Keep dreaming: Jerusalem divided, Jerusalem destroyed

Everyone has his or her own association with the Six Day War. For me, it was the end of ham sandwiches.

Jerusalem Day celebrations 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem Day celebrations 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Everyone has his or her own association with the Six Day War. For me, it was the end of ham sandwiches.
I don’t remember feeling overly concerned with what was happening in the Middle East at the time, but I do remember that when it was all over my mother announced that since God had done us a favor we would now do one for him, and proceeded to ban pork products from the Reform home I grew up in.
For my wife, it was the first time she remembers feeling that something set her apart from her non-Jewish classmates in Chile. While they were oblivious to what was going on halfway around the world, she was worried sick – for reasons she had difficulty articulating back then but that would eventually bring her to Israel to live.
For a group of pro-Israel Jewish student activists I met with not long ago, born 25 years after the war ended, it was “the beginning of the occupation.” They didn’t tell me that with any rancor nor with any sense of either irony or cynicism. It was simply a “fact” they had grown up with.
But for all of us, the Six Day War also meant the reunification of Jerusalem – an emotionally powerful, even if not fully comprehended, marvel that also served to unify the Jewish people, regardless of religious orientation, geographic locale, personal history or political persuasion.
Which is all the more reason for feeling sickened by the reality that today the undivided capital of the State of Israel is dividing our nation in ways that none of us could have imagined 45 years ago.
With Tisha Be’av only nine weeks away, we would do well to remember that the sort of internecine differences endemic to contemporary Israel that were so evident on Jerusalem Day were once responsible for the destruction of the city. There is no reason to believe that if Jerusalem should remain so divided that it will not fall again. If we are to avoid that fate, there are three phenomena in particular that all of us should do something about, be it by examining our own behavior or by calling upon our elected officials to change theirs.
1. Jerusalem Day seems to have come under the custody of an increasingly nationalistic, intolerant and xenophobic element of our population. I don’t know if that is because it was calculatedly wrested away from the rest of us, or if we carelessly (in which case I would also add inexcusably) relinquished our rights to the holiday by neglecting its celebration.
Whatever the case, that the occasion’s traditional Flag Dance was characterized by “large groups of Orthodox boys [who] chanted ‘Death to Arabs’” as reported in this paper (“15 arrested on Jerusalem Day,” May 21) should be a source of national shame.
It is an intolerable phenomenon that is also a desecration of the memory of those who died while fighting for the liberation of the city in a battle that we did everything in our power to avert, but which, once forced upon us, was fought with heroic bravery and the deepest sense of history-in-the-making. It is no less a desecration of their memory that proud and patriotic Jewish citizens of the state should now be calling for deleting the event from our calendar altogether (“Leftwing protesters: abolish Jerusalem Day,” May 21).
2. Jerusalem Day celebrations have taken on an ever more fundamentalist religious character. It is appalling that the official march to the Old City has been tainted by gender separation, with women required to enter through the Jaffa Gate and men through the Dung Gate (“Let the Jerusalem Day festivities begin!” May 18), effectively broadcasting to huge segments of the population that they are not really welcome to join in.
This is symptomatic, of course, of the disgraceful trend of gender segregation and exclusion of women in the public domain that has so riled our society in recent months. It is no more excusable for being so. In fact, in light of the public outcry over the phenomenon and the sexism of which it is both a cause and a reflection, the municipality should not have sanctioned such a parade.
We are only days away from Shavuot, celebrating the receiving of the same Torah that this separation of the sexes is meant to honor. Yet then and there at Sinai we stood together, men and women, one people in awe of our one God.
3. Jerusalem Day, rather than being an opportunity to acclaim the fulfillment of our responsibility for presiding over the municipality’s diverse population without prejudice in respect to ethnicity, nationality or religion, has instead become an occasion for lording our supremacy.
While I agree with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s statement that “Israel without Jerusalem is like a body without a heart,” I would remind him that it is a heart that continued to beat through 2,000 years of exile, destruction, occupation and division. Our possession of the city has nothing to do with its power to inspire – from afar no less (and perhaps even more?) than from up close.
And personally, I feel that power diminished by the stridency of the prime minister’s remarks, including his insistence that nothing would prevent us from continuing to build throughout the city. President Shimon Peres was no less passionate about the significance of Jerusalem for the Jewish people, but far more conciliatory.
“Prayers from the Western Wall, the calls of the muezzin and church bells can all be heard without censorship,” he said, adding that we must do everything possible to realize the hopes for peace that Jerusalem embodies.
Furthermore, though I also concur with Netanyahu’s assertion that only Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem will guarantee everyone free access to its holy sites, I am discomforted by his neglect of our failed obligation to guarantee free access to the city’s resources as well.
Some 40 percent of the residents of east Jerusalem do not complete high school, due in part to a shortage of a thousand classrooms. Some 84% of the children there subsist beneath the poverty level. To dismiss these statistics with the observation that “every major city in the world has less desirable neighborhoods” as does Ilana Brown (“There is no Zionism without Jerusalem,” May 21) is disingenuous.
To then assert, as she does, that “Classical Zionism... did not provide a plan for a utopian society or even a framework for solving societal ills” is nothing short of a display of colossal ignorance. As a volunteer for Im Tirtzu, named in honor of Zionism’s founding father, she has no excuse for not knowing better.
The New Society Herzl imagined into being in his futuristic novel Altneuland thrives on an economic system of “mutualism,” which eliminated both unemployment and poverty. Education through university is tuition-free for everyone – Arabs, too. And Jerusalem has become a model for coexistence, an internationalized, thriving metropolis in which “magnificent new buildings... serving Christians, Muslims and Jews stood next to one another,” while “in a large square stood the splendid Peace Palace... the center of international efforts to alleviate the suffering of the downtrodden around the world.”
Brown may not like this vision, but there is no denying that it is the ideal set before us by the visionary of the Jewish state at the very beginning of our long journey home. Zionism doesn’t get any more classical than that.
It really doesn’t matter, then, whether or not we interpret the Six Day War as a favor from God. Jerusalem Day should regardless serve as an inspiration to all of us to edge the Jerusalem of the here-and-now just a bit closer to the Jerusalem of the days-to-come, so that its celebration will faithfully reflect the aspirations of our forebears – those who set out from Egypt just seven weeks ago on their way to the Promised Land via Mount Sinai and those who set the Zionist dream in motion and who fought for its fulfillment, who now rest on Mount Herzl.
What an unspeakable tragedy it would be if generations to come were required to add our downfall to the litany of calamities that befell our people on Tisha Be’av due to transgressions of our own making.
The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of The Jewish Agency Executive. The opinions expressed herein are his own.