By Eetta Prince-Gibson
I want to celebrate Jerusalem Day, too.
Especially this year. I want to celebrate that day, 50 years ago, when Israeli soldiers stood at the Western Wall for the first time in 19 years, victorious yet humbled by a sense of wonder. I want to celebrate that day when the walls that had cut the city in two came down, and we thought that East and West could merge.
But it’s hard to celebrate in Jerusalem when right-wing, nationalistic politicians are putting up new walls. And it’s painful to celebrate when Palestinians who love the city as much as I do are disenfranchised, disempowered, discriminated against and oppressed, and when fully 80 percent of them live in poverty. It seems silly to celebrate when Jerusalem is Israel’s poorest large city.
It’s complicated to celebrate in a city that, 50 years later, is both united and divided, liberated and occupied, sacred and sacrilegious.
Politicians create official events to hide these realities and erase these complexities. At the ceremony opening the celebrations of the Fiftieth Anniversary of Jerusalem’s unification, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, “Here we stand in gratification and glory, in Jerusalem—our pride and joy, our people’s majesty, our eternal and united capital forever and ever.”
But cities can’t be united by military victories or political fiats. In its 50th year, Jerusalem is more divided—politically, culturally, economically and psychologically—than ever before. And, in a very sad paradox, nothing proves that more than the annual main celebratory event, the triumphalist, racist “March of Flags” that parades through East Jerusalem and the Old City.
Each year, the March of Flags begin in the late afternoon. This year, it’s hot and dry in Jerusalem, and the police, amassed in full-force, are edgy. The eastern and southern parts of the city are in lockdown again—after two days of traffic from Donald Trump’s visit, now they have to shut the city down again for the parade. In the Palestinian central business district and in the Old City, security forces have shut down businesses and sent the merchants home—for the Palestinians’ own safety, officials explain. From the early hours of the morning, security forces have been stopping anyone who even looks like a Palestinian—even more than they usually do.
The parade starts at about 4:30. By the end of the evening, there will be, the police later report, some 80,000 of them, most of them bussed in from other towns and cities. Most of them are teenage boys, members, one can tell by their kippot, of the religious Zionist, pro-settlement, community. They form a testosterone-infused, surging mass of white shirts waving thousands of blue and white flags.
The girls follow, far behind, dancing and singing in high-pitched voices.
The boys surge into the Damascus Gate into the Old City. Seemingly from everywhere, Hassidic music is blaring, the beat pumping up an ecstatic fervor.
“The [Jewish] Temple will be built, the [Al Aqsa] Mosque will be burned down,” the teenagers scream, the veins throbbing in their necks. Some of them tied flags around their necks, as if they were a mantle of victory.
“Mohammed is a pig!” some of them yell, their voices already hoarse. “Mohammed is dead,” others answer. A Palestinian girl peeks from behind a shuttered doorway—a hand pulls her back and slams the iron door shut. The demonstrators bang on the door, shouting “You are a whore and Mohammed was the son of a whore.” A couple of the boys laugh and high-five each other. The police stand on the sidelines; they don’t interfere.
The crowd will continue on this way through the Old City to the Western Wall, where they will thank God for the miraculous victory and the unification of Jerusalem.
I leave, pushing and shoving my way against the direction of the mob. I join the other parade in Jerusalem—the Family Parade, marching along TrainTrack Park (Jerusalem’s own version of New York’s Highline).
There are thousands of people here, mostly families and children, religious and secular alike. A group of developmentally-disabled adults, some in wheelchairs, is here, too. March Dondorma, a jazz-brass band, is playing. The beat is infectious; people bop with the beat and parents twirl their children.
There are flags here, too, but they are white ones, with just one word in Hebrew: “V’ahavta” (You shall love), the vowels printed in the colors of the rainbow flag. There are red balloons, too, and kids from youth movements are handing out free popsicles. Police presence is minimal.
The atmosphere is naïve, almost giddy. There are no speeches, no slogans. And yet, people exchange knowing glances, acknowledging that we are here as an alternative to the “other” parade.
Civil society groups in Jerusalem, working together, organized some 80 different activities to celebrate Jerusalem Day: discussion groups, films, conferences, tours, sing-a-longs, art projects, even building an imaginary better Jerusalem out of Lego.
This year, at least three Jewish businesses in West Jerusalem closed down in solidarity with the Palestinian merchants who were forced to shutter their shops; about a dozen others were open but hung large signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English to express solidarity and outrage.
There was no talk of supremacy here, no mention of victory or sovereignty.
There were no Palestinians here, either, although they were invited. Before the March of Flags, one volunteer group even handed out flowers to Palestinians in the Old City, but the gesture could not inure them to their reality.
Still, this is not an alternative, I think. This is the real thing. It’s still formative, still finding its way through the complexity of liberation/occupation/unification/division.
Israeli officials can continue to declare that Jerusalem will remain Israeli, and Palestinian officials can continue to insist that Jerusalem belongs to them. But with all their talk of indivisibility, neither side has a plan to enable everyone to live functional, productive lives here.
Throughout its recorded history, Jerusalem has been constantly conquered and liberated by peoples who sought to keep it for themselves. But Jerusalem cannot be possessed or owned. It can only be shared, reverently.
Some day, when Jerusalem is a shared capital of two independent states, the State of Israel and the State of Palestine, we’ll all fly our respective flags.
And we’ll celebrate, too.