President Isaac Herzog on Sunday stressed the importance of defending the country against “depraved murderers,” while also urging Israelis to show “sensitivity toward the other,” as violent clashes between Jews and Arabs raged in Jerusalem’s Old City.
“Jerusalem’s festive day is a festive day for the whole of Israel, a symbol of a historical moment that transformed our lives, as a people and as a state,” the president said on the occasion of Jerusalem Day, quoting his late father, then-IDF general Chaim Herzog as saying: “For generations, Jews will speak of this day, of this nation… Who transcended the moment and turned their backs on mutual hatred and merited this moment.”
Despite being a national holiday, Jerusalem Day, which marks Israel’s conquest of the Old City and East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, is celebrated nowadays mainly by Orthodox Jews in the national religious camp.
Speaking at the national ceremony for Jerusalem Day at Ammunition Hill — site of one of the Six Day War’s most fierce battles — Herzog distinguished between the “physical Jerusalem” and a “spiritual Jerusalem,” encouraging his audience to ask themselves which is more prominent in their daily lives.
“The Jerusalem below, the physical Jerusalem, is developing, growing upwards, expanding, deepening its roots. This is the best proof of all of the city’s promising future, of its sovereignty, and of its eternality,” he said.
“But besides this blessing, we must pause and ask ourselves: Is the Jerusalem above also present in our lives? Is the Jerusalem above, which exists in spirit and in thought, so full of inspiration and depth, the Jerusalem of the prophets of truth and justice, still central in our lives as Israelis?” Herzog said.
“Jerusalem is the city where the Israeli spirit and the Israeli sense of responsibility are tested. Jerusalem and our existence are one. It is from Jerusalem that we receive our historical right, our identity, our heritage,” the president added, before urging Israelis to consider their own role and responsibility in “shrinking the differences between the Jerusalem above and the Jerusalem below.”
Connecting the two “is inextricably linked to the intensity of our confidence in our eternal connection to this place” and “in our sensitivity toward the other — to the mosaic of faiths, communities, and religions living here,” he said.
Herzog urged people to make an effort to live both in the Jerusalem below and the Jerusalem above, “together and forever,” adding, “Whatever we succeed in doing here, in this patch of God’s earth, we may succeed in doing anywhere.”
Earlier Sunday, more than 50,000 Jewish nationalists marched through Jerusalem’s Old City as part of the traditional and controversial “flag march.”
Some chanted racist slogans and clashed with Palestinians and police.
The procession was seen as the largest Jerusalem Day march in years, with tens of thousands of Jewish Israelis — many of them young students from settlements in the West Bank — swamping downtown Jerusalem before heading to Damascus Gate, where a wave of blue-and-white flags could be seen stretching into the distance.
Over 2,600 Jewish Israelis were granted entry to the Temple Mount prior to the march, a record-breaking figure. The holy site — Judaism’s most sacred sanctuary and Islam’s third-holiest — is a deeply contested flashpoint between Jews and Muslims.
“We must emphasize and make as clear as possible: Jerusalem, whole and united, is the capital of Israel, a symbol of Israel’s statehood and sovereignty, and thus shall it be forever,” Herzog said during his Sunday speech.
“The unique human diversity with which Jerusalem was blessed, the colorful mosaic of members of all religions, communities, and sections of society, does not contradict the unity of Jerusalem’s sovereignty,” the president said.
“On the contrary, it imposes on us a special responsibility. Out of this sovereign commitment arises our commitment to freedom of faith and religious worship for all who walk through the city’s gates, the gates of heaven,” he said.
In concluding his speech, Herzog mentioned the “bereaved families and those wounded in body and spirit” amid Israel’s deadliest terror wave in years.
“The past few months have proven to us again that we must still stand up to depraved murderers who want to harm us — including in Jerusalem. They will not succeed, neither in Israel’s eternal capital nor anywhere else,” he said, finishing with a prayer, “a prayer of thanksgiving, a prayer of hope, a prayer for a rebuilt Jerusalem, a Jerusalem being built, a Jerusalem that will yet be built for us, below and above.”
Herzog was also invited to speak at Jerusalem’s Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva — one of the largest and most influential religious seminaries in Israel. He was the only senior official invited to speak at this year’s Jerusalem Day events, after the center decided not to invite Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Some commentators criticized the center for boycotting Bennett, deeming it a political move, while others defended the yeshiva, noting that opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu was also not invited and explaining the decision as an attempt to avoid politics as a whole. Herzog’s speech, apparently in reference to the controversy, focused on unity and the importance of putting political differences aside.
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“I stand here and emphasize: Israeli unity is sacred. We must safeguard and strengthen it. We must fight hatred and factionalism, and we must not boycott even those who think differently from us,” Herzog said.
“We must all behave responsibly,” he added. “The good of the whole nation and the State of Israel must be above all… We must remember, nobody asked the defenders and unifiers of Jerusalem in those moments of glory, heroism, and sanctification of God’s name, as they gave their bodies and souls on that day, 55 years ago, what their political opinions were, whether or not they wore a kippa, and what kippa exactly.”
Aaron Boxerman and Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.