Cycling and Jerusalem Dreams
The Giro d’Italia is the 21-day professional cycling Italian grand tour held every year in May. This year the first three days are being held in Israel. Day one is an individual time trial in Jerusalem. Day two travels from Haifa to Tel Aviv. And day three from Beersheva to Eilat. I wish to speak about this event is not only so I get to talk about cycling but because the controversies I feared might happen are beginning to come to fruition. One was expected. And the other, unexpected.
The first comes from expected corners. Palestinian activists accuse race organizers of being complicit in Israel’s occupation. They are critical of the decision to start the race in Jerusalem, a city that they feel is still contested and that they wish to have serve as the capital of a hoped for Palestinian state.
The second controversy comes from an unexpected place, Israeli officials. Initially race organizers listed the start of the race not as Jerusalem but instead as starting from West Jerusalem. Israeli leaders were incensed and threatened to pull their support of the race. As far as Israel is concerned Jerusalem is not divided. It is the unified capital of the State of Israel. Denoting West Jerusalem or East Jerusalem is a betrayal of this principal. Much to my surprise Giro officials quickly bowed to Israel’s demands and by Thursday afternoon had changed the wording on the official website to Jerusalem.
What are the wider lessons we can learn from this controversy? As soon as the start of the race was publicized to be in Jerusalem we knew there would be dissenters. There are those that no matter what we do, or what we say, will always resent any positive, worldly accomplishment that Israel achieves. This is the same as the Iranian wrestler who recently threw his match so he would not have to face an Israeli in an international competition. The good news there is that he apparently did so reluctantly and made his displeasure known on social media. He is now garnering supporters in his own country. He has said in effect there is no honor in an intentional forfeit. Better to wrestle and win or even wrestle and lose. Better to face the challenge. But those are not the views of Iranian officials. He was forced to throw in the towel before the match. The lesson here is clear. We will not win over those who refuse to see Israel as anything but illegitimate.
But we can more effectively fight such hatred when Israel assists in these efforts. And this brings me to Israel’s response to the label of West Jerusalem. The fact of the matter is that, as anyone who has visited Israel knows, Jerusalem is effectively divided; there is a West and an East Jerusalem. The Western part of the city is where I spend a good deal of my time when I visit. Sure I go to the Old City and the Western Wall but I don’t typically venture into Arab East Jerusalem. That may sound politically incorrect but it is the truth. East Jerusalem is the area that was captured from the Jordanians 50 years ago in the Six Day War. It includes the Old City. The captured territory has been transformed by new Jewish neighborhoods of French Hill and Pisgat Zev. Regardless of my feelings and the vast majority of Israelis’ sense of ownership over this entire city, the international community stands against us. This is why the US government still has not moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, although this could very well change given President Trump’s promises. This is also why almost every country maintains its Israel embassy in Tel Aviv. Israel controls Jerusalem and yet Palestinians still claim it. And that is the uncomfortable truth.
My gripe with Israeli leaders is their unwillingness to acknowledge this painful truth. Our achievements, our successes, our establishment of a sovereign Jewish nation, our unexpected victory against overwhelming odds in 1967 came at the expense of others losing out on their dream. Insisting that others call Jerusalem as only we see fit does not serve to solve this dilemma. Acknowledging others’ pain is the only way to begin a process of repair. It does not diminish our successes or our achievements or even our pain to acknowledge another’s dream, or even their pain.
A few days ago on November 29th, we acknowledged the 70th anniversary of the United Nations vote on the Partition Plan. That dream was that there was supposed to be two states for two peoples: a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. Yes, the Arab countries invaded after the British relinquished control and yes, Palestinian leaders rejected the Partition Plan, but I, for one, still hold on to that 70 year old dream. I think it is the only viable solution for Israel to further its founding vision of being a Jewish democracy. I think it is the only way for Palestinians to achieve their rightful dream of national sovereignty. I cannot believe in the Jewish right to self-rule, and self-determination, and then deny that same right to others. That’s the hard truth.
That is my approach. But that is not what Miri Regev, Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sport, seeks to do. She seeks to deny the legitimacy of Palestinians’ claim; she attempts to erase the lines that divide the city I so love. Her voice was loudest in decrying Giro officials. This response is not going to solve any conflict. This is not going to make any peace. And peace, and the resolution of this conflict, is most certainly in Israel’s best interest.
I don’t know why Israeli leaders can’t jump up and down with joy at their achievements instead of looking for enemies where they might not even exist. Calling the capital city West Jerusalem is not a declaration of war. Imagine what is going to happen on Friday, May 4. Some 200 cyclists will set out on one by one in the Giro’s first day time trial. They will set out on the 10-kilometer race just outside the Old City, near the Jaffa Gate. They will ride down King David Street past the King David hotel, and of course past Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s seminary. They will then race past the Knesset before heading towards the finish line. Millions and millions of people throughout the world will be watching this spectacle. They will see these images. We should focus on that. They will see the Knesset, the seat of power for the State of Israel. What an achievement.
And we should rejoice. We should celebrate. For 2,000 years we only dreamed of this possibility. And now there is a sovereign Jewish nation with its capital building in the city that was once only a prayer but now is a living reality. We should take that in. We should be jumping up and down in celebration. And then when we come down from the clouds, we should be able to say, we are strong enough and secure enough, to help bring to realization someone else’s dream. It begins with such an acknowledgment. My dream is not the only dream for this land.
When are we going to say to ourselves and to the world, we have achieved enough to make room for someone else? If it is truly a dream then there has to be room for others’ dreams. That is what I am going to continue to hold on to: my dream and their dream. And I am going to remind myself again and again that my dream is not diminished by their dream.