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What happened to Yom Yerushalayim?

When Jerusalem Day is a success because no rockets were launched at Israel from Gaza, then the day has become little more than a display of political power
Jewish Israelis gather with Israeli flags at the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, on May 29, 2022, during the 'Flag March' to mark Jerusalem Day. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)
Jewish Israelis gather with Israeli flags at the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, on May 29, 2022, during the 'Flag March' to mark Jerusalem Day. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

For those of us who were born before 1967 the Six Day War was transformative. The fear of the destruction of Israel before the war was replaced by elation. From a religious perspective, the return of the Old City of Jerusalem to Jewish control was the high point. Since 1948, it had been impossible to pray at the Kotel or to even enter the Old City. The then-“new Jerusalem” that was part of Israel was less than 100 years old. It did not include any of the historic religious sites. Initially, many of the non-Zionist Orthodox community who were uncomfortable celebrating Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, joined in celebrating Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day.

In the broader world, there was a growth in Jewish pride. In Soviet Russia, it was the catalyst for the refuseniks. A Jewish community of three million, thought to have disappeared, re-emerged.

In the Western world, the Jewish day school movement expanded. Ethiopian Jewry began to start returning to Israel, after being separate from the rest of the Jewish people for well over two thousand years.

Fifty-five years later, “Yom Yerushalayim” barely exists outside of Israel. And in Israel, it has become the holiday of the religious Zionists — in many respects, a day of nationalist politics, with the focus of the day on the March of the Flags. This year, in Lod, a mixed Jewish-Arab city, there was a March of Flags on Jerusalem Day.

To properly probe the change requires an analysis of the varied reactions to the implications of the Six Day War. For much of the religious Zionist world, it was part of a messianic process that is understood by its adherents to be irreversible. In sharp contrast, some prominent religious thinkers rejected any messianic implications of the Israeli victory, and considered them misguided and dangerous. In this camp, Yeshayahu Leibowitz was the most vocal opponent; Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik also expressed his concern. And indeed, what began as a theological difference of approach came to be translated into political disputes about territory, and about peace agreements with Arab countries and the Palestinians.

For non-Zionist Orthodox rabbis, the excitement about having access to religious sites that the Six Day War granted became balanced by that camp’s ongoing opposition to the secular state. Few went to the extreme of the Satmar rebbe, who saw the victory as coming from Satan, but many were troubled by the fact that access to the holy sites was achieved via the military victory of the army of a secular state.

For many religious Zionists, beginning with Gush Emunim, settling the conquered territory and opposing relinquishing any territory within Israel’s biblical boundaries became the primary political objective. Minimally, Israel maintaining full control of a united Jerusalem was a given. And, eventually, in some religious Zionist circles, the decision by Moshe Dayan in 1967 to allow the Jordanian authorities to retain control of the Temple Mount, which was initially accepted as a pragmatic necessity, became a disastrous mistake. Indeed, the increased role of nationalism among religious Zionists was evident in the change of name of the sector’s political party, when it became the National Religious Party.

Outside of the religious Zionist community, the religious significance of a united Jerusalem became lost in the controversies about keeping territory, a two-state solution, and peace. For a generation born after 1967, there is little recognition of the preceding years and no real share in the sense of a vulnerable Israel. In contrast to Yom HaAtzmaut, where the distinction between not having a state and having one is clear, the implications of increased boundaries still subject to negotiations are not apparent.

Over 30 years ago, the Jerusalem Day march through the Old City with Israeli flags waving became the way to demonstrate Israeli control over the entire city of Jerusalem. The march was led by youth and was difficult to control. Radical national groups used the march to show control of Arabs, and racist taunts were shouted. Naturally, this led to confrontations.

This year, the level of politicization has split the religious Zionist community. The first religious Zionist prime minister in history was not invited to the prayers at Yeshivat Merkaz Harav because there are those who object to his policies. In particular, the inclusion of an Arab party in the coalition is a red line, though it is difficult to find any difference between this government and its predecessor in dealing with the Palestinian Authority or in its attitude to settlements. The March of the Flags has become a political statement of control over the Arabs in the Muslim Quarter, with no attempt to limit the anti-Arab comments made by some marchers. As mentioned, a similar march, not related to Jerusalem, took place in Lod, a mixed Jewish-Arab city.

When a successful Yom Yerushalayim is one that saw no rockets launched from Gaza at Israel, then the day has become an expression of political power. Its religious nature has been lost. At this point, curtailing the March of the Flags or changing its path through the Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter may be interpreted by some as political weakness, but that very concern reflects that the entire focus of the day is on demonstrating political strength and control.

The shift to the right in the religious Zionist community has accelerated, with the inclusion of a Kahana supporter in the Knesset. Notably, he belongs to a group calling itself the “Religious Zionist” party, and he is a major figure in the March of the Flags. It is unclear how prevalent the anti -Arab sentiment is in this segment of Israeli society, but it seems to be growing. Symbolically, songs about the city of Jerusalem have been replaced by a song glorifying revenge.

The day that initially was, for religious Jews, a meaningful time of rejoicing and a celebration of Jewish identity has been appropriated, as it were, for a statement promoting a new amalgam of nationalism and religion by a minority segment of the religious population. And in that, the essence of Yom Yerushalayim has been lost.

About the Author
Rabbi Yosef Blau is the Senior Mashgiach Ruchani (spiritual advisor) at Yeshiva University, and a partial resident in Jerusalem.
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