I celebrated my first Jerusalem Day this year as it was my first year in Israel; talk about great timing! A 50 year anniversary is a big deal for any event, it signifies real permanence, be it a relationship or death, and this was certainly no different. In the run up to the big day I had already understood that Jerusalem Day wasn’t quite like Yom Hatzmaut (Which I also celebrated in Jerusalem, it was amazing).
I quickly came to learn of the division Jerusalem Day causes both the Israeli and international community. Seeing as international portrayal of Israel is usual suspect at best, I’m going to focus on the local, then describe the good, the bad and the ugly, and how it feeds into the bigger picture of Israeli society and its future.
For those who may hold strong personal views regarding Jerusalem Day, let me add a disclaimer: Yes I support a sovereign, united Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, yes I support Jerusalem Day as a day of celebration and yes, I agree that there are issues both with this holiday and unification that need to be worked out and not ignored if we are to enjoy both for generations to come.
(Proud to say all photos were taken by yours truly. I hope you at the very least enjoy them!)
The celebrations for Jerusalem Day can really be broken into three broad categories: The rallies, the marches and the Kotel. I felt that as you progressed through each one, the general aura of ‘Zionism’ as many people think of it, increased. All provided different atmospheres with three common threads: They were all full of smiles, they were packed with youth (16-18) and they were overwhelmingly Religious Zionist (Though there was a strong Orthodox showing at the Kotel, of course).
The rallies were separated by each youth group, most of them Religious Zionist (RZ). As such, many were also separated by gender where there was a rally for girls, and one for boys usually right next to it. If I had to describe the RZ youth I would say this: Loud, brash, happy with a likelihood of being Ashkenazim (just from what I observed at the areas I was in).
One can’t help but wonder what this spells for the future of the Israeli people. Sure, many in the Mercaz region are not RZs, but thats the point – these groups came from many non-Mercaz areas. With numbers between 60-80 thousand at the march and the majority of them being youth, they are sure to become a solid voting demographic who are clearly nationalistic, contemptuous of international opinions and not afraid to show off their beliefs.
While some of the RZ groups holding rallies may have had some extreme ideology to them, for example one that was for girls that advocates strict no inter-marriage between Jews and non-Jews, they for the most part did not blast their beliefs in our face. I got the feeling that it was more an idea of representation for them, to show their support, rather than push their individual agendas, even Centrist Yesh Atid had a small stand!
The rallies themselves usually included a stage with live music (usually rock), or a speaker, or both and a giant crowd dancing in white shirts and waving Israeli flags. At times it seemed as if we were looking at a sea of ever-expanding and contracting circles – the archetypal sign of a real Jewish dance in celebration. It was awesome to watch Israel’s next generation coming together to create a really fun atmosphere.
While the rallies occupied the morning and afternoon, the main march towards the Old City took off around late afternoon. Though to call it a march would give it far too much organisational credit, it was more a series of successive waves. As we moved up to the Old City walls in the constantly shifting ocean of blue and white, a crowd started gathering at the side of the road. Always one to shove my nose into a beehive, we investigated.
To my surprise it was a Meretz counter-demonstration. But what was more shocking was the RZ response to it. Their counter-protest wasn’t big enough to stop ours (Though it was big enough to remind me how divisive the holiday can be), and thus was quickly swallowed whole by the march. What then happened was the definition of cliche: All of the Religious Zionist youth, so zealous with each of their individual group’s chants and songs, began to sing Ha Tikva at the demonstrators. There was no violence, no Nazi-comparisons, just a group of proud Jews shaming another for not enjoying the fruits of 2000 years in exile.
The wave we rode ended up going through the Shar Shechem (Damascus Gate), straight into the heart of the Muslim Quarter, which was my goal from the outset. Right at the entrance to the gate, an old man draped in an Israeli flag in front of me pulled out a shofar and let loose with it. If one moment crystallized the whole day for me – it had to be that. To me the shofar’s siren wasn’t a battle cry outside enemy gates, but a cry of celebration; A celebration of Jewish life, Jewish sovereignty and Jewish freedom. All of which are a possibility unique to our modern times.
The march through the Muslim Quarter’s was both pulse-raising with the collective euphoria of the group, and hair raisingly-tense, there was a feeling that we are where we are not wanted, but are proudly marching through anyway. Outside Shar Shechem has always been a vital choke point for the march in which Arabs in years past have used to hurl rocks, insults and sometimes directly clash with the marchers.
This year there was none of that, I believe that in response to 50 years being so important, the security in this area was upped significantly, a trend I saw continue all the way to the Kotel. Though as surprising as it may sound, the only issue I ever saw was between Meretz and the RZs.
As we weaved through the intersections and tight alleyways (Our path was generally predetermined as many side streets were blocked by police forces, both for us going out, and Arabs coming in), you could spot preying Arab eyes staring at us from windows and side-streets behind barriers, a look that was either curiosity or anxiety – it didn’t calm down the feelings of tension, but they quickly faded away once we entered what I can only describe as ‘The Crush’.
The Crush is what happens when a march of around 60,000 people gets caught in a tight bottleneck of an alleyway, and these people happen to be chanting, drumming and happy kids who refuse to believe in the laws of spacial physics and push forward anyway. Waves of peoples would push forward, squeezing the minority who could fit through out, before readying up for another assault. I’d say those with claustrophobia need not apply, I’m sure many feet were trampled that day.
It was also within these tight streets that I started to see the uglier side to Jerusalem Day. As we got deeper into the Muslim Quarter and thus closer to the Kotel, it seemed the hype of the RZs was reaching a fever pitch, chants turned into near-militaristic vows of never relinquishing an inch, never stepping back and never surrendering – something that sounded straight out of the run up to the Six Day War. Youths started to bang on the doors of the homes and stalls of the Arab residents to the tune of their song, or to the tune of their unguided animosity.
I watched as stickers started being placed on these doors and windows that conjured up the image of a Jerusalem under siege. For a brief moment, it felt like the RZs had convinced themselves that this was really the case. One such sticker that has stuck with me read: “We would rather have an Israel rejected by the world than an Auschwitz that is co-signed by them.” – A sentiment I agree with, but I don’t quite see how a random Arab resident fits into it.
Finally we entered the area of the Kotel and all these feeling dissipated in an instant. We went from claustrophobia under archways to wide open air. Even though there was more space, it was still a very tight squeeze as the RZs were joined by Haredim and secular visitors to take in the scene. A massive stage was erected with a few notable figures from the government and religious community. The most notable however was certainly Minister of Education, Naftali Bennet. Being the most notable official at the ceremony holds important meaning, many in the leading parties seemed to distance themselves from the Jerusalem Day debate, but Mr. Bennet, knitted kippah on head, charged right into it – you could easily see that this was the man who would lead the coming generation of Religious Zionists.
He clearly had the support of the his audience, and he certainly knew who he was talking to; opening with a witty quip about how as Minister of Education, he’ll let us off the hook for skipping school to attend Jerusalem Day. I felt his charisma, and one thing I noticed: Every person who would wave at him in the crowd (and it was a big crowd), he would wave right back at them, as if they were friends; happy to see each other at this event, and in a way that is exactly what they were.
Finally, me and my friend, our group long separated in the crush around us, reached the Western Wall. The entrance was so packed that we had to jump down into the praying area just to reach it, definitely a memorable experience. For all those who have been at the Kotel, you know that there is a special atmosphere, a strange quiet, as if you are standing before something greater than yourself. That was still very much here. Incredibly, it was so quiet even though there was a huge show a few meters away. Finally, we said our prayers and left.
I loved Jerusalem Day, as I said in the beginning. It is incomparable to Yom Hatzmaut. Will I have the energy to go next year? Who knows. Am I glad I went this year? Without a shadow of a doubt. That all being said, Jerusalem Day does make you think of the future: How can we possibly separate the city in a peace deal when there is such attachment to it? What is the boundary between a march of pride, and a march of superiority? Can the Arabs of East Jerusalem integrate within Israeli society? Is it ethical to close down a non-Jewish sector for a clearly Jewish event?
We can make opinionated guesses: no, Jerusalem shouldn’t be separated, with proper guidelines the march stays a celebration, yes the Arabs can integrate but it takes prodding on both sides, it is ethical in a nation that is open about itself being a Jewish nation – there is no such separation of faith and state such as in the United States. I think the police did a good job of increasing fines and arrests for inciting racial abuse, as I personally saw no direct conflicts, and I know police have arrested march-goers in years past.
As for the Religious Zionists, I believe they are going to become an important part of Israeli society in future. These are no longer the ‘crazy settlers’ of years past, but may become more like their spokesperson, Naftali Bennet: Religious, proud, educated and full time workers. I can also see more joining them as people’s patience with the Haredi community thins further.