By Jeremy Leibler and Chaya Herszberg
Jerusalem sits at the heart of Jewish consciousness, hope and meaning. For more than 3,000 years, Jewish people have prayed facing Jerusalem, yearning to return to their homeland.
The eternal capital of Israel, it has always been and will forever remain a symbol and story, a space which defines and shapes our religious and cultural identity. As two Australians who grew up in religious and Zionist institutions, Jerusalem will remain a central pillar of our Jewish identity. But today we mourn the corruption of our holy city which occurred on Yom Yerushalayim, when hundreds of mostly young boys wearing knitted kippot marched through Damascus gate and the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.
This particular notorious aspect of the flag march this year, even more so than previous years, was marked by hatred and anger. A group of men chanted ‘Death to the Arabs’. A group of Religious Zionist students surrounded Palestinian journalist Layali Eid yelling ‘she’s an Arab’ and attempting to cover her camera with Israeli flags. Betar Jerusalem fans chanted ‘Shuafat is on fire’ referring to a Palestinian child who was kidnapped, tortured, forced to drink gasoline and burnt to death in 2014.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a flag march to the Kotel and the vast majority of marchers were celebrating respectfully and without provocation. Just a few hundred meters away in Jerusalem, World Mizrachi hosted an event with hundreds of men and women dancing, singing and celebrating. Over 200 ‘tag meir’ activists participated in a parade handing out flowers in the Old city.
It is tempting to focus only on the good, to celebrate the day for what it should represent, and to dismiss these abhorrent incidents as the acts of crazy extremists – a few bad eggs. But to do so would be a disservice to the overwhelming majority of religious Zionists who loathe this type of behaviour and teach tolerance, co-existence and mutual respect. We have enough confidence in the modern State of Israel and the inherent justice of the Zionist cause to know that if we do not address the underlying issues within the religious Zionist movement, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
It is precisely because of our Zionist identity that we must call out this behavior. Those who do not are destined to be complicit in it. Our Rabbis, religious institutions and elected representatives cannot remain silent while the beast of hate grows year after year. We must actively fight against education systems and discourse that breed racism and violence. We must denounce the flag march through the Muslim quarter as sacrilegious, as a march that undermines our Torah values including basic respect (derech eretz), human dignity (kavod) and humility (anavah). To those who would point to bad acts by Palestinians or Arab members of Knesset (the “but what about …” argument) – this is not a justification for repugnant behaviour.
Jews should have the right to celebrate the miracle of the six day war and united Jerusalem by marching proudly with Israeli flags. But possessing the freedom and power to do something does not necessarily mean that it is the right thing to do. The Israeli government had regard to this when it made a policy decision last month reaffirming a long-standing arrangement that prevents Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. That same regard should be had for Palestinian residents of Jerusalem when deciding whether to permit the flag march through the Muslim quarter that amounts to ugly gloating and year after year produces shameful racism and violence towards the Palestinian residents. Ironically, former Prime Minister Netanyahu had no moral dilemma in stopping the march from going through Damascus gate while in power.
For thousands of years Jewish people existed as a vulnerable and oppressed minority. Today in Jerusalem, we are no longer the oppressed minority. It is now the responsibility of the majority, a moral imperative on Jewish people, to ensure that we respect the minorities among us. The commandment repeated 36 times in the Mosaic books (and a central theme of Megilat Ruth that we read on Shavuot) to protect and care for strangers – for people with whom we do not share identity – because we as a nation ‘know how it feels to be a stranger’ should guide our thinking and decision making. We need to celebrate our narrative and defend ourselves against forces that seek to destroy us. But at the same time, we must acknowledge the privileged position that we are in – that for the first time in 2000 years, we are “a free nation in our own land”. To do so requires both humility and courage. Only then might we reclaim Jerusalem Day, as a day of spirituality and hope.
Jeremy Leibler is President of the Zionist Federation of Australia
Chaya Herszberg is Chair of Youth and Young Adults at the Zionist Federation of Australia