Jerusalem Day is a fraught day, a day that once had a specific and nearly universal meaning for Jewish Israelis but whose most visible commemorations have since shrunk to the confines of narrow ideological camps.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, Jerusalem Day, first formally observed in 1968, was a holiday of liberation. More specifically, it was a day of gratitude established by a people that felt itself to have been rescued from the jaws of death.
Until the Six Day War, Israelis did not really understand that they had become a powerful nation. They faced the run-up to the war with existential dread.
In May 1967, Egypt’s dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser imposed a naval blockade on Israeli shipping through the Straits of Tiran, a chokepoint through which most of Israel’s fuel shipments had to pass. Nasser kicked out the UN Emergency Force in the Sinai and mobilized the Egyptian army to the Israeli border.
Egypt was not alone. Most Arab governments at the time routinely spoke of Israel’s coming destruction, Arab regimes’ propaganda sought to advance and popularize the idea, and many Arab nations had agreed to take part in the coming attack.
Jordan allowed its military to be placed under direct Egyptian command. Iraqi tank columns moved west to support any Jordanian offensive. Syria, it was understood by all, would join the Egyptian declaration of war.
'Salem in the Army' — Cover of a Syrian booklet issued ahead of the Six-Day War (ca. 1966-67) showing Syrian soldiers marching Israelis into the sea. pic.twitter.com/YfGiUwNHlv
— Propagandopolis (@propagandopolis) May 3, 2023
Back at IDF headquarters, Israel’s military planners knew their army outclassed any Arab opponent, and that with good planning and execution might well be able to defeat them all simultaneously. But that assessment wasn’t known to ordinary Israelis. What did ordinary Israelis see and hear?
They saw the 14,000 graves being dug by the government in Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park in expectation of massive casualty numbers. They heard the endless stream of bombast about their coming demise broadcast from across every border. They knew their country was just nine miles wide at its middle and heard reports that Iraqi tank columns were in the West Bank to help cut their country in half. They knew UN forces had fled at the first sign of trouble and that no help would be coming from the Americans or any other major power.
They entered the war, in other words, in a state of existential dread.
The first Jerusalem Day, at its core, was for most Israeli Jews a celebration of a sudden lifting of the great burden of fear, a discovery of one’s own power not yet sullied by the use of that power
And that made the astonishing successes of the IDF something far larger than mere military victory. It was for ordinary Israelis an emergence from a long dark tunnel, a glimpse of the sunlit pastures of strength and safety.
The first Jerusalem Day meant different things to different people. But at its core, it was for most Jewish Israelis a celebration of a sudden lifting of the great burden of fear, a discovery of one’s own power not yet sullied by the use of that power.
It was a shorthand for the terrible-wonderful age in which the Jews had found themselves, an era of bottomless cruelty, unprecedented suffering and mass death, but also of resurrection, independence and rebirth beyond the wildest dreams of previous generations.
The paratroopers who captured the Old City’s winding alleyways, operating without tank or artillery cover out of fear of damaging the city’s holy places, had to wend their way through a demolished Jewish Quarter destroyed by the Jordanians during their 19-year occupation of the city. They walked those ruins right up to the Wailing Wall, bringing the Jews home at last.
As the poet Haim Hefer would put it:
This Wall has heard many prayers,
This Wall has seen many fortifications crumble,
This Wall has felt the hands of grieving women
And the notes pushed between its stones,
This Wall saw Rabbi Judah Halevi collapse before it,
This Wall has seen emperors arise and be forgotten,
But this Wall has not yet seen paratroopers weeping.
The Biblical prophets are unanimous in their belief in an ultimate redemption that comes only after great suffering and tribulation. It is hard to imagine a more perfect rendering of that duality than the mere 22 years that separate Auschwitz from the paratroopers at the Wall, the return to the heavy stones of mother Jerusalem, to the beating heart of Jewish history and geography.
Yet as the memory of pre-war fear faded, so did the unifying recollection of that relief. The successes of 1967 didn’t just liberate the Jews from their enemies; they created new and immense problems that would come to define Israeli politics and public debates. While the Jews were freed from fear, the Palestinians faced yet another conqueror. Within Israeli society, the war sparked a new religious political movement and urgent new questions about the use of power. The original unifying holiday shrank and fractured into smaller sectoral commemorations, many of them directed toward specific political objectives.
Jerusalem Day, once a memory of palpable rescue and hard-won return, has been coopted by abstractions.
Jerusalem has always been a mirror. Each observer finds in it what they bring to it: Their gods, anxieties, aspirations. Modern Israel is too powerful to remember vulnerability, too comfortably at home to remember the astonishment of return. And so Jerusalem Day has lost some of its power, its capacity to unify, and is too often used as a stage for bombast and incitement. Unmoored from the historical moment that forged it, Jerusalem Day has become a missed opportunity.
Jerusalem is the geographic and religious heart of this country for both the peoples living here. The Temple Mount is the center of the Jewish world, and also of the Palestinian mental universe.
But it is also the demographic heart. Jerusalem’s Arab half is the largest Palestinian city, its Jewish half the largest Israeli one.
Jerusalem is also the heart of the conflict, not just because of its past but because of its future. For better or worse, Jerusalem is the future. It is young (median age is roughly 24) and increasingly religious on both sides.
All of that should make Jerusalem Day more than the political platform that ideologues and activists try to make of it.
Yehudah Amichai, the great modern poet of Hebrew-speaking Jerusalem, rebelled against the infatuation with abstractions and always insisted that Jerusalem was a human place, a place of pain and passion and the small redemptions of ordinary life.
In one of his most famous poems, “Tourists,” he addresses this criticism to the millions of curious foreigners who trek through our city each year eager to encounter its sacred abstractions, to inspect its ancient stones, skipping with bored expressions over its people as though they were mere signposts, mere passengers.
They visit us to offer condolences,
They sit at Yad Vashem, look serious at the Wailing Wall
And laugh behind heavy curtains in hotel rooms,
They have their pictures taken with our important dead at Rachel’s Tomb
And Herzl’s grave and on Ammunition Hill,
They weep for the beauty of our courageous boys
And lust for the toughness of our girls
And hang their underwear
To dry quickly
In a cool blue bathtub.
Once I sat on steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed the two heavy baskets by my side. A group of tourists was standing there around their guide and I became their point of reference. “You see that man with the baskets? A bit right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. A bit right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: Redemption will come only if they are told: “You see there the arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: But next to it, a bit left and down, sits a man who bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
Jerusalem is made of its people. Jerusalem Day tells a vital story that was once the lived experience of more than half of those people.
On the day the Old City was taken by Israeli paratroopers from Jordanian hands, defense minister Moshe Dayan, the man who would preserve Jordanian and Muslim control of the shrines on the Temple Mount, delivered a call for unity:
“This morning, the Israel Defense Forces liberated Jerusalem. We have united Jerusalem, the divided capital of Israel. We have returned to the holiest of our holy places, never to part from it again. To our Arab neighbors we extend, also at this hour — and with added emphasis at this hour — our hand in peace. And to our Christian and Muslim fellow citizens, we solemnly promise full religious freedom and rights. We did not come to Jerusalem for the sake of other peoples’ holy places, and not to interfere with the adherents of other faiths, but in order to safeguard its entirety, and to live there together with others, in unity.”
Jerusalem’s very sanctity, the earnestness with which each side clings to it and seeks to belong to it, forces on its residents a kind of grudging unity. Its residents are the only significant parts of their respective societies with any real and sustained contact across the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
The Jews have returned, and in the process found their salvation from the cruelties and vicissitudes of homelessness. To Palestinians, this return is part of their own story of dispossession. Three generations later, Jerusalem Day should be about more than remembrance and relief. It must be an expression of love — love not only for the abstract Jerusalem of our imaginations, but for the reality that surrounds us.
It is a day that must turn our gaze to our own time and place, to our neighbors, to the real living city that must find a way to thrive amid and despite the whirlpool of sacred abstractions that surrounds us.
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