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And the tolerance capital of the world is… Jerusalem!

In complex Jerusalem, almost nothing is what you think it is and almost no one is who you think they are
An Israeli soldier stands in the City of David (Ir David) in East Jerusalem, next to the Arab neighborhood of Silwan (Matanya Tausig/Flash90/File)
An Israeli soldier stands in the City of David (Ir David) in East Jerusalem, next to the Arab neighborhood of Silwan (Matanya Tausig/Flash90/File)

A couple of years ago, walking towards Jaffa Gate, I captured this scene on my smart phone:

Jaffa Gate.  Photo by the author

As my nephew Yossi said when I showed it to him, it’s fascinating on so many levels. Here are a few that occurred to me.

The harpist sitting a stone’s throw from the Tower of David hopes to evoke the harp-playing, shepherd king. But her innocent white robe is less biblical than 19th century pious fantasy – with all that latter word entails …

David the Shepherd, Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau (1837-1922)

The photographer in my photo is a Hasidic Jew. My friend Julian shared his off-the-cuff impressions when I wrote to him late last night

I reckon he’s a Gerer chossid. Not a Yerushalmi Gerer but one from Arad perhaps. His big boned broad shouldered bodily figure is genetically that of a Gerer, as is his hat and the hat’s ribbon on the left of the brim when seen from the rear. Peyos are hanging down (as opposed to being rolled up above his ears and under hat) denotes a visiting Ger to Jerusalem. Under his hat is the normal large yarmulke but it looks like a Gerer yarmulke to me due to the angle of its base that would then lead up to the uniquely high domed shape of Gerer yarmulkes. His ‘natural’ as opposed to right angled shape of the rear haircut is classically Ger. The trousers of Gerers are often tucked into black socks but not by all Gerer chassidim, so the trousers are an ambiguous piece of evidence in this image. His shoes would never be worn by a Satmar or any other chossid who wears that similar weekday hat. Finally, and perhaps a less tangible but still true observation, is the slight swagger by which he positions himself – a swagger reminiscent of what Gerers are renowned for from the old rebbes downwards through the generations of Ger. All of these bits of information combined lead me to conclude that he is most likely a Gerer chossid (Julian Barnett, personal communication).

Julian taught me a lot of what I know about the Old City. Most significantly, he drew my attention to a miracle: the extremists of three major world religions bump up against each other every day in its crowded markets and narrow alley-ways, and there’s very little violence.

Back to the Hasid. His clothing too reflects a kind of fantasy. His ancestors did not dress like him, as we often assume. What he’s wearing is a take on the garb of the Polish landowners who probably persecuted his ancestors.

The remarkable extent to which that fantasy has taken hold of the popular imagination is evidenced by a painting of King Solomon greeting the Queen of Sheba, in the Ethiopian annex of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a short walk from where I took my photo. Since the artist regarded Solomon himself and select members of his inner-circle as ‘Christians’, he gave them generic ‘biblical’ clothes. The two who, for some reason, he deemed to be Jews are dressed like Hasidim (or Polish landowners…).

Ethiopian Chapel, Jerusalem. Wikimedia Commons. Hasidim are back row left.

The Hasid in my photo shouldn’t be taking photos, let alone of women. In fact, he probably shouldn’t have a smart phone at all. But then Hasidim have a complicated relationship with technology.

B&H Photo, New York: Jesse Shafer and Greg Mchale, On the Real NY

Neither should ‘my’ Hasid be interested in biblical reconstructions, however fanciful. You won’t see many Hasidim at Ir David, David’s City, the archaeological site in East Jerusalem that’s been entrusted to a right-wing national religious organization that’s extremely interested in reconstructing the Bible — in its own image.

An Israeli soldier stands in the City of David (Ir David) in East Jerusalem, next to the Arab neighborhood of Silwan (Matanya Tausig/Flash90/File)

‘My’ Hasid is leaning against Jaffa Gate, but not what we call Jaffa Gate today. What we call Jaffa Gate – just outside my photo to the left – was constructed when Kaiser Wilhelm visited Jerusalem in 1898. The real Jaffa Gate, built in an L-shape to stall marauding enemies, was deemed insufficiently imposing for the Kaiser’s first impression of Jerusalem.

Kaiser Wilhelm in Jerusalem, 1898

My photograph captured one moment in Jerusalem, where almost nothing is what you think it is and almost no-one is who you think they are. The complexities and confusions fan out horizontally and penetrate deep down vertically. There are thousands of moments like this every day in Jerusalem, millions.

That’s why my first experience of Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day — a few years ago — was jarring. It wasn’t a celebration of the complexity and diversity I love. Far from it. The only people celebrating — thousands and thousands of teenagers bused in from the settlements for the famous or infamous flag parade — were a sea of white and blue. They exuded the homogeneity of a certain kind of crowd, the kind in which it doesn’t feel good to be different.

Thousands of young Jewish boys wave Israeli flags as they celebrate Jerusalem Day, dancing and marching their way through Damascus Gate on the way to the Western Wall of Jerusalem’s Old City, June 5, 2016. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

I learned later that most people I know leave the city on Yom Yerushalayim or stay quietly at home. Friends who grew up here say it wasn’t always like that. Yom Yerushalayim once reflected complexity and diversity, but over time, that changed.

My first instinct was to wish there would be no more flag parades. The marchers are modelling par excellence the mistake that, according to the book of Lamentations, brought down our historical enemies: gloating over the defeated people who remain in their midst.

But then I met Michal Shilor (I wrote about her recently), who had a better idea. Michal wanted to create a Yom Yerushalayim for Yerushalmim, Jerusalemites – the people of all ages and social, ethnic and religious backgrounds, from all four corners of the earth, who live and work in this city. The best way to achieve that, Michal thought, was to inspire Yerushalmim to create their own celebrations.

With the support the Jerusalem Inter-Cultural Center, where Michal works, and in co-operation with a host of other people and organizations, Michal redefined Yom Yerushalayim as a day of diversity. This is the third and most ambitious year of Yom Yerushalayim, Yom Ha’acher, Jerusalem Day, a Different Day. There are hundreds of events — free and open to ALL — all over the city.

You can find out what’s happening on this website, in Hebrew, Arabic and English (click here for a PDF of English events):

And on this Facebook page, also in Hebrew, Arabic and English:

I can’t begin to imagine the challenges all this presented.  Here’s a small one I experienced firsthand at Mission Control, the Jerusalem Intercultural Center, earlier this week. A Palestinian colleague of Michal’s was working on an Arabic translation of the program. What’s ‘Rabbah’ (female rabbi) in Arabic, he asked? ‘Imama’, suggested another Palestinian colleague, with a big smile? We all laughed. She tried again: ‘Sheikha’? We laughed even harder. But give it a few years, and the laugh could be on us.

I won’t tell you about all the events that are taking place in Jerusalem on Saturday night and Sunday, but I do want to share a glimpse of two in which I’m intimately involved – they’ll take place in our apartment in the German Colony.

The first is at 9.15pm on Motzai Shabbat, Saturday evening May 12. It’s organized by Shayna Abramson (read Shayna’s blog post about it here). Three women, including me, will speak in English about Jerusalem in our eyes, using a story from the Talmud. Details are here.

The second is at 8pm on Sunday evening 13th May. It’s a joint venture with ‘Jerusalemites in the Living Room’ and Otsrim et hagerush (stop the deportation). Sadiq Ismail from Darfur and Sernay Dori and Havtom Rezene from Eritrea, all of whom now live in Jerusalem, will tell us the harrowing stories of how they got from there to here. And my husband’s daughter, Elisheva Milikowsky, a long-time activist for the asylum-seekers, will speak about their current woeful situation. In Hebrew. You can find details here. 

And last but very much not least, you can get a flavor of the whole day by watching this wonderful video. It made me laugh, it made me cry.  Yes, I know that’s a cliché, but it’s true.

And the Tolerance Capital of the World is … Jerusalem!  

Yom Yerushalayim, Yom Ha’acher posters on the streets of Jerusalem
So I didn’t get the idea in time, but I got the T.Shirt!
About the Author
Before coming to Israel in 2011, Diana Lipton was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). Here in Israel, she's lectured on Bible at Hebrew University's Rothberg International School and, currently, in the Bible Department at Tel Aviv University. She's the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and lives in Jerusalem with her husband Chaim. Her latest book, 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah' (Urim Publications) is available on Amazon; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank.
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