Shuki Friedman

Jerusalem Day excludes most Israelis

For many years now, Jerusalem Day has been inextricably identified with Religious Zionists. This is bad for Jerusalem and bad for the holiday. Instead of a colorful, all-Israeli celebration that resonates throughout the country, most Israelis are not even aware this day exists, let alone celebrate it. It wasn’t like this in the past, and it does not have to be like this now. But in order to change the reality, politics and extremism must be excluded from this important day and its national and inclusive character restored.

The 57th Jerusalem Day was celebrated last week, with the traditional flag parade and several other events. They were all characterized by one common denominator: they were almost exclusively attended by Religious Zionists (the community, not the political party). It wasn’t always this way. 

Jerusalem Day once had much more of a national character. It was once observed throughout Israel. And in Jerusalem, the capital, other groups once joined the day’s celebrations. 

There are many reasons for the change that has taken place in its present character, including the very unfortunate decline of Jerusalem as a city that connects all Israelis, despite the political disputes surrounding it. But the way Jerusalem Day is celebrated now has an alienating effect on the majority of Israelis who, if they were to participate in the events, would probably feel as if they had stumbled into a party uninvited.

The politicization of Jerusalem Day is the greatest impediment to restoring its national character. Tourists visiting the Western Wall Plaza in the middle of this year’s Jerusalem Day might have thought they were attending an election rally for the Religious Zionist party Otzma Yehudit. Party leaders gave fiery speeches in front of the stones of the Kotel, from stages in front of the thousands crowding the plaza, waving at the audience as if they were at the Tel Aviv exhibition grounds. 

Beyond the disrespect displayed to the Jewish people’s holiest site, turning Jerusalem Day into a distinctly political day is a disaster for Jerusalem.

Compounding this are fringe phenomena that repeat themselves every year, tarnishing the day and its celebrants. A group of youths beating up Arabs in the Old City here, rioters assaulting journalists there. Or a group using the day to ascend the Temple Mount as a provocation, determined to challenge the rules for visiting there. 

Certainly, the day’s organizers do not welcome these occurrences, but there is no resolute condemnation of them and no practical-educational effort to prevent them particularly evident. 

It is also worth emphasizing the negative role of the Israeli media, which usually focuses on these fringe events and gives a slanted presentation of the celebrations and the celebrants through the distorting prism of these unfortunate incidents.

Jerusalem Day has been hijacked by extremist groups as a performative demonstration, confrontational and incendiary, of Jewish control over Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been reunited. Its liberation and Israeli sovereignty over its own capital city are not in doubt among most Israelis. But the way to demonstrate sovereignty and responsibility for all parts of the city is by providing administrative, enforcement and educational resources to the residents of East Jerusalem throughout the year. A Flag Parade fomenting friction that sometimes escalates into violence does not contribute much to enhancing the city’s special status in the eyes of Israelis and dampens the impulse to celebrate Israel’s sovereignty over it.

The Basic Law: Jerusalem reinforces its status, as a unified whole, as Israel’s capital under Israeli sovereignty. But laws and declarations alone are not enough to return Jerusalem to all Israelis and turn the holiday into a national day celebrated by all groups in Israeli society. In order to return Jerusalem Day to its glory, politicians must keep their hands off it. Along with this, we all have an obligation to treat the day with sanctity, preserving its national and essential character, curbing extremist elements, and conveying a message to all our fellow Israelis that Jerusalem and Jerusalem Day are a celebration for us all.

About the Author
Dr. Shuki Friedman is the vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer of law at the Peres Academic Center. His book, 'Being a Nation-State in the Twenty-First Century: Between State and “Synagogue” in Modern Israel' was recently published by Academic Studies Press.
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