The lecturer at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem this Sunday looked like your typical, distinguished, Tel Avivi secular scientist, with an impressive position and a delicious enthusiasm for his “lovely” chemical results. Further perpetuating the stick-figure impression of him as another far-left, Israel-bashing, Europe-worshipping, Ha’aretz-reading, Chardonnay-sipping post-Zionist, post-patriot, was his personal trajectory, from a secular kibbutz in the Galilee to three years as a post-doc in Geneva to a named chair at the Weizmann Institute. Meanwhile, across town, thousands of white-shirted, tzizit-wearing, big-kippa-clad “settler types” were assembling for their mass march to the Old City. Clearly, in the stereotypes that drive so much public conversation about Israel – inside and outside the country – the National Religious crowd would celebrate Jerusalem Day zealously, and the secular scientist would ignore it or wince if it were mentioned.
Yet Professor Reshef Tenne, the Drake Family Professor of Nanotechnology, began his lecture on “Inorganic Nanotubes and Fullerene-like Nanoparticles” by saluting “Yom Yerushalayim,” Jerusalem Day. He spoke movingly about having been a young soldier who fought in the Old City, helping to liberate the Kotel, the Western Wall. He remembered his many friends who died during the battle. It was “holy work,” he proclaimed, emphasizing the importance of a united Jerusalem being accessible to all Jews, given its centrality to the Jewish soul as the Jewish people’s capital.
Meanwhile, news coverage suggested that the way to celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem 45-years-ago is to shout anti-Arab slogans and sing songs ending in “ay-yi-yi-yi” incessantly. Photos in Ha’aretz, Yediot Achranot, and this newspaper all left the impression that Jerusalem Day was only for fanatics, and only for men. But you don’t have to be rightwing or religious to love Jerusalem or rejoice in Israel’s 1967 victory – and religious rightwingers are not necessarily fanatic fundamentalists. The secular left should not sacrifice joint custody of this important moment, and let the religious right monopolize the celebrations.
That was the power of Naomi Shemer’s Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, Jerusalem of Gold. She debuted that song during the tense days of May, 1967, when Gamel Abdul Nasser had united Egypt, Jordan and Syria under his military command, and was threatening to destroy the Jewish State. The PLO’s founder Ahmad al-Shuqayri anticipated Israel’s “complete destruction” predicting “practically no Jewish survivors.”
With reserve soldiers digging out graves in public parks, anticipating up to 10,000 deaths, Israelis felt embattled and alone. Impatience with the plodding civilian leadership had Israelis speculating that when a waiter asked Prime Minister Levi Eshkol whether he wanted tea or coffee, Eshkol answered, tentatively, “half of both.”
Shemer’s Jerusalem anthem captured the longing for a united city, the bitterness in the ongoing division, and the romantic Zionist hopes the old-new city stirred. After the lightning quick, sweeping victory, the song captured the war’s miraculous, redemptive nature. As secular Israelis sang it, they heard the historic, nationalist affirmation in her lyrics; as religious Israelis sang it, they heard the religious resonances -- but all were singing the same song with the same melody, united in patriotic love for Jerusalem.
Jerusalem Day has become Six Day War Awareness Day – and therein lies the tension. Increasingly, the Left considers the 1967 War as the War Israel Won in Six Days but Lost Since. This narrative, which blames Israeli settlements for perpetuating Middle East tensions, misses the many ways the Six Day War gains still protect Israel’s existence.
The territories remain an important bargaining chip, an essential safety zone, and an historic part of Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, that could, in peace, be shared by all those who love this land. Takeoffs and landings are safe at Ben Gurion airport because terrorists cannot fire rockets from the West Bank at commercial jets. Moreover, fighting about settlements and the territories shifts much of the debate from Israel’s existence to Israel’s boundaries. I support territorial compromise – but only with those who accept Israel’s right to live.
The 1967 victory also started weaning Egypt from its destructive desire to destroy the Jewish State, ended Syria’s bombardment up north, and liberated Jerusalem – whose Jewish holy sites the Jordanians systematically desecrated.
“Israel made a big mistake in succeeding in 1967,” George Will quips. “This was when the Left decided it liked victims; it still does.”
Even in today’s Israel of harsh headlines, petty politicians, and polarized positions, we should remember the power of the Zionist center, and the widespread idealism that still characterizes Israel, making the Start-up Nation what we at the Engaging Israel Project at the Shalom Hartman Institute call a Values Nation too. The Zionist center is broad and deep; narrowing it out or thinning it out distorts reality.
Jerusalem Day, like Jerusalem, Israel’s history, the blue-and-white flag, Hatikvah, the Zionist idea, should never be the private property of one political or religious faction. These are treasured national assets, held in trust from one generation to the next, part of our common heritage. Americans learned this lesson when both Bill Clinton in 1992 and Barack Obama in 2008 ran upbeat patriotic campaigns as liberals who respected faith, flag, and family. That is what constructive, romantic, liberal nationalism is all about – using the sense of community, safety and idealism that comes from a functioning, idealistic, democratic nation state to stretch the individual and fulfill communal ideals. That is part of the Zionist message. That is part of Israel’s mission. And that is part of the reason why, I and so many others from across the religious and political spectrum, joined Professor Tenne, his heroic now-graying comrades, and their families, in celebrating Jerusalem Day, for Jerusalemites, for Israelis, for Jews, for genuine peace lovers, as a grand moment not an Israeli miscalculation.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.