The Deeper Meaning of Jerusalem Day

Old City from the Mount of the Olives. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Yom Yerushalayim, or Jerusalem Day, is the anniversary of the liberation/conquering/re-unification (depending on your perspective) of Jerusalem under Jewish sovereignty that took place during the Six-Day War. This was the first time in thousands of years that the entire city of Jerusalem was under Jewish sovereignty. For many in Jerusalem, the day is one of joy and celebration, with thousands marching through the city singing and carrying Israeli flags. Many recite the festive Hallel prayer. Yet Yom Yerushalayim is distinct from the other Yamim in that it’s celebrated less throughout the country, and even less so in Jewish communities outside of Israel, with modern Orthodox communities celebrating it most commonly and the non-Orthodox diaspora Jewish community generally not observing the day.


On one hand… Natan Sharansky has described Jerusalem as representing “both the highest expression of our Jewish ideals and spirituality – ירושלים של מעלה (‘heavenly’ Jerusalem)–and the strongest force for internal unity ירושלים של מטה (‘earthly’ Jerusalem).” Arutz Sheva quoted the OU’s Rabbi Avi Berman, who describes the feeling of Yom Yerushalayim as a day in which the Jewish people have “the ability to just walk over to the Kotel, to walk around Jerusalem… this is the land that David Hamelech was walking around in, Shlomo Hamelech, all the Jewish kings–this is where everybody aspired to be. And thank God, we’re able to walk around here like no other generation before us.”

On the other hand… Religious Zionist Jews march through the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem, which upsets some Palestinians. Last year, clashes between Palestinians and Jews erupted at Damascus Gate, leading to arrests of both Palestinians and Jews, who were arrested for “singing songs considered to be incitement,” according to Haaretz. As a result of this incitement, the NGO Ir-Amim sent out a video showing the incitement that can happen in this march and proposed an alternative to the Jerusalem Day Event. In response to Ir-Amim’s petition to bar the annual march from passing through the Muslim Quarter, especially as Ramadan comes to a close, Israel’s High Court of Justice rejected the petition, saying, “The current situation correctly balances between freedom of expression and the rights of those marching in the flag march, on one hand, and the collective and individual interests of Old City residents on the other.”


I. The Fear Before the War

What impact did the Six-Day War and the liberation/conquering/reunification of Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria (West Bank) have on Jews around the world?

Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser announced the following:

“The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel…to face the challenge, while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation. This act will astound the world. Today they will know that the Arabs were arranged for battle; the crucial hour has arrived. We have reached the stage of serious action and not declaration.”

  • In an attempt to show genuine empathy, journal your reaction to this statement as a teenager living in Israel, an Arab living in one of the neighboring countries, or as a Jewish leader living outside of Israel.

II. The Challenge and Impact of Victory

Controversial public intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz, in his essay, Occupation and Terror, wrote the following in 1976:

“In a world from which colonialism has been eliminated, Israel, since 1967, is endeavoring to impose colonial rule on the territory of a foreign people. Two aspects of Israeli rule over the West Bank and Gaza ought to be considered… The question of the internal implications of including one and a quarter million Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza under the rule of the State of Israel… the second problem involves the implications for Jewish-Arab relations. The occupation rule in the West Bank and Gaza will bring about solidarity of the half a million Israeli Arab citizens with their brothers in the occupied territories. This will lead to a radical change in their state of mind. Inevitably, they will no longer regard themselves as citizens of the State of Israel, but rather as members of a people exploited by a state.”

  • When reading this, do you find yourself frustrated by what Leibowitz argues or in agreement with his point of view? Do you think he was prescient in his description of events looking back at this in 2019, or do you see his perspective as misguided?

III. Transformation of the World and Religion

a. Robert Ruby, Senior Editor at Pew Forum, writes:

“The 1967 combatants unknowingly planted the seeds for much of what was to come: the rise of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, another all-out Arab-Israeli war in 1973, construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, a war in Lebanon, the first Palestinian uprising, peace accords between Israel and the PLO, a second Palestinian uprising and, in 2006, a second war in Lebanon. Because of the speed of the Arab states’ defeat and their loss of territory to Israel, the 1967 war also brought discredit to secular governments in the region and contributed to the rise of Islamist politics. In both Israel and the Arab world, the war helped make religion, rather than just nationality, seem a cause worth fighting for.”

  • How was the Six-Day War transformational in a way that no other Arab-Israeli war was?

b. Einat Wilf, writer and former member of Knesset, writes:

“For many decades, religious Zionism remained a marginal, and quite meek, movement in Zionism—and in Judaism. But 1967 changed that. In six short days, Israel swung from the fear of annihilation to the euphoria of an astounding victory. The tiny country tripled its size to include not just the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula, but the cradles of Jewish civilization, including the Temple Mount, East Jerusalem (the Zion of Zionism, home of holy sites), and the West Bank (the territory of Judea, home of the ancient Judeans).

“For those who believed that God works in mysterious ways to bring about the redemption of the Jewish people, 1967 was proof. From that moment on, religious Zionism and the settler movement took off to become a dominant form of Zionism and Israeli Judaism, and a powerful political player in shaping the modern state.”

  • Does this victory on behalf of religious Zionism inspire you about the story of Israel or alienate you from the story of Israel?

IV. An Unprecedented Moment

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, former principal of Ramaz and senior rabbi at Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side, and famous Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky point out the significance of the day:

Rabbi Lookstein states:

“We never wore a kippah outside. I went to Columbia College and I never saw a kipa the whole time I was there. There was one guy who wore a hat. The elder Rabbi Lookstein would say, ‘We used to walk around like question marks. After 1967, and Israel’s miracle victory, we started walking around like exclamation points.’”

Natan Sharansky, in the foreword to Gil Troy’s The Zionist Ideas, argues:

“The Zionist Idea gave me–and millions of others–a meaningful identity. In June 1967, when I was nineteen, the call from Jerusalem ‘The Temple Mount is in Our Hands’–penetrated the Iron Curtain. Democratic Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, defeating Arab dictatorships threatening to destroy it, inspired many of us all over the world to become active participants in Jewish history… Forging a mystical link with our people, we discovered identity, or as we call it “peoplehood.” Suddenly, we soviet Jews, Jews of silence, robbed of our heritage by the Soviet regime, realized there is a country that called us its children.”

  • Does what happens in Israel contribute to your own sense of religious security?
  • Now that Israel won this war over 50 years ago, do you feel the pride that was felt then?
  • In reflecting on the impact of this war, please write down your thoughts on how your own life was impacted by the events of 1967.