Yom Yerushalayim for the secular

I have known it to be true for a while, but the blunt comment I heard yesterday hit like a ton of bricks. “Celebrate Yom Yerushalayim? Only the religious celebrate Yom Yerushalayim!”

I think I understand why Yom Yerushalayim – which effectively celebrates the victory of the Six-day War – has become marginalized and relegated to a narrow sector of the Israeli populace, not to mention world Jewry. I think that is a myopic, tragic turn of events. The impact of that war goes far beyond military victory or expansion of territory. I’d like to five reasons why every proud Jew with a sense of history should be celebrating Yom Yerushalayim, regardless of his or her political leanings.

  1. Security. There is no region in the country which did not suffer from daily security woes prior to 1967. Sniper fire at the northern kibbutzim and at rooftops in Jerusalem, Fedayeen attacks in the Negev and across the Jordanian border, and the stranglehold on Israel resulting from the closing of the Straits of Tiran, are but a few of the challenges the average Israeli need not worry about. Not to mention that in the long term, it was the Six-day War which changed the image of Israel in the eyes of the Arab world and which eventually led to the peace treaties between Israel and two of its main foes.
  2. Jewish identity and pride. It is hard to gauge precisely the impact of 1967 on world Jewry, but Jewish self-perception changed world-wide afterwards. In the English speaking world, the trend had previously been for Jews to blend in, anglicize their names, and not reveal their Jewish identity in public. Even in heavily Jewish businesses such as the diamond trade, many Orthodox Jews would not wear a kippah in public. A dramatic turnaround began almost immediately afterward, with a surge of public Jewish pride and a resurgence of Jewish identity, both secular and religious.

In the former Soviet Union, news of the Six-day War ignited an entire movement which rekindled Jewish identity and pride for millions of Jews in danger of disappearance. In the course of 30 years that movement would lead to a renewal of Jewish identity and life – expressing itself in a myriad of ways – for millions of Soviet Jews.

  1. Voluntary Aliyah. Prior to 1967 most Aliyah was by Jews who had little choice. They were refugees from Europe or from Arab countries who went to Israel because they could not stay where they were. Wave after wave of displaced people formed the bedrock of an emerging society. The Six-day War led to a new phenomenon in which came to Israel willingly, often leaving behind  prosperity, to help build their new country. This wave of Aliyah (mostly, but not exclusively, from the West) brought with it wealth, culture, education, and values which have greatly enriched and transformed the face of the country.
  2. Roots. Access to new areas, whether in the Golan, Jerusalem, or the historical heartland of the Jewish people from Shekhem to Hebron, brought with it an explosion of archaeological work. Those explorations continue to reveal the secrets of our Jewish past, and shed light upon and bring to life our most cherished classic texts – from the Bible through the Mishnah and Talmud. Our knowledge about ourselves as a people and our relationship with this land is profoundly different as a result.
  3. Jerusalem. Prior to 1967 Jerusalem was a backwater. Few people wanted to live in Jerusalem; tourist buses would make Jerusalem a one-day stop. There was little to see beyond a museum and a cemetery. And there was no access to any of the holy places. For thousands of years Jerusalem was at the heart of the Jewish desire. Whether in the simple daily prayers uttered by many to the cry of “Next Year in Jerusalem!” repeated at the Passover seder and at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, Jerusalem was the beating heart of every Jew, regardless of their level of observance. The gush of songs about Jerusalem from across the political, religious, and cultural spectrums still rings in our ears today.

This morning, together with my national-religious colleagues, I said the Hallel, which includes the line, “This is the day that God has wrought, let us rejoice and exult in it” (Psalms 118:24). Secular citizens can leave out the first half, but they have many reasons to celebrate.


About the Author
Zvi Grumet is a Rabbi and educator with more than 30 years of active involvement in Jewish education and Jewish life, both in Israel and overseas.