Next Year in Occupied East Jerusalem!

Over the weekend I was a victim of a hoax.  An internet scenario played out a scene in which Barack Obama tells a visiting Israeli delegation to the White House, headed by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that he believes the cause of peace would be advanced if the words “Next Year in Jerusalem” were excised from the Passover Haggadah.

The prime minister, squirming uncomfortably in his seat, looks from aide to aide before finally offering to remove the words from the Yom Kippur service but not the Haggadah.  Not satisfied with the response, Obama stands up to excuse himself for dinner, indicating that he will be back later. ” I’ll give you some time to think about it and will return to have you sign the new edict.”

I believed it for a moment because, like all parody, it possesses an inkling of truth.  Given this administration’s impatience with the Netanyahu government’s obduracy in attaching itself to a united Jerusalem, one would think that there is indeed some substance to the idea that the Obama administration not only wants to sever East Jerusalem from West, but the Jewish people’s attachment to the city in general.

Maybe that is why an unconfirmed rumor circulating the Internet,  that the Obama White House seder will not conclude with the traditional words ” Next Year in Jerusalem” for fear of offending Palestinian sensibilities, has gained such currency.

It may all be nonsense but still it leaves many with the sense that things seem to have gone very wrong.  During his electoral campaign, Obama’s own platform called for a united Jerusalem and the U.S. Congress itself has been behind that very notion since at least 1995  when it passed The Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act.

Is Obama not aware that no Israeli government which accepts the division of Jerusalem can hope to survive very long, as evidenced by the collapse of  Ehud Barak’s coalition  in late 2000?   Can the President of the United States and his counselors not fathom that a united Jerusalem is, for the Jewish people, more than just bricks and mortar, roads and traffic lights, but a focus of national aspirations, a transcendent longing that has kept hope burning in the hearts of a people for two millennia?

It is in fact, the very idea around which the Jewish people’s national liberation movement, ” Zionism” is woven, Mt. Zion itself being situated in the very heart of what Mr. Obama refers to as East Jerusalem.

There is nothing that even remotely parallels this in the Arab, Muslim or Palestinian narratives.

Not mentioned even once in the Koran, Jerusalem was never a focus of Muslim attachment and was essentially neglected by its Ottoman overlords for seven centuries.   It did not stir any Arab or Muslim  interest until Jewish immigration in the early 20th century spurred an economic revival.  For a brief movement, following the Jordanian Legion’s capture of the Old City in 1948, it gained Muslim attention.  But the  Hashemites had little affection for Jerusalem, where some of their most devoted enemies lived and where the Jordanian king, Abdallah,  was  himself was shot dead in 1951.   In fact, the Hashemites did little to bring attention to the city, leaving its abandoned Jewish Quarter an utter ruin and moving the city’s officials to Amman.  As a result, for nineteen years, Arab Jerusalem became an isolated backwater, second to even dingy Nablus.   The economy stagnated and many thousands left the city.

Only with its capture by the IDF in the Six Day War, did Muslim and Arab historians begin to remember the centrality of Jerusalem to Muslim (and, of course, Palestinian) tradition.

This rather sordid history has no impact on those who vaunt Jerusalem today as ” a city sacred to three religions.”

Perhaps Barack  Obama   –  and those court Jews  who surround  him –  believe, as did the Romantic poets, that the word ” Jerusalem”  is more an abstract  symbol than a physical location and it is better for Jews to cement the idea of such unity in heart and mind than in reality.  For the Romantics, the Crusader notion of raising an army to liberate the city was anathema. “The New Jerusalem” could be better regained  through contemplation and spiritual relocation rather than under arms.

Jews, however, have never accepted  Jerusalem as a mere theoretical construct that requires no physical attachment.

For example, the centrality of Jerusalem is embedded in Jewish liturgy and has been so for at least 1800 years.  One of the 19 blessings of the Amidah ( the silent prayer pivotal to all Jewish prayer services) reads: “Return to Your city Jerusalem in mercy, and establish Yourself there as you promised…Blessed are you Lord, builder of Jerusalem.”   This prayer is traditionally recited three times a day, while facing Jerusalem.

For the generation that witnessed the rise of the first Jewish state in two thousand years and then the unification of the city 19 years later, with the holiest shrine in Judaism along with it, there can be no talk of such surrender.  For to give up sovereignty to the Old City, the Mount of  Olives and Mt. Zion, all located in the proverbial “East” Jerusalem,  would feel like an amputation.   Not for nothing  do Jews recite the line from Psalms:  ” If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand whither……” as a reminder of their attachment to their ancestral home.

It is was therefore no accident that those were the exact words emblazoned on the first lorry to break through the Arab blockade of Jerusalem in 1948, as it reached the  starving Jerusalem residents who had begun to give up hope of ever being relieved.  The story is powerfully recounted by Amos Ben Ami:

“Within an hour the whole city knew. On this Sabbath morning, cheering people lined the convoy’s route. People came, with tears in their eyes, to see the wonderful sight. It gave them the feeling that Jerusalem is not isolated; we are united with the rest of Israel!”

That event took place exactly 62 years ago in the days immediately preceding Passover. The unification of Jerusalem with the rest of  Israel gave the fledgling Jewish state the will to defeat the five Arab armies that only a month later would invade on four borders.

For many Jews there is no longer a “East” or “West” Jerusalem, but a united, indivisible city for whom hundreds of thousands, even in this deeply cynical age, would give their lives to defend.  The Israeli prime minister seems to understand this.  But it is apparent that the leader of the world’s most powerful nation and the country’s foremost ally, does not.

Perhaps, then, it might well be fitting for the President to end the White House seder this year with the words “Next Year in Occupied East Jerusalem!”

Then there could be no doubt  about his sensitivity to Palestinian rights and demands, nor of his outright rejection of the Jews’ claim or attachment to their eternal capital.

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