On May 13 Israel will celebrate Jerusalem Day. The celebration is supposed to highlight the unification of Jerusalem, by parading with flags and chanting nationalist and often racist slogans through the Palestinian parts of the city, especially the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. The day has become increasingly ugly and chauvinistic over the years. Last year, marking 50 years since 1967, was particularly ugly. I stood on the street corner across from the Old City walls near the municipality building and watched hundreds of young Israelis drunk with power curse Palestinian passersby and spit on Israelis holding signs in a cordoned-off area “protected” by the police. I put protected in quotes because being there felt more like being caged in.
This flag-waving nationalism/racism is not a celebration of Jerusalem. In fact, it is a mark of shame and dishonor on a city that should symbolize tolerance and understanding, a sharing of sanctity and spirituality. Jerusalem Day as it has been marked in the past few years sends a message to almost 40% of Jerusalemites (the Palestinians of Jerusalem): you are a conquered people and this is not your city. For those who have witnessed the march, we have seen thousands enter Damascus Gate and parade through the Muslim Quarter, with hatred in the eyes, and fear and hatred in the eyes of many Palestinians shopkeepers and onlookers witnessing this shameful display of force and evil. For me this is a bleak and dark picture of Jerusalem. Jerusalem should enlighten us and shine as the ideal place in the world to demonstrate the celebration of civilizations and diversity. Jerusalem Day does the opposite.
Jerusalem is certainly worthy of a special day to honor and celebrate the uniqueness of this city, which is of course its mosaic of peoples, cultures, traditions, rituals, colors, sounds and music, and religious and spiritual significance. I dream of a Jerusalem/al-Quds day, during which the mosques, churches and synagogues of the whole city are open and inviting – both for prayer and to teach those who do not share the same religious traditions. I can imagine school children from all over visiting places of worship that are not their own for the purpose of listening and appreciating the traditions that other Jerusalemites hold dear.
I can foresee an old-new Jerusalem tradition developing in which people all over the city, in every neighborhood and in every quarter, open the doors of their shops and their homes to welcome people they do not know, who do not live in their part of Jerusalem, and share with them their own piece of Jerusalem, their own stories, their own culture. On the new Jerusalem/al-Quds day, parks throughout the city will be open and musicians from Jerusalem will play their music for people not from their neighborhood. And everyone all over Jerusalem will celebrate this potentially miraculous place.
Jerusalem/al-Quds day needs to celebrate inclusion, not division. This day has to challenge all of us to go beyond the familiar and wander throughout the streets and courtyards of parts of Jerusalem we do not know so well, or have never visited. Walking tours led by neighborhood residents would guide others to see their piece of Jerusalem through their eyes. The geography of fear that exists in today’s Jerusalem would give way to a sense of security and welcoming. This is all possible – but it requires changing the reality from the concept of sole unilateral control and sovereignty to one of shared control and joint decisions over how sovereignty in Jerusalem reflects a new reality.
In the new Jerusalem, west Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel, east Jerusalem the capital of Palestine, and yet Jerusalem will remain an open city which is the capital of two peoples and three religions – where all live, work, worship and prosper – appreciating that Jerusalem cannot be artificially, physically divided by walls and fences, nor artificially unified by meaningless declarations from one side or another.
Jerusalem/al-Quds day will reflect a Jerusalem in which conflicts are settled at the table through calm and rational dialogue by Jerusalemites who recognize that we all have a place in this city. Everyone in this city has the right to live in dignity and equality and mutual respect. That is the challenge of Jerusalem and that is the challenge that I am dedicated to take upon myself with my friends and colleagues from all over Jerusalem, presenting to the people of Jerusalem a new approach that will become real in the upcoming municipal elections on October 30.
The author is now working on the development of an All Jerusalem Israeli Palestinian list – Yerushalayim/al-Quds – to run for the Jerusalem City Council. His new book In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine has been published by Vanderbilt University Press.