A Midnight Stroll With Bennett to Celebrate Jerusalem Day

On a Jerusalem Day walking tour, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett shared his version of the Israeli capital's history.

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Economy Minister Naftali Bennett leading the tour.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett leading the tour.Credit: Emil Salman

As far as Economy Minister Naftali Bennett is concerned, his nighttime tour of Jerusalem early Wednesday was a great success. Bennett said he had expected 80 people to join him in walking and singing around the capital to welcome Jerusalem Day. I had also anticipated an intimate walk, during which I planned to learn a bit more about this mysterious Naftali, who came into our lives out of nowhere. But in the end, about 1,500 people showed up.

The event began on Ammunition Hill after midnight. The atmosphere on the trip there was very cheerful, thanks to some teenagers from Birthright who snuggled quite loudly with each other on the bus. I started liking Jerusalem Day.

But Ammunition Hill at night is a pretty disappointing place — in terms of parking first of all. Israeli Sephardi crooner Yehoram Gaon played in the background. So we crowded into a parking lot, listening to Yehoram Gaon, which was not a good start to the trip.

A unilateral history

Bennett got up and said, “This is not a political rally,” and began, like an over-enthusiastic tour guide, to tell us his version of the story of Jerusalem, which began with King David, followed by Ezra and Nehemiah and the Hasmoneans (“who controlled what is now Highway 443,” Bennett said). Then, 2,000 years went by in a flash, during which nothing important seemed to happen here. Finally, came the Six Day War. I began to miss the Birthright teenagers, who had gone out to get drunk and lose their virginity. “Break the glowsticks,” said Bennett, who was being filmed by three television crews, and off we went.

The next station was the predominately Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. “We can visit the tomb of Shimon Hatzadik, and we should,” someone said. Bennett started realizing what he had accomplished. “This is going to become a new tradition among the Jewish people every year,” he said. He then began describing the days of waiting for the Six Day War, mentioning the word “Holocaust” several times. He concluded the story by saying, “the army destroys the Syrian and Egyptian air forces. You can applaud.”

Bennett with fans. Photo by Emil Salman

Bennett mentioned that the cabinet said we were “going to conquer the Old City.” “Liberate it,” someone corrected him. “Liberate the Old City,” he repeated.

I was evidently not Bennett’s target audience, because the audience did not look bored at all. I blame the fact that I am a left-winger. But when I was on a walking tour of Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood with MK and presidential candidate Ruby Rivlin, he talked about the people of Jerusalem and his childhood, speaking from the heart. There are no people in Bennett’s stories. He speaks fluently and with the Israeli-style charisma of an army commander, but he offers only unilateral history and arcane battle tradition: On our side, there were soldiers, many of who fell, and on the other side there were Arabs who wanted to destroy us. It seems to me that Jerusalem, liberated or occupied, deserves more.

Stuck in 1967

In Sheikh Jarrah, former MK Moshe Peled (Tzomet) got up and spoke about the liberation of the Temple Mount. He told how he had seized an old security guard from the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf who held a key. “We grabbed him by the chain and said to him in Arabic, ‘Open the gate,’” Peled recalled. After that, naturally, Bennett started singing “Jerusalem of Gold” with all the verses — there are lots of verses — and we continued onward. When we passed by Arab houses, the drumbeats grew stronger and the teenage boys sang “When You Go to War.” It was almost 2 A.M. No Palestinians stuck their heads outside; they waited for the commotion to pass. On the entire walking tour, we didn’t see a single Arab, except for the young men working in the parking lot of the American Colony Hotel.

Most of the people came on the tour because they follow Bennett on Facebook. Most of them wore skullcaps, but a few were secular. “Bennett is different,” one young man named Noam said, explaining his presence. “He really delivers the goods — for example, on economic issues he cares more about competition and lowering the cost of living. What’s cool is that he posts on Facebook about what he does.”

To his credit, Bennett was well-liked by the group. Few politicians of our time are liked, even by their own voters. Someone shouted “Naftali” and others shouted “Bennett,” over and over.

Naftali Bennett in the tour. Photo by Emil Salman

One of the speakers, historian Haim Shalem, told a sad story about a father who wore the watch of his son who was killed in the Six Day War for the rest of his life. The watch had stopped at the time his son had died.

Bennett is similarly stuck in the moment Jerusalem was unified. The euphoria of 1967, and even of a few years afterward, is understandable. But even if one supports the idea of Greater Israel, it is childish to look at the entire story like a sterile victory made up of movements of forces and battles with “The Temple Mount is in our hands” at the end. The holy soil of Greater Israel came with several million people who are less enthusiastic than Bennett about the liberation.

We reached Mamilla, the shopping center that leads to the Old City. The walking tour continued. I saw a group from the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva gathered at Jaffa Gate of the Old City. More than a hundred men in white shirts, carrying flags, had linked arms and were singing “The Children Shall return to Their Borders.” Behind them were about 30 young women. I stood with the young women.

It seems to me that much of Jerusalem Day is not about celebrating the unification of the city. More than anything, it is a day when people say: Okay, we weren’t all that successful, but at least we’ll make noise for the Arabs.

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