I usually leave work at the Palestine-Israel Journal office in the Wadi Joz neighborhood of East Jerusalem in the early evening. As I walk along the Old City walls back to West Jerusalem, it’s a lively and vibrant scene. Merchants sell fresh, green garbanzo beans and pyramids of strawberries. Lingerie and shoes are set up in stalls along Salah al-Din Street. Old men sit on the benches smoking and sipping thick Turkish coffee from paper cups. School children dart every which way and Quran verses drift out of loudspeakers in the doorways of the mosques. But on Yom Yerushalayim, the life had been sucked out of East Jerusalem.
My afternoon started at a demonstration organized by a group called “Jerusalem Won’t Tolerate Racism”. A few hundred folks stood on the stairs of the municipality building overlooking the Old City walls. Protest signs written in Hebrew and Arabic were held high overhead, reading “Jerusalem won’t tolerate violence” and “Say no to racism”. The demonstrators chanted similar slogans, beat drums and blew whistles. By all accounts, it was a good turnout, more populated than in previous years and yesterday police and army forces were present to keep the protesters and counter-protesters from clashing as they had in years past.
Politician Baruch Marzel, Israel’s patron saint of hatred and racism was at the counter-demonstration a few feet away, separated by police barricades. He took photos with many of the hundreds of high school boys clad in kippot and tzitzit and Israeli flags who chanted “Leftists go to Gaza” and threw water bottles at us. Marzel shouted into the megaphone and smiled and danced with the crowd. The wicked man has every reason to be happy. As evidenced in the makeup of the new Israeli government, his crowd is winning. They’ll win for a while and then everything will crash down around them.
Then, I walked to East Jerusalem. It was early evening and the stores were shuttered. Police horses clopped down the street and a handful of Palestinian families were gingerly making their way home, looking over their shoulder a few times, not sure if they’d make it back without being accosted by the massive group of boys waving Israeli flags pouring down the hill as if this were some Lord of the Rings scene, an Iranian military march or something even more sinister.
There is a great irony in the fact that Naomi Shemer’s hit Jerusalem of Gold is the soundtrack to Yom Yerushalayim. She bemoans in her song that in Jerusalem “the fountains have run dry and the marketplace is empty” but the nationalistic fervor that preempted the writing of her song has caused Jerusalem’s marketplace to become empty once again. While so many others celebrated, I found yesterday to be an incredibly sad day. When there isn’t a concrete wall that snakes its way through Jerusalem, when the Jerusalem municipality allots more than 10% of its budget to the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, when Israel stops demolishing Palestinian houses and evicting them from homes that have been theirs for decades, maybe I’ll celebrate Yom Yerushalayim.