When I speak to most of my friends and neighbors about Jerusalem Day, they roll their eyes and say, “Ugh. Is it that time of year again?”.
This is not because my friends — many of whom, like me, have uprooted lives in far away places in order to make Jerusalem their home — don’t like Jerusalem. It’s because, over the years, Jerusalem Day has developed into a celebration of one specific image of the city, and Jerusalem residents have not been part of the conversation.
I’m not referring only to the city’s Palestinian residents, for whom Jerusalem Day is a tragic time, known as Al Naksa, but also to its Jewish residents. Most of us treasure the city’s diversity, and are enamored of its unique position as a holy place for three religions. We might pray at the Western Wall from time to time (or might not pray at all), but for us, Jerusalem is Mahane Yehuda’s vibrant bar scene, or going to an exhibit at the Israel Museum, or taking a walk to the free outdoor library at Park Hamesila. It’s waiting in line at Rami Levy, wedged up between a religious Muslim and an ultra-Orthodox family. Jerusalem is also: worrying about knife attacks on the light rail, struggling with knowing that a large section of the city’s population has such a different image for its future, not knowing how to greet an Arab co-worker the morning that a Palestinian is shot dead while trying to kill an Israeli civilian near Damascus Gate.
On Jerusalem Day, Jewish Israelis from around the country flock in to “celebrate” an image of Jerusalem that they have in their heads. This image is of a city devoid of diversity, reduced to the sum of its holy sites – the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. This image is completely disconnected from the daily reality of most Jewish Jerusalemites.
In the name of this image, hundreds of visitors embark on a march of hatred and fear. The march, which goes through the Old City, is meant to send a clear message to Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents: This city is not for you; you’re not welcome. This message is transmitted by people chanting racist slogans; there have also been incidents of vandalism and violence.
This is ironic, given that Solomon’s consecration prayer for the Temple, in Jerusalem, was that it be a house of prayer for all nations, which is also the Messianic vision espoused by Isaiah.*
The march celebrates Jerusalem by denigrating Jerusalemites – not only the Palestinian residents, but also the Jewish residents who want a peaceful city, of hope and love.
Every Jerusalem Day brings us slightly further from that bright future, upsetting the city’s delicate dynamic between Jews and Arabs. It’s possible that upsetting this dynamic poses an immediate security threat to the city’s Jewish population – there’s a reason security gets tighter around the holiday.
Some Jerusalemites have begun reclaiming the day, including “This is Jerusalem”, a series of grassroots events by that celebrate the city’s diversity and explore its complex history.
Jerusalem Day poses a challenge: 50 years of the Jewish people being able to pray at their holiest site, since the fulfillment of a dream that lasted 2,000 years, is a great thing to celebrate. But how do we do so while recognizing that this day is painful for others?
50 years is a long enough time, that Jerusalem Day this year should not be only a celebration, but also a day of deliberation: Where have we, as a nation, gone over the past 50 years? Where would we like to go? How was control over Jerusalem and the West Bank changed us – both for good and for bad?
None of these questions have easy answers, but they are all worth asking. Perhaps we can take our cue from the Passover Seder: A night dedicated to storytelling, to exploring our national history, to asking questions and critiquing our society. A night of celebration, of four cups of wine, of silly songs, of food and family. The Passover Seder perfectly captures the dichotomy between hard-core celebration and serious conversation – and, originally, it was meant to be a Temple ceremony, which means it has a built-in connection to Jerusalem.
So, who’s coming over to drink four cups of wine with me on Wednesday
*I also think that the march poses a challenge to Religious Zionism, because if your movement’s main event of the year is traipsing around singing racist slogans, then clearly something has gone wrong.