerusalem.

Each year thousands of blue and white clad Jewish celebrants sing and dance their way through Jerusalem to the Old City and to the Kotel (Western Wall) plaza. It is a joyous, emotional expression of gratitude and pride. Billowing Israeli flags are held aloft as jubilant youths, of an age that often can’t see beyond their own selfness, make their way through the city with gratitude for a decades-old miracle and an appreciation of a millennia-old dream that’s inspiring to behold.

We have much to be proud of. And yet, the celebration is nearly always marred by fringe elements who are drawn to cause trouble like a magnet is drawn to a fridge. This year was no exception.

Jerusalem Day celebrants marching near the Damascus Gate. Photo courtesy: Akiva Gottlieb

Jerusalem Day celebrants marching near the Damascus Gate. Photo courtesy: Akiva Gottlieb

I will not honor the controversy with explanations. For the sake of this piece, among the thousands of mostly Modern Orthodox youth who participate in the march, there are always those who spew racist remarks — even nasty signs and occasional violence — and thus hijack what should be a beautiful, national holiday. Racism does not become us. It does not become anyone.

It’s the troublemakers, unfortunately, who we hear about. And when there are thousands of marchers, and the fringe are the vocal troublemakers, it may seem that they are representing the thousands. I do not believe that to be the case at all.

Mind you this was not happening in a vacuum. The march, which passes through the Damascus Gate in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City encountered rock-throwing Arab youths. And certainly there was a lot of tension on both sides, but the “rock-throwing Arab youths” is something encountered so often that it barely makes the news anymore. Unless there’s significant damage or injury; and even then not necessarily.  

Have you ever had rocks thrown at you? Have you ever had your car, your bus, your train – your person – pelted with rocks? I have. It’s petrifying. And potentially deadly. And it isn’t new. I was on a bus in 1986 – before Oslo and two-state solutions – even before the Intifadas – and we were attacked by rock-throwing Arabs. And my friend was injured. In the face.

That brings me to the elephant that is always in the room around here… How do we relate to our Arab neighbors without prejudice? This question is neither facetious nor rhetorical. Do you wish to be honest and realistic? Answer this: How do we balance acceptance and open-mindedness with the very real threat of terror? As warm and accepting as we may wish to be of Arabs, how many Arab and/or Muslim nations are warm and accepting of Jews? Of Israel? Not a grudgingly tepid peace accord, but warm? Accepting? Lets count them: Exactly none. That’s a pretty large number of Muslims/Arabs who are – by policy – not accepting of Israel.

Do we want to paint all of Arab society with one brush? Do you? Does your brush paint them all as potential terrorists? Or perhaps your brush is kind and paints them as innocents, after all, how can you blame an entire society for the actions of some? Alright… what about the reality that in the Palestinian Authority murderers are honored? Town squares named for them… So perhaps it is just the leaders who are guilty? What about the rock throwers? And stabbers? And kidnappers? And baby murderers? Then we come back to the society who honors these actions, and honors the terrorists. Are we deceiving ourselves that peace is even possible? Are we just toeing the line against our own better judgment?

My daughter is five and like children her age she has a simplified opinion of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. Her world in this regard consists mainly of our Jewish neighborhood, and a vague knowledge of the steady stream of terror attacks requiring frightening warnings of what to watch out for. Not to mention the Hamas war in her own recent memory. All this lends itself, in her eyes, to ‘Jews’ being the ‘good guys’ and ‘Arabs’ being the ‘bad guys.’ I correct her every time she says it, but still… is it wrong? Is my five year-old a racist? No, she’s a pragmatist with an overly simplified view of life in these parts.

She’s not the only one. I take ‘tremps’ quite regularly. I will never willingly get into an Arab car nor will I knowingly pick an Arab up (although I would have no problem taking an Arab taxi in Jerusalem.) Does that make me a racist?  

How about the cities and villages in the Palestinian Authority with bold red signs Israel has placed at the entrance making it quite clear that Israelis may NOT enter those areas as it is dangerous to their lives. Are the city and road planners racists because they put up those signs? Are they saying that everyone in that village is a potential murderer?

We are desperately trying to maintain a fine balancing act wherein we are open minded and accepting, not prejudiced. But at the same time we must also be realistic. And stay safe.

Terror attacks continue with barely a word of condemnation from the Arab leaders. An instinctual lack of trust has naturally permeated our society: Every car is potentially a murder weapon. A random person you’re walking past may pull a knife on you. A terrorist may be lurking around the corner. These fears are neither absurd nor illogical. I started carrying pepper spray. I’ve considered getting a gun. I’m not worried about crime, of being mugged or raped. I’m concerned about Arab terror.

And still, what do i tell my five year old when she refers to bad guys as ‘Aravim’? I say, Honey, Arabs are not bad guys. There are bad guys who are Arabs. Being an Arab does NOT make him a bad guy. Even some of our soldiers are Arabs. She looks at me with those eyes – eyes that see someone who would do anything to protect her, who would never lie to her, and she nods at me in understanding. As for me? I am not lying. Despite the red signs at the Arab towns, despite the spate of run-over attacks, despite Arab terror that dates back decades before the State of Israel was even founded, just because someone is an Arab – or a Muslim – doesn’t make him anything more than an Arab – or a Muslim. I refuse to prejudge anyone if I can help it. We can be prudent without prejudging. Being smart doesn’t have to mean being a jerk.

Will I alienate my Arab neighbors by celebrating the founding of the Jewish State on Independence Day? Will it irritate Arab residents if we rejoice in the redemption of our land and our people on Jerusalem Day? Good chance, yeah. But I can’t help that. And just like the Jews in Egypt have always celebrated Passover and the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, we will unapologetically celebrate the miracles OF our land IN our land – regardless of who’s there to watch.  But we CAN help our attitudes. And our respect for our fellow man.

Why bother celebrating? Because after several decades of independence it’s easy to forget that it was 2000 years in coming. Because commemorating renews an experience and the events that lead to it. It would be easy for us to take it all for granted and just move on. But realize that prior to the start of the Six Day War, the outlook was so grave that Israel’s national parks were designated to become cemeteries for the expected massive casualties… And yet, in a matter of six short days, the war with three neighboring Arab countries was decisively won by Israel, their territory tripled, and losses, while painful, were minimal.

Why bother celebrating? We celebrate because we won. We celebrate because we survived. We celebrate because of the miracles. We don’t celebrate to hurt our neighbors. But if our neighbors try to hurt us and we win, we will, naturally, celebrate.