Reimagining Jerusalem Day

Another Jerusalem Day has come and gone.  This most recent addition to the Hebrew calendar commemorates the Israeli army takeover of the eastern part of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War in June 1967, resulting, shortly thereafter, in “a municipal unification” of the Arab and Israeli sections of the city.

On May 20, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presided at a ceremony on Ammunition Hill, marking 45 years since the two parts of the city were fused.  He declared: “We will protect Jerusalem, because Israel without Jerusalem is like a body without a heart.  On this hill…the united heart of our people began to beat again, with full power. Our heart will never be divided again.”   Leaning into the metaphor, he asserted that sacrificing Israel’s heart — a united Jerusalem — would convince its enemies “that it is willing to give up on everything.” 

This year’s Jerusalem Day featured groups from yeshivas and high schools provocatively marching through the Muslim Quarter of the city and through the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah.  Confrontations broke out between the Jewish participants and local Palestinians, especially near the Damascus Gate, where Arab shopkeepers had been instructed to shutter their businesses. 

The Prime Minister’s words may be stirring to some, among them the jubilant paraders, but they are hardly helpful to the cause of peace.  As a May 21 Haaretz editorial put it: “Victory parades that ignore international law and the Palestinians’ ties to Jerusalem are not a substitute for responsible policy.”

What is the “responsible policy” that might actually transform the present incarnation of Jerusalem Day into one that all of Jerusalem’s inhabitants – Israeli and Palestinian — could celebrate together?

In a Maariv interview on Jerusalem Day, Mr. Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert (who also served as Mayor of the city) shines some light on this subject.  Olmert acknowledges Jerusalem’s unique splendor and charm, and “the tremor that it stirs in the heart of every Jew and among a great many non-Jews.”  But these qualities, he insists, don’t require that Israel’s sovereignty over the city extend to the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.  Olmert tells us that if he could live “on every part of the soil of the Land of Israel” while also preserving Israel’s Jewish and democratic character — and winning  international community support – he would do so in a heartbeat.  But he recognizes that’s simply not possible.  Hence, “responsible leadership needs to recognize that, to resign itself to it…[and] draw the necessary conclusions.”

Olmert also avers that he was “within touching distance of a peace agreement.”  Contrary to the conventional wisdom on the subject, he says the Palestinians never rejected his offers: they didn’t accept them, but that’s quite different from rejecting them. “They didn’t accept them because the negotiations weren’t concluded.”  The former prime minister believes that had he stayed in office for a few more months, peace could have been reached.  “The gaps were very small, we had already reached the very last final stretch.”

As detailed by Bernard Avishai in his February 11, 2011 NY Times Magazine piece “The Israel Peace Plan That Still Could Be,” on the issue of Jerusalem Olmert and Abbas agreed that Jewish neighborhoods would remain under Israeli sovereignty, while Arab neighborhoods would revert to Palestinian sovereignty.  The Holy Basin, including the Old City, would be governed by an multi-national trusteeship, charged with maintaining the holy sites, guaranteeing access for all religions, and supported by an international force.  The seemingly intractable “Jerusalem problem” ultimately boiled down to the precise parameters of the Holy Basin.  On this, Olmert said “The exact lines were not drawn, but I believe it could easily be agreed.”

Olmert was forced from office under a cloud of corruption charges, and some will claim that his assertions are nothing more than attempts at vindication and cheap self-aggrandizement.  But two points should be made:  First, he and Abbas both agree they came achingly close to reaching peace on all outstanding issues, including Jerusalem.  Second, their solution to the Jerusalem conundrum — West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state, with shared, international responsibility for the Holy Basin – reflects principles embraced repeatedly in such formulations as the Clinton parameters, the Geneva Accord, and the Israeli Peace Initiative, and generally acknowledged as essential for a two-state solution.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s image of Jerusalem as a beating heart resonates.  But – borrowing another metaphor, from Israeli writer Amos Oz — the leaders of Israel and Palestine, with international assistance, must perform the bold surgery needed to permit it to beat vibrantly for both peoples.  When that reimagined city is finally born, Israeli and Palestinians — and the entire world community — will have ample cause to celebrate a new Jerusalem Day, together.

About the Author
Michael Felsen's op-eds on Israel/Palestine, American Jewish-Muslim relations, and secular humanism have been published in Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, the Boston Globe, The Forward, Common Ground News Service, and elsewhere around the world. He is an attorney who recently retired after four decades in government, and is a past president of the Boston chapter of Workmen’s Circle, an almost 120-year old communal organization dedicated to secular Jewish education, culture, and social justice.