Today is Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, the anniversary (according to the Jewish calendar) of the day 46 years ago when Israeli troops fought fierce battles to unite the city under Israeli rule. I remember that day.
Between 1948 and 1967, Jews were unable to visit the Kotel or any of the other sites in the Old City. The Jewish Quarter, destroyed during the War of Independence, remained in ruins. Mount Scopus, to the north, though technically Israeli territory, was only accessible by means of a UN convey, and so Haddassah Hospital and the Hebrew University campus remained desolate and effectively off limits. The view of the city from the south was also in Jordanian hands. The closest Israelis could come to the Old City was to ascend a shrine on the Israeli-controlled salient of Mount Zion, and to peer in from there toward the Temple Mount.
Although Israelis yearned for Jerusalem, they did not enter into the Six Day War with the intention of capturing the city. They cautioned King Hussein (the ruler of Jordan, which then controlled all of the West Bank, including the old city of Jerusalem), to stay out of the war. But he didn't. Shells fell in the western part of the city. In response, the Israelis attacked and, within a day or so, defeated the Jordanians and united the city.
Since then, the city has been under Israeli control. Once pockmarked with bullet holes, the "No Man's Land" areas along the old border through the city were demolished, and parks and expensive housing have taken their place. New roads were built connecting the two halves of the city, and suburb after suburb were built to surround the city like a necklace, reinforcing the Israeli connection with the entire city. At the same time, Israel has permitted each religious community to maintain its own shrines and has permitted people of all religious faiths to visit and pray in the city. Each day, thousands of visitors--Jews, Christians, and Moslems--flock to the city.
Notwithstanding the remarkable religious freedom that Israel has provided (rare in this part of the world), Israel's rule has not come without controversy. This is not surprising. The Jews living in the city hold Israeli citizenship; the Palestinians (38% of the population) do not. Moreover, the city may be "joined together" but it is far from united. There are secular Jewish neighborhoods and there are ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. There are Christian Arab enclaves and there are Moslem Arab neighborhoods. Yes, there are areas where everyone seems to meet. (One interesting example is the upscale Mamilla Mall, built along the old border.) But for the most part, Palestinians and Israelis have little contact with one another.
Today, there will be concerts and other events throughout the city, and a parade. This is indeed a time for a celebration. We should never take for granted our ability to view, to visit and to live in the city of Jerusalem. For most of Jewish history, these rights were denied to us.
But as much as this is a time for celebration, it is also, inevitably, a time for reflection. Are there ways to diminish the tension in the holy city? Are there ways not currently being pursued that could better unite everyone who lives here and everyone who visits here? Or will there always be an uneasy calm here, at best?
Let me close with a poem by the great Hebrew poet, Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000). It appeared in this morning's Haaretz.
Jerusalem is a Spinning Carousel
Jerusalem is a carousel spinning round and round
from the Old City through every neighborhood
and back to the Old.
And you can’t get off. If you jump you’re risking your life
and if you step off when it stops you must pay again
to get back on for more turns that will never end.
Instead of painted elephants and horses to ride,
religions go up, down and around on their axes
to unctuous melodies from the houses of prayer.
Jerusalem is a seesaw: Sometimes I go down,
to past generations and sometimes up, into the sky,
then like a child dangling on high, legs swinging, I cry
"I want to get down, Daddy!" "Daddy, I want to get down!"
"Daddy, get me down!"
And like that, all the saints go up into the sky.
They’re like children screaming, "Daddy, I want to stay high!"
"Daddy don’t bring me down!"
"Our Father Our King, leave me on high!"
"Our Father Our King!"
Translated by Vivian Eden; published with permission of Hanna Amichai.