Letting Go of Jerusalem

Election of Nir Bark as mayor has yet to produce any tangible proof of a change in the demographic figures that point to Jerusalem becoming, a decade or so from now, a city split between an Arab side and an ultra-Orthodox Jewish side.


Israelis celebrating Jerusalem Day

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin is the quintessential Jerusalemite. He hails from a family that traces its roots in the city back over two centuries, he starts every interview with "Shalom from Jerusalem" and he is a staunch believer in the right of Jews to build their homes in every corner of the city, east or west.

So when on Jerusalem Day, last Wednesday, he made a pessimistic speech at the Knesset's special annual session in sharp contrast to the high-flung rhetoric of the other speakers swearing allegiance to the city's "eternal unity," the media did well to sit up and take notice. For five minutes.

Rivlin bemoaned the lack of enthusiasm shown by most Israelis in the day marking the capture of the eastern part of the city in the Six-Day War.

"Jerusalem's day of celebration has become an occasion only for one sector," he said, admitting what has been evident for years, that those dancing and marching in the streets with flags are almost exclusively drawn from the national-religious community. "Jerusalem is no longer a focus of identity for Israelis and has ceased to inspire the wider public," Rivlin continued, "I fear that we are in a post-Jerusalem era."

He acknowledged that it was mainly the politicians' fault: "We have sinned against Jerusalem with endless talk of its borders and boundaries and lack of attention to content and a relevant vision." Rivlin is that rare creature on the Israeli right wing, a man who is still capable of seeing the suffering of the other side.

"How can we expect Jerusalem to inspire all" he asked, "when it suffers from severe discrimination between the Arab and the Jewish sectors?" But he remains resolutely of the opinion that the entire city, including even outlying Palestinian villages annexed in 1967, must remain part of one entity under Israel sovereignty.

Politics aside, Rivlin's diagnosis is right-on. Even if a majority of Israelis still say they are against any sharing of Jerusalem in a future peace agreement, they ceased caring for the city long ago. They rarely visit it, on Jerusalem Day or any other, they regard it as a depressing, boring and even dangerous place and certainly wouldn't consider living there.

The election a year and a half ago of secular Nir Barkat as mayor has yet to produce any tangible proof of a change in the demographic figures that point to Jerusalem becoming, a decade or so from now, a city split between an Arab side and an ultra-Orthodox Jewish side, with a dwindling number of secular (and moderate Orthodox ) enclaves in the west of the city and settler outposts in the east - if we are not almost there already.

I may be wrong, Barkat's election might be a sign of the trends reversing, but I have yet to see the proof.

And yet, despite my gloomy pessimism, I would like to point out one positive development, one small example of a secular renaissance in Jerusalem which will be on display for a few hours next week.

The ancient Jewish tradition of tikun leil Shavuot, studying Torah the entire night on the eve of the holiday commemorating the reception of the 10 commandments on Sinai, has been rapidly taking on a new form in recent years. It is no longer just a religious custom, but an integral part of the annual calendar for many secular Israelis as well.

Dr. Micah Goodman, a lecturer on Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and director of the Ein Prat Academy, is one of the speakers who will appear at half a dozen venues on Shavuot night, speaking and leading study sessions with a wide variety of audiences.

"It is clear to me that the religious have lost their monopoly on Shavuot," he says. A decade or so ago, Shavuot night study took place almost exclusively in synagogues, but now nearly every community and cultural center in the city has a full plate of pluralistic lecturers on offer.

"Secular people don't usually feel comfortable in a synagogue," says Goodman, "but they have no shortage of places to go anymore. Every where I go is packed.

It has become the fashionable thing to do and I hear my students talking about which is the hottest place to go this year."

This is not just a Jerusalem phenomenon. Tel-Aviv's secular yeshivas, which have been set up over the last few years, are also taking part. But the sight of large groups roaming the streets at two in the morning, seeking the next intellectual attraction, is peculiar to the capital.

Secular Shavuot used to be the Zionist festival of agriculture and many kibbutzim still hold their nostalgic Bikurim festivals with tractors and children dressed in white holding up produce.

For the rest of mainstream middle-class Israel, it is merely an opportunity to buy fine cheese and white wine, and that is certainly how Shavuot seems in the media and in advertising.

Beneath the radar, though, something more fundamental may be happening. Through inattention, occupation and sheer laziness, we have got the Jerusalem we deserve. It may be wishful thinking, but for one night a year, the dual-monopoly that the Haredi community seems to have, both over the cultural identity of Jerusalem and over Torah study, seems to crack.