Jerusalem and World Jewry: A Need to Engage with the Real Jerusalem

Original oil painting by Ben Avram; courtesy ARTA Gallery

By Elan Ezrachi

50 years after the 1967 Six Day War, the place of Jerusalem as a core issue of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict seems to be more prominent than ever. The Jubilant celebrations around the 50 years of unification that took place in Israel and around the Jewish world in recent weeks gave way to the bleak realization that Jerusalem is far from being a united and integrated city. Palestinian Arabs, Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), modern Orthodox and secular Jews, might share one urban space, but live in distinctly segregated environments, marked by opposing narratives, different languages, diverse lifestyles, and with occasional violence and hatred.

Where is world Jewry in all this? Jews worldwide joined Israelis in 1967 in celebration of the stunning conquest of the entire Jerusalem region and stood behind the declaration of Jerusalem as a united city. This came days after the entire Jewish world shared in the anguish and the panic over the future of Israel that was perceived as weak and threatened. The significane of the Western Wall in this story was strongly felt around the Jewish world. Shortly afterwards, large numbers of Jews started traveling to Israel in the form of a new type of pilgrimage; tourism to Israel that until then was quite uncommon became a significant building block of Jewish identification.

Visiting Jerusalem emerged as an essential high point of every visit to Israel. The visit to Jerusalem provided an opportunity to connect to the ancient foundations of Judaism (the City of David, The Southern Wall excavations, The Jewish Quarter, etc.) as well as to the expressions of modern Israel (Yad Va’Shem, Mt. Herzl, the Knesset, etc.). Jerusalem supplies Jewish visitors with spiritual and ideational properties that are conducive for a strengthened Jewish identity. The visit to Jerusalem operates mostly on the emotional, religious and symbolic realms. Little attention is given to tensions and conflicts that dominate the city. As a result, world Jewry, leaders and folk alike, did not develop familiarity with the actual city: its residents, conflicts, tensions and diverse communities.

In the summer of 1968, when the regulations around the use of the Western Wall were still not fully firmed, the American Reform movement asked to conduct a mass co-ed service at the opening of their convention. This request met a fierce objection of the Israeli religious (Orthodox) establishment and the Reform movement backed off. It would take years until the Reform and the Conservative movements would demand a solution to their needs for egalitarian services at the Wall, a demand that hasn’t been fully met.

In December 1988 a group of around 70 women arrived at the Wall with the intension to conduct a service in the women’s section. This formative event was the start of the close to 30 years Women of the Wall movement. While Jerusalem continued to serve as a uniting and uplifting symbol of the Jewish people, the Wall (for some) became a site of agony and exclusion and even a political cause against the Israeli government and the state-run Orthodox rabbinate.

Sadly, Diaspora Jews did not show much interest in what is really happening in Jerusalem. Ever since the 1967 unification, Jerusalem has become a large metropolis filled with conflicts, inequities and unresolved issues. The list is long. In the recent celebration of the 50 years of unification, Israeli President, Reuven (Ruvi) Rivlin honestly admitted that Jerusalem is not really united. In June 1967, as the city was united by Israel, there were approximately 200,000 Jews in west Jerusalem and 70,000 Palestinians in the newly added areas in east Jerusalem. Both populations were socio-economically modest to poor. West Jerusalem was a service government town associated with a large population of new immigrants who came to Israel in the 1950s and ’60s. East Jerusalem Palestinians were even worse off, as the Jordanians had little interest in developing the city. When Israel created the newly expanded boundaries of Jerusalem there was an economic infusion of resources that came from multiple government sources, as well as from private sources such as tourism, new industries, and real estate developments. Still, the population remained relatively poor. The poverty of Jerusalem is a built-in feature comprised of the following components: the (charedi) ultra-Orthodox population with large families and a low rate of male participation in the work force; the Arab population that also has large families, but in addition suffers from neglect and discrimination in education and professional development; and the economically vulnerable Jewish populations of new immigrants, newcomers, and veterans alike.

To understand what is going on in this complex city we should expand our inquiry into the qualitative domain. Once we do that, we will find that in addition to the objective hardships Jerusalem is full of innovative, creative, and vital expressions in areas such as social entrepreneurship; Jewish renaissance; environmental projects; dialogue and collaboration between Jews and Arabs and new charedi leadership; and business initiatives. Jerusalem does have several engines of growth and excellence, in the form of high-tech industries, medical centers, first-rate tourism attractions, and multiple academic and research institutes. There is a Jerusalem paradox here. The formal data paint a difficult picture, but the reality is full of expressions that show otherwise.

Jerusalem cannot continue to be a kind of romantic Jewish Disneyland. Diaspora Jews should learn about the issues of Jerusalem, take a stand, and connect with initiatives and affinity groups that speak their language. We need to rethink the paradigm of the visit to Jerusalem, including how much time is spent there, the kinds of experiences that need to be added, the way in which Jerusalem is taught and guided, and what narratives are promoted.

As we are getting close to Tisha B’Av, the mourning of the destruction of the ancient Temple and reflect on Jerusalem, then and now, it is time that Jews worldwide will connect to Yerushalayim Shel Mata, the real Jerusalem, where people, communities, ethnic groups and religions share one urban space.

Elan Ezrachi, PhD, is a Jerusalem based Jewish Peoplehood consultant and the author of a recent book: Awakened Dream – 50 Years of Complex Unification of Jerusalem (in Hebrew).