Through Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter, a triumphalist march by Orthodox-nationalist men

For many, though certainly not all, participants, decades of Jerusalem Day celebrations have morphed into something darker

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Head of the Religious Zionism Party MK Bezalel Smotrich waves an Israeli flag at Damascus Gate outside Jerusalem's Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Head of the Religious Zionism Party MK Bezalel Smotrich waves an Israeli flag at Damascus Gate outside Jerusalem's Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On the eve of Sunday’s Jerusalem Day, Israel’s Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, No. 2 to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the right-wing Yamina party, posted a photograph on her Facebook page showing the Western Wall soon after the 1967 Six Day War.

Israel’s unification of its historic capital, its victory at the place to which Jews in exile had directed their prayers for thousands of years, Shaked wrote, was and remains a cause for national celebration. But in recent years, she lamented, there has been an effort to obscure the national significance of Jerusalem Day, and portray it as some kind of sectoral or religious anniversary, with those who fly the national flag branded “extremists” and those who march with it in the streets of the capital deemed “provocateurs.”

Many of the tens of thousands of Israeli Jews and supporters of Israel who marched in Jerusalem on Sunday were indeed celebrating the extraordinary military victory of 1967, and most especially the achievement resonantly announced by paratroop commander Motta Gur on June 7, 1967, that “the Temple Mount is in our hands.”

But many who paraded down the hill to Damascus Gate, and on through the Muslim Quarter toward the Western Wall, in Sunday’s “Flag March,” were avowedly engaging in an act not only of celebration but of triumphalism.

Some held Israeli flags and wore T-shirts with festive messages such as “55 years: Honor the unification of Jerusalem” or the single word “Zionist.”

Others, though, wore T-shirts showing a machine gun emerging from a Star of David — a riposte to T-shirts popular among Palestinians showing an M-16 and a map of an Israel-free Palestine. Some brandished the flag of Lehava, a Jewish supremacist group, and affixed racist stickers to the metal shutters of the stalls in the Muslim Quarter — closed for the afternoon and evening to minimize Jewish-Arab friction. Others chanted slogans urging death to Arabs and the burning of their villages.

Young participants in a Jerusalem Day march wear T-shirts showing a Magen David and an assault rifle, in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem on May 29, 2022, on “Jerusalem Day” (Claire Gounon / AFP)

I saw a group of youngsters shouting “whore” at a group of Palestinians, some of them elderly women, watching from high. I saw a young man flip his middle finger at another group of Palestinians he spotted in an alley. I saw a bespectacled kid, probably not even in his teens, kicking repeatedly at the metal shutter of a Palestinian market stall, delighting in the disturbance, and then spitting at it for good measure. All within minutes. (The bashing on the shuttered stores was widespread.)

A minority of those who paraded along Hagai Street from Damascus Gate toward the Western Wall were ultra-Orthodox or secular. The overwhelming majority were modern Orthodox youths and men, with smaller or larger knitted kippot. (Women had been directed to the Western Wall via a less contentious route through Jaffa Gate — gender separation favored by the organizers and a seriously bad idea, I suspect, in terms of the mood and behavior of the all-male marchers.)

Some of the marchers had circular stickers on their shirts proclaiming “Rabbi Kahane was right” and were distributing stickers hailing the late racist rabbi’s disciple Itamar Ben Gvir, now a Knesset member from the Religious Zionism party. Young marchers whispered in awe when members of La Familia, a virulently anti-Arab group of Beitar Jerusalem soccer supporters, passed by.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir walks at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A poll over the weekend showed Bennett’s Yamina party, now partnered in a unity government with parties from across Israel’s political spectrum, sinking to just five seats were elections held today (from seven in April 2021), and his Religious Zionism party rivals Bezalel Smotrich and Ben Gvir, outspoken opponents of a government reliant on the Arab party Ra’am, rising from six seats last year to eight. Watching the 70,000 Flag Day marchers pass — a far larger number than police had anticipated — those survey figures suggested the underestimating of a trend.

Former Likud prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an early appearance at the Western Wall celebrations. Bennett stayed away from the march altogether, as did all other current ministers with the exception of Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel — evidently concerned, with good reason, that they would be denounced even though they had approved its route. Hendel, who grew up at the Orthodox settlement Elkana, was castigated as a “traitor” by a group of young marchers.

This was a show of force by a young and fast-growing section of the Israeli electorate for some of whom Bennett is a sellout, Netanyahu a wimp who tried in vain to appease the terrorists of Hamas by rerouting and then abandoning this march a year ago, and Ben Gvir (ushered into the Knesset in an arrangement brokered by Netanyahu) the real deal.

Head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, on Jerusalem Day, May 29, 2022. (Arie Leib Abrams/FLASH90)

For the vast majority of Israelis, as Ayelet Shaked posted on Saturday night, the capture of the Old City from Jordan in 1967 is indeed cause for national celebration. And the dancing at the Western Wall at the end of the day was festive.

But the march through the Muslim Quarter carried the darker overtone that Shaked sought to deny. And it showcased disregard, at best, and contempt, at worst, for Israel’s sovereign responsibilities to all who reside in its capital.

Moshe Dayan at the Temple Mount, June 7, 1967 (Ilan Bruner / GPO)

Days after Motta Gur’s announcement, defense minister Moshe Dayan paid a visit to the members of the Jordanian Waqf Muslim trust that administered the mosques atop the Temple Mount, and told them that while Israel was now the sovereign power on the contested hilltop, they would continue to manage the religious facilities.

Jews would visit but not pray there, he said, and would instead gather to worship at the Western Wall below.

Dayan was seeking to avoid a head-on collision with the Muslim world, and utilized the halachic prohibition on Orthodox Jews setting foot on the Mount (for fear they would desecrate the place where the ancient temples’ Holy of Holies was situated) to help achieve that goal.

Jewish religious nationalists wave the Israeli flag on the Temple Mount, May 29, 2022 (Screen grab)

On Sunday, 55 years later, an unprecedented 2,600 Jews toured the Mount for Jerusalem Day, many of them apparently Orthodox but undeterred by the no-longer-consensual halachic injunction, and some of them determinedly praying.

Bennett’s government, like Netanyahu’s before it, insists that it continues to uphold the “status quo” born of Dayan’s 1967 policy, but the Temple Mount prayers and the sharp rise in Jewish Temple Mount visits tell a different story.

For some of that growing number of Jewish visitors, and for many of those who marched through the Muslim Quarter on Sunday, Dayan’s semi-surrender of the newly liberated cradle of the Jewish faith is incomprehensible, indefensible and needs to be reversed. Some of the marchers made that preference known, as well, in their flags — with the printed words “3rd Temple,” and horizontal bands of gold rather than the Israeli flag’s bands of blue.

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