Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), which was celebrated on May 21, is a proud day with a name that has had a total makeover. Psalm 137 (“Al Naharot Bavel,” “By the Rivers of Babylon”), uses the name for a day of doom. A voracious enemy threatens to uproot the city. In response, Jews vow that Jerusalem will never be destroyed. They say, “If I forget Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!”
Their vow prevails. Yom Yerushalayim becomes the name for a day of proud achievement. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch said that the catechism of the Jew was his calendar. To identify Jewish beliefs, look at the symbolism of the events of the Jewish year. Shabbat stands for the concept of creation, Passover for human dignity, Shavuot for moral law, Rosh Hashanah for responsibility for the world, Yom Kippur for self-repair, Sukkot for joy in living. Can there be Purim without the finger of God, Hanukkah without the light of life, learning and loyalty? Not only in the synagogue but at home: can there be Shabbat without the family meals, Passover without the Seder table or Sukkot without the sukkah?
What about Independence Day and Jerusalem Day? Some people can’t, or won’t, see the hand of God in the emergence of the State of Israel. Jerusalem Day ought to be beyond debate since people in all ages have said “Jerusalem” with such mystic longing. We are in Jerusalem and that is where the US Embassy is. So why are we Jews ambivalent about how to celebrate Jerusalem Day? It’s time for it to be a yom tov!
Strangely, both Independence Day and Jerusalem Day are marked outside the home and synagogue. In normal years there are picnics in the parks, barbecues on the beach, meat and mangalim (barbecues). Obviously it’s good to be proud of Israel and say, “This is the day the Lord has made: we are happy and joyful thereon”. But why isn’t it a yom tov?
As a boy in the youth movement Habonim, I lived through the creation of the state. An exciting time! We sang, “Anu banu artzah liv’not ul’hibbanot bah – We have come to the Land to build and be rebuilt.” Did I dream that one day Israel would be my home and I would live in Jerusalem? But in those days there were already critics with dead hearts and stifled souls who could only carp at the attainment of Zion.
Even today, our detractors can only peddle nasty slogans and tell lies about Israel and Israelis. They know they’re twisting the facts but lack the guts to tell the truth. The critics say we’re biased. Of course we are; for us Israel is a sheer miracle. We are blessed every day to see the aura of Jerusalem and rejoice in its reality.
Why can’t we create a Yom Yerushalayim ritual that contrasts the suffering and the redemption, the dream and the fulfillment? Why can’t we recite the prophecies of the Mountain of the Lord and the spiritual center of mankind? Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook said that Israel (including Jerusalem) is not the beginning but the middle of the redemption.
On Passover, we are told to discuss the Exodus until dawn. On Jerusalem Day we should discuss Israel until daybreak. We are a people that confounded its critics and came alive, albeit still weeping at the enormous cost.
There is no reason why Jerusalem can’t matter to everyone whatever their faith. Who cares whether we invented hummus and falafel or they did? One day we’ll all sit and eat hummus and falafel together; our children and theirs will sing, play, jump and laugh as one, and the nations (if they can get over their sourness and suspicion) can say with the Psalmist, “This is the day which the Lord has made: let us rejoice and be glad on it”.
The sloganists say that Jews make Jerusalem too monochrome by promoting the so-called Jewish narrative without considering the Muslims and Christians. But the “holy to three faiths” claim is deeply flawed. Terence Prittie says that for Jews, interest in Jerusalem is primary, for Christians secondary, for Muslims tertiary. Only the Jews yearned for Jerusalem; it figures in the New Testament; it is not mentioned in the Koran.
For the other faiths, interest in Jerusalem is derivative. Unlike us they have never “placed Jerusalem above their chief joy.” Islam says that Muhammad was carried from Mecca to Jerusalem to the “furthest mosque,” but the claim has many anomalies. No one can deny the politics but why is there international unrest when the parties can surely work it out together once the essentially Jewish mystique of Jerusalem is acknowledged? Yitzhak Rabin said, “Three thousand years of dreams and prayers today wrap Jerusalem in love.” How can anyone gainsay that basic fact?
The writer is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Sydney, Australia.