As the first Israeli paratroopers prepared to enter the Old City of Jerusalem on June 5, 1967, the excitement could not be contained, even at the highest levels of the IDF.
“We’re sitting right now on the ridge and we’re seeing the Old City,” crackled the voice of Lt.-Gen. Mordechai Gur, commander of the 55th Paratroopers Brigade, over the army communications network. “Shortly we’re going to go into the Old City of Jerusalem, which all generations have dreamt about. We will be the first to enter the Old City...”
A few moments later, the last of the Jordanian troops were pushed out, and the city fell. IDF soldiers and vehicles poured in through the ancient gates, raced down the narrow cobblestone alleys and gathered at the foot of the Temple Mount, the site of the Second Temple. As the first Israeli soldiers climbed onto the massive structure, once again Gur took to the airwaves.
“The Temple Mount is in our hands! I repeat, the Temple Mount is in our hands!” he announced.
To call that moment “historic” would not do it justice. For nearly 2,000 years, Jews the world over had dreamt of regaining control of their holiest location. And now that it had finally happened, the nation – the Jewish nation – was ecstatic. Paratroopers cried, rabbis danced, and Israelis in and outside Jerusalem filled the streets.
But now, more than 40 years later, it’s hard to say whether the spirit of that day has remained intact.
Jerusalem Day was created on May 12, 1968, as a holiday to be marked annually on the 28th of Iyar – the Hebrew date on which the city was finally united. On March 23, 1998, the Knesset formally declared the event a national holiday. But while the message behind the holiday – celebrating the reunification of the city – has remained constant over the decades, its meaning has taken on a new form. Tainted by politics and ambivalence, Jerusalem Day no longer resonates in the same way – even for those who experienced the thrill of the moment firsthand.
“During the Six Day War, when I heard that they conquered the Old City and east Jerusalem, I was very, very emotional, even though I’m secular,” says Ahituv Golan, a tank commander in the Sinai during the Six Day War. “The fact that we returned to east Jerusalem, I was very excited, and I don’t think there was anybody who didn’t feel that way. But that feeling changed for me 10 or 15 years ago, when fanatic Muslims started going crazy at the Temple Mount and Jewish fanatics starting going to Arab locations just to be provocative,” he says. “Combining east and west Jerusalem and calling it ‘the city that was joined together,’ that’s great for speaking, but on a practical level it’s not the case. There is east Jerusalem and west Jerusalem. The Arabs in east Jerusalem really don’t like us, and they don’t want this unity,” he says.
Today, many might view Golan’s observation as obvious – that is, that residents of east Jerusalem wouldn’t happily accept Israeli rule. But according to Ronnie Elenbloom, a professor of geography and civil studies at Hebrew University, for years following the reunification Jews across the political spectrum thought differently.
“I would divide this into 20 years and 20 years,” Elenbloom says. “The atmosphere in Jerusalem for the first 20 years [after 1967] was good, with the feeling that the period of calm could exist forever.”
The outbreak of the first intifada in the late 1980s was a wake-up call, but not necessarily the kind to completely alter the general perception that had existed for two decades.
“After the situation deteriorated in the first intifada, there was a short period of euphoria when people believed that a new equilibrium could be created in Jerusalem,” says Elenbloom. But that all changed “after the Oslo Accords deteriorated into the second intifada.”
With significant sections of the city blocked, the concept of one unified city represented by total freedom of movement ceased to exist.
“The city was divided,” Elenbloom says. “It became something very political.”
AND TODAY it is as political as ever. Being a final-status issue in the peace process, Jerusalem is under a domestic and international microscope, and anything controversial – from rhetoric to building projects – is likely to spark a diplomatic firestorm.
Such was the case in mid-March when, during a visit to Israel by US Vice President Joe Biden, the Interior Ministry approved 1,600 housing units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of east Jerusalem. The move immediately halted all progress toward peace negotiations and created a rupture in Israel-US ties.
It is no wonder, then, that a holiday that honors the unification of Jerusalem is adopted by many as the perfect opportunity to express their political position.
“We don’t call the State of Israel ‘The land of Zion, Jerusalem’ for no reason,” says Likud Jerusalem city councilman Elisha Peleg. “What happens in Jerusalem, that’s what will happen in the State of Israel. If we give up on our right to rule parts of Jerusalem, then tomorrow the Arabs will demand that we not live in Jaffa, that we not live in Haifa, that we not live in Beersheba, in Ramle and in Lod. Therefore, this year especially I would strengthen and increase the events of Jerusalem Day… I would use the situation to emphasize our sovereignty over Jerusalem and the importance of the unification.”
Yisrael Medad, a Temple Mount activist, wholeheartedly agrees.
“Take a look at this year. With all the pressure of the American State Department on Jerusalem, I think that Jerusalem Day should be celebrated in an outrageous fashion,” he says. “It’s probably what Israelis need.”
At the other end of the political spectrum sit Meretz city councilman in Jerusalem Meir Margalit and left-wing Jerusalem resident Oz Merinov.
“It’s obvious that the meaning of Jerusalem Day – similar to the meaning of the state, from the perspective of Zionism, the army, the values – is all changed,” says Margalit. “The holiday has turned into a holiday for settlers. This is a day for the extreme Right. The question is whether the state should continue to fund this holiday.”
“The day is one big show that really shouldn’t even exist,” agrees Merinov, “given the fact that there are two separate cities – one that controls the life of the other, for the worse.”
THE JERUSALEM municipality is trying its best to gloss over the political differences looming over the city by framing the holiday in an entirely apolitical way.
“We are celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem, and it’s not a political issue,” says a spokesperson for Kikar Safra, underlining the parties, concerts, public gatherings and street fairs that take place throughout the capital on that day. Ironically, however, those same celebrations highlight yet another danger that is threatening the essence of the holiday.
“In principle, I do support a day to celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem, but I think it has become less of a day to remember 1967 and more of a day to just party in the streets and not even know why,” says longtime Jerusalem resident Ilana Brown.
“In the same way that in the United States Memorial Day is not a day to honor soldiers but rather a day to have a barbecue – which is not meaningful for Memorial Day – there’s a little bit of that in Jerusalem Day now,” she continues. “It’s as though they’ve taken the day and turned it into a party, but they haven’t really given a good reason why we should be celebrating.”
And that’s inside Jerusalem. Beyond the city limits, the situation is even more extreme.
“I don’t think of it [Jerusalem Day],” says Orit Lazerovich, 35, from Haifa. “Even when I was in high school, it never really felt like a holiday. Maybe we were told to come to class wearing a white shirt, but that’s about it.”
“Jerusalem Day doesn’t really hold any meaning for me,” echoes Sivan Pasternak, 26, from Tel Aviv. “We don’t do anything for it… It’s a day that no one in the country really finds important.”
Tal A., a 30-year-old graduate student at Tel Aviv University, has a different take on the subject. As a Zionist who is ready to fight “and die for Jerusalem,” he, too, admits that in an average year the capital, let alone a day honoring its unification, doesn’t rank high on his priority list.
“You know those people who are not religious but still do the High Holy Days?” he asks. “I think for a lot of people the city of Jerusalem is like a High Holy Day. You go there a couple of times a year, you feel very special about it, and that’s it.”
BUT THERE are some who are fighting against the tide and doing their part to combat the growing complacency and ambivalence toward Jerusalem Day – and not all of them are formal educators or city officials.
“I mark Jerusalem Day every year, both in my heart and by going to the big ceremony in Jerusalem that honors those who fell,” says Amichai Giladi, a former paratrooper who fought in Jerusalem during the Six Day War. Born in Be’er Tuviya, a moshav near Ashkelon, Giladi hadn’t spent much time in Jerusalem before the war – “just as a soldier,” he recalls, and only on outposts and bases on the periphery of the city. As for all the historical locations of Jewish importance, such as the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter, “We only knew of them from books and from pictures,” he says.
When the Jordanians retreated, Giladi was part of the flood of paratroopers at the Western Wall. For the first time he was able “to actually touch, to feel” the sites he had only read about. It’s a memory that has not faded.
“I felt, and I still feel, that I was part of the liberation of Jerusalem and its unification,” he says. His children, their spouses, and their own children understand that feeling, too, as they accompany him to the capital every year on Jerusalem Day. At Ammunition Hill, where his unit fought, Giladi and his family take part in the official state ceremony, which is attended by the prime minister, the president and other senior government and IDF officials. It’s an occasion, he says, that truly instills in them the importance of the day the city was unified.
“I don’t ask if they want to go; but if they don’t want to go it’s because they have school or work or something else that they have to do,” Giladi says. “They come out of their own enthusiasm.”
And the Giladis are not alone. According to the director-general of Ammunition Hill, Katri Maoz, thousands of people visit the site on a monthly basis – a number that only increases as Jerusalem Day approaches. “Eighteen years ago there were 12,000 visitors a year. Today, that happens in less than a month. And during the week of Independence Day and Remembrance Day, there were something like 20,000 people,” he says.
A trip to Ammunition Hill, Maoz says, teaches visitors the true meaning of what Jerusalem Day is all about.
“[People] will hear tales of battle that took place here and in other sites, [and why what happened] then is relevant to today,” he says. “The values haven’t changed – the comradeship, deep friendship, the devotion and the responsibility.”
And, of course, that Jerusalem will remain the eternal, undivided capital of Israel, he adds.
“That is what’s being said here,” Maoz says. “But we don’t relate to this from the political angle, rather from the angle of this being the capital of the State of Israel, a place where one can walk around freely.”
As far back as 1968, such was the line adopted by the Education Ministry as well.
“The Education Ministry started the project Going Up to Jerusalem after the Six Day War, and it has been getting stronger and stronger ever since,” says Eli Shayish, director of the Israel studies department in the ministry. “On the eve of Jerusalem Day, on May 11 this year… students from all over the country go on tours in the capital.”
There, he explains, teachers talk about the importance of the city to the Jewish people within the context of the events that took place during the Six Day War.
“This message is… that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of our people, and it doesn’t matter who is in power. This has no connection to politics,” Shayish says.
But for some educators, that balancing act of discussing such a highly charged topic without touching on political issues proves too difficult.
“My daughter’s teacher asked me to come and speak to her class [on Jerusalem Day],” says Dr. Amnon Ramon, a historian at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and professor at Hebrew University. “The problem is, what is the message? I’m going to try to speak about ‘our Jerusalem,’ but of course to mention as well its religious significance to the Christians, Jews and Muslims. I want them to understand that it’s very important to us – perhaps more important than to [non-Jews] – but on the other hand we can’t ignore the holiness to the whole Christian and Muslim world.”
On an average day, Sharon Wagner-Zauder, an educator and tour guide,
actually does her best to ignore the political situation. But when
she’s in front of students or a tour group, she too feels compelled to
round out the story.
“As a teacher, I do highlight all the things because that’s my responsibility,” she says.
With educators conflicted over how exactly to teach it, residents
conflicted over how to celebrate it, veterans conflicted over how to
remember it, and politicians conflicted over how to exploit it, perhaps
Jerusalem Day is the perfect way to honor the capital – a holiday mired
in mixed messages and controversy.