Israeli girls sing and dance in front of the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City for Jerusalem Day, May, 8 2013. (Allison Deger/Mondoweiss)
The girls were standing by the girls and the boys by the boys as the Yeshiva field trippers amassed on the outskirts of the Old City for the Jerusalem Day flag parade. It was before noon and the warmest day of the week yet. Hair-ties cinched the girls’ matching tee shirts that had a small map of Israel just below the right shoulder. They paired their tops with high-wasted jeans or neon knee-length pencil skirts. The twelve-year olds going on twenty seemed hopeful to fraternize, like they were at a middle school dance—waiting, huddled by gender in opposite corners.
“You know who’s not here,” said my friend Oren Kroll-Zeldin, “the parents. The kids get the day off of school and the parents sill have to go to work.” Oren is a friend from California (note: he requested I make clear he is not Israeli, nor a Zionist) and temporarily living in Jerusalem conducting a years worth of research. He is a PhD student in anthropology at the California School of Integral Studies. Jerusalem’s segregation and its nationalism are his bread and butter. We spent the day together with him as my guide into the youth driven celebration of the city’s capture. “People call it a divided city, people call it a mixed city. I call it a contested city,” he explained.
Yeshiva students dance and sing “Am Yisrael Chai,” or “Jewish people live,” in a Jerusalem park near the Old City.
On Jerusalem Day, or Yom Yerushalayim, tens of thousands gather to commemorate the 1967 wartime acquisition of East Jerusalem, specifically the Western Wall, or kotel. To do this, busloads of youngsters are imported to dance and sing from the Old City to the Jewish holy site. During the 1967 War Israel conquered the eastern half of the Jerusalem from Jordanian authorities. Oren can point to the shell marks near the Jaffa gate from just before the war when part of the Old City’s border was a no-mans-land. There, he indicated, the Israeli government settled Mizrahi Jews next to the fire-zone. But after the Israeli occupation began a wave of gentrification spun through the neighborhood and now Jaffa Street is full of boutiques and cafes. But the major change for Israel’s religious communities is that after 1967 Jews could pray around the clock at the Western Wall.
For the Yeshiva students, unimpeded access to the wall is paramount. Throughout the day I asked different teenagers and some of the minority of adult-celebrators if Jerusalem Day was, to them, a religious or a national holiday? Hands down, religious. Although it is worth mentioning that nothing about the activities had a particularly devotional aesthetic. There was a lot of noise about the “Jewish people” and the “Jewish nation,” but I did not see groups praying, or discussing God or theology. The mood was sort of like a birthday party at McDonald’s. Kind of generic and familiar, but still fun because it’s a party.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a ‘national holiday,’ I would say it’s a holiday for Jerusalem itself,” said Avraham, 30, who emphatically told me that he has lived in the city his entire life. We spoke just before the only official public event for Jerusalem Day. A speech was about to be given by the city’s mayor Nir Barkat at the Tower of David, a Mamluk-era building with museum plaques stating that the site is Herodian (a historical period under the Jewish King Herod). Barkat reminded me of a rising star in the Democrat party, like Martin O’Malley or Gavin Newsom; Barkat is handsome like an actor, his suits tailored. He shook hands and posed for pictures.
Jerusalem Day celebrations in front of the Damascus Gate.
Oren and I began the day outside of the Jaffa Gate, or Bab al-Khalil in Arabic. We watched schoolchildren form circles around one another jeering in Hebrew national songs. The anthem was “Am Yisrael Chai,” or the “Jewish people live.” It’s a short catchy number with only two lines repeated five and three times, respectively. I asked Oren if the youths sing the song because it’s easy to remember? Through their melodies, which from pre-teens vocals sound more like summer camp chants, we detected American accents. Oren said length had nothing to do it. He explained they sing this song because it is fitting, remarking this day is all about historical ignorance, no conception for transition of power from one authority to another that left Palestinians blighted and Israelis in control. “I think the interesting thing to note is,” he said in jest motioning to a group of U.S. born young women, “that none of these people actually live in Jerusalem. These girls are from New York and those people are from Gush Etzion or some other settlement.”
Indeed a majority of the people I spoke with on class trips did not live in Jerusalem. I met a group of girls who live in the Negev, and another carried a banner for Hevron, the West Bank settlement in Hebron.
Jerusalem Day parade at the Damascus Gate.
After a few hours and behind schedule, the main event, a flag parade to the Western Wall, finally started. The youngsters traced the exterior of the Old City towards the Damascus Gate, or Bab al-Amud in Arabic and Sha’ar Shkhem in Hebrew—a linguist nod to the dueling narratives of Jerusalem’s present. Under international law and heightened by an ever-expanding concrete barrier, East Jerusalem is legally considered occupied. But as it were, Israel officially annexed the city in 1980, rendering it just another locality inside of its expanding borders.
At the same time Jerusalem’s Palestinians formed a protest on a main street that overlooks the stone portal to the historic district. As the thousands of flag parade-ers neared the Palestinians, Israeli police used metal barricades to separate the two groups. Then, snatch squads starting arresting Palestinians. At times, police detained up to six at once as Israelis marched by. Visually, their numbers were staggering. Micky Rosenfeld, the foreign press police spokesperson, told me that around 50,000 started the march, and up to 20,000 were expected to make their way to the Western Wall. At that point in the afternoon he said 15 Palestinians had been arrested and there were 300 police just at the Damascus Gate.
Watching the youth with Israeli flags flood the Old City’s entrance, it was hard to imagine Jerusalem Day as anything but a provocation. Earlier in the afternoon an officer went door-to-door instructing shop-owners in the Muslim Quarter to shut their businesses before 5:00 p.m. to avoid confrontations with the settlers. +972 Magazine published a copy of the written notice that were distributed last year.
“Usually on this day we close and when we come back the next day they [the Israeli parade goers] will have put a piece of wood over the key hole,” said Jihad, a tourist shop owner in the Muslim quarter of the Old City. The piece of wood, he explained, is a vandal’s tactic of sealing the lock on the security gate of his store. Jihad is a Palestinian Jerusalem ID holder. He lives in Qalandia and six days a week he crosses the checkpoint to get to his shop. Like all Palestinian Jerusalem residents, Jihad is not an Israeli citizen, or a resident of the West Bank. He lives in a no-man’s land, without a passport, paying taxes to both the state of Israel and the city of Jerusalem, unable to vote in national elections. Further complicating matters for Jerusalem’s Palestinians, around 350,000 in total, the municipal borders are gerrymandered, he said. “My cousins have a home where one room in the house is in the West Bank and one is in Jerusalem.”
Yet for those celebrating Jerusalem Day, many were myopic or even outright callous to the distress the event caused Palestinians. A group Hebrew University students argued about the motivations behind the occasion. All around the age of twenty, one of the Americans questioned why Jerusalem Day couldn’t be honored with a family picnic, noting the march through the Old City was causing a major disruption. His classmate, Magnus Frank, 20, from Denmark, was less sympathetic. “So they have a few bad hours,” said Frank, remarking on the police advised closures of most of the businesses in sight.
“I don’t trust the Arabs with anything,” Frank continued, gleeful of the Israel’s 1967 occupation over the city. “I think it’s important it is back in Israel’s hands. I don’t think the Arabs and Palestinians in general—they do not value freedom of religion,” concluded Frank. Just then the Danish student showed me a photograph of a flyer posted in his dorm hallway. It was for a Nakba event, the Palestinian day of somberness commemorating their 1947-49 expulsion during Israel’s war of independence. The description used the word, “martyr,” which made Frank livid. He thought the flyer warranted being kicked out of school.
For Frank and the other celebrators the city’s lock down for Palestinians was of no consequence. Ultimately their sentiments bottomed out at one core value: Jerusalem belongs to the Jewish people—not the state of Israel, but the Jewish people. With this normative value lodged as empiricism, things like international law and equitable access to city services are meaningless.
Palestinians are blatantly treated as an underclass. Every statistic on education to road repairs to waste collection confirms Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem are discriminated upon in comparison to their Jewish counterparts. Overall, they pay around 26% of the budget for city services, yet receive only 5% of the funds back. But this inequality is not noticed by the settlers on parade. Palestinian life is so outside of their exposure, it is an unknown, unknown. As one man who introduced himself as a settler living “near Ramallah,” conceded after a describing his oppression living under Israeli military code in the West Bank, “I don’t know what it’s like there because I can’t go there.” Still, even Frank the Danish student who “went to Ramallah the week before” to tour a United Nations office, said when it came down to the West Bank, Jews have a claim to the entire land. When pressed about places like wildcat outposts, settlements illegal under Israeli law, Frank clarified, “I don’t think it’s [illegal construction] is a valid point,” because “I don’t have moral issues on settling unused land.”
Well after sunset I finally tailed the end of the flag parade through the Old City to the Western Wall. Most of the walk takes places on the Via Dolorosa, a path Christians believe Jesus walked with the cross to his crucifixion. Last Sunday, on Eastern Orthodox Easter, pilgrims from around the world followed the holy path singing hymns. The Old City was packed, but there was no need for shops to close early and border police to keep settlers out of the alleyways up to Palestinian residences. And here in lies the difference.
On Jerusalem Day what is called a religious holiday is really a farce of Judaism. It is about control and dominance over the Palestinian areas of the city. There is nothing spiritual about accessing a structure at the direct expense of another’s rights.
Jerusalem Day flag parade at the Western Wall inside of the Old City.
After exiting the crowded limestone plaza by the Western Wall, I departed from the Old City through the still open corridors. A few teenage boys with stickers honoring the Jewish nationalist Meir Kahane asked me if I “love Arabs?” Breezing past them I was looking for the shadows of the youth from the afternoon. The ones that wanted to flirt and not get a rise out of someone they perceived as a secular-leftist. After all, I am a woman and I was wearing pants. (Earlier in the day some others had tried to goad a response, calling myself and friends “leftist” and then repeatedly dropping the N-bomb. They also mused over how they “love to kill Arabs.”) Finally, back on the sidewalk I found my teenage girls again. They were a different group of Yeshiva students, wearing tee shirts with a different school name on it, but the conversations were the same. They debated about which boy was the cutest, “that one soldier in uniform.”
The youth’s ability to transverse from West Jerusalem to East Jerusalem, from testing the waters of their precocious futures to marching as religious-nationalists, demonstrates how Jerusalem Day is able to bring tens of thousands onto the streets. In 1980 when Israel passed the law to annex the holy city it understood its control over it as disputed, but today it is normalized. The kids think the city is theirs because they are Jews. An idea not crafted from a melancholic holiday about a sanctified wall, but instilled through a day off of school for a celebration and a chance for something unusual to happen, reinforced by a state that tells them it’s so.
All photographs were taken by the author on May 8, 2013, Jerusalem Day.