Snap Judgment: Did I forget thee, O Jerusalem?

Want a say? Come here while you're still breathing

0712-snap (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Driving the final ascent up to Jerusalem on the main highway from Tel Aviv, the first area of the city one encounters is populated entirely by the dead. It's the massive Har Hamenuhot Cemetery on the capital's western edge, which has expanded so dramatically in recent years that it looms directly over the road like a vast necropolis. Jerusalem's Jewish population has reportedly declined over the past half-century, with more than 300,000 Jewish residents leaving, in contrast to slightly over 100,000 who have arrived. But that's if you only count the living, and not the thousands of deceased Jerusalemites who have taken up permanent residence at Har Hamenuhot, or across town at the even more famous cemetery on the Mount of Olives. Many of these are newcomers to the city, Diaspora Jews who lived their long lives abroad but have chosen to follow a long-standing Jewish custom of spending their even longer after-lives in the City of David. And why not - especially if one believes an old midrash that when the messiah comes, it will be their corpses who will be first in line to pop out of the ground and return to an existence on terra firma, rather than beneath it. Decades ago, in my first years living in Jerusalem as a young Zionist activist, I often noted that there were years in which more dead American Jews were coming on aliya than those with a pulse. Whether that's true today, I've no idea. The fashion among Diaspora Jews these days seems to have at least progressed from buying a gravesite in Jerusalem to purchasing an apartment; a recent study found that one out of every three apartments sold in central Jerusalem was to foreigners, and many of them sit empty most of the year, lending a new twist to descriptions of the capital as a "ghost town." All this is not to suggest, though, that Jerusalem doesn't hold tremendous meaning for Diaspora Jewry. The degree to which this is the case has been amply demonstrated the past few weeks or so by certain elements of the American Jewish leadership. The cause of their heightened concern is the fact that the Olmert government will be negotiating with the Palestinian Authority in the coming year over the future political status of the capital, and the comments by the prime minister and some of his closest associates that they might be willing to relinquish Israeli sovereignty over some of Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods. There has also been distressed speculation that Israeli concessions on the capital could extend into the Old City and its holy places sacred to Jews and Muslims, the area on and around the Temple Mount. Most vocal has been the Orthodox Union, which claims to represent some 1,000 synagogues across America. Last month its leaders, Tzvi Hersh Weinreb and Stephen Savitsky, published an opinion piece in which they addressed the issue head on: "People often ask us why we, as leaders of a largely North American Jewish organization, should take such a deep and personal interest in the fate of Jerusalem, a city nearly 6,000 miles away. It's a fair question: Why should we care whether Jerusalem is divided into Jewish and Arab zones? "The answer is simple: Jerusalem is not an ordinary city to Jews. King David made it his capital 3,000 years ago, and then Jerusalem has been both the spiritual and political capital of the Jewish people... As Jews, we are required to defend and rebuild Jerusalem, and if we do not take a stand now, history - and we believe God Himself - will judge us poorly." TRUE ENOUGH. Then again, God might judge even more poorly Jews who choose to defend and rebuild Jerusalem from 6,000 miles away - especially when they live in an age when for the first time in two millennia all Jews are free to come live in the City of David, or the restored Jewish state of which it serves as the capital. When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was asked about this in Washington last week, he left no doubt about where he stands on the issue. "Does any Jewish organization have the right to confer upon Israel what it negotiates or not... This question was decided a long time ago. The government of Israel has a sovereign right to negotiate anything on behalf of Israel." Of course the prime minister is conveniently forgetting that seven years earlier as Jerusalem's mayor, he worked together with Natan Sharansky to organize a massive protest in the capital against the Barak government's proposed concessions to the Palestinians, and the rally drew some criticism because it included the official participation of several Diaspora organizations. So there is some poetic justice that Sharansky is today doing the same against Olmert's policies, via an organization, One Jerusalem, being funded by wealthy Diaspora Jews such as Sheldon Adelson. Olmert later softened his earlier remarks, adding that Diaspora Jewry certainly has the right to express itself freely on such issues as the future of Jerusalem. On this he is surely right, for as Psalm 137 declares: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right arm wither, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth." HOWEVER, as a point of fact, if not necessarily of principle, the prime minister is correct. The simple truth is that Diaspora Jews don't and won't have much actual say in deciding the future status of Jerusalem. Such territorial issues will, as they must in all democracies, be solely decided by the ballot-casting citizens of the sovereign State of Israel. Nor will Diaspora Jews have much influence on that decision, no matter how much money someone like Adelson spends. I hate to disappoint my friends back in the Old Country, but the vast majority of taxpaying, army-serving Israelis don't care much what the Diaspora Jewish leadership has to say on this issue, or for that matter on a whole host of others. Alas, though on Pessah eve we all may end the Seder by declaring "Next year in Jerusalem," it's only those Diaspora Jews who have taken those words literally to heart, moving either to the city itself or elsewhere in the Jewish state, who get the privilege of deciding its fate. Well, not quite all. A prominent Jewish figure I know once privately said: "I'd die for Israel - but I'd rather die than live in Israel." Those Diaspora Jews who waited until they could make aliya only to Har Hamenuhot or the Mount of Olives have also lucked out. It may be that in certain wards of old Chicago the dead did indeed get to cast ballots. But today, it's only the living citizens of the State of Israel who will get to cast the votes that will decide the future fate of Jerusalem, and so much else here.