Yom Yerushalayim: The most important least-celebrated Jewish holiday

A view of the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (Photo: Ray in Manila via Flickr)

Jerusalem always sticks with me.

I remember the first time that I visited Jerusalem and touched the Western Wall when I was in high school. Having grown up in the Reform movement, even though I had worn a long skirt for the occasion, I remember feeling a little out of place among the women who were davening (praying) quickly with siddurim (prayer books) and dressed in traditional religious clothing.

Nevertheless, I remember thinking to myself as I first touched the wall, “This place belongs to me too, it belongs to all the Jewish people.” I felt overcome with emotion. In one powerful moment, I felt a truly unique feeling of being at home in a place I had never been before.

I know that I am far from the only person who has had this experience, to the point that this story might sound cliche. But today, many years later, I still vividly recall that moment. Even though I now live thousands of miles away in New York City, my heart still yearns for Jerusalem and the feeling of being in the heart of the Jewish ancient homeland.

From a historical and religious perspective, it is incredible that we can even have that experience. We might take it for granted that we can walk right up to the Kotel and around the streets of Jerusalem, the same places where the ancient Jewish kings walked thousands of years ago.

We could easily forget that for about 2,000 years — from the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. until Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War in 1967 — the Jewish people’s holiest place was not in Jewish hands. We are one of the rare generations in Jewish history who can freely walk around the city streets and visit our holiest sites.

Yom Yerushalayim — which is this coming Sunday, May 29 — is an annual holiday that celebrates the current reality. It is the anniversary of the “reunification,” “liberation” or “conquering” (depending on your perspective) of Jerusalem under Jewish sovereignty during the Six-Day War.

At the same time, Yom Yerushalayim raises two questions for me which are more complicated:

  1. Why does Yom Yerushalayim stand out as uniquely critical among the four “Yoms” (Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut) and yet is also the least celebrated in the Jewish world?
  2. Why does this day pose such a unique challenge within Israel itself?

Regardless of where you stand on these questions, I strongly encourage you to celebrate Yom Yerushalayim and explore the complexity of the day. Below are a few simple ways that you can do that, and why this day is so complicated in Israel and the Jewish world today.

What is Yom Yerushalayim and how is it celebrated?

First, what is this day all about? For two millennia, following the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews faced toward Jerusalem in daily prayer and prayed for a collective return to their spiritual capital.

In 1948, the Jewish people achieved sovereignty in their ancient homeland with the founding of the state of Israel, but the Old City, Eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank remained under Jordanian control. Meanwhile, Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Desert, and Syria controlled the Golan Heights.

The area that was not under Jewish control included the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest place where the ancient holy Temples stood. And, the West Bank formed the heart of ancient Israel and is where many Biblical events took place, in places such as Hebron, Shechem (Nablus), Beit El, Gilgal and Gibeah (watch our video to learn more about the Jewish connection to the land).

Fast forward to 1967. In the weeks leading up to the Six-Day War, four Arab armies gathered near Israel’s borders, openly threatening the annihilation of the Jewish state. Then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser declared the day before the war:

“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.”

The mood in Israel was permeated with a sense of fear, panic and anxiety. The Arab forces on Israel’s borders greatly outnumbered the Jewish state’s modest military. Watching the armies gather and hearing the speeches delivered across the Arab world, many Israelis feared that they were on the precipice of another holocaust.

Yet, in six days, Israel pushed these armies back and captured new territory that made it much less vulnerable to future attacks. Practically overnight, Israel had tripled its size, gaining control of the Eastern Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (as well as the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights).

But Israel’s stunning victory came with a lot of complications, and many of the challenges Israel faces today have their beginnings in this critical time. Here’s what happened:

After the war, Israel hoped that it would be able to achieve peace with its Arab neighbors in exchange for the territories conquered during the war, a strategy often referred to as “land for peace.”

These hopes turned out to be irrelevant at that time because three months after Israel’s victory, Arab leaders passed the Khartoum Resolution, famous for its “Three No’s” — no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel. 

So, for now, the land would remain “disputed” or “occupied,” depending on who you ask. To many, since there had been an Arab population in parts of the region for centuries, they should be entitled to self-rule, even if they didn’t have it in the past. To them, the disputed lands are occupied.

On the other hand, those who viewed these territories as vital for security, as being won in a defensive war, and as having a deep historical Jewish connection, did not view this as an “occupation.”.

With the land in Israel’s hands and Arab rejection of any negotiations for peace, new developments began. For a long time, Zionism’s pioneering spirit of settling land had been secular, but now, a new group of religious Zionist pioneers took the helm. 

Through them, the settler movement would be infused with and fueled by religious passion and faith. Many religious Jews saw this as a historic moment they couldn’t possibly ignore, the dawn of the Jewish return after a long exile, described by the ancient prophets.

They were moved to settle in the newly-acquired (or newly “occupied”) lands. However, for the Palestinian Arabs living there, “the whole land of Palestine was occupied,” the Palestinian politician Samiha Khalil wrote. (Watch our video to learn more about how the settlements came to be.)

One year after the Six-Day War, the Israeli government proclaimed a new holiday — Jerusalem Day — to be celebrated on the 28th of the Hebrew month of Iyar, which was the date when the city came under Israeli control.

For many in Jerusalem, the day is one of joy and celebration of the liberation of Jerusalem, with thousands marching through the city singing, dancing and carrying Israeli flags. Many recite the festive Hallel prayer.

But the day is also complicated by the annual Flag March which typically passes through the Muslim Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. While the participants say this is a celebration of Israel’s victory in 1967, Palestinians view it as an act of provocation (read more about the Flag March in the section below).

Yom Yerushalayim is distinct from the other Yamim (i.e., Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut) in that it is less-celebrated throughout the country, and even less so in Jewish communities outside of Israel. Modern Orthodox communities celebrate it most commonly, and the non-Orthodox Diaspora Jewish community generally does not observe the day.

Why is Yom Yerushalayim complicated in Israel today?

On the one hand, Rabbi Avi Berman, executive director of the Israeli branch of the Orthodox Union, described the significance of the day this way: 

“[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.”

Similarly, Rabbi Ethan Tucker, Rosh Yeshiva at Mechon Hadar, wrote of the day: “An age-old dream of the Jewish people has been realized…We can now freely walk in the pathways of our ancestors and connect with the land that was the cradle of our civilization.”

On the other hand, each year on Jerusalem Day, Religious Zionist Jews march through the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem, which many Palestinians view as an act of provocation. However, the route has been changed in recent years when the security situation required it.

Last year, Israeli authorities altered the route of the march to avoid passing through the Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter, following Hamas threats and heightened tensions on the Temple Mount. 

Despite this, Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem while the march was in progress, sparking an 11-day war.

Last week, Israeli Public Security Minister Omer Barlev announced that this year’s march will be allowed to pass through the Muslim Quarter. In response, the organizers of the march praised Barlev’s decision, saying in a statement: 

“There is nothing better than marching through all of the city during Jerusalem’s holiday. The traditional ‘flag dance’ represents…the liberation of Jerusalem and its connection from west to east, through tens of thousands of people marching happily through the streets of the Old City, on their way to the Western Wall.”

However, Arab-Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej disagreed with the decision, tweeting in Hebrew:

“The decision to approve the route of the provocation march through the Muslim Quarter and Damascus Gate is a dangerous and concerning mistake. The purpose of holding the march in the heart of East Jerusalem is not the betterment of Jerusalem, but the desire to set it aflame, which is why I intend to take action to change the decision in order to prevent its dangerous ramifications.”

“Channel 13 news reported that Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz both expressed reservations, but not outright opposition, regarding the Damascus Gate route,” The Times of Israel reported.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, Hamas warned Israel against allowing the annual march to proceed.

“I want to clearly warn the enemy against committing these crimes and these steps,” said Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, referring to the march. “The Palestinian people, led by the resistance — especially those in the West Bank and Jerusalem — will not permit this Jewish, Talmudic rubbish to go unanswered.”

4 simple ways to make Yom Yerushalayim memorable this year:

Yom Yerushalayim is about both celebrating Israel’s miraculous victory in 1967 and exploring the difficult questions and issues Israel faced in the aftermath and still faces today. Here are four things you can do on this day:

  1. Learn the history of the Six-Day War. 

    If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of the toughest issues facing Israel today — the settlements, Jerusalem, the two-state solution — then this short film series is a great starting point. Experience the dramatic events of 1967 and discover how they transformed the State of Israel and also presented new challenges.

  2. Learn how the “status quo” at the Temple Mount came to be.

    The pinnacle of the Six-Day War was Israeli Colonel Motta Gur’s famous declaration on the radio: “Har Habayit biyadeinu,” “The Temple Mount is in our hands!”

    The Jewish people’s holiest site was now under Jewish control, for the first time in 2,000 years. A few moments later, the Israeli flag was fastened to the top of the Dome of the Rock, but this excitement was immediately toned down when Defense Minister Moshe Dayan essentially said, “Are you crazy? You are going to bring the entire Middle East into a war!” 

    So, the Israeli flag was removed, and something wilder happened next. Just at the moment that the Jewish people had reconnected with their holiest site, Dayan struck a deal with the Jordanian Muslim Waqf, who had been in control of the site. Read more about Dayan’s fateful decision and why Israelis still vehemently debate whether it was an act of wisdom or weakness.

  3. Reflect on what Jerusalem means to you. 

    Yom Yerushalayim is an opportunity to explore the history, geography and/or symbolism of Jerusalem and how you personally connect with the Jewish spiritual capital. Watch our video to learn about the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the West Bank. 

    Leading up to this day, you might take the opportunity to journal or simply reflect on what Jerusalem means to you. If you’ve been to Jerusalem, what have been your most memorable or inspiring experiences, and what have been the more unsavory experiences?

    If you’ve never been, what do you imagine Jerusalem to be like and what do you associate it with it? Whether or not you’ve been there before, if you were to envision an ideal Jerusalem, an ideal Jewish capital, what would it look like and stand for?

  4. Listen to these songs about Jerusalem:

    In honor of Yom Yerushalayim, here are a few of our favorite songs about Jerusalem. You can follow along with the lyrics and English translation.

    Whether these songs transport you to the “Yerushalayim shel ma’alah” (heavenly Jerusalem) that we hope it will one day become, or the complexity of “Yerushalayim shel matah” (earthly Jerusalem) as it exists today, they help convey the beauty of Jerusalem and the spirit of the day.

    Want to listen to more songs about Jerusalem? Check out our playlist for Yom Yerushalyaim on Spotify.

Omer Adam, “Yerushalayim” (Jerusalem) (lyrics)

Meir Ariel, “Yerushalayim Shel Barzel” (Jerusalem of Iron) (lyrics and background)

Ofra Haza, “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (Jerusalem of Gold) (written by Naomi Shemer) (lyrics)

Noey Jacobson, “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (Jerusalem of Gold) (lyrics)

Yaakov Shwekey, “Im Eshkachech” (“If I forget you”) (Tehillim/Psalms 137: 5-6)