Unlike most American-born Jews, my first visit to Israel was not on a family or group trip. I landed alone, in the middle of the night, and was immediately flagged by security. They questioned me for hours. What is your occupation? I’m a student. What do you study? Middle East Studies. What is the purpose of your visit to Israel? Tourism… and an internship at a Palestinian activist organization in East Jerusalem. What is your religion? After fifteen years of Catholic school, all I could say with certainty was “not that.” Who do you know in Israel? No one. Really? No one? Really. No one.
When I was released, around seven in the morning, the sun was rising on Yom Yerushalayim, the Hebrew anniversary of Jerusalem’s capture by Israeli forces in 1967. Reading about that day in Palestinian news sources for my Arabic class, it was called Yom an-Naksa: the day of the setback in Palestine’s liberation. Walking through West Jerusalem, I saw men in the streets wearing Israeli flags as capes, singing songs of victory. It was the beginning of a summer of unprecedented cognitive dissonance for me. On the one hand, my anti-occupation sentiment was hardened as I watched ancient olive groves fill with tear gas while Palestinian children clung to their family’s trees. On the other, one magical Shabbat in the hills of Jerusalem set me on the road to converting to Judaism, to meeting my Israeli wife, and ultimately to my current life as a rabbinical student at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem–and, more importantly, an Israeli who does a mean vegan barbecue on Yom Ha’Atzmaut.
Though I am still a hard critic of the occupation, my life now would be unrecognizable to the twenty-year-old who spent those early morning hours detained at Ben Gurion airport. That said, there is at least one ideological constant between me and my anti-Zionist beginnings: I will not celebrate on Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day.
Last year, as the sun rose again on Yom Yerushalayim, my fellow rabbinical students broke out into Hallel, the psalms of praise sung on holidays during morning prayers. I went into the hallway. I went into the hallway and said tachanun, the prayers of repentance we say on any normal day. Ashamnu, I began: we have wronged. Bagadnu, we have betrayed. Gazalnu, we have stolen. Although I say these words almost every day, they took on a new meaning for me as I recalled my second trip to Israel, when I encountered the ugly side of Yom Yerushalayim.
In the summer of 2012, I was criss-crossing Israel/Palestine with hiking sandals and a digital camera, doing research for my undergraduate thesis on the erasure of the Palestinian past from Israeli public space. Jerusalem Day started like any other day; I put on my loose, long-sleeved shirt and pants, got sunburnt anyway at a book talk in Sheikh Jarrah, then spent some time revising my notes and sipping mint tea at the Educational Bookshop on Salah ad-Din Street, one of East Jerusalem’s busiest commercial hubs. Long before the sun went down, I closed up my laptop and planned to make it back to my hostel in the Old City before the protests started. I soon discovered I was already far too late.
Approaching the mouth of Nablus Road, there was a row of barricades and riot police facing off a few dozen protestors waving Palestinian flags. Behind them, I could see masses of men in white shirts and khakis waving the Israeli flag, weaving their way through the park that hugs the Old City Walls before spilling into the Damascus Gate plaza.
The daredevil in me wanted to be there, in the heart of the action. But I was tired, and every horror story about being a woman alone on the streets at night was buzzing through my head, so I set my sights on escaping back to my home base for the night. All that stood in my way were two demonstrations and the thick rows of police on either side of them.
I drew closer to the Palestinian protest, recognizing several of the chants I heard. From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free. I decided to try and bargain my way through to Damascus Gate. I let loose my ponytail, no longer wanting to blend into the East Jerusalem streets, and prepared to play the part of the pathetic, bewildered tourist.
Before I could make it to the front of the crowd, though, there was a loud shout, and everyone started running backwards. I ran with them as tear gas canisters clanged and bounced on the road behind us, ducking into a vegetable stand for cover. The owner seemed barely aware of me, as he was standing on the sidewalk shouting at the police.
My entire being was focused on getting into the Old City walls. I knew the alleyways of the Muslim Quarter. Once I reached them, I thought I would be able to get away.
I was well into the thick of it before I noticed that there were no women marching with this group. Still, I didn’t realize what a bad situation I was in until I made it inside the walls—until all of these strangers’ bodies pressed in on me. I searched for an alley I might escape to, but every possible escape route was guarded by police clutching long rifles.
This is what you came to Jerusalem to see, I reminded myself. Don’t look away.
Then the road narrowed. The flow of people slowed to a stop, and the teenagers started to get antsy. They grabbed the iron gates protecting the closed shops and rattled them. The longer we stood, the louder their chanting became. I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on their words instead of the jostling of their knees and elbows, as if I were back in Hebrew class at Yale and this was a listening test.
Am israel chai. The people of Israel live. Muhammad met, Muhammad is dead.
I was so close to getting out, I thought.
When the crowd finally moved, it moved the wrong way. I turned, and a new chant began to rise. Mavet le’aravim. Death to Arabs. A single man in a dark tee-shirt, without a kippah, was holding a camcorder in the face of a few boys who were shouting at him, shoving him. Mavet le’smolanim. Death to leftists. The whole crowd began closing in on him, pushing him up into the very corner of the wall as if to pummel him through it.
I wanted to run to him, to put my body between his and the mob, but I was frozen in place. God, I prayed, even though we hadn’t been on speaking terms lately, don’t let them kill this guy in front of me.
A few people around me noticed my concern for the reporter, which reminded me that I could very easily be their next target. This is so fucked up, I repeated to myself over and over. It’s so fucked up, how we who were so often conquered celebrate conquering others. I was terrified, yes, but even more than that, I was ashamed of us.
In the midst of what might have been a lynch mob, I realized what I had managed to avoid through a whole year of Hebrew classes and accepting invitations to Shabbat dinner. I belonged to this place, to these people. Why else would I keep coming back to this city that broke my heart again and again? If I belonged then, even during the ugliest display of Jewish identity, there was no escaping it.
Suddenly the crowd began moving forward again, faster this time. I ran to the next alley—mine was still a few streets away but this would have to do—and gasped out, Tourist! I’m a tourist, please—and the police finally let me through. I sprinted up the stairs, stopping only to whisper-shout at the two small Palestinian boys who were hiding in the buildings’ shadows, peeking out at the main street. Imshu min hun! Get out of here, I insisted. Imshu!
I spent the rest of the night scouring the internet for pictures, news articles, any sort of documentation of the insanity that I had witnessed in the streets. But none of what I saw was reported on. The only photos I found were of the thousands of cheering Israelis arriving at the Wall from all directions, singing of the two thousand years they had waited to return to Jerusalem. In the end, that was what scared me most about that night: that vicious, unrepentant incitement had the full run of the streets of the Old City, and that the vast majority of Israelis would never even know.
Last year on Yom Yerushalayim, I skipped my afternoon classes and went to the March of Flowers, a tradition that Jewish peace activists started organizing a few years after my nightmare encounter. We walked through Palestinian neighborhoods and handed out daisies, with Hebrew and Arabic cards calling for an end to extremist violence.
When the rockets started the next day, since the tiny old house my wife and I lived in didn’t have a bomb shelter, we put our hands over our heads and crouched on the ground while explosion after explosion rang out for what felt like hours, each sounding closer than the last. Neither my classmates’ psalms nor my prayers of supplication had succeeded in bringing peace.
Our sages teach us that in the world to come, our fast days will become feasts of great rejoicing. Perhaps when we are finally redeemed, I will be able to join the rest of Israel in songs of thanksgiving on Yom Yerushalayim. But as long as our liberation remains contingent upon the oppression of another people, I will remember.
Bio: Maayan Belding-Zidon (she/they) is a rabbinical student at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem. When they’re not learning or teaching Torah, you can find them on Twitter (@messmelding) talking about life in Israel and being gay-married.
Image: by Ester Inbar, Wikimedia Commons