Of the varied complaints that I and many of my friends occasionally lodge against Jerusalem society, a regular one is the discomfort of interacting with the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population. Although we walk the same streets and inhabit the same city, we really live in different worlds. In our eyes they stick out- black hats, black coats, white shirts, beards. But what stuck out today was the presence of another sector of Israeli society in Jerusalem in numbers that I have never seen.
Yom Yerushalayim commemorates and celebrates the reunification and liberation of the eastern parts of Jerusalem, including the Old City and Western Wall, during the Six Day War in 1967. For those who believe that Jews ought and have a God-given right to inhabit the entirety of the Land of Israel as described in the Bible, that was an accomplishment of tremendous meaning potential theological implications. These Religious Zionists filled Jerusalem today touring, rallying, celebrating, and generally enhancing the vibrancy of the city. It’s not unusual to see members of this community in Jerusalem; many Religious Zionists live here. But today, and all this week, others have been coming into the city to revel.
Interestingly, the only mention of Yom Yerushalayim in Yediot Achronot, one of the most widely read papers, was on page 12, with about four paragraphs. What might that mean? That Yom Yerushalayim is not something that most of the country is interested in. Paul Liptz, a former instructor at HUC in Jerusalem and our facilitator this morning, commented that if we called 100 people in Tel Aviv and asked them what today is, 99 would say “Wednesday,” and one would say “Yom Yerushalayim.” An exaggeration, but reflective of the reality that for much of Israeli society, Yom Yerushalayim is important to national history, but not in their lives today. For many, “unified” and “liberated” Jerusalem is a political quagmire, a city where two peoples who often want nothing to do with each other are compelled to be next-door neighbors, roommates, and share a cubicle. Former Mayor Teddy Kollek’s solution was to encourage integration of the Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem, in the hopes that they would develop a workable relationship. But the reality is that Jerusalem is fairly segregated.
We walked from the Mandelbaum Gate, which was the only point of crossing of the 1949 Armistice Line, down that line, looking at Israeli neighborhoods on our left and Palestinian on our right. Paul reminded us that the “border” from 1949-67, the “’67 Border” that caused such an uproar in the past few weeks, is not a border at all. A border is a negotiated, agreed upon line. What separated Israel from Jordan during that time were lines of soldiers’ posts, barbed wire fences, and arms. The Armistice Line represented where Israeli and Jordanian troops were when they agreed to stop fighting; a long-term solution was never enacted. We are still waiting.
As we walked, we crossed paths with a group of a few hundred Israeli school aged boys, clearly coming from a school or youth group. They were excited and energized. The strode with purpose towards wherever they were going; an event of some kind. I was keenly aware that, as we walked on Nablus Road, there might be potential for trouble if this group found itself in the right situation. Young, ideological boys aged 9-18, here to proclaim and celebrate Israel’s claim on all of Jerusalem, walking near and venturing into Palestinian neighborhoods. We were only a few blocks from Sheikh Jarra, one of the hotspots in Israeli-Palestinian land politics. If this group of Israelis were confronted with a similar group of Palestinians, a West Side Story rumble might ensue. Was I scared? No. Nervous. A little.
Not two blocks away, we encountered a Palestinian school group. Half a dozen pigtailed schoolgirls, dressed in their school uniforms, came up to us. The tallest one (I think their captain) smiled and said in deliberate English, “Hello! How are you today?” The others follow suit, turning to each of us randomly and saying hello, good morning, how are you?, what is your name? They weren’t particularly interested in hearing us respond; they just wanted to try out the English phrases they had been learning. The only moment of tension was when the Captain asked Paul, “How old are you?” To which we all laughed.
There I was, in Israel’s Eternal Capital, feeling much more at ease with Palestinians than I did with Israelis not five minutes before.
Over lunch, we talked with Paul about the recent Obama-Netanyahu tete-a-tete. His take: Obama said nothing controversial, new, or threatening. But he also noted that in international politics, what is said and what is heard are not always the same thing. There was an immediate emotional response, but over time the clarity has come through. But Bibi Netanyahu has capitalized, garnering a 13 point jump in his approval, and energizing his right-wing base, some 40% of the nation that speaks more loudly and clearly than the 60% who oppose him and his approach to The Situation. I wondered that reality, of a louder, clearer, more unified, albeit perhaps smaller right was parallel to the US. Fox News and conservative talk radio may be louder than the left, but does that mean that they represent the largest group of Americans? We shall see in the next year and a half…