Sunday, June 01, 2008

Jerusalem of Gold

Each year on "Yom Yerushalayim", or the Shabbat preceding it, my synagogue does something to mark the occasion.

This year our Rabbi made a few remarks and our Israel Connections Committee distributed a booklet of readings.

I have to admit, that I always find this event problematic. Yes, I am emotionally attached to Jerusalem, and I get an emotional charge out of seeing the "Kotel" and the antiquities of the old city. And I have spent many hours - in previous calmer times - exploring the old city, shopping for bargains, and enjoying the "exotic" food. But Yom Yerushalayim also expresses a chauvinistic and irrational attachment to Jerusalem that is only the most extreme example of the destructive emotions and ideas that keeps Israel mired in all of the occupied territories.

Still, the event at my shul has been for the most part low key and benign. This year however, I thought the choice of material that was distributed was problematic.

Below is an excerpt of what I wrote to our Israel Connections Committee about this.


I am writing to you as chair of the Israel Connections Committee to express my disappointment at some of the text in the Yom Yerushalyim readings handed out last Shabbat at shul.

While I don’t believe it is necessary to refer to the problematic parts of Zionist and Israeli history in every published piece or at every mention of Israel, I do think we need to be sensitive that these problems exist, and to avoid glorifying precisely the negative and morally problematic aspects of that history. You and I may disagree as to whether it was necessary for Israel to harm the Arabs in establishing a firm Jewish presence in the land, but I hope we can agree that the denial of Arab existence and/or the subordination of that existence to Jewish national FANTASIES (as opposed to needs) is not something we want to glorify.

Rabbi Grimberg’s reading from the bima of a very thoughtful piece by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on the 1967 re-unification of Jerusalem was a good example of the kind of readings and quotations we should be using. While affirming Jewish historical and emotional attachment to Jerusalem, Rabbi Heschel (and Rabbi Grimberg too, by choosing this piece) noted that possession of the real physical city of Jerusalem challenges us mightily to bring the sublime and universal and ethical ideals we associate with Yerushalyim shel mallah to the real Jerusalem of concreted and stone that we now control. This Heschel quote would have been very appropriate in the readings prepared by the ICC.

On the other hand I found two of the pieces that were included very disturbing, in so far as the quotes should be – I believe - designed to inspire us to our higher ideals, and not hold up our "lowlights" for glorification.

The first is the Herzel quote:

Jerusalem, Diary November 1898

In the afternoon we were on the Mount of Olives
Great moments. What couldn’t be made of this
country-side? A city like Rome, and the Mount of
Olives would furnish a panorama like the Janiculum

I would isolate the old city with its relics and pull out
all the regular traffic; only houses of worship and
philanthropic institutions would be allowed to remain
inside the old walls. ...

Here we have Herzel at his worst. Advocating clearing the old city (nearly the entire city in his day) of it population in order to turn it into a cultural park. It is a triumph of nationalist symbolism over the lives of real people. He is advocating putting the Nation (and even more banally national Symbols) over the needs and feeling of the people who live in the city. (I say “national” and not “religious”, because Herzel scorned the Jewish religion and traditional Jewish values.)

But Hezel can perhaps be forgiven by way of ignorance – this was his first trip to Israel and cultural norms of the 19th century are not what they are today. But the Naomi Shemer song Jerusalem of Gold cannot so easily be apologized for.

Naomi Shemer is a long time supporter of Greater Israel and the Settlement Movement and her lyrics have been excellent propaganda for those advocating retaining the occupied territories come hell or high water. The lyrics of Jerusalem of Gold express her view most succinctly: that ONLY the Jewish presence in Jerusalem counts. The Arab presence does not exist in any meaningful way, and should be ignored. The lyric quintessentially restates the early Zionist slogan (certainly known to be false by 1967 when she wrote the song) that Israel is “a land without people for a People without a land.” (And in my opinion this is THE essence of the moral and strategic problem of Israel and Zionism: what about the people who where living in Israel before the Jewish immigration of the last 100 years?)

The troubling part of the lyric is:

The wells ran dry of all their water,
Forlorn the market square,
The Temple Mount dark and deserted,
In the Old City there.

And in the caverns in the mountain,
The winds howl to and fro,
And no-one takes the Dead Sea highway,
That leads through Jericho.

East Jerusalem is – in May 1967 – depicted as empty! As if there was no life, as if there no commerce, as if Temple mount did not have a mosque on it with thousands praying and visiting each week, as if the entire landscape from Jerusalem to Jericho and the Dead Sea where abandoned.

In the last verse she hopes for the day when the mosques will be gone and the sound of the shofar will be heard on the Temple Mount. (And we know that there are Jewish extremist groups in Israel today that hope and plan to accomplish just that in our lifetimes.)

The attitudes expressed in this song, and in no small part because of a song like this - for too long infected Israeli society and lead to a blindness that is – at least partially – responsible for the moral and strategic mess that we find ourselves in today.

I am aware that the song had become an anthem. But I dare say most North American Jews did not understand what they where singing. In any case, it had faded from popularity, and singing a lyric is not the same as reading it. Reviving this particular song, and including its lyrics as inspirational material in the Yom Yerushalyim pamphlet, is a mistake, in my opinion. It flies in the face of the positive values we all want to promote.

I hope that in future, when the Israel Connections Committee prints material to mark Israel related occasions, it will read the material with a careful eye, and pick materials that do not glorify the worst of our national project, but its best.

I would ask that you pass this note on to the full ICC for consideration.



We will see if I am being naive and arrogant to think I can convince people in this regard. I will keep you posted.


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