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Some Thoughts on Yom Yerushalayim—Jerusalem Day

In 1970, when I was 14 years old, I visited Israel for the first time with my family. I had read Leon Uris’s Exodus a couple of years earlier and I couldn’t wait to go. It was a deeply moving and formative visit for me. Our guide was learned and engaging, and he moved seamlessly between our ancient history and the modern state. Since it was just over three years after the Six Day War, that great, miraculous victory—its heroism and euphoria—was present at every corner and every stop. “Here used to be the border,” “On your right are the remains of a Syrian tank,” “On your left is a memorial site.” Nothing was more emotional than arriving at the Kotel, the Western Wall, which had come under Israeli control on June 10, 1967, after 19 years of Jordanian rule during which Jews were banned from Jerusalem’s Old City. In my eyes as a 14 year old, everything was so amazing and inspiring. I was most captivated by Jerusalem and I longed to return.

I did return for graduate school in 1978, and that’s when I began seeing Jerusalem’s complexity. I have been back countless times since—each time, Jerusalem gets deeper in my heart; and more complex.

This Wednesday, the 28th of Iyyar, was the annual celebration of Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, marking its “reunification” after the Six Day War. I write “reunification” in quotes because, although East and West Jerusalem are administratively unified under Israeli rule, tragically there is nothing really unified about Jerusalem. Palestinian Arabs and Jews, and liberal and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, live in palpable, sometimes violent tension. The Kotel, long a place of prayer and hope, has turned into a place of contentiousness, divisiveness, and exclusion. Last week, 10,000 people participated in this year’s toned-down Jerusalem Pride parade, which was led by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum. Two thousand police officers were required to protect them from violent far-right protesters. Each year, on Jerusalem Day, a parade known as the Flag March goes deliberately through the Muslim Quarter with far-right Jews going on a rampage and engaging in violence against Palestinians, chanting racist songs and shouting “death to the Arabs.” These are painful reminders that 57 years after June 1967, Jerusalem’s reunification remains unfulfilled and, for the moment, seriously out of reach. Yet, there is reason to hope.

Last week, we concluded at BJ the Israel at 76 series, marking this year’s Yom Ha’atzma-ut. The presentations, over a two-month period, were rich and insightful and exposed the heartbreaking intricacy of this post-October 7 moment. The last session was, in my view, the most poignant. The Inter Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues* brought to BJ a panel of four remarkable up-and-coming changemakers from Palestinian Arab society in Israel, with rich experiences in civil society, journalism, arts and culture, and tech. They shared their personal struggles and aspirations for greater inclusion in Israeli society and full equality, and how they navigate a complex identity—particularly difficult now during wartime.

One of the panelists, shared the following:

“I decided that I want to be active, I want to try to influence this reality, even if my influence will be small and limited—and I have always known that the best and most effective way to do that is through joint Arab-Jewish struggle, because for me, the division is not between Arabs and Jews. Rather, between those who want true equality and those who reject it, between those who seek to perpetuate the occupation and those who reject it. Therefore, I have been active throughout my life in joint Arab-Jewish frameworks… My experience that lasted a few years told me that this is possible, that when Arabs and Jews who believe in equality, justice, and democracy put their hands together and work together, change is possible. As the country shifts more and more towards the extreme right, and figures who believe in Jewish supremacy such as Ben Gvir and Smotrich enter the mainstream, there are thousands of other young Arabs and Jews, like me, that still dream of achieving equality and peace, because we are well aware that the basic value of every democratic system is equality.”

“There are thousands of other young Arabs and Jews…that still dream…”

They dream of a harmonious Jerusalem and a democratic, just, and peaceful Israel.

The Jerusalem they dream of celebrating on Yom Yerushalayim and for which they work is reflected in the words of the psalmist:

Our feet stand at your gates, Jerusalem.
Jerusalem built, a city that is joined together…
Seek the peace of Jerusalem, may those who love you be tranquil.
May there be peace within your ramparts, tranquility in your palaces.
(Psalm 122)

And so may it be.

Shabbat Shalom,

* IATF is a coalition of major American Jewish organizations and philanthropies as a non-partisan educational resource on Palestinian Arab citizens and Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.