On Jerusalem Day, Is There Anything to Celebrate?

Those nationalists who want to rub their sovereignty in the faces of disempowered East Jerusalemites only succeed in engendering more hatred in a city for whose peace they profess to pray.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Israeli youths hold their national flag as they take part in the 'flag march' through Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City during celebrations for Jerusalem Day on May 17, 2015.
Israeli youths hold their national flag as they take part in the 'flag march' through Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City during celebrations for Jerusalem Day on May 17, 2015.Credit: AFP
Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

Every year on this day, the marchers go parading around the Old City. They sing, they shout, they wave flags. Sometimes they break windows, act violently towards Palestinians or their property and chant “Death to Arabs.” A day that was created to celebrate the putative reunification of Jerusalem 48 years ago has turned into a day that invites displays of extreme ultranationalism onto the streets of the city, and turns off moderate Jerusalemites – not to speak of the rest of the country – who wonder whether a person who aspires to peace and coexistence has anything to celebrate on a day like today.

What’s a person who actually loves this city to do?

As someone who has spent more some 15 years of my adult life in Jerusalem, I’m probably more at home here than I am in the city of my birth, New York, and I almost know this city intimately enough to call myself a local. Jerusalem is and always was a place you could graft yourself onto, the way a branch can be grafted onto a tree. (Israel’s only Nobel Prize Winner in literature, Shai Agnon, said at the award ceremony to receive the prize: "As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.")

I don’t think there’s a neighborhood East or West that I haven’t been to at least once, having been afforded opportunities to visit parts of Arab Jerusalem in my work as a journalist that most Israelis would not recognize as part of their capital, because these are places worlds away – culturally, linguistically, socioeconomically – from everything Israeli. The checkpoints, the uncollected trash, the overcrowded classrooms from which kids go home at noon to make room for the second shift, and the home demolitions carried out against families with no chance of obtaining a building permit are just a few of the phenomena that make East Jerusalem another world from West Jerusalem – a world that Israel has now controlled for close to half a century.

And yet, contradictions abound, making it difficult to simply reduce this problem, as it often is, to one of “the occupation.” Over these years in Jerusalem, I have met many East Jerusalemites who may be frustrated and fed up, but who wouldn’t dream of trading in their Jerusalem residency cards and Israeli health care coverage in favor of being a West Banker living under the Palestinian Authority. If anything, Palestinians are more keen than ever to stay inside Jerusalem. Israelis may lament how intolerable the cost of living has become in Jerusalem, particularly in terms of rental and housing prices, but they rarely stop to consider how equally terrible the situation has become in East Jerusalem, influenced both by the Israeli economy and the construction of the separation barrier – in urban areas an eight-meter-high wall. Palestinian Jerusalemites’ biggest fear in recent years has been being left on the wrong side of the wall and having their Jerusalem residency revoked, creating a real estate crush of people scrambling to stay inside the city.

But trying to summarize how Palestinians feel about this situation is likely to be as inaccurate as it would be for me to try to describe how Israelis feel about Jerusalem Day in one broad brushstroke. Politicians are used to saying that a unified Jerusalem is the consensus. Regular people, however, know that the reality is far more complex. Asked in polls about specific neighborhoods – say, Issawiyeh or Kufr Aqab – a majority of Israelis say they would be willing to turn areas of East Jerusalem over to Palestinian control in the context of an agreement.

But in same polls, the Peace Index, carried out since 1994 and sponsored by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, most recently show that 86.3 percent of Israelis think there is either a “very low” or “moderately low” chance that, given the orientation of Israel’s new government, there will be any kind of breakthrough in the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

Where does that leave the people who have to live here – or choose to live here – in the meantime?

Those nationalists who want to rub their sovereignty in the faces of disempowered East Jerusalemites may legally be allowed to do so – a petition to stop them from marching through the Muslim Quarter was rejected by the High Court of Justice last week – but they only succeed in engendering more hatred in a city for whose peace they profess to pray.

Many people see that there is another way. The group Tag Meir, for example, will go around the Old City giving out flowers rather than flags.

Among the visionaries for a different kind of Jerusalem Day is Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, the founder of a community called Zion - An Eretz Yisraeli Community. A native-born Israeli ordained in the Conservative movement, she founded Zion two years ago as a community that would integrate Ashkenazi, Sephardi and modern Israeli traditions into one egalitarian prayer community. Among her outreach projects is “Bridging Faiths in the Public Sphere,” and to that end, last year, she brought together Jews, Muslims and Christians to do an unprecedented joint prayer on Jerusalem Day. Seven hundred people showed up. This year it will be held on Sunday night at the First Station in Jerusalem, where “believers” of different faiths will gather beneath a star-studded sky to recite prayers for Jerusalem that derive from three religions. This project of Maaminim – Believers – will include prayers led by Elad-Appelbaum as well as Dr. Meir Buzaglo, Um Sami, Rabbi Hadassah Froman, Sheikh Ihab Balha, Ali Abu Awwad, Nir Amit, Brother Benny, Father Rafic and Sheikh Ibtisam Mahmid.

Leaders of the Maaminim – Believers project. Pictured on the far right is Tamar Elad-Appelbaum. (Courtesy)

The event is the conclusion of “This is Jerusalem,” a week of cultural events to spotlight Jerusalem’s many faces and celebrate its diversity, presented by a coalition comprised of Jerusalem’s civil society organizations including the Jerusalem Season of Culture.

“There will be two people on the stage at any given time, speaking both Hebrew and Arabic,” explains Elad-Appelbaum in an interview.

“This is a new way of meeting that is transmitting a new message – that for now we skip over the ideology and deal with an area of faith,” Elad-Appelbaum. “There’s no doubt that it’s a sensitive day, but because of that sensitivity we see an inspiring new feeling in the air, we have a bigger dream, and to realize this dream, we need new connections, a new language. We need to ask that we’ll find the strength to reach our bigger dream of a holy city, a city of peace.”

There’s an implicit message: the flag-waving that becomes a pretext for hooliganism and racism does not speak for all.

“What I would call what we’re doing tonight is not an alternative but a vision. Those young people running around the streets, they’re searching for something and maybe what they’re really looking for a vision. This evening is an experiment and it has to be done with sensitivity and modesty. It’s not that we have a solution, but people want to reach for something much better, and through that, we can bring people together.”

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