Happy Jerusalem Day

How many cities can be said to embody an idea? Athens, the cradle of the Western tradition of scientific inquiry, comes to mind. So does Rome, the seat of humanity’s most far-flung empire, instrumental in disseminating both Greek culture and Christianity.

Some cities’ legacies have been tainted by recent history – Vienna and Berlin, for instance. Others – Nagasaki, Guernica, Dresden – are known primarily as the site of horrible battles. African or Far East cities such as Timbuktu, known for its gold, slave trade and the Great Mosques of Djenne, or Qufu, the location of the Temple of Confucius, seem too exotic and inaccessible to be truly relevant to the Westerner. And American cities are, as writer Cynthia Ozick put it, places “where time has not yet deigned to be an inhabitant.

The flea market in the Old City of Jerusalem, ...
The flea market in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel. עברית: השוק העיר העתיקה בירושלים. השוק מורכב ממערכת סמטאות ארוכות, החוצות את העיר העתיקה ועוברות בגבול בין הרובע הנוצרי, הרובע המוסלמי והרובע הארמני. הטובין הנמכרים בשוק מגוונים מאד, ונעים ממזון ומגדנות ועד בגדים, רהיטים ומוצרי אלקטרוניקה. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In contrast, Jerusalem, quoting Ozick again, is a “phoenix city” with a “history of histories” where “no one is a stranger.”

According to Jewish tradition, Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac in Jerusalem. Seven hundred years later – around 1000 BCE – King David turned the city into the capital of a united Jewish state and his son Solomon built the First Temple there. Jerusalem has been sacked and razed and rebuilt and destroyed yet again for dozens of centuries. Assyrians, Babylonians, Seleucids and Romans have come and gone. In the past millennium, Muslims and Christians – each with their own ideas about Jerusalem’s meaning – have killed each other for the right to rule the city.

Since the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews yearned to return to Jerusalem. They prayed for the rebuilding of the Temple and the ingathering of the exiles. A built Jerusalem was conceived not principally as a physical place so much as an ideal, a symbol of Jewish resurgence preceding the Messianic era.

But Jerusalem was never so completely spiritualized that it became nothing more than a metaphor. Jews never lost sight of yerushalayim shel mata – the earthly, material Jerusalem of bricks and concrete. Except for exceptional periods in history there has been an unbroken Jewish presence in Jerusalem throughout the long years of exile. This ember of hope that one day the city of Jerusalem like the mythological phoenix would one day rise up helped fuel the Jewish national movement.

In the 1930s the Jewish population in Jerusalem exceeded 50,000. By 1948 it had doubled. And 19 years later in 1967 it had nearly doubled again to 295,000.

But it was not until the reunification of Jerusalem 45 years ago today, on the 28th of Iyar, that the city truly began to flourish. No longer shackled by oppressive Jordanian rule over its eastern half, it could thrive and develop.

Though the Temple remains in ruins, the earthly, material city has truly been rebuilt. Just wander the streets around Mamilla or visit the outlaying neighborhoods of Pisgat Ze’ev and Neveh Ya’acov.

Jerusalem, Israel’s largest city, was home to 801,000 at the end of 2011. Never before has Jerusalem thrived so impressively. It should not be a surprise that it is the most desired place to live among new immigrants, according to a Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies report released on Jerusalem Day.

Street in Jerusalem Old City
Street in Jerusalem Old City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is not to say that Jerusalem as a city does not face challenges. It has a huge haredi population (65 percent of Jewish children are enrolled in ultra-Orthodox elementary schools) and its Muslim population, presently 35% of the total, is growing only slightly slower than the Jewish population. According to Central Bureau of Statistics data, Jerusalem is the poorest of the six large cities. Monthly expenditures per capita were just NIS 3,223. Just 45.7% of work-age Jerusalemites participate in the labor market compared to a national average of 57.4%. And Jerusalem is at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But integral to the Jewish people’s return to Jerusalem is the need to grapple with the nitty-gritty endeavor of shaping reality in the image of the idea.

On Jerusalem Day we should feel thankful for living in a generation that has witnessed a rebuilt Jerusalem, and daunted by the many challenges that yerushalayim shel mata presents. By JPOST EDITORIAL


As we mark the 45th anniversary of the Israeli conquest of east Jerusalem on the third day of the Six Day War, it is timely that we explore the concept of Jerusalem as the eternal, undivided capital of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

This is a statement that leaders from across the political divide love to espouse – it is perhaps one of the most popular political declarations of Israeli and Diaspora leaders – but in order to fully appreciate Jerusalem Day today, we must analyze this statement critically. It is easy to champion slogans, but they do not necessarily help us understand reality.

A few weeks after Israel conquered east Jerusalem it unilaterally expanded the boundaries of the city – to its north, east and south – making it the size of the city of Paris, and incorporating within its population tens of thousands of Arabs.

These people were residents not only of Jordanian-held east Jerusalem itself (the Old City and a half-dozen Arab neighborhoods adjacent to it), but also of surrounding Arab villages, which previously had never been part of Jerusalem.

Along with the passage of the 1980 Basic Law Jerusalem, Capital of Israel, this action remains unrecognized by the entire world. Along with the fact that the Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as their future capital, it is logical to assume that any future comprehensive peace agreement will necessarily involve some element of Israeli concessions in Jerusalem.

Any proposed Israeli concession in Jerusalem must rest on three foundations: a) the recognition of the Jewish religious and historical connection to Jerusalem, and the implications of recent Israeli history in Jerusalem; b) a realistic acceptance of facts on the ground, and c) the moral imperative to care for all residents of the city, Jew and Arab alike.

Any calls for changes to Israeli control in Jerusalem must take into account the historic Jewish religious connection to the city. The Psalmist exclaims, “If I forget you O Jerusalem may my right hand wither,” and Jews have directed their prayers towards the city for 2,000 years.

Jews also leave a corner of their new homes unfinished, and smash a glass at their weddings, in order to remember the destruction of Jerusalem. This symbolizes our yearning to return to a rebuilt Jerusalem, which we call for explicitly at the conclusion of the Passover Seder and the Yom Kippur Neilah service. Of course, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, surrounded by its retaining walls, remains the holiest site of our religion.

Moreover, the security-military element of any Israeli concessions in Jerusalem must also be considered. The agonizing fall of the Jewish Quarter on May 28, 1948, including the expulsion of its residents to the western sectors of the city, and/or their being led into captivity in Jordan, cannot be dismissed as history of little import. For one to truly understand Israelis’ embrace of the notion of Jerusalem as the eternal, undivided capital of Israel today, we need to recognize the trauma which the nascent state experienced with the fall of Zion.

Temple Mount and Western Wall during Shabbat
Temple Mount and Western Wall during Shabbat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This was compounded by the destruction of the Hurva Synagogue two days later, ultimately along with that of all but one of the Jewish Quarter’s synagogues, the desecration of gravestones on the Mount of Olives and the refusal to grant access to the Western Wall – all in contravention of the armistice agreement signed with Jordan.

Likewise, the fragility of Jerusalem’s residents in 1948, surrounded on all sides by Arabs, alone and besieged, understandably enhances Israeli support for a greater Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel.

In “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” Naomi Shemer wrote “and in its heart – a wall.”

The wall which divided Israeli-held west Jerusalem from Jordanian-held east Jerusalem for more than 18 years, separating Jews from the Old City, and allowing them to see it, but not touch it, was experienced as a wall dividing not only a physical city, but also the very heart of the Jewish people.

It would be easy to argue that because of these events the Israeli nation suffers from a collective sense of post-traumatic stress disorder, and that this leads Israelis to embrace cheap sloganism without regard to reality. But this trauma was, and still is, real. A solution in Jerusalem will not be found through denying its significance and its validity – even today.

Nevertheless, it would be foolish to oppose all Israeli compromises in Jerusalem. To do so would be to ignore the reality of the situation – the facts on the ground, so to speak. Any eighthgrade student standing at the Haas Promenade can easily distinguish between west and east Jerusalem. He can identify the difference in Jewish and Arab housing and, sadly, the clear distinction in infrastructure investment and development between the different sectors.

Notwithstanding Israelis’ favorite slogan, the city of Jerusalem is already de facto divided. Nothing illustrates this more than the three Palestinian neighborhoods which lie within the boundaries of municipal Jerusalem – the eternal, undivided capital of the State of Israel and the Jewish people – but which find themselves on the other side of the separation barrier; “And in its heart – a wall” indeed!

Or, to put it in simple terms, Jews never prayed towards Beit Safafa, or for Sur Bahir to be rebuilt, speedily in our days. We do not go to most parts of east Jerusalem, not only because of security considerations, but first and foremost because large sections of east Jerusalem interest us about as much as downtown Amman – and probably less. It is, for all intents and purposes, a foreign city. Jerusalem is anything but “a city that is joined together.”

The third and final element that needs to be discussed is the moral dimension. How can the eternal united capital of the Jewish State be one thousand classrooms short for students from the Arab demographic? (The Barkat administration has been working on resolving this issue; it claims that four hundred of these classrooms will be in various stages of planning and/or construction by the end of its term.) How can Jerusalem as a Jewish city – which should mean a city filled with Jewish values, not just a city with a Jewish majority – possibly countenance such a disgrace?! And this is simply one example of the endemic discrimination in funding between the different sectors.

One could argue that the ongoing boycott of Jerusalem municipal elections by the city’s Arab residents, and therefore their lack of representation in city hall, is an explanation for this. It is certainly an explanation, but it is not an excuse!

Try explaining to a seven-year-old boy that his community’s refusal to acquiesce to the Israeli annexation of east Jerusalem is to blame for the fact that he has no place in the education system of the eternal, undivided capital of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. A people which places real value on education should ensure that all residents of Jerusalem have access to education. A Jewish city should act Jewishly!

But we cannot replace the acceptance of one meaningless slogan with another. It is too easy, and has become too fashionable, to parrot Bill Clinton’s “Jewish neighborhoods to Israel, and Arab neighborhoods to Palestine,” or talk of a “special administration” for the Old City and Holy Basin. Whether such principles could be realistically implemented on the ground is unclear.

Western wall in Jerusalem at night
Western wall in Jerusalem at night (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is questionable whether an international administration of the Old City, measuring just one square mile, could accommodate the needs of several million tourists each year, when one considers that under such a scenario, crossing through a city gate would need to involve the security mechanism which is currently in place at any international frontier – and that is exactly what the gates of the Old City would become under such a plan.

To support the notion of Jerusalem as the eternal, undivided capital of the State of Israel and the Jewish people represents the adoption of a slogan empty of any real meaning. To agree to the Clinton Parameters without researching whether they can be successfully implemented in reality on the ground is also seriously problematic. Any change to the status quo – a city currently united in declarations only – must be true to the historical Jewish spiritual link to Jerusalem, and accept the implications of the trauma of 1948; must recognize the reality of Jerusalem today, and must ensure a morally just future for all current residents of the city. To proffer empty slogans is neither intellectually honest nor politically useful.

Ilan Bloch is the director of Teaching Israel.

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