Tisha B'Av
Jews praying at the Western Wall during Tisha B'Av in 2009. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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There are variants to the apocryphal story, but all in essence are the same. Napoleon Bonaparte went for a walk one summer night (it could have been Paris or elsewhere in France or his empire ) and heard voices lamenting in a strange language. They may have come from a grand synagogue or a miserable hovel. Upon asking why the men inside were sitting on the floor and mourning, he was told these were Jews grieving for their destroyed temple in Jerusalem. "How long ago did this happen?" asked Bonaparte. "Eighteen-hundred years" was the answer.

"A nation that can mourn for so long the loss of its land and temple," the emperor is supposed to have said prophetically, "will return one day to their land and see it rebuilt."

Other versions name other great figures as the accidental visitor to the Ninth of Av prayers, but that does not detract from the power of the story. The day of fast and mourning, marking the destruction of both temples and the exile of the Jews, is the most evocative calendar date for a people who pride themselves, above all, for their historical memory. It's also a date that has lost any relevance beyond the historical.

Tisha B'Av was never supposed to be an eternal day of mourning. The prophet Zechariah, who according to tradition lived 2,500 years ago, at the time of of the first return to Zion and the building of the Second Temple, quoted the Lord of Hosts promising that "the fasts of the fourth month, and of the fifth, seventh and 10th months will become festivals of joy and happiness for the House of Judah. The belief that one day, exile would end and the temple rebuilt is the basis for such customs as leaving the Book of Lamentations in the geniza repository at the end of the fast day in the belief that next year, it will not be needed.

No need to fast

More than a million citizens of the state of Israel will fast this Tuesday and mourn the destruction of the previous sovereign Jewish state two millennia ago. But, on every level, this is wrong. If Tisha B'Av, is meant to mark the exile of the Jewish people, then it's no longer relevant. For a decade now, there has not been one Jew around the world who was not free to return to Zion. Ever since the quiet exodus of the last Jews of Syria, in the late 1990s, there has not been a country anywhere that has forbidden its Jewish citizens to leave. Even the 20,000 Jews in Iran can emigrate; they choose not to for financial reasons. They cannot receive a fair price for their homes, property and businesses should they leave.

Insufficient attention has been paid to this unique historical development. For the first time in the history of the Jews, a majority of them are choosing not to live in an independent Jewish state in Zion - of their own free will. This is not exile and praying to God that all these millions of Jews up themselves and make aliyah is hypocritical; hundreds of thousands of those who will be lamenting on Tuesday will be doing so while living by choice in the Diaspora.

The other reason for the day of lamentations was canceled 43 years ago.

Soldiers in the reserves brigade that captured the Old City of Jerusalem were certain they were securing the entrances to the Temple Mount for the sappers who would arrive shortly with explosives to blow up the mosques, making way for the Third Temple.

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan thought otherwise. He ordered the Israeli flag removed from the mount and assured the astounded Muslim Wakf officials they would have full control of the area. Meanwhile, the Knesset extended Israeli sovereignty to all of East Jerusalem.

The mosques are still there. The decision to replace them with a Jewish temple is not a matter for heavenly intervention, but one for the democratically elected government. The only reason that the third temple has not been built is that a majority of Israelis simply are not interested. Secular Jews have no affinity to a priestly caste sacrificing heifers and goats, while the great majority of religious Jews are not very eager themselves.

The concept of the temple is too distant, and the heavy price Israel would pay for any attempt to remove the mosques does not seem worth it. That is our democratic decision, not a matter for the messiah.

Mourning on the Ninth of Av in this day and age flies in the face of both secular Zionism and religious Zionism. It contradicts the right of Jews around the world to decide where they prefer to live. The exile is over, and the temple has not been rebuilt because we don't want to do it.

The only ideologies that can justify continuing this observance are those that see democratic Israel as a heretic entity defying the majesty of God on earth. But if you are not a member of the Eda Haredit or a settler from Yitzhar, how can you mourn on Tisha B'Av in good conscience?