Jerusalem Day, which this year marks the 50th anniversary of the reunification of the city under Israeli rule, is a complicated day of celebration.
While it commemorates the date when Israel gained control over the Old City from the Jordanians following the 1967 Six Day War, it also denotes the start of the military rule in the West Bank, which stokes a conflict that has claimed thousands of lives. In short, it’s a day of contrasts.
On the one hand are the thousands who attend the annual city march, parading with Israeli flags through downtown Jerusalem and into the Old City and Muslim Quarter, where some of them taunt Arab residents who are de facto confined to their homes.
Then there are the so-called alternative events, as institutions and organizations look for ways to reconcile the complicated realities of the day while finding a way to celebrate the city that means so much to many.
Still, “a lot of people choose to stay home, unable to find an event that reflects their feelings about the city,” said Yaara Ketz Feiner, deputy CEO of Yerushalmit Movement, a social and communal activism organization.
“The flags [parades] have become so political that it’s not reflective of many people,” she said. “We thought, ‘How could it be that Jerusalem Day isn’t for Jerusalemites?’”
The movement, which aims to reflect on and improve life in Jerusalem, wanted to show the ongoing conversation about the capital by those who “live and breathe the city,” she said.
Four years ago, it began a new tradition called the alternative family parade, which marches along the train track park with balloons and songs.
This Jerusalem Day, Wednesday, May 24, will mark the fourth year for the march, which will start at 3:30 p.m. at the portion of the track that runs through the southern neighborhood of Beit Safafa, hoping to draw its Arab residents to the community event. There will be several musical performances as well as a mixed Muslim-Jewish prayer service at a stop along the way to the finale at 6:15 p.m. at the First Station.
“We don’t know if the local Arab families will come,” said Ketz Feiner. “It’s sensitive and it’s complicated, but we still wanted to make that connection to them and to allow for the possibility.”
The march, which featured just a few dozen people in its first rendition in 2014, had 1,000 participants last year, she added.
“People said they finally felt that the day was theirs to celebrate,” said Ketz Feiner. “No one wanted to be against the flags parade, but it wasn’t what people wanted to do, either. We’re about the mix of people in this city, the different communities, because that’s what makes up this city.”
Yerushalmim also undertook a longer project to mark Jerusalem Day, producing 50 Reasons for Hope — 50 short videos featuring the people and organizations that represent alternative, positive sides of the city.
“It’s to give a message of hope and to show all the shades of Jerusalemites,” said Ketz Feiner. “We want to show what happens on the ground, the people who live here, showing the conversation of Jerusalem, that it’s not just one or the other.”
It wasn’t easy finding people from the city’s Arab community who felt comfortable participating, she said.
“For them, it’s dangerous,” she said. “It’s like collaborating with the enemy. And while some wanted to, they couldn’t necessarily do it. They’re walking on eggshells.”
Jerusalem Day is almost anathema to the city’s Arab residents, who on May 15 marked the 69th Nakba Day, when Palestinians commemorate the events of May 1948 when the State of Israel was founded.
Zochrot, a far-left Israeli group dedicated to promoting acknowledgement of the Nakba, takes contemplation of Jerusalem’s complex history in another direction with “Here in This No-Here,” an exploration of Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood on May 18-20.
The central Jerusalem neighborhood, which Zochrot spells Qatamon using the Arabic transliteration, is full of stately, elegant houses that were emptied of their Arab owners during the 1948 War of Independence and that have since become some of the city’s most desirable real estate.
The three-day event includes guided tours and a symposium about the erased memories of the historic neighborhood, bringing the people and stories of its past into the present. There is also an exhibit about the fragments of life left from the Palestinian residents — photos, letters, maps and films — hosted in a Katamon home. One walking tour follows the route to poet Abu Salame’s home, while another takes visitors to the forgotten Semiramis Hotel on Hahish Street.
Rsearcher and artist Dorit Naaman, who collaborated with Zochrot on the event, created an interactive documentary project on the neighborhood, “Jerusalem We Are Here.”
Zochrot, based in Tel Aviv, has done something similar in Jaffa for the last two years, based on the concept of the Open Houses tours. This time it is focusing on Jerusalem, and Debby Farber, curator of Zochrot’s Visual Research Lab, is curious to see who will participate.
“It takes this concept a step forward, and focuses on history and genealogy of the Palestinian homes,” said Farber. “We’re seeing that it’s a big English-speaking crowd, which we haven’t connected with before.”
Two of the exhibiting homes are owned by Jewish Israelis, but the third is owned by a Palestinian, Raffat Hattab, whose family fought for years to buy it back.
The Zochrot event isn’t about celebrating Jerusalem, but may offer a broader understanding of the city’s complex history, said Farber.
There are other organizations looking to delve more deeply into what troubles them about the Jerusalem of today, defining the complicated political realities that divide the city.
Ir Amim, or City of Peoples, a nonprofit that focuses on making Jerusalem a more equitable city for Jews and Palestinians, will hold its annual alternative Jerusalem Day event on May 21, 7:15 p.m. at alternative art space HaMiffal, with two speakers presenting their thoughts — in Hebrew and partly in English — on a different reality for Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem, followed by a musical performance by Wast El Tarik.
“It’s an example of what we do,” said Betty Herschman, director of international advocacy at Ir Amim. “The idea is to educate Israelis about the political issues contributing to our ability to come to a political resolution of the conflict. And Jerusalem Day is an important day to raise questions about the city and its future.”
A predominantly Jewish, Israeli audience comes to Ir Amim events, in particular to its public tours of East Jerusalem, which have been organized since the non-profit’s founding in 2000 and have drawn more than 37,000 people, she said.
The organization’s lectures and tours of East Jerusalem neighborhoods are not coexistence events, said Herschman. They aim to raise the level of discourse about Jerusalem within the Israeli public, particularly among the city’s young Jewish leaders and activists, who need help to understand what happens in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian side of the city that isn’t familiar to them.
“Certainly on Jerusalem Day, when the objective is to celebrate the holy, undivided capital, we offer an alternative perspective,” said Herschman.
The Tower of David Museum is using short films and written narratives to look at the 50 years of Jerusalem’s reunification, aiming to find an equitable way to recognize the day for its multicultural staff, who hold a range of political views.
Called “50 Years 50 Faces,” the exhibit was produced and directed by Moshe Alfi, an eleventh-generation Jerusalemite. It features Jews, Christians and Muslims, soldiers and civilians, telling stories — in Hebrew, Arabic and English — of where they were and what they were doing 50 years ago in Jerusalem.
The project will be screened in one of the museum towers and made available on May 24 on the museum website. There will also be a mini-studio in the museum on Jerusalem Day, where visitors will be able to tell their own stories and become part of the project.
“Every day is Jerusalem Day when you work at the Tower of David,” said museum director Eilat Leiber, noting its location at the Old City’s Jaffa Gate, the crossroads of East and West Jerusalem.
“We are immersed in Jerusalem,” she said.