Friday, May 25, 2007

Jerusalem: Liberation Day

One seldom finds a balanced account of the Six Day War. Israelis remember the days and weeks leading up to it as a time of uncertainty, with bellicose public statements coming out of Nasser's Egypt and the memory of the 1948-9 War of Independence still as fresh in people's minds as Operation Desert Storm is for Americans. Arabs prefer to dwell on the fact that, contrary to popular belief in the U.S. and elsewhere, the Arab states did not invade Israel, and Israel chose to launch a pre-emptive invasion of its own on the eve of an important meeting in Washington aimed at resolving the tensions. In reality, the war didn't just come out of nowhere. The years leading up to it had seen shelling and guerrilla warfare against Israel, which responded with occasional incursions and bombing raids against neighboring Jordan and Syria, as well as a major incident over water rights around the Sea of Galilee. As a result of these, some Israeli statesmen warned of waging a war of regime change against Syria much as Arab leaders were threatening them; Arab partisans, on the other hand, might do well to consider that Israel had sound security reasons for wanting to strike first and without warning if they believed war was inevitable. An additional dimension to all this is the larger Cold War context. Much recent scholarship has used Soviet archives to illuminate the role the USSR played in instigating the conflict, mainly by providing false intelligence to Syria and Egypt claiming that an Israeli attack was imminent, and egging them on toward "defending" themselves. Their motive is unclear; the most recent suggestion is that their ultimate goal was the elimination of the Israeli nuclear program.

It would take a specialist to understand all of that, and I most assuredly am not one. I was, however, around for Israel's official holiday associated with the conflict. This is not, as one might expect, based on Israel surviving a threat to its security or some such thing, but on its conquests during the conflict, mainly that of eastern Jerusalem, though some on the far right extend that to the West Bank and presumably the Gaza Strip, as well. Its official name seems to be "Liberation of Jerusalem Day," though that appears mainly in far right publications and official communications. Most people perhaps find it a bit too orwellian, and so use the shorthand "Jerusalem Day" or sometimes "Unification Day." "Liberation" seems applicable mainly to what people find sacred, and is used most regularly for the Western Wall and Temple Mount area, sometimes for Jerusalem as a whole, and very rarely for the Occupied Territories. Prior to the war, Jordan controlled the entire Old City, but for some reason did not follow their cease-fire obligations of allowing open access to holy sites, and in fact built over parts of the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. In gaining this territory, therefore, Israelis also regained the right to visit their most sacred ground, which they proceeded to spruce up by demolishing the nearby Moorish Quarter, inhabited as the name would indicated by Arabs from the Maghreb, and replacing it with a wide plaza and some Jewish religious centers.

Signs of the 40th anniversary of these events are everywhere. The Independence Day celebrations in late April used it as a theme, and signs with the official "40 years" logo are all over the place, including one large one posted on the side of the Old City near Jaffa Gate. In the days before and immediately after May 16, the actual "Jerusalem Day," the city was flooded with Jewish groups here for the occasion. On May 15 I wandered into the Liberty Bell Gardens, normally fairly quiet, and found myself drowning in middle and elementary school children, many running around with flags and with blue and white hats which included the "40 years" symbol. There were also a lot of foreigners. Later that day I wandered up toward the municipality building (city hall), where there were three separate stages for cultural acts and speeches. Many of the people standing around there were part of foreign groups, such as the "Messianic Jewish Society of New York" and such, though there were also plenty of Israelis.

The big event of May 15 was a parade through downtown. It began with a police marching band, but otherwise the "soundtrack" was provided by speakers which had been set up all around downtown so that everyone could hear the "festivities." Thereafter came some groups of "friends of Israel" from overseas, such as the United States and Japan, as well as representatives of community organizations from around the country, floats, and emergency personnel such as firefighters. Most of the floats had an agricultural theme, and there were also people dressed up like Middle Eastern crops; I presume this relates to the theme of land and the holiness of working it as explained to me by a very orthodox elderly woman I met when I first got here. Others focused on representations of the military, depicting the IDF assault on the Old City, with a couple apparently built by people who visualized them marching into battle carrying Torahs and led by the sound of a shofar.

I read afterward that every regional council in Israel was represented. At the Knesset ceremony the day before, every Jewish Knesseteer attended except one, Meretz party leader Yossi Beilin, whose exact statement I forget but who implied he found the whole event bizarre and kind of creepy. This shows a public unanimity belied by polls surrounding the holiday, which indicated that 65% of Israeli Jews don't celebrate it at all. Even some Israelis I know who seemed fairly conservative found a lot of it a bit overdone, and overheard conversations on the bus and around Hebrew University suggested many Israelis saw the occupation as a national problem to be eventually solved rather than something to commemorate. More surprising to me was a poll from the centrist Ynet on Israeli attitudes toward Jerusalem saying that 58% of Israelis favored returning Arab neighborhoods of the city to Arab control as part of a peace settlement, and that this figure was actually lower than in previous years. Based on the political rhetoric and a consistent national policy of trying to isolate its Arab residents both culturally and geographically from other Palestinians, I'd assumed maintaining the city as an undivided capital commanded some sort of supermajority.

A friend in Tel Aviv told me that there, May 16 was just a day like any other. This was not the case in Jerusalem. That afternoon was furious thunderstorms, with flash flooding and hail all around the area. Some joked that it was God's way of saying "cease and desist." Some events were cancelled or cut short, such as tours of facilities built by small Jewish groups who have moved into traditionally Arab neighborhoods as part of "reclaiming" the city. Many of these neighborhoods were not part of the city until 1967 when Israel added them. (What kind of people go on such tours, I wonder?) After the skies cleared, however, the day's main event went forward belatedly, as I discovered when I stepped outside to run an errand. This was the "flag dance," when people waving Israeli flags dance their way through the city to the Western Wall.

The crowd was huge, probably bigger than that which had gathered to celebrate Independence Day three weeks previously. As they marched down Jaffa Road, I had no choice but to be part of it - once you had entered it the sheer force of people's movement and the barriers erected to for crowd control ensured you marched with them. Thinking I'm probably one of the few people who has marched as part of an Ashura mourning procession and a Jerusalem Day flag dance in the same year, I continued as far as Zahal Square, a key junction between the old and new cities and between eastern and western Jerusalem, where I was able to separate myself and continue down toward the Damascus Gate area to see what was happening there. At Zahal Square, the crowd divided, with some marching toward Jaffa Gate and the others toward Arab East Jerusalem. I read somewhere that the tradition is to have people entering through all the city's gates and through all four quarters (Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian) to symbolize the city's unity before meeting at the Western Wall for religious services.

Security on the East Jerusalem/Damascus Gate path was heavy, with armed soldiers standing at some of the Old City's ramparts and others lining the street for as far as I followed it, facing not inward to control the crowd, but outward to protect it from any Palestinian threats. The Palestinians mostly walked about minding their own business, some pointedly, with angry or offended looks on their faces, others more casually. I vividly remember the faces of the first two I saw, young men sitting outside a cafe drinking either tea of coffee. They were not angry, but defeated, forced to sit and watch a jubiliant crowd celebrating their military victory of forty years before. Some old men were the same, probably those who had lived there when it was part of Jordan and had now become somewhat stateless. Later on I saw a bunch more young people gathering by the police line; they seemed to enjoy making fun of the marchers. Most of the marchers, for their part, ignored the Palestinians, though an occasional minority took to jeering at them and calling what I suspect of being unflattering names or taunts as they proceeded by. These the soldiers did turn to and shout down.

Altogether the procession took about two hours, though I didn't stay for the whole time. Because it's a small world, I had totally randomly encountered my roommate from my 2004 trip to Morocco, who was watching while waiting for it to end so security would let him get to his apartment in the Old City's Muslim Quarter. We went to grab a bite to eat, then went to the Old City ourselves to see what was happening. By then it was dark, but the crowds were still thick, and people dressed in white carrying Israeli flags formed a continuous moving stream between Jaffa Gate and the Western Wall, where the entire plaza was packed. My friend looks like an Arab in the dark, and I suspect that's why as we approached the entrance to the wall plaza one of the guards reached out to block him at the chest denying him entry until he said he was an American, at which point we were welcomed and allowed onward. Yet Jerusalem is insane enough that even in this tense atmosphere there was some coexistence. We made our way out through the Damascus Gate, and by one of the streets in the Muslim Quarter, which at that time of night were deserted, two Israeli soldiers were chatting and laughing with a Palestinian who had stepped outside a pharmacy where he was apparently working a late shift. Since I mandatory military service probably mirrors most soldiers as well as most Israelis don't think much of the holiday, they probably had some common ground to commiserate over.

Most Israelis may not pay much mind to "Jerusalem Day," but when it actually took place it was very much their public face, regardless of the internal debates that are such an important part of understanding this part of the world. That face skirted the line between patriotism and nationalism, and at times entered wholeheartedly into the latter, celebrating a military expansion of their cultural heartland into areas where the population was now subjugated against their will. I have trouble communicating adequately the impression the "flag dance" in particular made on me, with just the sheer volume of people carried away by excited celebration with their dancing and singing, seemingly oblivious to the live powderkeg of complex issues centered on the very thing they were commemorating. Is it good that Jews can now visit the Western Wall? Yes, and that's certainly worth commemorating, but in the events of last week there was far more in play. During the Six Day War, Moshe Dayan, Israel's Minister of Defense watched the capture of the Old City from Mt. Scopus, and reportedly asked someone nearby, "What do we need it for?" Upon learning that enthusiastic troops had run the Israeli flag up over al-Aqsa Mosque, he immediately and angrily ordered it taken down, and in general foresaw nothing but trouble from Israel's military gains, a perspective shared from retirement by Israel's first Prime Minsiter, David Ben Gurion. They have not, thus far, been proven wrong.



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