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Jerusalem, a Fractured Unity: Yom Yerushalayim 5777

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Rabbi Neal Gold

Rabbi Neal Gold is Director of Program & Content for ARZA.

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As Jerusalem recovers from President Trump’s whirlwind visit, the city moves on to its next milestone. As evening falls, we celebrate the fiftieth Yom Yerushalayim / Jerusalem Day.

In fact, the Trump team’s quick departure is timely, because its visit inadvertently raised doubts about the very meaning of Yom Yerushalayim. 

In the days leading up to the President’s arrival, controversy was stirred as one of his advisors reportedly told the Israelis, “The Western Wall is not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank.” Subsequently, members of the administration both refuted and tacitly affirmed the remark. And while the President indeed made history by visiting the Kotel, his rebuff of Prime Minister Netanyahu who wanted to join him at the Wall only made his actual position more inscrutable.

Apparently, even though the state is 69 years old and Jerusalem has been united under Israeli sovereignty for 50 years, there remain those who doubt the city’s status as the legitimate capital of Israel.

Under the U.N. partition plan of 1947, Jerusalem was supposed to be an internationalized city. After the War of Independence, the city was bifurcated; Jordan ruled its eastern half and all of the Old City, and the western part of the city was controlled by Israel. The national institutions of Israel—including the Knesset, Supreme Court, and residences of the Prime Minister and President—all became rooted in western Jerusalem. And it has flourished: Jerusalem is Israel’s largest city.

Yom Yerushalayim marks the anniversary of the unexpected and dramatic unification of Jerusalem under Israeli rule in the Six Day War. On the 28th day of Iyar—corresponding to June 7, 1967 and May 24, 2017—Israel pushed back the attacking Jordanian forces and conquered the Old City and East Jerusalem. On that day, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan proclaimed:

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.

But there have always been two Jerusalems. Literally: Hebrew speakers know that the –ayim suffix means “a pair,” so its very name Yerushalayim implies not one but two.

The first appearance of Jerusalem in the Bible is in the Book of Joshua, where Joshua battles an alliance led by King Adoni-zedek of Jerusalem (Joshua 10).  By the end of the saga, most of the land has surrendered—except for Jerusalem, of which it says: “The men of Judah could not dispossess the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem; so the people of Judah dwell with the Jebusites in Jerusalem to this day” (Josh. 15:63).  Already in Joshua’s time, the city was multicultural.

David was the first to “unite” Jerusalem; he made the city his kingdom’s capital. His son Solomon built the Temple there, making Jerusalem the dual religious and political capital of the people of Israel. With palace and temple, Jerusalem came to represent both the body and soul of the Jewish people.

Fractiousness amidst unity has remained part of the city’s identity ever since. In the Talmud (Ta’anit 5a), Rabbi Yitzhak imagines two Jerusalems, a heavenly city above that matches its earthly counterpart below:

Rabbi Yitzhak said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: “The Holy One says, ‘I will not come into the Jerusalem that is above until I come into the city of Jerusalem that is below.’”

Is there really a “Jerusalem that is above”?

Yes, for the verse says, “Jerusalem built up, a city with its companion” (Psalm 122:3).

In other words, Rabbi Yitzhak knows Jerusalem as both a spiritual ideal and as an earthly reality. Unifying the ideal with reality remains a messianic aspiration.

Today, we know that Jerusalem still bears these contradictions. On one hand, we have no doubts about Jerusalem’s centrality to modern Israel. We rejoice that for 50 years it has been united under Israeli rule. The streets of the Jewish Quarter—which had been demolished under the Jordanians—are flourishing. An American President just caressed the stones of the Western Wall. And the religious sites of all the city’s religious faiths are protected. Jerusalem is a thriving city of culture, spirit, and politics.

And yet: how unified is Jerusalem really? The Arab and Jewish neighborhoods certainly feel like two different cities. Do Israelis frequent Silwan or Beit Safafa or Shuafat? Even Jewish Jerusalem feels divided. Do secular residents visit Haredi outposts like Sanhedriya or Kiryat Tzanz?

The Western Wall itself is a symbol of the schisms among Jews. The dispossession of non-Orthodox Jews at the Kotel is a pungent reminder that Jerusalem undivided is still a heavenly ideal that is far from reality. The Chief Rabbinate and its supporters distribute ugly posters around the city that slander non-Orthodox Jews and spew hatred at the Women of the Wall. President Trump is welcome at the Kotel, but Jewish women in tallit and tefillin, or men and women together in egalitarian prayer, are derided and scorned.

The ideal is that every Jew in the world has a stake in Jerusalem. But the reality is that its internal divisions reflect the discord that exists among our people.

Still, there remains a vision of heavenly Jerusalem floats above it all, reminding us that this is not the way it is meant to be.  Jerusalem also carries a whiff of peace—as ‘ir shalom, the city of wholeness.  The reality may be painful and fractured, but the ideal is that we should learn how to pray and live side by side with one another.

This Yom Yerushalayim and its celebrations should be a reminder of a future unification, when ideals and reality can be brought together. Celebrate it in joy and hope!