Jewish legend may claim that you are the center of the universe, but for me you are the center of a problem. How am I supposed to celebrate your reunification in another few days when your heart continues to be crisscrossed with divisions every bit as real as the wall separating east from west torn down more than four decades back? How long ago was it that on balmy summer evenings, Arab and Jew would spend long hours together devouring watermelon outside the Damascus Gate in a hastily erected seasonal encampment? A lifetime.
No, many lifetimes, perpetually mourned by those left behind by the victims of buses burst asunder and exploding cafes, dispatched brutally to their eternal rest by the latest wave of warriors who for millennia have sought to redeem the City of Peace through violence, marching to the drum of the one and true God.
The same God that is always on our side, whoever we may be. So the Women of the Wall are arrested for wrapping themselves in shawls adorned to remind them of His/Her commandments, and elsewhere the daughters of Israel are accosted for dressing immodestly or told to sit at the back of the bus, while stones are cast at all those who desecrate the sanctity of time by daring to park their cars just miles from the courtyard of the Holy Temple which lies in ruins because of baseless hatred whose awful power we forever teach and the lessons of which we never learn.
The hubris of those who claim that they alone understand the word of the Lord! For the word of the Lord shall go forth from Jerusalem, and Torah shall emanate from Zion. But now, those who until recently had assumed the throne of David and the scepter of Solomon chose to exchange harp and wisdom with seduction and greed, and stand accused by present-day judges as were the scoundrels of yesteryear. Some things indeed remain eternal in the Holy Land.
The Holy Land. How ironic. How cynical. Could those to whose counsel you were entrusted not have taken bribes for a project with a name less resonant of the spirituality they so callously mocked? O Jerusalem, I fear that what we wept for by the rivers of Babylon has ceased to concern us now that we are returned from our captivity. My right hand has withered and my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth. Even as our prayers that next year we might celebrate the exodus from Egypt in a rebuilt Jerusalem still linger in the air, a freeze on the construction of apartments is now in the offing – prompted by the miscarriage of justice, not the pursuit of peace.
Yet it is for the peace of Jerusalem that we are entreated to pray. Shall we achieve it through obstinacy or flexibility, the exercise of sovereignty or the exercise of restraint? “Our people will never reconcile itself with separation from Jerusalem,” declared Israel’s first prime minister in 1949, when we were already separated from your better half, a situation we would endure for 19 years. Today, would he suggest we reconcile ourselves to separation from a part of you? A question, not a suggestion.
WHERE DO we draw the line? And what do we draw that line with? Reinforced concrete many meters high now scars the biblical landscape skirting your municipal boundaries, erected to prevent the great-grandchildren of Abraham from fighting with one another, but keeping others of those children who would play together, from doing so. The barrier dividing the Old City from the new didn’t disappear in ’67; it has simply been relocated.
But you, of course, are used to that, fortified city that you have always been. Established to embody the loftiest strivings of the human spirit, you have instead been damned by perpetually provoking the basest of animal instinct. David built his set of walls, Herod another. But the remnants, though retaining memories and more of temple, church and mosque, remain a source of continuing contention not concord, contradicting the dictum that good fences make for good neighbors.
My neighbors I don’t even know. Ensconced in the comfort of my quarter,
I live a world apart from the haredim, the Arabs, the poor who all
inhabit quarters of their own. You are “a dwelling place, not a
collection of monuments and shrines,” reflected Abraham Joshua Heschel,
not taking into account that I would be estranged from those among whom
I dwell. “Yet she is more than a city among cities,” he continued,
“...a city full of vision, a city with an extrasensory dimension.”
Words penned to comfort and inspire, now frighten and worry me instead.
“Jerusalem is more than a place in space or a memorial of glories of
the past. Jerusalem is a prelude, anticipation of days to come.”
“When I recall thee in days to come,” Theodor Herzl wrote you after
visiting a century ago, “it will not be with delight.” He had plans to
transform things so that others would. We have not implemented them.
The Talmud: “Ten measures of beauty descended upon the world. Nine were
taken by Jerusalem.” Herzl: “If Jerusalem is ever ours, and if I were
still able to do anything about it, I would begin by cleaning it up.”
Yerushalayim shel ma’ala
and Yerushalayim shel mata
. The Jerusalem of
above and the Jerusalem below. The celestial and the real.
I live in one and long for the other. I get up in the morning and go to
work. I empty the garbage. I shop in your markets. I endure the
congestion of crowded streets in an endless state of repair. The same
as I would in any city. Yet not the same at all. For here my heart
beats with yours, your very breathing whispers in my ear and I remind
myself continually of what it is that I have longed for throughout the
long night of exile: that you might indeed fulfill your destiny,
becoming a light unto the nations, turning darkness into day.
So how shall I observe Jerusalem Day? First of all, by not
relinquishing it to others who would usurp it for purposes more
political than holy, who would content themselves with proclaiming
their own glory, not yours. Then I plan on planting my feet firmly in
the here and now, reaching with my withered hand toward the heavens,
hoping to draw them earthward, struggling to remember what it was that
for 2,000 years I pledged not to forget, determined to loosen my
tongue, so that my lips might be worthy of singing your praises. O
Jerusalem, I stand witness to both your beauty and your harshness, and
embrace you as both my promise and my challenge.
The writer is a Jerusalem educator
and member of the Executives of the World Zionist Organization and
Jewish Agency. firstname.lastname@example.org
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