Why I don't celebrate Jerusalem Day - comment

We also talk a lot about the unity of Jerusalem, even though this “unity” is fiction.

 OPPOSITION LEADER Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Western Wall on Jerusalem Day, last week. (photo credit: Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
OPPOSITION LEADER Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Western Wall on Jerusalem Day, last week.
(photo credit: Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

On the morning of Jerusalem Day last week, next to my neighborhood supermarket, I bumped into a National-Religious-identified person I had been acquainted with before I retired from the Knesset. He is a soft spoken, pleasant man who, over the years, has worked for various National-Religious MKs from several right-wing parties, and with whom I always enjoyed chatting.

He told me that he was planning to go to the Old City and the Western Wall later on and was looking forward to the event. I told him in response that it has been many years since I have celebrated Jerusalem Day, and even though I do not feel the day had been hijacked from us seculars by the national-religious camp and I do not begrudge the joyous celebrations surrounding the march of the flags, I do not feel that these celebrations mark something with which I can identify.

“So why don’t you hold your own celebration?” he asked. “Because,” I replied, “even though I was delighted when we gained control over Jerusalem back in 1967 and wouldn’t consider returning to the old demarcation lines, I do not see the current situation in Jerusalem something to celebrate.”

Much of the talk in Israel about Jerusalem is around the question whether Israel effectively implements its sovereignty over the whole territory of Jerusalem, even though according to international law Israel does not have the right to exercise such sovereignty in any part of Jerusalem.

"Unity is fiction"

We also talk a lot about the unity of Jerusalem, even though this “unity” is fiction. Who has ever heard of a city being united when close to 40% of its permanent inhabitants are not citizens of the state that claims sovereignty over that city, the majority of whom do not want to hold such citizenship, and most of those who do, are refused it?

 PARTICIPANTS IN this week’s Jerusalem Day Flag March demonstrably pass through Damascus Gate into the Old City.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) PARTICIPANTS IN this week’s Jerusalem Day Flag March demonstrably pass through Damascus Gate into the Old City. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Who has ever heard of a city being united, when only the majority may live anywhere it wishes within its confines, while the minority can only live where it currently lives, and even then, are frequently thrown out of their homes because over 74 years ago these homes were allegedly owned by members of the current majority? And what about homes that were owned by the current minority over 74 years ago and following the War of Independence (1948-49) remained within the borders of the State of Israel, and were declared “abandoned property?”

THE FACT that many inhabitants of one section of the city perform all the menial jobs in other sections of the city doesn’t make the city united, just like the fact that the municipal and national services provided to the inhabitants of one section of the city are not provided to those in other sections, doesn’t indicate unity. If the unity of the city were a fact, we would celebrate this unity together. The truth is that Jews and Arabs do not really share life in this city – not only on Jerusalem Day, but on an everyday basis. Both sides are responsible for this reality.

When the Six Day War broke out, I was studying abroad. I managed to get a flight to Israel on the fourth day of the War. Only El-Al and Swissair flew commercial flights to Lydda Airport (today’s Ben-Gurion Airport), that was taken over by the Israeli air force. El Al gave priority to reservists returning home, while Swissair insured its planes for war risks, and provided an airlift from Zurich to Lydda, after flying thousands of Israelis from all over the world to Zurich.

A few days after landing in Israel (there was no passport control) I volunteered at the neurosurgical ward at the Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem. The first outings to east Jerusalem were exciting beyond imagination. One of the young neurosurgeons I was assisting, invited me to visit what remained of the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to reach the Western Wall before the IDF tore down the Mughrabi quarter adjacent to the Wall, to create a vast square to accommodate the masses of Jewish worshippers and visitors who started poured in and thus missed seeing the Wall as it was depicted in a photograph that hung in my grandfather’s living room when I was a child, when the only way to approach the wall was by means of a narrow passageway.

In the course of the first two decades after the Six Day War I used to visit the Western Wall quite frequently. As a secular person I had no religious sentiments towards the site, but rather historical sentiments. However, as the site was rapidly turned into an Orthodox synagogue, I started feeling like a stranger. Finally, when during one of my visits, a woman allegedly in charge there threw a filthy piece of cloth on my shoulders because I was not dressed modestly enough in her opinion, I decided that enough was enough and never returned there again.

After I completed my studies abroad in 1969 and settled in Jerusalem, I made numerous Palestinian friends in east Jerusalem – especially professionals and academics. I regularly accompanied important Labor Party visitors from abroad to the offices in east Jerusalem of the Al-Awda monthly magazine owned by Raymonda Tawil, which had appeared between 1979 and 1998 and had promoted contacts with Israeli politicians.

THESE CONTACTS kept my optimism alive that someday we would manage to work out some sort of Israeli-Palestinian modus vivendi, and that Jerusalem would turn into a truly united city. After the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assumption of power in 1996, my optimism started to wane. Since then, my visits to east Jerusalem have diminished in frequency.

But to return to Jerusalem Day. I spent Sunday afternoon and evening glued to my TV, with growing relief that the massive march of the flags, which entered the Old City through the Damascus and Jaffa Gates and proceeding to the Western Wall, did not result in serious disturbances inside Israel’s mixed cities and rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, as had occurred last year. However, the presence of members of the racist La Familia and Lehava organizations, who joined the march with their flags, and randomly attacked Arabs, both physically and verbally, without anyone, besides the police, trying to stop them, marred the event, which on the whole was a grand spectacle, and tour de force, by the youth of the national-religious camp.

What I found a little out of place was the decision of leader of the opposition Benjamin Netanyahu to make an appearance at the event – taking advantage of the fact that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is considered persona non grata in most national-religious circles and didn’t even consider attending it. What was especially bizarre was the fact that a few flags, bearing the image of Netanyahu, were flown side by side with several Lehava flags, and an ocean of Israel’s national flags – the only flag that should have been welcomed.

Given the fact that Jerusalem was liberated in 1967 – by then-Labor prime minister Levi Eshkol and a chief of staff, who was to become another Labor prime minister and be assassinated by a wayward member of the national-religious camp 28 years later for attempting to make peace – in my opinion, Netanyahu demonstrated especially poor judgment. But, as I have already stated: Jerusalem Day is no longer my event.

The writer, born in Haifa in 1943, worked in the Knesset for many years as a researcher, and has published extensively both journalistic and academic articles on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her book Israel’s Knesset Members, A Comparative Study of an Undefined Job will be published by Routledge at the end of July.