Reporter's Notebook

Triumphalism and ethno-nationalism take center stage at Jerusalem Day events

Heartfelt joy for the return of the Jewish people to their ancient capital is being overshadowed by an antagonistic, nationalistic animosity toward Jerusalem’s Palestinians

Jeremy Sharon

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Young Jewish men hold Israeli flags and flags of the racist, far-right Lehava organization at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 18, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)
Young Jewish men hold Israeli flags and flags of the racist, far-right Lehava organization at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 18, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Thursday’s Flag March for Jerusalem Day was an event of both national celebration as well as fervid nationalistic sentiment, which was once again badly tarnished by violence and incitement in the Old City of Jerusalem.

This year, as in every year, tens of thousands of young religious-Zionist men and women from schools, yeshivas and seminaries around the country descended on the capital to sing and dance in street parties arranged to mark the reunification of the city during the Six Day War and Israel’s capture of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest sites.

Accompanied by exuberant bands playing zesty religious music, revelers whirled and twirled to the beats in the capital’s city center, singing along to songs with Biblical verses praising of Jerusalem and yearning for a final redemption.

But at the Damascus Gate of the Old City and inside the Muslim Quarter, the uglier side of the day was more readily apparent.

The conflict lines of the nationalistic struggle between Jews and Arabs were brought into sharp relief, with confrontations between youths from both sides inside the Old City, and people expressing hostile, ethno-nationalist sentiment towards each other.

In one incident, Jewish marchers and Old City residents beat Palestinian residents.

Right-wing Israelis clash with Palestinians in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City on Jerusalem Day, May 18, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Palestinian merchants were required by the police to shut down their shops, stands and eateries early, and security personnel dealt harshly with Palestinians present in the area.

“It bothers me that they’re in my country,” 15-year-old Ilan from the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim said simply from within the Muslim Quarter.

Meanwhile, Muna Barbar, a Palestinian woman from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, insisted that Jerusalem was a Palestinian city and that the Jews had “no national rights” in Jerusalem or Israel.

Amid the nationalistic rhetoric, Palestinian merchants such as juice bar owner and Muslim Quarter resident Shadi Hatib were simply interested in keeping their stores open as long as possible in order to not lose customers and money.

“They don’t pay me compensation,” lamented Hatib shortly before being removed from the area by Border Police personnel, who shoved him on the way down the street he lives on after Jewish residents and marchers began yelling at the group of Palestinians he was standing with outside his store.

Shadi Hatib, a shopkeeper in Jerusalem’s Old City, seen on May 18, 2023, as Israelis mark Jerusalem Day. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

The atmosphere outside the Muslim Quarter in the Damascus Gate plaza, where the Jerusalem Day marchers convened, was not much better.

Amid the heartfelt joy and revelry of participants who danced and sang their religious songs heartily, were numerous examples of the darker side of the event.

The black flags of the racist, far-right Lehava organization abounded, waved by extremist youths who frequently taunted the numerous journalists present at the site.

Racist chants such as “May your village burn,” commonly used by extremists to goad Palestinians, and the ultranationalist hymn and vengeance song “Zachreini Na,” were sung repeatedly by large numbers of those boisterous, joyful youths during the celebrations.

At the same time, bands of young boys harassed and swore at numerous journalists covering the event, especially Muslim and Arab reporters, while militant Jewish symbols such as Stars of David bisected by an assault rifle were on full display.

Eventually, as in previous years, the revelers began hurling various objects, including water bottles and flagpoles, at Muslim journalists stationed above the plaza, while the Lehava flags were proudly waved in their faces.

And although many of the same far-right and ultranationalist politicians who attend the march every year were present once again on Thursday, this time they did so as bearers of the highest offices in the land.

Far-right Lehava activists heckle journalists during the Jerusalem Day Flag March outside the Old City, May 18, 2023. (Jeremy Sharon/Times of Israel)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the ultranationalist Religious Zionism party, was warmly greeted at Damascus Gate, while National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir who leads the far-right Otzma Yehudit party gave a keynote address from the balcony overlooking the Western Wall plaza. His speech was cheered enthusiastically by the tens of thousands of people celebrating the event.

Two of Ben Gvir’s party comrades summed up what is for many — if not most — of the Flag March participants now the principle meaning of the day: Jewish control over the entire city.

“The essence of the day is that we are saying we are applying sovereignty to all parts of Jerusalem,” said Otzma Yehudit MK Yitzhak Kroizer.

“Our victory over Jerusalem and our victory over the Arabs is the best win of all,” said MK Limor Son Har-Melech, another Otzmah MK.

Israelis dance at the Western Wall in the Old City during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 18, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It is still true to say that the earnest and fervent joy of many of those celebrating the return of the Jewish people to their ancient capital and their holiest site remains at the heart of Jerusalem Day.

But it is the nationalistic and ethno-centric ideas so clearly on display that are increasingly taking center stage at the day’s events, serving only to further exacerbate the ever-present, simmering tensions within an ostensibly unified, yet highly divided, Jerusalem.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this article

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