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The Beauty of Jerusalem

The Talmud teaches, “Ten measures of beauty descended on the world, nine were taken by Jerusalem, one by the rest of the world.” Years later, Mark Twain said, “There is no beauty like the beauty of Jerusalem.”

Today, the 26th of Iyar marks the 48th anniversary of the Six-Day War when the third day of this very short war ended 19 years of separation between predominantly Arab and Jewish areas of Jerusalem and led to the unification of the two sections of the city.

Jerusalem was divided from the War of Independence in 1948 until 1967. The western part of the city was in Israeli hands, and the eastern part – excluding an Israeli enclave on Mount Scopus – was under the control of the Jordanian kingdom. After the eastern part of the city was liberated, the walls dividing the city were torn down. Three weeks later the Knesset enacted legislation unifying the city and extending Israeli sovereignty over the eastern part.

That third victorious day of heroic fighting, the 28th of Iyar now marks Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day and is the most recent addition to the Hebrew calendar, (to be celebrated this coming Sunday, May 17.)

Jerusalem has been considered the capital city of the Jewish people since the time of King David, who conquered and established it as the seat of his monarchy in approximately 1000 B.C.E. In modern times, 1980 to be precise, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed a law establishing “Jerusalem, Capital of Israel, complete and united, is the capital of Israel and the seat of its main governing bodies” and only in 1998 the Knesset passed the “Jerusalem Day “law,” declaring this day as an official holiday.  This 1980 law is often cited by the international community for its refusal to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Following its passage, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 478 on August 20, 1980, which declared that it is “a violation of international law” is “null and void and must be rescinded forthwith.” Member states were called upon to withdraw their diplomatic representation from Jerusalem and relocate them in Tel Aviv. Currently, there are no embassies located within the city limits of Jerusalem.

I was born in Jerusalem and was a baby hiding with my family in our neighbors’ apartment during the Six-Day war (we lived on the third floor which was more vulnerable to air attacks than their ground-floor apartment). I grew up not too far from the Old City, able to walk to the Kotel, or shop at the Arab market on a daily basis.

I consider myself extremely lucky when driving daily to our JCC Israel Center offices alongside the ancient sites of Jerusalem, thinking to myself “if only walls could speak, what secrets will they share?” These walls have seen miseries and joy, victories and capitulation, holiness and despoilment, greatness and recession.

So what is it about Jerusalem that makes Jews across the world pray facing it three times a day, every day; that more than 1,200 songs in many different languages have been written in its honor; that during its history, the city has been captured repeatedly by different conquerors and tribes?

The city of Jerusalem has more than 100 different names, but the one name most frequently used is YERUSHALAYIM, which means peace – SHALOM—or whole – SHALEM. The essence of the city derives from its name: a symbol of peace, acceptance, and tolerance. It is not incidental that Jerusalem is the only city in the world that is holy to all three major monotheistic religions, and therefore respected by all. If these holy sites can tolerate standing peacefully side by side for centuries, so should human beings.

Today, 48 years after the unification of the city, the effort to preserve shalom within Yerushalayim is challenging and ongoing. It is often frustrating, as well as a cause for anger, violence and pain.

Jerusalem is Israel’s most crowded city, with a population of close to 900,000. Of that, 65 percent are Jews, and the rest are Arabs, with a small number of others. While fertility rates are identical for Arabs and Jews (four children per family), Jews appear to be more likely to leave the city. The reasons range from the high cost of living; the fact that the city is relatively more religious than other cities (haredi or ultra-Orthodox Jews live in Jerusalem at a rate 3.6 times higher than their percentage in Israel as a whole); and that Jerusalem offers a weaker job market.

In Jerusalem today, Jewish and Arab citizens live in highly segregated environments, and there are few opportunities for meaningful and deep interaction between them, especially among school children. The majority of families in Israel —Jewish and Arab — send their children to segregated schools with some very unique exceptions such as the Bilingual School in Jerusalem.

Thirty percent of the Hebrew University student population is Arab, and the proportion rises every year. In the Givat Ram campus, almost half the students in some courses are Arab. These students are given full access to all facilities and have an active Arab Student Union. Arabic and Islamic studies are among the academic areas in which Hebrew University excels.

Blue and white flags wave over the streets of the city, welcoming hundreds of thousands of Israeli school children honoring our capital, celebrating its holiday. While tension exists between the different ethnical groups of Jerusalem residents, and while some find it hard to celebrate while in many ways the city is still so divided, yet for at least one day, our capital deserves festivity, keeping in mind we must strive to bridge the divides.

My wish for Jerusalem in honor of this holiday is that the same ancient walls will witness new stories—ones of this holy city embracing all its residents and visitors with acceptance and tolerance; overcoming disputes and hate and spreading its “Nine Measures of Beauty” upon all those who sing “Jerusalem of Gold” with great pride and love.


Shabbat shalom

Leah Garber, Vice President, JCC Israel Center

[email protected]



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