Jerusalem Day Is a Chance to Reflect on Israeli Society

If Tel Aviv is the 'Startup Nation,' Jerusalem is the entire nation, says former Knesset Speaker.

In the Israel of the year 2013 it would be more natural for many Israelis to celebrate a "Tel Aviv Day" in place of Jerusalem Day.

"Tel Aviv Day" would be a day for celebrating political Zionism. However, Jerusalem Day has a different sort of character, but not because Jerusalem is behind the times. To the contrary, Jerusalem is a shooting star of urban development with both industrial and entertainment centers, cultural institutions and a bustling nightlife. Rather, Jerusalem Day isn't like this because Jerusalem for us – with everything that it symbolizes – is like gazing into a mirror.

On Jerusalem Day we gaze into the mirror early in the morning before shaving or applying any makeup, and staring back at us is the face of Israeli society and the image of the Zionist enterprise. On Jerusalem Day we cannot forget this little piece of heaven, divided by wide ideological, religious and political rifts.

If Tel Aviv is the "Startup Nation," Jerusalem is the entire nation. If Tel Aviv is the certificate of excellence our society hangs on the wall of the Zionist enterprise, Jerusalem is the room with walls upon which are spread the entire Israeli society with all its identities, cultures, and the encounters and conflicts that occur within it.

I love Jerusalem not just because of the baggage of past generations and not just as a critical component of Jewish identity; I love Jerusalem because it is our soft underbelly, it is the mirror of Israeli society and a reminder of the fragile Israeli mosaic composed of different nations, ethnic groups, classes and religions.

I love Jerusalem since it is our touchstone; it is Israeli society's trial balloon. I think that Jerusalem will be a contentious battlefield as long as Israeli society will continue to view itself as a battle arena and contention instead of a meeting ground between faiths and worldviews. The hard-to-digest truth about Jerusalem is that this country may have been built by Zionists but not just for Zionists, and the reality is that it isn’t only a homeland for Jews.

My Jerusalem comes from the mold of Modern Hebrew linguist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a Jew in touch with his roots who also translated the Koran into Hebrew and is an ongoing reminder of this truth that is found everywhere I look in Jerusalem and outside it.

Little by little Jerusalem is becoming a city that rejects that possibility of dividing it, to my joy, not just because of the Jewish ring of neighborhoods that have been built since 1967, but also because of the shared life that has been created in Jerusalem. Perhaps such living side-by-side is fragile, perhaps it is delicate, but it exists.

It's possible to feel this change in Jerusalem's public spaces, in the parks, the malls and the playing fields. The groups live in close proximity to one another. The Mamilla neighborhood, Liberty Bell Park, the Malha Mall and many other sites in Jerusalem have turned into a shared life artery. The schools and colleges in the eastern part of the city that in the past boycotted the Israeli educational system have now adopted Hebrew as a practical language of living in coexistence.

All the same, there are those who say I am old-fashioned or a dreamer, but I don't understand how it's possible to divide a whole. I believe that the separation dividing the populations won't succeed in Jerusalem. The recent violent incidents in Jerusalem in the neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe, near the Damascus Gate and Teddy Stadium are in my eyes a response from the fringes of society to the partial erasing of the separation of population groups and the blurring of the boundaries between the eastern and western parts of the city.

In my assessment, the Israeli mosaic is a fact and a reality, both demographically and geographically. And whoever tries to chuck away pieces of the Israeli mosaic – whether with nationalistic, economic or religious declarations – they will be regurgitated by it in the end.

Therefore, as a Jerusalemite and an Israeli, I am shocked by these acts and despise those who instigate violence and racism because they bring us backwards and try to prove de facto that Jerusalem cannot exist without a wall running through its center.

In recent months, we have been frequently using the expression "new politics." For me, a new politics is one where every group has a real chance to participate in shaping our shared destiny here, the ultra-Orthodox as much as the secular, women as much as men, Arabs as much as Jews.

New politics isn't a zero-sum game, but one that makes possible the coexistence of the different components of Israeli society in the Jewish State.

New politics is the understanding that the political participation of every group isn't just a privilege but also an obligation. I think that Jerusalem places before us an opportunity to create a real new politics in which every group will play a real role in fashioning the city's destiny.

I hope that in the upcoming Jerusalem municipal elections more Arab residents will vote and participate in setting the city's course. This participation is needed to facilitate communication and seal together the different parts of the city, between the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Mea She'arim and Har Nof and the secular Jewish neighborhoods of Beit Hakarem and Kiryat Hayovel; between the Arab neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah, the Mount of Olives and Silwan and the Jewish neighborhoods of Rehavia, Sha'arei Hesed and Kiryat Menachem.

The partnership between the fortified neighborhoods of Jerusalem is a partnership between the different segments of Israeli society as a whole. Since Jerusalem is the trial balloon and the test of our capability to live together in the Jewish State, Jerusalem is the writing on the wall. It is both a curse and a blessing. Here's to next year in a Jerusalem for all Israelis.


Reuven Rivlin is an Israeli lawyer and politician, who served as Knesset speaker from 2009 to 2013.

Emil Salman