Today is the day in the Jewish calendar that Israelis (and others) celebrate the reunification of the holy city of Jerusalem 49 years ago. Jerusalem Day is celebrated widely, and nowhere more enthusiastically than in the city itself.
Not only is Jerusalem one of the oldest cities in the world, it is undoubtedly the most controversial city in history. According to Wikipedia, the city has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times. And these numbers do not include internal strife, intifadas and terror attacks which persist in the city until today. Although these events have taken place over approximately 5,000 years, it still seems a great deal for any city to endure, and there are many who wonder why it is that one city should be so sought after that people are prepared to go to such extraordinary lengths to secure control over the city.
For the Jewish people, the answer is quite clear. The belief is that the creation of the world emanated from the Foundation Stone on Mount Moriah. This is also the same place that Jacob was ordered to sacrifice Isaac (and then stopped from doing so), and also coincides with the location of of the famous dream of Jacob’s ladder. So it comes as no surprise that King David chose this place to erect his City of David in approximately 1,000 BCE, and that Solomon’s Temple was built on Mount Moriah soon after this. From the moment that Solomon’s Temple stood at this site (and possibly even from long before), it took on the undisputed position as the holiest place on earth to all Jews. The city of Jerusalem is mentioned by name more than 600 times in the Jewish biblical texts, and thousands more times by other names and references. The centrality of this location and this city to Jews is without rival. It is highly likely that this centrality is the reason why Jesus, a Jewish boy from Nazareth, found himself in Jerusalem where he was crucified. This established Jerusalem as a holy city for his followers, later to be known as Christians. The holiness of Jerusalem to the third monotheistic religion, Islam, stems from an event that took place more than 600 years later. The Quran tells us that the Prophet Mohammad was taken by Buraq to visit the “furthest mosque” (believed to mean the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem), from where Mohammad was taken to heaven. This reference is the sole claim that Muslims have to Jerusalem as a holy city (although still not quite as holy as Mecca and Medina), and Jerusalem is not mentioned by name once in the entire Quran. The scene was set for conflict, disagreement, war, death and destruction surrounding the control of this city, holy to three religions.
Today we celebrate 49 years of freedom of the city of Jerusalem. This freedom extends not only to Jews and Israelis who have administrative control over the city. It extends to all from the three religions, and others, who come in peace to worship, learn the history and pay respects to the holy city. But this was not always the case, and is never taken for granted in this conflict-filled city. Even as recently as 50 years ago, Jews were prevented from entering the Old City of Jerusalem, and approaching the holy site of the Western Wall. This fact alone is justification for Israel to continue to exert control over the city and its holy sites.
Over the past few years, Jerusalem has put on an annual festival of light as part of the Jerusalem Day festivities. It is highly symbolic that the city, with such a dark history, has a festival of light to emphasize all that is positive about the city. I had the good fortune to participate in the festival this year, and it is an experience that has left an impression that will remain with me for a long time to come. Not only were each of the exhibits creative and interesting, the atmosphere that could be felt around all parts of the city was electrifying (no pun intended). Thousands of people formed a human chain following the different coloured tracks around the streets of the Old City, and around the walls. People were drawn to parts of the Old City that they had never visited, perhaps because they were afraid or perhaps just because they were off the beaten track and unfamiliar. I could not help noticing that people came from all parts of the country, from all walks of life and from all ethnic backgrounds. Muslims joined with Christians and Jews in celebrating the light of this intriguing city. I silently wondered as I walked around the thronging alleyways whether the Muslims were not enjoying more freedom now since the Old City is in Jewish hands, than they did when it was ruled by Jordan. It could only happen under Jewish leadership that the King of Jordan, the same Jordan that denied Jews the right to access its holiest site for 19 long years years, is now the head of the Waqf religious council that has jurisdiction over Muslim holy sites in the city of Jerusalem.
Despite the conflicts and violence that continue in Jerusalem at the current time, the city of Jerusalem has undergone probably one of its most dramatic reconstruction periods in its history over the past 49 years. While the integrity and the character of the original city has been preserved, the construction of infrastructure and residential and commercial buildings has been astonishing. The light rail trundles over ancient cobblestones, and modern buildings are built in the Jerusalem stone in keeping with the rest of the architecture of the city, blending in with the ancient walls of the Old City.
Jews have maintained a continuous presence in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem since the 8th century BCE, with the exception of the period between 1948 and 1967 when Jordan brutally forced Jews out. There were periods when being Jewish in the Jewish Quarter was not easy, but Jews were never willing to give up on this despite any hardship. The same tenacious spirit is in evidence today. Jews will not give up on the presence in the Jewish Quarter, and Jews will not give up on the united city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Each time I visit Jerusalem, I wonder what my grandparents and great-grandparents would feel if they saw the ease with which I am able to visit the holiest city in Judaism, and its holiest site, the Western Wall. I wonder what they would think to see me driving freely around the streets, walking in the market and viewing the Knesset building. We are indeed a privileged generation to have the immense good fortune to live at this time when we are able to do the things that our forefathers prayed fervently to have the right to do, and who died fighting to do. When we say Lshana habaa B’Yerushalayim at the end of the Pesach seder, it is not a pipe dream. It is something that is absolutely achievable.
If the history of Jerusalem is anything to go by, we will be forced to continue to fight to retain Jerusalem as our eternal capital. It is a fight that most Israelis are prepared to undertake, and a fight that many have already died for. But this makes us stronger rather than weaker, and our resolve to retain Jerusalem will never diminish. For now, we bask in the glory of Jerusalem, and we rejoice in our ability to be free as Jews in our holy city.