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Why I won’t be singing on Jerusalem Day

Celebrating the reunification of Israel’s capital may be premature before a peace agreement

    Young Israelis march through the Old City in commemoration of Yom Yerushalayim, the reunification of Jerusalem
    Young Israelis march through the Old City in commemoration of Yom Yerushalayim, the reunification of Jerusalem

    When Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks issued his new edition of the Singer’s Prayer book, the United Synagogue’s standard siddur for the first time mentioned Jerusalem Day.

    The entry was just a few lines and there was no great liturgical innovation: it stated that the event should be marked with the omission of Tachanun (the prayers of supplication) and the recitation of Hallel plus some psalms of celebration. But its inclusion was a significant step towards official religious recognition of Jerusalem Day, which falls on Sunday.

    The anniversary of the city’s reunification, when Israeli forces took it from Jordan on June 7 1967 during the Six-Day War, might seem an obvious addition to the Jewish calendar. We already devote time to commemorating defeats and disasters: the four fasts associated with the loss of Jerusalem and the fall of the Temple, for example, or the current, long stretch of semi-mourning during the counting of the Omer.

    So why not dwell for a moment on an occasion of national rejoicing, the return of Jerusalem to Jewish hands after nearly two millennia? Rabbi Michael Harris makes an eloquent case for doing so in this week’s sidrah column (right).

    But I can’t help feeling that is premature to proclaim Jerusalem Day as public festival — and will be until a peace deal is reached between Israel and the Palestinians. It is hard to envisage the prospect of any agreement without compromise over Jerusalem and although some Israeli politicians such as former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have indicated the willingness to make far-reaching concessions that might have seemed unimaginable a generation ago — offering to cede sovereignty over the Temple Mount while retaining control of the Western Wall — an agreement remains as elusive as ever. Jerusalem continues to be a place of division and discord.

    The Palestinians, not without reason, fear that Israeli settlement-building over the years has been designed to ring-fence the capital, isolating it from the West Bank. In his acclaimed history of Jerusalem, Simon Sebag Montefiore writes: “The aggressive building of settlements, designed to colonise Arab neighbourhoods and sabotage any peace deal to share the city, and the systematic neglect of services and new housing in Arab areas, have given even the most innocent Jewish projects a bad name.”

    But the Palestinians themselves have embarked on an insidious form of revisionism, attempting to deny the historic and spiritual Jewish connections with the city. Whereas the pre-War Muslim authorities had no problem acknowledging the Temple Mount as the site of Solomon’s Temple, Palestinian leaders have adopted the pretence that it as an entirely Islamic site with no Jewish significance. Such claims only serve to convince Israelis of Palestinian bad faith.

    In Judaism’s eyes, Jerusalem derives its sanctity from its being the location of the Temple. It may be true that many Jews may fervently pray for its rebuilding as an integral part of messianic redemption. It is also true, however that many Jews, if they were to put their hands on their hearts, care little for the idea of any return to the sacrificial rites recalled in the traditional prayers. Yet Jerusalem retains its hold on the imagination as the symbolic centre of Jewish aspirations and dreams.

    The prophetic literature, while it looks to the restoration of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem, goes beyond narrow triumphalism, portraying the city’s spiritual elevation on a broader canvas. When Solomon makes a feast for the people to celebrate the completion of the Temple, he prays that the supplication of a stranger who comes to the Temple be answered.

    The second chapter of Isaiah, containing the promise that the word of the Lord shall go forth from Jerusalem, immediately introduces the famous image of beating swords into ploughshares and nations learning war no more. In a later chapter, Isaiah says of the Temple that it shall be called “a house of prayer for all peoples” (56.7).

    So perhaps we need a vision for Jerusalem that attempts to live up to the higher prophetic ideals. Since nothing has done more to tarnish the reputation of religion in today’s world than its association with conflict and hatred, what could be more appropriate than to try to nurture Jerusalem as a centre for interfaith understanding?

    Instead of fortifying contentious Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem, it would be better to invest in projects that promote amity among Jews, Christians and Muslims, no matter the obstacles that try to thwart it. In the meantime, we can all mark Jerusalem Day by reciting Psalm 122 with its compelling sentiment, “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem”.

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