Every Jew, Not Just Israelis, Should Celebrate Jerusalem Day

Recently, while jogging through Jerusalem’s clean, coronavirus-hushed Old City, I started dreading Yom Yerushalayim. Usually, I love Jerusalem Day. It’s as glorious as Yom Ha’Atzmaut and July Fourth; as stirring as Hanukkah and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday; as freedom-affirming as Passover and Presidents Day; and as awe-inspiring as Yom HaZikaron and Thanksgiving.

Yet in Israel, too many right-wingers have hijacked it, making it Intimidate-Arabs-in-the-Old-City Day; while too many left-wingers have abdicated, caricaturing my cosmopolitan Jerusalem as religious, racist and right-wing. Meanwhile, most American Jews simply will call Jerusalem Day “Friday.”

Turning any country’s capital into a political football assaults the national soul; it’s a particularly egregious sin for Jews. Jerusalem has united us since 1000 B.C., when King David made it our national and spiritual capital. Jerusalem sustained us through 1,900 years of exile. And Jerusalem is a particularly transcendent city. It has mystical qualities that Washington, D.C., Ottawa and London lack. This eternal city, this international treasure beloved by so many people, by so many religions, is too rich and too dimensional to become owned by the right — or abandoned by the left.

True, as the home to Israel’s parliament, as the battlefield divided in 1949 then reunited in 1967, Jerusalem embodies Political Zionism, the Jewish nationalism that built, defends and also tries to perfect Israel. Nevertheless, as our favorite storehouse of Jewish memories, ideas, values and dreams, Jerusalem also embodies Identity Zionism, a sense of Jewish peoplehood that roots, challenges and stretches all of us who belong to this blessed network, this never-ending story.

Jerusalem is not all things to all people — but it’s enough things to enough of our people to unite, inspire and mobilize. You cannot particularize Jerusalem so much that it excludes everyone but yourself; but you cannot universalize it so much that it doesn’t include us as Jews.

History is messy, and Jerusalem has a lot of history. Many of the dilemmas the 1967 war triggered persist 53 years later. The city’s borders are undefined. The Palestinians feel proprietary claims on the city, too. But if most Jews learned to acknowledge Palestinians’ love for Jerusalem, why can’t Palestinians acknowledge our love, our rights and our legitimacy?

None of these complications should rob us of our joy or obscure the historical facts: Jerusalem has been the Jews’ capital — and rallying cry — for 3,000 years. It’s never been just a place. It’s always been a poem, a prayer and our ultimate peoplehood platform. In 1967, heroic Israeli soldiers reunified the city — winning a defensive war after Israel warned Jordan not to attack. The Jewish world united ecstatically.

“I had not heard anybody talk very much about the religious importance or significance of Old Jerusalem before last June,” liberal theologian Rabbi Eugene Borowitz recalled in 1968. “So that when Old Jerusalem was captured and was somehow, to use that marvelous word, ‘ours,’ it hit us with an impact which we couldn’t imagine, and suddenly we realized the depths of roots we had in a very specific place.”

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg noted that the war — particularly Jerusalem’s reunification — revived “the space dimension of holiness in Judaism …. . We have forgotten — and as modern culture denizens are unsympathetic to — the holiness of specific space … .” Greenberg warned a half century ago, “Yet physical roots and the sense of organic existence on the land does affect human perception and the psyche of those dwelling on the land.”

In 1967, when Jews worldwide sang Naomi Shemer’s love song to “Jerusalem of Gold,” you felt the city’s broad appeal. Secular Zionists toasted Jerusalem’s historical, mystical power. Religious Zionist Israel toasted the historical and  religious power. They united in their love of the city, which, like most loves, overlapped without being identical.

Today, Jerusalem magically mixes Kotel and Knesset, old and new, secular and sacred, East and West. To the east, muezzins chant, rabbis pray, mystics meditate, artists paint, vagrants beg, tourists gape and merchants haggle; while to the west, rock stars perform, politicians posture, scholars study, “startup-ers” program, pedestrians jaywalk and entrepreneurs haggle.

And in the blessed middle — Arabs and Jews, religious and nonreligious — put politics aside to help and heal in Hadassah Hospital’s Planet Medicine, or to huff and puff in the YMCA’s Republic of Sport, or to shop and spend in Jerusalem’s malls.

This is liberal-democratic nationalism at its best — not imposing uniformity, but developing platforms to work, build and dream together. Unfortunately, some ultra-traditionalists want to hog it all for themselves; that’s not Jerusalem. Such aggressiveness violates Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook’s generous religious Zionism, former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek’s pragmatic bridge-building Zionism, former Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s rights-based liberal-nationalist Zionism.

At the opposite extreme, ultra-moderns reject this “pile of stones.” If they abdicate because they’re hoping for peace, at least they’re well-meaning. But when they’re showcasing the sterile, excessively rationalistic approach too many supposedly sophisticated Jews take to contemporary Judaism and Zionism, it’s self-defeating. And when they’re perpetuating this self-flagellating yet longstanding inside-out Jewish impulse to celebrate everyone else’s nationalism while denigrating your own, it’s pathetic.

Beyond destructively politicizing Yom Yerushalayim, we haven’t ritualized it properly. Jewish holidays without rituals are like people without homelands: They get fuzzy, abstracted, distorted and quickly forgotten.

That’s why every Jew — and every Jerusalem lover — should celebrate Jerusalem Day with special rituals.

One idea is to make JerusAlbums. Make these compilations of words and images historical, spiritual, somehow personal. Wherever possible, include photos of yourself or loved ones in Jerusalem, enjoying Jerusalem, advancing Jerusalem’s story. And post them widely on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or TikTok.

Additionally, echoing the public displays of these quarantine days, at 8 p.m. Jerusalem time May 21, as the holiday begins, Jerusalem lovers everywhere should shout out those ancient cries: “Eem eshkachech, Yerushalayim, tishkach yemini” (If I forget thee o Jerusalem, may my right hand wither) and “le-shanah ha-ba’ah be-Yerushalayim” (next year in Jerusalem). Then, sing Jerusalem’s anthem — “Yerushalayim shel Zahav.”

That’s why, Thursday, May 21, at 8 p.m. Israel time, 1 p.m. New York time, 10 a.m. Los Angeles time, we should sing as one.

Shouting out “if I forget thee o Jerusalem” looks backward, saluting those memory bundles, the albums we made, and the imaginary albums our ancestors collected in their hearts, devoted as they were to the eternal capital they faced in their prayers. That ancient cry challenges us: If we abandon Jerusalem, we betray our deepest selves, that which makes us human — our hands and mouths, our bodies and souls. The images and words we assemble will update this ancient cry to today, wherein one way not to “forget thee” is to post ye.

Crying out “Next year in Jerusalem!” looks forward. Especially at this coronavirus moment, it’s not a call to our travel agent (yet) but a hopeful call for better days, for a more perfect union among our people — and all people. It’s a prayer for balance because a nationalism that’s too selfless stifles the self; a nationalism that’s too selfish suffocates the soul.

Finally, especially amid today’s toxic partisanship, when we all sing “Jerusalem of Gold,” we acknowledge differences while celebrating our bonds. We’ll salute Jerusalem’s different faces over the ages; 1967’s redemptive moment of liberation after the Arab threats of annihilation; and Jerusalem today, a first-class, modern metropolis that’s still our ancient identity oasis, our archaeological tell, our communal well, our eternal old-new foundation stone.


Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,he is the author of ten books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.