Yom Yerushalayim – It’s Complex, So Celebrate

Jews-pray-in-the-Western-Wall-1As a Liberal Zionist, I love Yom Yerushalayim and I am deeply disturbed by Yom Yerushalayim.  I love that, for the first time in 2,000 years, my Jewish people has sovereignty over our holiest site, the Temple Mount, and particularly its iconic Western Wall.  Yom Yerushalayim celebrates the day the Israeli Defense Forces captured the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War from Jordan, who had prevented Jews from worshiping at our holiest site.

Like many, my own return to a spiritually-meaningful Jewish life started at the Wall.  As a young man, with my hand tentatively touching the cold, soft, massive stones, I felt wave after wave of spiritual energy bathe my body, whispering to this unlearned, Buddhist-mantra-chanting Jew that it was time to come home to Judaism.  I feel deep gratitude and reverence for the people who fought and died in the war. I celebrate Yom Yerushalayim because it marks a miraculous turn of events where the Jewish world braced for destruction and got victory and, on that day, my people got our spiritual center back.


I am deeply disturbed by Yom Yerushalayim because, in some of the ways it is celebrated, it represents the loss of our moral center.  The territorial victories of the Six Day War, cannot be separated from the beginning of my people’s domination of millions of Palestinian Arabs living between the Green line and the Jordan river and in Gaza.  Complete power over another people inevitably gives rise to the universal  impulse to dominate and degrade those over whom you exercise power.  A glaring example of this is the annual hyper-nationalist march through the Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter, which, in effect says, “I will show you I dominate you by putting my foot on your face.” Such behavior is not good for the Jewish people.

During this 50th Anniversary Yom Yerushalayim season, from the Hebrew date of 28 Iyar on May 24th – the English date of the end of the war on June 11, what is the appropriate response to this complexity – celebration or commemoration of occupation?

A quick look around the Jewish world shows different groups opting for one or the other.  In general, the Orthodox world is fully celebrating, with titles of programs like “Celebrating 50 Years of a Reunited Jerusalem” (Mizrahi).

The progressive world is in a more somber mood, with titles of initiatives and programs like, “#50IsEnough (New Israel Fund),” or “Yovel: 50 Years of Occupation (T’ruah).”

Some are managing the complexity with panels featuring speakers with diverse political orientations like, “Israel’s Second Founding: The Six Day War – 50 Years Later (Israeli American Council).”

Often the celebrators and commemorators will make a token nod to the other aspect of the season, mentioning the complexity, but quickly moving on with their program.

What is needed, particularly in the progressive world, is a full-throated celebration of the miracles and joy of June, 1967 and full-throated moral outrage at the disastrous legacy of the domination of another people.

How does the heart hold both celebration and moral outrage? While not an easy solution, I look to Nobel prize winning physicist Neils Bohr for guidance.  Bohr is reported to have said, ““The opposite of a true statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth can be another profound truth.” (Courage to Teach, Parker J. Palmer, p. 54)  According to Dr. Parker J. Palmer, this is the definition of a paradox. It is true that the events of June 1967 and their legacy are cause for great rejoicing. And it is true that the events of June 1967 and their legacy are a cause for moral outrage and deep introspection.  Rather than diminish either truth, let’s embrace both fully.

Jewish tradition gives us guidance for how to embrace competing truths and priorities.  In the following case, a wedding represent celebration and a funeral, the need for introspection and change.


In the unusual circumstance of a public wedding procession reaching a crossroads at the same time as a funeral procession, the Code of Jewish Law instructs us that the wedding procession takes precedence and the funeral procession waits or is diverted to another path.  However, once the wedding ceremony is over, comforting and feeding the mourner comes before rejoicing with the bride and groom. If the community only has enough resource for one of these, rejoicing and feeding the bride and groom takes precedence.  There is a provocative interplay of values here – life and joy takes precedence over death and mourning, but when there is enough resource special attention should be given to mourning, for the sake of the mourner and perhaps because the house of mourning is a place of introspection and teshuva. When there is limited resource, joy comes first.


The 50th anniversary of the Six Day War and Yom Yerushalayim evoke both joy and sadness.  We have to embrace both. When our community is confronted with complex emotional realities, joy and celebration come first. However, we also have to visit and own the sad reality of the ways we have become oppressors over these past 50 years. Only by putting attention here will we do teshuva.  The Jewish world has the spiritual resource to give this harsher reality the attention it needs, without just needing to celebrate.  Expressing joy over Jerusalem while taking responsibility for our oppressor behaviors and changing these behaviors will give us an enduring reason to celebrate.

So, embrace the complexity these coming weeks, give thanks for the miracle of Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem and never take our eye off reality for all people in the land.

Photograph credits:

Western Wall picture: By MathKnight and Zachi Evenor – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12044309

Demolished home/girl with cat: By Adnanmuf at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14590432

Jewish Wedding: By Maurycy Gottlieb – This thread, source not specified., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1712828

Funeral: By Bernard Picart – I doubt he’s a pirate, part II: Charity delivers from death!, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26142443

About the Author
Rabbi David Jaffe is the author of Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change which won the 2016 National Jewish Book Award for Contemporary Jewish Life. For more information about him or the book visit rabbidavidjaffe.com.