Naomi Shemer, hailed as the “first lady of Israeli song and poetry” is perhaps most famous for her song “Yerushlayim Shel Zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold”) written in 1967 and often called an unofficial second national anthem. Shemer wrote the song for the Israeli Song Festival held on 15 May 1967, the night after Israel’s nineteenth Independence Day.
At that time, the Old City was still controlled by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and under its sovereign rule. Jews had been banned from the Old City and the rest of Jerusalem east of it, losing their homes and possessions and becoming refugees. All Jews were barred from either returning or entering the areas under Jordanian control, and many holy sites were desecrated and damaged during that period. Only three weeks after the song was published, the Six-Day War broke out, and the song became a morale-boosting battle cry of the Israel Defense Forces. Shemer herself sang it for the troops during the war.
On 7 June, the IDF captured eastern Jerusalem and the Old City from the Jordanians. When Shemer heard the paratroopers singing “Jerusalem of Gold” at the Western Wall, along with the shofar blasts of victory, she added a verse based on the reality of a now unified city:
The wells are filled again with water,
The square with joyous crowd,
On the Temple Mount within the City,
The shofar rings out loud.
Yerushalayim shel zahav
Veshel nechoshet veshel or
Halo lechol shirayich Ani kinor.
Oh, Jerusalem of gold,
and of light and of bronze,
I am the lute for all your songs
One of those very soldiers that Shemer heard singing was a man by the name of Meir Ariel. He served in the Paratroopers Brigade of the IDF and participated in the Battle for Jerusalem at the beginning of the Six-Day War. As told by Yossi Klein HaLevi in his book, “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” Ariel was inspired to write the song “Yerushalayim Shel Barzel” (“Jerusalem of Iron”) shortly after the war. The song was based on Naomi Shemer’s and borrowed its melody. It was his reaction to what he saw as the hyper-patriotism of the Israeli public and media of that time.
In your darkness, Jerusalem,
we found a loving heart,
when we came to widen your borders
and to overwhelm the enemy.
We became satiated of all his mortars,
then suddenly dawn broke,
it just arose, not yet even white,
and it was already red.
Yerushalayim shel barzel
veshel oferet veshel schor
halo lechomotayich kar anu dror.
Jerusalem of iron,
of lead, of darkness,
haven’t we set your wall free?
Naomi Shemer and Meir Ariel were writing about the same event. They experienced two very different realities during that historical moment in time. For Shemer and many Israelis, the reunification of Jerusalem was the greatest moment of joy for Israel since independence. A crowning achievement and age-old prophecy fulfilled. For Ariel it was also a moment of intense sadness and divisiveness; filled with bloodshed and darkness.
In his speech Wednesday announcing that the US would begin measures to move its embassy to Jerusalem, thereby recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, President Trump said he was acknowledging “the obvious.”
“This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.” he said.
But whose reality? The same day, Malaysia’s foreign ministry said in a statement, “Recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, ignores the reality on the ground, endorses Israel repressive policies, violates Palestinian human rights and contravenes international law,”
Yes, there is one reality in which Jerusalem has, is, and always will be the undivided, eternal capital of Israel for the Jewish people. And there is another reality on the ground that East Jerusalem was, is, and will be the capital of a future Palestinian state. Both of these statements are true.
In a sermon a few months ago, I spoke about Jewish-American author, Nathan Englander and his new book, “Dinner At The Center Of The Earth.” Englander’s words are once again incredibly relevant. In an NPR interview with Scott Simon, he spoke about the unique title for his recent novel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Englander says:
So many people discuss Israel-Palestine as if its people [are] on a spectrum. But this notion where people say, oh, you know, Israel and Palestine, they disagree. It’s not a spectrum. It’s metaphysics.
They’re in a different reality, whereas, I lived in Jerusalem that had the Temple Mount and a Palestinian neighbor lived in al-Quds that had Haram al-Sharif. Like, literally, we’re inhabiting the same space and in a different city with a different extraordinary holy place on the same spot. And, to me, you know, that gets us to the title of this book. I was looking for a space for the no man’s land where a moment of understanding might take place.
By denying the Palestinian reality of East Jerusalem as their capital, Trump has destroyed that “no man’s land where a moment of understanding might take place.”
The United States, who have been the greatest source of hope for a peace deal in Israel. The US, who paved the way for the Camp David and Oslo Accords have now lost our seat at the table. Rabbi Robert Levine writes in an open letter to the president:
Announcing your intention to move the embassy now most likely will ensure that negotiations will not even begin, that passions will be incredibly inflamed, that our credibility in the region will be shot and that we may set in motion the type of instability that will strengthen Iranian and Russian influence in the Middle East.
Let me clear, I am saying all of this because I love Israel and I love Jerusalem. As Anat Hoffman, director of the Israeli Religious Action Center (who will be visiting RS in April) often says, “I show Israel I love her, by suing her!” I want Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel; but not like this.
Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people. As the Zionist Ahad Ha’am said – the heart that pumps Jewish life into the diaspora. Jerusalem is the place that we physically and spiritual turn in our prayers. Since its founding over 3000 years ago, Jerusalem has been the home to Jews and it has been the capital of Israel. As the psalmist say:
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. (Psalm 137)
This is all religiously, spiritually, historically, and intellectually true.
But that doesn’t mean that it is diplomatically true. It does not mean that it is helpful for the United States to declare Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital.
Because some things might be more important than declaring Jerusalem’s status.
Like, for example, human life.
In his recent article, “Don’t mess around with Jerusalem,” Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin writes about the sometimes conflicting commandments of loving Israel and loving peace. Salkin writes about the medieval sage Nachmanides, who taught that it is a mitzvah to settle the land of Israel. However, Salkin writes, Nachmanides’ words might be trumped (pun intended) by those of the great Maimonides, who taught that you must not endanger your life by performing a mitzvah. Pikuach nefesh, saving a life, overrides even the observance of Shabbat. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shabbat, 2:3)
Because the purpose of the mitzvot is to live by them — and not to die by them.
If there must be a choice between Jewish life and Jewish land, life takes precedence. Therefore, if life takes precedence over land, then certainly life takes precedence over the declared status of a city. And certainly over the geographical location of an embassy.
How does human life figure into this equation? Palestinians and many in the Arab and Muslim world view this diplomatic move as provocative. At the moment, there is surprisingly little violence, however, the Palestinian streets might explode into chaos. Israeli men, women and children could become the collateral damage of Trump’s pugilistic pronouncement.
I was recently speaking with Karen, one of our Buerger Early Learning Center parents. Her family is Israeli and I asked her what she has been hearing from them. She shared with me a recent conversation she had with her father. He said that the current situation reminded him a lot of the first Gulf War. Everyone is America was cheering and rooting on the the troops; jubilant when Saddam Hussein was defeated. But it was Israel that was dealing with the daily scud missile attacks. In America, we saw the war through the same rose colored glasses as Naomi Shemer’s Yerushaliyim Shel Zahav. In Israel they saw another reality, the reality of war, Meyer Ariel’s Yerushaliyim Shel Barzel.
At the end of his article, Rabbi Jeff Salkin writes:
American hard-liners, whether Jewish or Christian, treat Israel as their football team. They sit in the bleachers of America, cheering Israel on from a safe distance. “Hit ’em again — harder, harder!” But Israel isn’t a football team. There are real lives at stake, and those lives are more important than any posturing that might win political points.
President Trump’s declaration to move the embassy is a dangerous, politically motivated, unilateral decision. Unilateral decisions do not work. The unilateral decision of Israel to withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, cheered by much of the left, left a vacuum of power, quickly occupied by Hamas. The unilateral moves by Palestinians to punish Israel through the UN have only driven Israel further from the negotiating table and this unilateral move by the US to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, further endangers Israeli and Palestinian lives and weakens the US’ ability to be an impartial peace-broker.
When President Trump said, “This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality,” he failed to recognize the many realities that exist in Jerusalem; the Palestinian reality of East Jerusalem as their capital, Meir Ariel’s reality of the blood shed for the sake of Jerusalem, and Karen’s father’s reality of feeling like a pawn in someone else’s game.
I don’t know if any one of these realities are any more true than any other. What I do know is that the only reality that matters to me is peace. Jerusalem – ir shalom – city of peace, we pray for your peace.
In the words of Psalm 122:
1 I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
2 Our feet are standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem.
3 Jerusalem—built as a city
that is bound firmly together.
4 To it the tribes go up,
the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
5 For there the thrones for judgment were set up,
the thrones of the house of David.
6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
7 Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.”
8 For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
9 For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.