The national religious movement’s biggest party of the year started at 4 p.m. Sunday on King George Street in Jerusalem. Police officers waved through the last of the buses, a five-man band came to life and the boys from yeshivas all across the country started to spin in quick, muscular circles in celebration of what is commonly called in Israel “the liberation” of Jerusalem, which was taken by the IDF on this, the 28th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, 45 years ago.
Further up the street, opposite the Ben Yehudah pedestrian mall, the girls’ party had yet to begin. The schedule and the MC both repeatedly called for a separation of the sexes but there was plenty of co-ed traffic moving up and down King George Street, with one young man in a checkered oxford shirt telling a group of his friends, as he fell into their arms, “there are a lot of girls down that way.”
At around five, the girls’ stage came to life and a choir group of pre-pubescent boys in shiny white polyester uniforms began singing syncopated versions of “Jerusalem of Gold” and other standard hits. I wasn’t sure it would go over too well, as it seemed like bad Israeli bar mitzvah music, but the crowd let out a roar and started to dance.
The revelers ranged in age from toddler to middle age, but nearly all were adolescents. Most wore t-shirts that told a story. Some said: “I got a new surfboard for my girlfriend and it was the best trade I ever made.” Others said: “Sometimes the Kippa just has to come off,” referring to the Dome of the Rock, as it is known in Hebrew (Kippa = Dome) and depicting a Jew leveling the Muslim place of worship that sits atop the Temple Mount. But most carried the names of boys’ yeshivas and girls’ ulpanas from all across the country, with quotes from Numbers and Isaiah like: “Behold, the people shall rise up like a great lion” and “I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem.”
At around six thirty, sweaty and eager, the crowd rounded the corner onto Agron Street and began the descent to the Old City. The MC on the boys’ stage asked everyone to please listen to the security forces, “especially in all matters concerning the cousins” (Cousins = Jerusalem’s Arabs).
Last year, en route through the eastern part of the city, there had been scuffles and curses, and this year the partiers were at first denied access. But when faced with political pressure and the possibility of a High Court of Justice petition, the police relented. The girls made a right at IDF Square toward Jaffa Gate and the Jewish Quarter, and the boys continued down the hill to the Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter.
Rabbi Yaakov Medan, one of the heads of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in Alon Shvut, wrote this past Friday in the national religious newspaper Makor Rishon that “the fateful events [of 1967], which occurred with unnatural haste, certainly required a day of praise and thanksgiving to God, a day to mark the clear milestone on the long path toward redemption.” But, he acknowledged, a generation and a half after the fact, Jerusalem Day is largely ignored by the ultra-Orthodox and scorned by some of the secular, “who haven’t yet made up their minds if victory in the Six-Day War was redemption or disaster.”
A handful of secular activists stood on the Arab side of Jerusalem’s east-west seam line and held signs that read “Jerusalem Day is not my holiday.” Alongside them were Arab spectators, smoking and looking out in disbelief as the sea of flags came down the hill.
One man from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood who gave his name as Ali and who works in construction said, “It’s their day, let them enjoy it.” Then he added, “It’s my country, not theirs, but I have no strength, just God.”
His friend, a man named Ibrahim from the mixed neighborhood of Abu Tor in southeast Jerusalem, said, “They keep on growing. More and more settlers all the time.”
As the people came down the hill, tensions flared, arrests were made and the police urged the Jewish crowd toward the Old City. I found myself alongside several ultra-Orthodox young men who had come to watch the spectacle. “I don’t agree with all that Zionism has done,” said Yaakov Landau, who studies at the Mir Yeshiva, “but Jerusalem is our birthright.”
His friend Yitzhak Tabat, also of the Mir Yeshiva, added that while Jerusalem was won with the help of God, “I really thank them for their sweat and their blood.” He meant the IDF, and the soldiers of the future in front of him.
I spoke with this pair for some time and then with a group of 14-year-old boys from Ra’anana, who were quizzed by two border policemen about the history of Jerusalem — “Who first captured it for the Jews? What rock was found at its center? Where did the binding of Isaac take place?” — and were then given the soldiers’ unit tags, which they all swore they would hang up above their beds. The boys asked them whether they were religious and whether they were left wing. The soldiers said “somewhat” and “no.” One of the boys, Daniel, announced that he would enlist in the Border Police, “no matter what.”
By the time I entered through Damascus Gate I was surrounded by the riffraff that Rabbi Medan said last year had caused “unnecessary friction and unnecessary hatred.”
This year, again, they banged on the steel doors of the Arab shops and homes with their wooden flag poles. They sang “Death to Arabs” and “Muhammad is dead” and (Israeli Arab MK) “Ahmed Tibi is a son of a whore.” Arab men and women on their way home huddled deep in the alleys behind police protection. Fights broke out.
What had been a fervent but sweet show of appreciation and love degenerated into a small riot. A group of left-wing activists protected by police were followed by a man yelling, “The left wingers are enemies of the state.”
“It’s unnecessary, it’s embarrassing, it’s evil, it does not suit the innocent dance and its true causes,” Madan had said of this sort of behavior. He had called on everyone taking place in the flag dance, as the procession is called, to carry a flag in one hand and to use the other “to restrain and silence the minority that spoils the dish and to strenuously put them in their place.”
That did not happen. They were only silenced, at long last, by the bright light, the open air and the sanctity of the Western Wall plaza.