They came with drums, hundreds of Israeli flags attached to cheap sticks, and shirts with images of a rebuilt Jewish Temple on them.
But mostly they came with songs about “Jerusalem of Gold” and “the eternal people do not fear a long journey.” Gone were the racist chants of years past, and neon-emblazoned ushers kept the masses of youth from banging on Arab shops as they made their way from Damascus Gate to the West Wall.
The annual Jerusalem Day events brought tens of thousands to Jerusalem to celebrate the Six Day War and the conquest of the city which is seen by many as an act of liberation and reunification. Bused in from across the country, many crowded onto separate men’s and women’s sections on King George Street in the mid-afternoon, to listen to speakers who reminded them about how paratroopers took back the city 49 years ago.
“We won’t bend to terrorism, we must fight for Jerusalem every day and not take it for granted,” intoned one speaker.
As marchers made their way past IDF Square a small counter- protest attended by members of Meretz, Gush Shalom, Hadash and an “anti-fascist” group was cordoned off by police.
Unlike last year, 50 meters separated the thousands from those reminding them “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.”
One man in his 40s, who has lived in Jerusalem since the 1980s, said that he was saddened to see such a small turnout for the anti-racist protest, and felt that the groups represent the deep divisions in society.
Down by Damascus Gate the mostly young and national-religious crowd was crushed into a slow moving mass toward the Kotel.
Israel Police Commissioner Insp.-Gen. Roni Alsheich toured the police positions that cordoned off the march. Earlier in the day officers had encouraged Arabs to close up their stands to avoid friction, and almost every Arab-owned shop along Al-Wad Street was closed.
One proprietor said that in years past Jewish youth had banged on his shop door and smashed the windows of cars in alleyways. Police were careful to prevent clashes this year, confiscating sticks and detaining youths near the Austrian Hospice.
According to police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, 2,000 police were involved in security in and around the Old City.
“Over 30,000 people took part in the march to the Western Wall via Damascus Gate and Jaffa Gate, no incidents were reported,” police statement said.
Teenager Hodaya Madhala from Rehovot, who attends a boarding school and was bused in to the parade, said it was her first time at the event.
“It was fun... I think it’s the day where we remember the paratroopers liberated the Kotel, and it’s our place, and we are Jews and we should be happy here and show the lefties it is ours and they can also take part, but not take it away from us.”
She wished more people from all over the country would attend.
Gavi Forman, an 18-year-old from Teaneck, New Jersey, who studies at Reshit Yeshiva in Beit Shemesh, was amazed by how this differed from New York’s Israel Day parade.
“It inspired me to make aliya, it’s a day of unity coming together... it’s more lively than I expected. It unifies the secular and religious,” he asserted.
His friend Zack Braverman, sporting an identical shirt from their yeshiva, said he also enjoyed it. “It’s togetherness, no fighting, and dancing, no matter who you are.” He felt that it was good the security kept Arabs behind a barrier, because of safety concerns.
In general that was the feeling among attendees, that a day of unity had been achieved, but they wished more Israelis would see this event as important to the Jewish people.
As the thousands of marchers made their way in an increasingly sweaty crowd toward the Western Wall plaza, many ultra-Orthodox Jews tried to leave the area.
Fewer than 10 percent of those in the crowd appeared secular, and most attendees seemed to be under 30, if not in their teens.