‘Jerusalem Day’ and the sacralization of propaganda

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“Jerusalem Day,” celebrated in Israel last Sunday – the annual commemoration of the IDF’s seizure of East Jerusalem in June 1967 – ought to be the most unsettling day of the year for religious Jews.

I’m not only referring to the brutal occupation of the West Bank that began on that day; nor am I thinking exclusively of the continuing slow-motion ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the city, which the commemoration of “Jerusalem Day” implicitly celebrates.

What particularly disturbs me, as an Orthodox Jew myself, is the way Israel and its apologists have whitewashed the occupation of Jerusalem by bathing it in Biblical tropes. What ought to be denounced as a crime, or at a minimum mourned as a tragedy, is wrapped instead in the language of religion – an abuse of Jewish symbols that makes Judaism itself an accomplice in the occupation. That’s an ugly fact, and one religious Jews should resist with all our might: we, more than anyone else, have a duty to reclaim the redemption promised by the Hebrew prophets from its popular ersatz as an apologia for Jewish chauvinism.

No doubt this argument will itself seem profoundly unsettling to many religious Jews. The sacred gift-wrapping around the conquest of what was, in reality, an Arab city in 1967 has been repeated with such numbing frequency that one can almost miss the vulgarity to which it descends, as in this version from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2011: “For those Jews who were exiled from our land, they never stopped dreaming of coming back…Jews fighting [in] the Warsaw Ghetto, as the Nazis were circling around it. They never stopped praying, they never stopped yearning. They whispered: Next year in Jerusalem.”

Leave it to Netanyahu to rationalize Israel’s military occupation with references to the extermination of Polish Jews and to one line of the Jewish prayer book in a single breath. But Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov had already set the tone in 1978 with his influential The Book of Our Heritage, in which he described the conquest of Jerusalem as divine salvation from a threatened second Holocaust:

Two days before…there had stood surrounding the borders of Israel, all the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq, which then had nearly two hundred thousand troops supplied by Russia with an arsenal of mighty weapons. In the ears of the whole world they arrogantly declared: “We are set upon destroying the Jewish state and murdering its inhabitants!…

But this was not to be. The army of Israel, though greatly outnumbered, destroyed the besieging armies….”

Such mythology is so deeply ingrained that it reappeared just days ago in a Times of Israel blog, with hardly any variation from the Kitov line and without evoking any serious comment, as far as I could make out:

Forty eight years ago…Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon amassed forces on their borders, getting ready to storm the Jewish State and destroy her for good. Radio broadcasts in Israel and abroad were full of the same grim tidings – cries by Arab leaders for the Jews to be driven into the Mediterranean Sea…and the especially terrifying declaration by Israeli rabanim [rabbis] that every public park in the country would be a graveyard, in an effort to prepare for the bloody onslaught.

Perhaps Rabbi Kitov really mistook his breathless fantasy for fact – after all, it’s more or less what the Israeli government claimed publicly at the time – but it’s hard to believe that, by 2015, the editors of the Times of Israel really didn’t know any better. Modern scholarship has clearly established that no hostile armies threatened Israel in June 1967. The two Egyptian divisions in the Sinai remained in a defensive posture, as Israel’s Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin reported at the time, and in any case “would not have been enough to unleash an offensive.” Mossad chief Meir Amit similarly concluded weeks before Israel’s attack that “Egypt was not ready for a war, and Nasser did not want a war.” What is more, both Israeli and U.S. intelligence experts predicted unanimously that even in the unlikely event that several Arab countries attacked in concert, Israel would easily defeat them all within ten days. Israel’s claim that it faced serious danger in 1967 was “a bluff,” according to General Mattityahu Peled, one of the architects of the Israeli assault.

But facts are a paltry substitute for sacred myth – and that’s exactly why those of us who try to take Biblical imagery seriously need to protect it from abuse by propagandists. Fabricating a threat where none existed (by manipulating echoes of Exodus and Esther, among other things) is bad enough. But the most offensive part of the myth-making is that it makes aggressors out of the occupation’s real victims – and, again, uses religious imagery to do it.

Yet the imagery itself seems to blind many Jews to the hypocrisy of its use. Take the “March of Flags,” a featured event on Jerusalem Day, when “thousands of ultranationalist Jewish celebrants,” according to a 2014 article in the Jewish Daily Forward, “parade” through Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter, “generally accompanied by racist slogans and incitement to violence. Israeli police arrive in the area earlier in the day, sealing off entry to Palestinian residents…any Palestinian counter-protest is quickly dispersed.” It’s easy to imagine how Jewish media would react if, say, thousands of Muslims swaggered through the Jewish neighborhoods of Paris chanting anti-Semitic slogans – particularly if the police intervened by clamping down on the local Jews instead of the anti-Semites. But there’s scarcely a peep of protest from the rabbinate when the liturgical “Next year in Jerusalem” provides a pretext for exactly the same sort of bullying chauvinism.

Nor is there anything exceptional in this. I’ve read many awe-struck accounts by religious Jews of their first experience praying at the Western Wall. Very few of them seem to have considered that they were praying atop a crime scene. Within days of Israel’s capture of the Old City, the army had demolished the entire Moroccan Quarter – which had stood within about 13 feet of the wall – destroying the homes of 650 Palestinian civilians in order to clear more space for Jewish worshipers. (A few of the residents refused to leave; the Israelis knocked down their houses on top of them, killing one old woman and injuring several other people.)

I know the Jews who pray there today didn’t ask the Israeli army to destroy people’s houses. But I also know what most Jews think – rightly, in my opinion – of Germans who moved into “vacant” homes in the 1930s after their Jewish owners were expelled by Nazi decree. Is it really so different to arrange prayers at the site of so many destroyed homes and broken lives – knowing the inhabitants were driven out less than half a century ago for the worshipers’ convenience?

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, wrote last year that because of Israel’s attack on Jerusalem in 1967 “my Jewish identity was transformed.” It’s beyond doubt that Jewish identity has been deeply affected by the transformation of Judaism into a conquest ideology. But I cannot agree with Rabbi Sacks’ conclusion that religious Jews should glorify the attack of 1967, and “make Israel’s case in a world that sometimes fails to see the beauty we know is here.”

On the contrary, I think Rabbi Sacks’ proposal is a betrayal of Judaism no less than of the truth – and I make my case from a famous passage in the second chapter of Isaiah:

And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it…. for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem… and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

You can believe or disbelieve in this prophetic vision, but there’s no mistaking its essential elements: Jerusalem is for “all nations,” not one country’s military government; the “word of the Lord” issuing from Jerusalem speaks of justice and peace, not of conquest; the liberation of Jerusalem marks the end of all wars.

That’s the Jerusalem Day of traditional Judaism. Its conversion into a jingoistic celebration of Jewish military might is not merely a pretext for evil; it’s an evil in itself – one that ought to have religious Jews shouting their protests from the rooftops.

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“I know the Jews who pray there today didn’t ask the Israeli army to destroy people’s houses.

Do you any of the Jews who were ethnically cleansed from Jerusalem by the Jordanians in 1948? Because there were quite a few.

Thank you, Michael Lesher.

Yesterday was ugly in Jerusalem, courtesy of the Occupation, the illegal “settlers”, their supporters, and the IOF. It was a desecration and more.

Thank you Michael Lesher for your refreshingly honest article. Jerusalem Day is indeed a very evil day

RE: “Jerusalem is for ‘all nations’, not one country’s military government; the ‘word of the Lord’ issuing from Jerusalem speaks of justice and peace, not of conquest; the liberation of Jerusalem marks the end of all wars. That’s the Jerusalem Day of traditional Judaism. Its conversion into a jingoistic celebration… Read more »

For all of Israels faults, Jerusalem is actually a good example of Israels moral superiority over their neighbors and the Palestinians. Unlike Jordan, which refused access to the Western Wall to Jewish and Israeli worshippers, when it was under their control from 1948-1967, Israel has done little to restrict access… Read more »