Thoughts for Jerusalem Day
It’s a great privilege to live in Jerusalem. Just stepping out of my front door, I immediately confront my identity and destiny as a Jew. My street carries the name of a Mishnaic sage, to the left the streets are named after Biblical characters, to the right after soldiers and politicians who forged the State of Israel. Walking up these roads, passed many kosher restaurants and a myriad of synagogues, I regularly spot important rabbis, former Russian dissidents and political leaders. As I nod and murmur a greeting, I proudly whisper to my children, “Did you know that person is a Jewish hero?”
We have much to be proud of. My grandparents often recalled their early visits to Israel when they could not visit the Western Wall because it was under Jordanian jurisdiction. Then, my grandfather’s friend Albert Rose told us how despite the dangers, his family continued living on Mount Zion throughout the Six Day War. When in an astonishing victory, Israel captured the Old City, the soldiers realized they had no flag to raise in celebration of their conquest. In the midst of their excitement, they dashed to his house, requesting a flag to fly over the Western Wall. He did not have one, but his wife Pauline was an artist. She grabbed a tube of blue paint from her cupboard, pulled a sheet from the linen cupboard and spread it across the kitchen table creating the first Magen David to fly over our holiest site symbolizing its return to Jewish hands.
Now, we can visit the Wall and pray at our leisure. Almost every synagogue in the world faces Jerusalem, the place where our dreams, aspirations and prayers converge (Berachot 30a). But the Temple was not just a place of prayers and sacrifices, it was also the centre of Torah teaching, where the Sanhedrin determined the law and judged its most difficult cases. This spirit of justice must always pervade Jerusalem as we are taught “Zion will be redeemed with justice” (Isaiah 1: 27).
On Yom Yerushalayim, we celebrate the miraculous defense of the Jewish state and our renewed ability to pray at the Wall. These are indeed great reasons for thanksgiving and celebration. But this day also marks the unification of Jerusalem which brought large Arab neighbourhoods into our capital city. This is far more complex. Ask a Jew and an Arab to meet in the centre of town or at the city’s central bus station and they will go to two entirely different places. Each people still has its own “centre” and barely visit each other. The only time you will see many Jews in East Jerusalem is on Yom Yerushalayim when there is an annual midnight parade through the streets. Most people walk through respectfully, but each year some zealous Jewish thugs take the opportunity to bang on doors, ring door bells and taunt the residents.
The streets of East Jerusalem do not carry the names of my heroes, they don’t have kosher shops and one barely hears Hebrew there at all.
For years, Israel struggled to find a partner for peace, but in the meantime, the situation in East Jerusalem deteriorated. It’s not just the overtly Jewish issues that are at stake. The streets of East Jerusalem are not paved to the same standard as ours, there are barely any parks, the rubbish mounts high and there is a huge shortage of school places. While all residents pay the same taxes, new Jewish settlements receive all mod cons which are denied to residents of Arab neighbourhoods. These people are also unable to vote in elections to the Knesset. Every Israeli government pledges to improve the situation, but so far little has been accomplished.
The impasse over the future of Jerusalem is complex. It must be negotiated by political leaders and security experts. But there are fundamental religious and moral principles at stake which should concern us all, particularly those of us who love our Jewish State and care passionately about its future.
Israel is not just a Jewish community; it is a democratic state which must treat its citizens equally, ensuring a secure, dignified and prosperous lifestyle with freedom of religion for all its citizens. Achieving an equitable settlement would be a true sanctification of God’s name, giving us even greater reason to be proud of our beloved country and to celebrate on Yom Yerushalayim.