Jerusalem Day: Unity in division or contradiction

There is an active debate in Israel and the Diaspora about how the day is celebrated and whether it is a day for all Israelis and all Jews.

LOOKING ON at the remains of a demolished house, built without authorization, in Isawiya.  (photo credit: YOSSI ZAMIR/FLASH90)
LOOKING ON at the remains of a demolished house, built without authorization, in Isawiya.
(photo credit: YOSSI ZAMIR/FLASH90)
Jerusalem Day is always a day of celebration and contradictions – a day that begins with memorials for Ethiopian Jews who died during their aliyah to Israel in the 1980s and often ends with a march through the Old City and celebrations. The day takes place on the 28th of Iyar. The themes are thus reunification and also marked by memorial.
In 2010 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “We honor the heroism of the fighters, their dedication to the mission and their courageous spirits. We bow our heads in memory of the fighters who fell in the battle for Jerusalem.” 
We know these themes. We also know that every year there is controversy about the nature of the celebrations. There is an active debate in Israel and the Diaspora about how the day is celebrated and whether it is a day for all Israelis and all Jews. Is this a day that unites or divides? Critics say the day has been co-opted by religious Zionists or religious youth groups in general, stripped of the secular underpinnings that also guided those who did the actual liberating of Jerusalem in 1967. Others, like author Gil Troy, have argued that Jerusalem Day should be celebrated by every Jew. 
Most tragic of all is that the day has become polarized within Israeli society. The annual “flag parade” through the Old City has been slammed as racist; protesters now come to denounce it. In 2015 a group of NGOs even petitioned the High Court of Justice to change the route of the parade and marches, seeking to prevent it from entering Damascus Gate into the Muslim Quarter. As organizations Tag Meir and Ir Amim petitioned, “march organizers and police do not have a legal basis to require residents and merchants to barricade themselves inside their homes until the storm has passed,” attorney Eitay Mack wrote in the petition. 
In past years the parade has led to limited clashes. Coming this year after tensions that erupted in late April with the start of Ramadan, tensions could boil over again. It is a clear testimony to how divided the city is that while we can talk about Yom Yerushalayim, as Jerusalem Day is called in Hebrew, we have to admit that the city is not united. 
THIS LACK of unity has become a cliché in Jerusalem. Of course the city is not united; it never was very united due to the very nature of the city – a religious city that is home to symbols and places that are holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians. By its nature it divides people. 
It’s not just about divisions between religions; each religion is also subdivided a bit. For Muslims there is some unity, but even for them the symbol of Jerusalem as “Al-Quds,” the noble sanctuary, has become overtly political. It is not a surprise that most of the violence over the years, whether a war with Hamas in 2014 or the terror attack that led to metal detectors being briefly installed in 2017, related to Jerusalem. The Second Intifada (or “Al-Aqsa Intifada”) can be tied to tensions over the city. It’s always the same cycle. 
What divides the Muslim community is not just devotion to Jerusalem, but the various groups that play a role in politics and religion around the city. These include the Hizb Ut-Tahrir, an Islamic group that has a significant, if largely unnoticed, function in eastern Jerusalem. Hamas and other groups also play a role. The religious aspects of Palestinian and Islamic attachment to Jerusalem are not always well understood, in part because they are often inflamed for political reasons. This politicization tendency dates back to the time of the Mufti in the 1930s when traditions relating to Jerusalem were exaggerated or even invented to create tensions with Jews and the British. More recently, the Islamic movement in Israel has sometimes played a similar role. 
Besides the Islamic religious divisions, there are also Palestinian political divisions. East Jerusalem Arabs who are permanent residents of Israel have historically boycotted Israeli municipal elections, even though they can vote. Only a small percentage of them cast a ballot, which means they have no political power on the city council and end up being represented, if at all, by Left-leaning Jewish members. 
In 2017 there were around 323,000 Arabs in east Jerusalem with residency. A significant percentage of Arabs in Jerusalem have family origins in Hebron, having moved to the city during the Ottoman, British and Jordan periods, when some of the city’s historic families left. 
There were only 13,000 Arab Israeli citizens in east Jerusalem in 2012. The numbers of residents seeking citizenship have grown in recent years, from just a few dozen in the early 2000s to more than 1,000 in 2018. A path to citizenship is now open to tens of thousands of Arabs. 
I spoke to one person who took the arduous multi-year path to that citizenship who said that it comes with benefits and also means that the center of life for Arabs in east Jerusalem is shifting. For many, the idea they will be shoehorned into a Palestinian state is now a distant memory. Hope that Abu Dis, where giant buildings stand watch, could serve as a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem has faded.
FADING HOPES: A view of Abu Dis, behind the security barrier. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)FADING HOPES: A view of Abu Dis, behind the security barrier. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

A large security barrier, which was built in 2002 during the intifada, also divides east Jerusalem Arabs from areas administered by the Palestinian Authority. The fence physically divides the residents. There were thought to be some 55,000 originally physically separated from Jerusalem by the wall, many of them in the Shuafat “camp” and the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Kafr Aqab. Critics of Israel’s policies in Jerusalem say some 100,000 Arabs are cut off from the city by the wall.
WHERE PHYSICAL, political and religious separation are the norm in east Jerusalem, so are other basic things like public transport, or lack of names for some roads, urban planning, classroom space, adequate public parks, even mail delivery. Some of these issues have improved, but the things that people take for granted in west Jerusalem or communities such as Pisgat Ze’ev are very different from their Arab neighbors in neighborhoods like Wadi Joz or Jebel Mukaber. There is also the fact that Israeli police are often greeted with hostility if they enter some of the neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, such as Isawiya. 
To call them lawless neighborhoods would be somewhat misleading, because it would imply Israel had ever attempted to impose law and that laws had broken down. In fact, Israel never bothered to impose its authority in swaths of east Jerusalem. 
A 2007 estimate said that 70,000 people in east Jerusalem were living in unregistered houses and thus at risk of demolition orders. The United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that risk now affects 100,000 residents. Basically what the numbers tell us is that the vast majority of homes and apartments in east Jerusalem do not officially exist. Unsurprisingly, arnona (municipal tax) is not collected from those unregistered homes. There is no real path to straighten this out and dozens of illegal homes are demolished a year, while more are built. 
Israel has essentially given up on the concept that it would plan or standardize construction in east Jerusalem. There is one rule, one law, for Jewish Israelis in Jerusalem and for the most part a different law for Arabs. 
IT IS worth touching briefly on the Christian residents of the city, who may number 20,000 or so. They are divided among numerous churches, some of which own massive amounts of land. The Greek Orthodox Church may own, according to reports, up to 20% of the land in west Jerusalem historically, and also owns a significant percentage of the Old City. Most Christians in Jerusalem are affluent and go to private Christian schools such as Rosary Sisters, though even those schools have a student population with a vast majority of Muslims. 
For the Jewish community of the city, the one who is more inclined to celebrate Jerusalem Day, there are also wide divisions. Haredi areas of the city – which also saw sectoral polarization during corona and intense rioting in the not-too-distant past – include some extremists who shun the Israeli flag and don’t vote in Israeli elections. The authorities only loosely apply law and order in those areas, relying instead on various rabbis and community leaders to calm tensions. When necessary, the police do intervene to prevent violence, such as during a far-Right mostly religious protest in late April that sought to target the Arab community. Arabs clashed with police at Damascus Gate – the very gate the flag parade is supposed to go through. 
Ten years ago Netanyahu told the story of how the wall near the Jerusalem Municipality was breached. “I remember how my friends and I rushed through that hole. Rivers of people flowed into the Old City, through its alleys, to reach one place – the Western Wall. I remember the amazing feeling that filled us during that moment, and it has never gone away.” 
He is right when he speaks of some aspects of unity, such as the fact that Jews can now pray at the Western Wall and Arabs from east Jerusalem can visit west Jerusalem. He says that the importance of the day shows the city cannot be divided again and that its unity is ensured for the future of our children. That may be true, but it is in actuality a very divided city and the measures needed to unify it on even one of many levels are immense.