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‘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.

Michael Lesher

Michael Lesher, an author and lawyer, has published numerous articles dealing with child sexual abuse and other topics, including the Israel-Palestine conflict. He is the author of the recent book Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co., Inc.), which focuses on cover-ups of abuse cases among Orthodox Jews. He lives in Passaic, New Jersey. More information about his work can be found on his web site

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17 Responses

  1. hophmi on May 18, 2015, 2:54 pm

    “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.

    • Ian Berman on May 19, 2015, 10:20 am

      You might want to add Hopmi, that the Zionist leadership cut a deal with the Jordanians giving them East Jerusalem and the West Bank, thereby reducing the military threat. So while Jordan “ethnically cleansed” the Jews from Jerusalem, the Zionists proceeded to conquer and Ethnically Cleansed 800,000+in the rest of Palestine.

      So I’m sorry, I forgot, what was your point?

      The Expulsion of the Palestinians Re-Examined – Le Monde Diplomatique

      • just on May 19, 2015, 11:02 am

        Thanks Ian.

      • hophmi on May 19, 2015, 11:33 am

        “So I’m sorry, I forgot, what was your point?”

        My point is that it’s wrong to leave out that many Jews were ethnically cleansed from Jerusalem in 1948. I know why you do it; it cuts against your depiction of the Palestinians as innocent victims and your depiction of Israelis as demons.

        Glad to see that you admit that it happened.

    • Sulphurdunn on May 26, 2015, 3:41 pm

      I think it was around 2,000. How is it that the Jordanians doing what the Israelis were doing on a massively larger scale so offends your sensibilities?

  2. just on May 18, 2015, 3:04 pm

    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.

  3. Bornajoo on May 18, 2015, 7:00 pm

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

  4. JLewisDickerson on May 18, 2015, 8:12 pm

    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 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.” ~ Michael Lesher

    SEE: “Why rebuilding the Temple would be the end of Judaism as we know it”, By Tomer Persico,, Nov. 13, 2014
    • The current drive of Jews, both Orthodox and secular, to ascend to the site of the Holy Temple and rebuild it, reflects a sea change in the Zionist camp.

    [EXCERPTS] There is one overriding question that accompanies the Zionist project, wrote Gershom Scholem, the scholar of Jewish mysticism – “Whether or not Jewish history will be able to endure this entry into the concrete realm without perishing in the crisis of the messianic claim, which has virtually been conjured up.” The entry into history to which Scholem refers is the establishment of the state and the ingathering of the exiles, borne, as they were – notwithstanding their secular fomenters and activists – on the wings of the ancient Jewish messianic myth of the return to Zion. However, when Scholem published the essay “Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism,” in 1971, the adjunct to the question was the dramatic freight of Israel’s great victory in the Six-Day War, four years earlier…

    . . . It is not surprising, then, that the first group advocating a change in the Temple Mount status quo did not spring from the ranks of the religious-Zionist movement. The Temple Mount Faithful, a group that has been active since the end of the 1960s, was led by Gershon Salomon, a secular individual, who was supported – how could it be otherwise? – by former members of the Irgun and Lehi. It was not until the mid-1980s that a similar organization was formed under the leadership of a religious-Zionist rabbi (the Temple Institute, founded by Rabbi Yisrael Ariel) – and it too remained solitary within the religious-Zionist movement until the 1990s.

    Indeed, in January 1991, Rabbi Menachem Froman could still allay the fears of the Palestinians by informing them (in the form of an article he published in Haaretz, “To Wait in Silence for Grace”) that, “In the perception of the national-religious public [… there is] opposition to any ascent to the walls of the Temple Mount… The attitude of sanctity toward the Temple Mount is expressed not by bursting into it but by abstinence from it.”

    No longer. If in the past, yearning for the Temple Mount was the preserve of a marginal, ostracized minority within the religious-Zionist public, today it has become one of the most significant voices within that movement. In a survey conducted this past May among the religious-Zionist public, 75.4 percent said they favor “the ascent of Jews to the Temple Mount,” compared to only 24.6 percent against. In addition, 19.6 percent said they had already visited the site and 35.7 percent that they had not yet gone there, but intended to visit.

    The growing number of visits to the mount by the religious-Zionist public signifies not only a turning away from the state-oriented approach of Rabbi Kook, but also active rebellion against the tradition of the halakha. We are witnessing a tremendous transformation among sections of this public: Before our eyes they are becoming post-Kook-ist and post-Orthodox. Ethnic nationalism is supplanting not only mamlakhtiyut (state consciousness) but faithfulness to the halakha. Their identity is now based more on mythic ethnocentrism than on Torah study, and the Temple Mount serves them, just as it served Yair Stern and Uri Zvi Grinberg before them, as an exalted totem embodying the essence of sovereignty over the Land of Israel.

    Thus, in the survey, the group identifying with “classic religious Zionism” was asked, “What are the reasons on which to base oneself when it comes to Jews going up to the Temple Mount?” Fully 96.8 percent replied that visiting the site would constitute “a contribution to strengthening Israeli sovereignty in the holy place.” Only 54.4 percent averred that a visit should be made in order to carry out “a positive commandment [mitzvat aseh] and prayer at the site.” Patently, for the religious Zionists who took part in the survey, the national rationale was far more important than the halakhic grounds – and who better than Naftali Bennett, the leader of Habayit Hayehudi party, serves as a salient model for the shift of the center of gravity of the religious-Zionist movement from halakha to nationalism?

    How did the religious-Zionist public undergo such a radical transformation in its character? A hint is discernible at the point when the first significant halakhic ruling was issued allowing visits to the Temple Mount. This occurred at the beginning of 1996, when the Yesha (Judea, Samaria, Gaza) Rabbinical Council published an official letter containing a ruling that visiting the Temple Mount was permissible, accompanied by a call to every rabbi “to go up [to the site] himself and guide his congregation on how to make the ascent according to all the restrictions of the halakha.”

    Motti Inbari, in his book “Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount” (SUNY Press, 2009), draws a connection between the weakening of the Gush Emunim messianic paradigm, which was profoundly challenged by the Oslo process between Israel and the Palestinians, and the surge of interest in the mount. According to a widely accepted research model, disappointment stemming from difficulties on the road toward the realization of the messianic vision leads not to disillusionment but to radicalization of belief, within the framework of which an attempt is made to foist the redemptive thrust on recalcitrant reality.

    However, the final, crushing blow to the Kook-based messianic approach was probably delivered by the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, in 2005, and the destruction of the Gush Katif settlements there. The Gush Emunin narrative, which talks about unbroken redemption and the impossibility of retreat, encountered an existential crisis, as did the perception of the secular state as “the Messiah’s donkey,” a reference to the parable about the manner in which the Messiah will make his appearance, meaning that full progress toward redemption can be made on the state’s secular, material back.

    In a symposium held about a year ago by Ir Amim, an NGO that focuses on Jerusalem within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Haviva Pedaya, from the Jewish history department of Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, referred to the increasing occupation with the Temple Mount by the religious-Zionist movement after the Gaza pull-out.

    “For those who endured it, the disengagement was a type of sundering from the substantial, from some sort of point of connection,” she said. “For the expelled, it was a breaking point that created a rift between the illusion that the substantial – the land – would be compatible with the symbolic – the state, redemption.” With that connection shattered, Pedaya explains, messianic hope is shifted to an alternative symbolic focal point. The Temple Mount replaces settlement on the soil of the Land of Israel as the key to redemption.

    Many religious Zionists are thus turning toward the mount in place of the belief in step-by-step progress and in place of the conception of the sanctity of the state. The Temple Mount advocates are already now positing the final goal, and by visiting the site and praying there they are deviating from both the halakhic tradition and from Israeli law. State consciousness is abandoned, along with the patience needed for graduated progress toward redemption. In their place come partisan messianism and irreverent efforts to hasten the messianic era – for apocalypse now.

    And they are not alone. Just as was the case in the pre-state period, secular Jews are again joining, and in some cases leading, the movement toward the Temple Mount. Almost half of Likud’s MKs, some of them secular, are active in promoting Jewish visits there. MK Miri Regev, who chairs the Knesset’s Interior and Environment Committee, has already convened 15 meetings of the committee to deliberate on the subject. According to MK Gila Gamliel, “The Temple is the ID card of the people of Israel,” while MK Yariv Levin likens the site to the “heart” of the nation. Manifestly, the division is not between “secular” and “religious,” and the question was never about observing or not observing commandments. The question is an attempt to realize the myth in reality.

    Assuaging Ben-Gurion’s concerns, Israel remained without the Temple Mount at the end of the War of Independence in 1948. Not until the capture of East Jerusalem in 1967 did it become feasible to implement the call of Avraham Stern, and the ancient myth began to sprout within the collective unconscious. After almost 50 years of gestation, Israel is today closer than it has ever been to attempting to renew in practice its mythic past, to bring about by force what many see as redemption. Even if we ignore the fact that the top of the Temple Mount is, simply, currently not available – it must be clear that moving toward a new Temple means the end of both Judaism and Zionism as we know them.

    The question, then, to paraphrase Gershom Scholem’s remark, with which we began, is whether Zionism will be able to withstand the impulse to realize itself conclusively and become history.


  5. Scandipope on May 19, 2015, 5:47 am

    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 to Jerusalem, and for the most part left control of religious places up to their worshippers.

    Why am I not surprised, that the Jordanian refusal of letting worshippers enter isn’t mentioned here, just like the forceful eviction of thousands of Jews from East Jerusalem is ignored.

    Palestinian racism is obviously alive and well even today, as evidenced by the fact that any Palestinian who’d like to sell his or her property in Jerusalem to the highest bidder, has to use subterfuge and middlemen if the buyer happens to be Jewish, out of fear for physical reprisals.

    • just on May 19, 2015, 8:43 am

      “Jerusalem is actually a good example of Israels moral superiority over their neighbors and the Palestinians.”

      “Israel” is increasingly devoid of “morals”~ just look at the PM and his cabinet! The fact that 95% of Israelis supported the massacre in Gaza is proof of the fact that Israel has lost all “moral” standing! Israel’s only superiority lies in its military might, courtesy of the “West’s” lack of morals and their profound hypocrisy, and Israel’s own nefarious and secret acquisition of nuclear weapons.

      “Israel has done little to restrict access to Jerusalem, and for the most part left control of religious places up to their worshippers.”

      A complete lie. What planet do you live on? In what galaxy? Sounds as though you frolic in the black hole of supremacist Zionism.

      There’s everything wrong with what you wrote, but right now I don’t care to respond to it all. Actually, I should have let your lies rot on the vile vine that you planted.

    • eljay on May 19, 2015, 8:57 am

      || Scandipope: For all of Israels faults, Jerusalem is actually a good example of Israels moral superiority over their neighbors and the Palestinians. ||

      And for all of the serial rapist’s faults, his community volunteering is actually a good example of his moral superiority over his law-abiding neighbours.

      Funny stuff. :-)

    • JeffB on May 19, 2015, 9:48 am


      Israel has done little to restrict access to Jerusalem, and for the most part left control of religious places up to their worshippers.

      You are getting accused of lying below by @just. Lots of vitriol but no facts. But you are in point of fact quite correct. The Mosques are under muslim control, the Bahai gardens under Ba’hai control, the churches under Christian control the Druze control of their sites like Jethro’s tomb… Israel has not only allowed development but often helped facilitate it. My daughter in her American history class used Israel as a example of a society with freedom of religion but not separation of church and state.

      The MW crowd adores Iran. The Bahá’í in Iran are subject to mass imprisonment, torture, hundreds of executions, state organized religious pogroms, demolishing their holy sites. Both genocide watch and the society for genocide prevention have expressed concerns with the drift of Iranian policy moving from merely heavy harassment to a genuine desire to obliterate the Bahá’í faith. So here we have two societies with an ethnic identification for citizenship. The BDSers hate Israel that while not perfect has an excellent track record or religious freedom. And at the same time the BDSers adore Iran that is openly willing to engage in state persecution of religion drifting towards religious genocide.

      That’s why BDSers don’t engage on a factual discussion of religious freedom. They just don’t like Jews, it has nothing to do with the facts.

      • just on May 19, 2015, 10:18 am

        Here’s your “religious freedom” and “moral superiority”:

        “Western Wall gender barriers locked to stop women reading from Torah

        Police detained a male worshipper trying to pass a Torah scroll to Women of the Wall activists over the partition separating men’s and women’s sections.

        To prevent women from reading from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, police took the unprecedented step this morning of locking the partitions that separate the women’s and men’s sections and stationing barriers all along it.

        A male worshipper trying to pass a Torah scroll from the men’s section to the women’s section, over the partition, was detained by police. The barriers were set up at the instructions of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the director of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, an Orthodox-run organization the controls prayer regulations at the site, in order to prevent a replay of last month’s events.

        At their monthly Rosh Chodesh service in April, Women of the Wall, a group fighting for freedom of worship at the Western Wall, fulfilled a longstanding goal of reading from a full-size Torah scroll at the Western Wall. It was the first time since the group was founded 25 years ago that it had read from one of the full-size public Torah scrolls available at the Kotel.

        The Torah scroll had been passed to the women by male supporters who simply moved the partitions separating the two sides.

        The Western Wall Heritage Foundation keeps dozens of Torah scrolls in the men’s section but allows them to be used only there.

        As an act of protest, members of the multi-denominational women’s prayer group on Tuesday morning stood on plastic chairs next to the partition during the prayer service and held out their arms to symbolize their desire to obtain a Torah.

        The man who was detained was released soon thereafter. He was identified as Nitai Giron, a Women of the Wall supporter and graduate of the Conservative/Masorti youth movement in Israel.

        Six young girls celebrated their bat mitzvahs at Tuesday’s Rosh Chodesh service organized by Women of the Wall.

        Upon entering the holy site and noticing the locks on the partitions, Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, said: “Rabbi Rabinowitz treats the Kotel as it if belongs to him and enforces ultra-Orthodox customs. It is insulting not only for Women of the Wall but to every woman wherever she is that all women are treated like second-rate citizens at the holiest place to the Jewish people.”…

      • piotr on May 20, 2015, 4:34 pm

        Women of the Wall are heretics, as established by the religious authorities in a theocratic state, so they should be grateful that Israel is a liberal theocracy with rather lenient penalties for disobeying the edicts of three chief rabbinates (Ashkenazi, Military and Sephardi).

        “My daughter in her American history class used Israel as a example of a society with freedom of religion but not separation of church and state.” Excellent example! Like the lack of provision for any marriages NOT sanctioned by one of the officially approved religions, and that short list does not include Jewish denomination that most numerous in United States. Or reservation of certain type of jobs, including jobs in power stations, to the members of the official state religion. The latter causes problems because the most pius among the Jews do not want to use state-supplied electricity on Saturdays as it is made with Jewish labor on Sabath.

        Could be worse, of course. Imagine being a non-member of the ruling religion in a state where all, the faithful and non-faithful, have to spend one day of the week hopping on one leg.

        I hope that the summary of your daughter was that the separation of Church and State in USA was not one of the mistakes of the Founding Fathers.

  6. Kris on May 19, 2015, 10:20 am

    @Scandipope: “Palestinian racism is obviously alive and well even today, as evidenced by the fact that any Palestinian who’d like to sell his or her property in Jerusalem to the highest bidder, has to use subterfuge and middlemen if the buyer happens to be Jewish, out of fear for physical reprisals. ”

    Nobody likes collaborators.

  7. eusebio on May 19, 2015, 12:13 pm

    Happy Day Israel state gorvenance costs should assume the rights to peace and stability in Palestine and in the advancement of human rights

  8. Kris on May 19, 2015, 5:44 pm

    Excellent essay, very informative and beautifully written; thank you!

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