Jerusalem: A city of people, gold and stones

In his poem “Tourists” the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote: 

Once I was sitting on the steps near a gate at the Tower of David, I put my two heavy baskets by my side. There was a group of tourists standing around their guide and I became a mark for them. “You see that man with the baskets? Just to the right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

This week we mark Jerusalem Day, the day that Israeli troops took control of the Old City, including the Kotel and Temple Mount during the 1967 Six Day War. For 19 years, prior to that, Jews could not access the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, or live in the ancient Jewish Quarter. Jerusalem is a city of extremes and complexities – of holiness and high ideals, but also of clashes and conflicts. The beauty of Jerusalem lies first and foremost in the diverse and multifaceted people living in the city. A variety of Jewish communities situated alongside Christian and Muslim communities. 

My wish for Jerusalem is for it to live up to its destiny and to its name – a City of Peace. But reality creates a challenge. In recent years, Jerusalem Day has become synonymous with the racist and violent “Flag March”, where tens of thousands of primarily young Orthodox, National Religious men march through Damascus Gate and into the Muslim Quarter. The residents of the Muslim Quarter are forced to close down their shops, “for their own safety”, losing a day of income that can be crucial, and being locked in or out of their homes for hours at a time, to avoid the violence of the crowd. Many of the marchers chant horrific slogans such as “May Your Village Burn!” and “Burn the Mosques, Build the Temple!” The Jerusalem Police has repeatedly rejected petitions and calls to change the route of the march so that it does not goes through the Muslim Quarter. The Supreme Court refused to intervene. 

The Israel Religious Action Center has been fighting racism for decades. We have been fighting incitement to racism and offering assistance to victims of racism. We have been monitoring the racist organization Lehava – which has marched in the streets of Jerusalem, looking for mixed couples of Jews and Arabs and attacking Arabs in the center of the city. Now the head of the organization stands trial, and was not allowed to run for the Knesset because of his racism. 

We have been fighting for religious freedom in all of Israel and specifically in Jerusalem, showing there is more than one way to express and practice Judaism. We demand equal treatment at the Wall and elsewhere. The violence aimed at Women of the Wall’s monthly prayers, which I attend as the lawyer representing WoW and the Reform and Conservative movements in the Supreme Court – is appalling. The fact that women and liberal Jews are not allowed to pray according to our beliefs in the most sacred place for the Jewish people is unacceptable – as has also been stated in the recent US Department of State Report on International Religious Freedom in Israel

We face the most extreme and racist government Israel has ever had, a government which promotes a narrow version of Judaism – pouring billions of Shekels to Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, a government which seeks to take the rights of liberal Jews, women, LGBTQ and Israeli Palestinians. Furthermore, the government tries to destroy the mechanisms which are supposed to protect minorities – most notably the Supreme Court. Fortunately, the Israeli public, which by and large supports religious freedom and opposes extremism, is not willing to accept all these dangerous initiatives. 

We have been fighting racism and religious coercion for many years, often as an almost lone voice. But this year we are not alone in this fight. The hundreds of thousands of Israelis who went out to the streets in the past 20 weeks not only called to stop the legal coup the government is promoting but also demanded that Israel remains a democracy which respects the rights of all its citizens, regardless of their religion, race or gender.

The Israeli flag, which has become associated with the extreme right, and with racism and violence of the flag march, has been reclaimed by the largest protest Israel has ever seen. The flag now stands not for hatred and violence but for equal rights and an independent Supreme Court. This year, after the racist flag march, there is going to be the first ever counter march – against racism, and for equality, tolerance and democracy. I will be there along many Israelis who oppose the fact the Jerusalem Day has become synonymous with hatred and violence.

The current moment is troubling and concerning but also a moment of hope and opportunity. Israelis have finally awakened and are calling for a Jerusalem which will be not only a city of gold and stones but first and foremost, a city of people, a place where all are treated equally and respectfully. 

About the Author
Orly Erez Likhovski is the director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and public advocacy arm of the Israeli Reform movement.
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