Jerusalem is one my favourite cities in the world. The fact that Jerusalem is a holy city for Muslims, Christians, and Jews is especially meaningful to me, as it can symbolize spirituality, coexistence, and harmony. For me, the scents, sounds, and spirit of the old city embody its multicultural nature. On a short walk through Jerusalem’s old city, one can view the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Western Wall, all remarkable historical sites. A significant population of secular citizens call Jerusalem their home, as well. With its rich, ancient history and archeology, together with its diverse and unique modern demographics, Jerusalem is truly a city like no other. Jerusalem Day, or Yom Yerushalayim, is celebrated annually on the 28th of Iyar in the Jewish calendar. I want to describe my Jerusalem Day experience from when I was living in Jerusalem for the year, and explain why this day still gives me mixed feelings. First, I want to provide a brief background to my personal connection with Jerusalem.
Throughout my year living in Jerusalem, I never personally witnessed any hostility towards Arabs. Everyone around me spoke about how people of all faiths and backgrounds should live in peace, and that Arab Israelis and Palestinians are our neighbours. I listened to Arab Israelis talk about their struggles, and learned from people involved with the inclusive and anti-extremist organization Tag Meir, along with multiple family support groups for Jewish and Arab victims of terror. I volunteered with a group at the Hadassah Hospital at Mount Scopus, where I engaged with Jewish and Arab residents of Jerusalem on a weekly basis, who were appreciative of the volunteers’ presence.
The idea of Yom Yerushalayim has been extremely meaningful to me ever since I was young. I associate the day with the miracle of the Six Day War, and the liberation of the old city of Jerusalem. The famous picture of soldiers witnessing the old city for the first time still brings me to tears, as do the words of the songs Im Eshkachech, Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, Hatikva, and even Ki Mitziyon.
I have always envisioned Jerusalem Day as a celebration of peace and unity among neighbours and cousins. I remain moved by Moshe Dayan’s words following Israel’s recapture of Jerusalem’s old city.
“We have returned to the holiest of our holy places, never to part from it again. To our Arab neighbours, we extend, also at this hour — and with added emphasis at this hour — our hand in peace. And to our Christian and Muslim fellow citizens, we solemnly promise full religious freedom and rights. We did not come to Jerusalem for the sake of other peoples’ holy places, and not to interfere with the adherents of other faiths, but in order to safeguard its entirety, and to live there together with others, in unity.”
When I was living in Jerusalem, I thought that the only thing that could strengthen my connection to Jerusalem day would be to experience Jerusalem Day in the city of Jerusalem! Understandably, I was very excited to spend Jerusalem Day in Jerusalem for the very first time.
Jerusalem Day finally came, and I was filled with excitement. As a Canadian Jew feeling as if I were a soldier who personally just recaptured the old city of Jerusalem, I was eager to join a Jerusalem Day parade. While holding a blue and white Jerusalem flag, I marched the streets of Jerusalem as the proud Jerusalemite I was. While walking on Yafo Street, I began to notice many a Religious Zionist teenage high school student selling t-shirts, pins, and other swag of the like. In that moment, with a shawarma beLafa in hand, the only thing that could possibly enhance my happiness was to own an article of clothing expressing my love for Jerusalem.
As I approached one girl’s little swag stand, I started to notice what looked like derogatory messages towards Arab residents of Jerusalem. I decided to take a closer look at these messages that had nothing to do with the idealistic Jerusalem Day that I had experienced and imagined throughout my life. I started to rummage through the shirts and pins to find one that I liked, but the only slogans in sight were: “Kahane Tzadak” (Kahane was right), “Jews rent only from Jews,” “Jews buy only from Jews,” “No business for Arabs,” and other similar slogans. I gave the girl selling these products a “what on earth is this” sort of look, and she stood there confused, responding with a glance that read “what is wrong with you”. I asked her in Hebrew: “what do these slogans have to do with Jerusalem day? Is this an excuse for your anti-Arab sentiments?”. She stood there looking intimidated, frightened, and confused, and simply shrugged. She might have been thinking something along the lines of “I don’t think you got the memo buddy, and I don’t feel like giving it to you”.
To be fair, I was an exceptionally excited and intimidating 18-year-old Canadian who was new to this crowd, whereas she was a younger Israeli girl. “Whatever,” I thought. This girl must have shown up to the wrong party. Eager to find a t-shirt with a slogan that did not make me nauseous, I attended one of the many other stands. The items at this particular stand read “Miscegenation is a Holocaust,” “Beware the goyim – they will defile you,” and “No coexistence with cancer”. My excitement slowly turned into sadness and confusion. I began to wonder why in the world young students would spread this type of anti-Arab hatred. Is that not the opposite of what Jerusalem Day is all about? I came to celebrate unity among Jerusalemites, and all I found were calls for segregation.
It appeared to me that these young students were all at the parade as part of a school trip. There were many banners on display that read the name and location of their school. All of the schools that I had seen were Mamlachti Dati (religious public) schools from around the country. The meaning of Jerusalem Day for me might differ slightly from that of some of these young students, I thought.
As I followed the herd that made its way to the old city, I stopped and turned aside. Coincidentally, I saw a group of my friends watching the parade at a distance from the old city walls, and decided to join them. I could not tolerate this seemingly backwards parade, and did not want to imagine how these paraders would interact with the many Christian and Muslim citizens of the old city. The parade ultimately succeeded in making me reconsider the ways in which I think about Israel and Jerusalem. I walked home through the now-emptied streets of Jerusalem, while feeling hopeless and confused.
I, like most university students, am quite familiar with anti-Zionism and harsh criticism of Israel in general. After my Jerusalem day experiences, I can comprehend how one might respond by denouncing Zionism or Israeli society in some manner. One may argue that contemporary manifestations of Zionism can be derogatory or extremist in nature. While I had never felt more negative emotion towards Israel than on that day, I nonetheless maintain that this existent discrimination ought not diminish our love for Israel and Jerusalem.
Three years later, I remain a proud Zionist. I believe that the people who spread these negative messages do not represent the Israeli or Zionist mainstream. I believe that they are a relatively fringe minority, that do not even represent Religious Zionism in Israel. I think that almost everyone I know would condemn the negative messages that were propagated by some people at the Jerusalem Day parade. I had never encountered similar rhetoric when I was briefly involved in the Religious Zionist Bnei Akiva movement as a youth. The messages that I had grown up with at Jewish day school and Camp Massad were full of love, not hate. I had listened to scholars at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem foster sympathy and tolerance, not hostility. I could not let one negative experience shatter my connection to Israel and Jerusalem.
My encounters with anti-Arab paraders were definitely an eye-opener for me, and looking back, I could have seen it coming. Some people I knew did not attend the parade to begin with, as they may have foreseen what I did not. I am confident that these extremists remain a minority in Israel, and that they should not encourage anyone to completely denounce Zionism. Many contend that because there are Zionist extremists who are racist, Zionism is inherently racist, and should thus be condemned in all of its manifestations. However, the discriminatory messages that I encountered a few years ago do not accurately characterize Zionism. I believe that a few extremists should not override Israel’s right to self-determination, nor the spiritual, religious, and historical significance of Jerusalem.
On that Jerusalem Day, I decided that I would not let this experience rain on my parade. Later on in the evening, I attended a concert hosted by Shlomi Shabat, featuring a number of hit Israeli artists. The concert featured positive messages embracing the reunification of Jerusalem among all people, reigniting a small spark of hope in my heart. At least I knew that I was not alone in feeling that celebrations of Zionism and Jerusalem ought to be positive, reflecting on our past miracles, as well as overcoming adversity, returning to our homeland, and celebrating our shared paradise with others. Our celebrations should display our collective hospitality, rather than an inhospitable message towards our neighbours and cousins.
While living in Israel, I was able to listen to the words of Shivi Fruman, the son of the late Rabbi Menahem Fruman. Shivi mentioned that when his pregnant wife was injured in a terrorist attack, she had said that she saw a “confused boy,” rather than a terrorist. When repeatedly asked about his stance on Israeli politics, he simply replied that politics is like a bird; if a bird relies too heavily on one wing, whether the left or the right, it will end up flying in circles. Contrarily, if a bird flies with both wings equally, then it can fly anyplace. Similarly, politics requires a balance of moderate opinions and perspectives in order to achieve anything productive, and to avoid flying in circles.
Despite my supposedly positive attitude, I often struggle to find hope, as I feel lost in a sea of one large zero-sum game. I see young people who are influenced by extremists with a charismatic message (on both sides). I see people who fail to comprehend the hateful messages they are spreading. If there is one thing I have learned in my Zionist and Jewish education, it is to spread love, not hate, and to be a “light unto the nations”. Even if there are many signs of unification, hope, and peace in Jerusalem, all it takes is one Ḥilul Hashem to desecrate Hashem’s name, and to foster a negative attitude towards Israel and Jerusalem.
Three years later, I am still slightly confused. When I hear dialogue concerning Israel, I usually hear shouting so loud that any substantive discussion is inaudible. Nevertheless, I maintain that Jerusalem is an important city, holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and that all should be welcome in our collective, eternal, and historic home. We learn from Martin Luther King Jr. that we must continue to fight hate with love, rather than more hate. I am cautiously optimistic that through open dialogue and tolerance, we can continue to coexist, and to live together in harmony. This Jerusalem Day, let us hope for a bright future, wherein we can celebrate our differences.
כי מציון תצא תורה ודבר ה’ מירושלים
[F]or out of Zion shall the Torah come forth, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem