In the past 24 hours, I have experienced a Tisha b’Av unlike any I have observed before. It was educational, spiritual, and even incredibly productive for my research. I will try to take it all a piece at a time.
At 8 in the evening, I made my way down to Gan HaAtzmaut (Independence Park) in Jerusalem just opposite the American Consulate on Agron Street. There hundreds of people were assembling for a public reading of Aicha (Lamentations) and a walk around the walls of the Old City organized by the Women in Green. For those who did not catch yesterday’s post, they are an organization of “Land of Israel” activists who support the unity of Jerusalem and the expansion of Jewish settlement in the territories. I have been following their activities since I was last in Israel three years ago, but this was my first time making it to one of their events. The turnout was impressive to say the least.
After davening ma’ariv and hearing the reading of Aicha, Yoram Ettinger, a former Minister for Congressional Affairs to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC, gave an impassioned speech decrying the settlement freeze, calling for the continued unity of Jerusalem, and telling the crowd that although the Obama Administration, he believes, has been no friend of Israel, the American Congress and the American People are at odds with their president in this regard. Particularly notable for me was his quotations of former Israeli Prime Ministers, particularly David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir, on the importance of Jerusalem to the Jewish people and Israel, and the necessity to preserve its unity in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War… the point being that the consolidation and expansion of Jerusalem’s borders is not a new trope in Israeli politics, nor is it an isolated position of the Israeli right. Following his speech in Hebrew (of which I really understood the great majority), he gave a second, much shorter speech in English following the same themes. After the speech, I made my way through the crowd to introduce myself… I am in research mode now. We exchanged cards and numbers… and so it begins!
From Gan HaAtzmaut, the police closed the streets of Jerusalem from Agron, up Shlomo Hamelech, to Hatzanhanim and Sultan Suleiman which make their way past the northern walls of the Old City. Much to my relief, the march was orderly, proud, and spirited, but certainly not overtly provocative or racist as many might have expected. Aside from the march itself, which more and more people seemed to join as we made our way up the roads, it was fascinating for me to actually walk along the walls of the city. Despite having been to Jerusalem some five times previously, I’ve never actually walked its length.
Our path led us past the New Gate, the Damascus Gate, Herod’s Gate, and around the eastern corner to the Lion’s Gate. Here the march was halted to commemorate the place in 1967 in which Israeli paratroopers entered and captured the Old City. There were also a number of other speeches, these more fiery than the first set.
First was Rabbi Sholom Gold, whom I inadvertently met just before his speech. His was a speech, primarily in English, warning the government that their actions (vis-a-vis territorial partition and the Palestinians) will be judged not just by history but by the Israeli and Jewish public. What most stuck out in my mind was his comment that we should not allow Jerusalem to be divided, and by Jerusalem he means the whole of the land of Israel. I hope to speak to him again soon to get a better sense of what he means by both Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. Neither are clearly defined concepts, the borders of which have both been subject to numerous interpretations and debates.
Following the rabbi was Aryeh Eldad, a current member of Knesset and a member of the National Union party. His speech, again in Hebrew, was a bit harder for me to follow. I did however draw out the largest themes: namely that the freeze on settlement construction should be cancelled, Jerusalem should remain undivided, and that Israel must take a hard line with the international community offering no more concessions. Citing the threat of terrorism and international efforts to break the blockade of Gaza, he argued that Israel must strengthen its resolve and secure its place in the land. A large part of his speech was also dedicated to criticizing the Israeli Supreme Court, which he argued is quick to act against illegal Israeli settlements and the agenda of the political right, but is openly permissive of illegal Arab settlements and encouraging of a leftist political agenda. Here the fractures within the Israeli political system are particularly apparent.
His speech was followed by the impassioned closing remarks of Nadia Matar, one of the chief organizers of the Women in Green. Her comments centered on similar themes: opposing the settlement freeze, expanding current settlements and raising new ones, defending a united Jerusalem, and demanding that the Israeli government not cave to international pressures to withdraw from land. At this point in the evening, I was tired enough that my Hebrew comprehension was dropping off steeply, so I recall less of the specifics. Fortunately I spoke with her during the march and will have an opportunity to speak with her again later in the year.
From the Lion’s Gate, the march continued, now more informally, around the walls of the Old City to the Dung Gate, the nearest access to the Kotel. I made my way through the security checkpoint and through the enormous crowd to have a moment at the wall (See the picture above). On my way out of the plaza, I ran into a friend who was on her way out with a few other people. Exiting through the Zion Gate, we made our way down the hillside and up the next through Yemin Moshe past Mishkenot Sheananim to Derekh Keren Hayesod. From here, I caught a cab home as it was already quite late. One march, five of six gates passed, and numerous potential interviews lined up; I am embarrassed to say that my Tisha b’Av had so far been a smashingly enjoyable success.
In the morning, I made my way to Pardes for a day of learning while observing the fast. Things started off at 10 am with a class led by one of the teachers there on the appropriateness of fasting on Tisha b’Av. This was followed by a class on the question of whether Jerusalem is the center of the Jewish “nation”. As this theme dovetails closely with my research, I felt it was a good session to attend. In the class we read a number of passages from Tanakh that discuss Jewish connections to the city as well as some modern poetry and its representations of Jerusalem. It was definitely my favorite discussion of the day.
After this, we all davened mincha, the afternoon service. This is the one day in the Jewish year when tallit and teffilin are donned in the afternoon, rather than the morning. This, I have been told, is because the morning is considered too intense a mourning period to wear such “celebratory” garb. After tefillah, I went to a session on storytelling and songs for Tisha b’Av. It was a little bit on the *different* side for me, but ultimately it was a very relaxing exercise and helped me get my mind off the hunger.
From here, I went to the closing session in which some of the teachers shared their reflections on four former students who were killed in terrorist attacks in Israel during the Second Intifada. A panel then convened which discussed the significance of Jerusalem in the Tisha b’Av liturgy and the appropriateness of depicting the city as one decimated and destroyed at a time when it has a larger Jewish population than any time previous in its history and new buildings are going up all the time. There were a number of diverse voices on the panel and it was a fairly interesting discussion. Afterwards I spoke with two of the speakers to set up meetings with them later on.
In the afternoon, I eventually made my way back to Kfar HaStudentim to drop off my things (and begin writing this post). Then I met some friends downtown who will be leaving Israel soon for dinner to break the fast with tasty tasty shwarma. We met up with a few of their old friends who live in Israel, which was also very nice. It’s also great to know more locals. Now it’s past midnight and I have class again in the morning, so it’s off to bed with me. All in all, a very meaningful and productive 24 hours.