Giving Roses to Palestinians in the Old City on Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day)
Dateline: Jerusalem, 2015
Giving Roses to Palestinians in the Old City on “Jerusalem Day” (Yom Yerushalayim)
By Jeremy D. Sher
I found out about the rose giveaway on Facebook. We were to meet at Safra Square by Jerusalem City Hall, just outside the Old City, at 6:00 pm. The idea was to give roses to Arab shopkeepers in Jerusalem’s Old City before the Jerusalem Day parade. This simple act was organized by Tag Meir (“ray of illumination”), the Israeli peace group formed in response to the murderous “tag mahir” (“price tag”) attacks made by Jewish settlers against Palestinians. In the face of Jewish “price tag” attacks gleefully escalating conflict, Tag Meir formed to shine a ray of light into the darkness of self-delusion among Jews who perpetrate violence, and into the despair of the rest of the country looking on in horror. The “price tag” murderers may claim to represent the Jewish people, but groups like Tag Meir stand for the Judaism the rest of us know, the Judaism that values joy, peace, and justice for minorities.
One would think that a parade of Israeli flags would be a joyous, optimistic event. But recently the Jerusalem Day parade has become a symbol of racism. I didn’t know how large a role everyday racism plays in Israeli culture until I arrived here and observed it, but Jerusalem Day has become a particular flashpoint. Celebrating Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, in which Israel conquered the Old City and the occupied territories, Jerusalem Day now attracts groups of far-right, triumphalist settlers who parade through the Muslim Quarter shouting horrific things like “Death to Arabs.” Past marches have seen property damage and violence. Nobody knew what would happen at the parade this year, but recent history was concerning. If I were to participate in any form of direct peace action today, giving out roses seemed like an innocuous choice.
With some trepidation, I arrived at the square as shadows lengthened against the blazing afternoon. I didn’t see anyone handing out flowers, but I did see a left-wing rally on the steps of City Hall, surrounded by a police barricade. Some of their signs supported the leftist Meretz Party, while many others read things like “Jerusalem Will Not Be Silent in the Face of Racism.”
In the plaza where I was standing, people, mostly men, were jumping in circles with large Israeli flags. Some were verbally confronting the left-wing demonstrators. I debated: should I join the left-wing group? They could use another body up there, and the police appeared to be letting people through individually. But partly from chickening out and partly from feeling that was not the group I signed up for, I decided to look around a little more.
I walked around back of City Hall. A stage was set up for a large concert, but nobody was in the seats. A woman stood alone with a white flag featuring a red heart. I wondered if she was part of Tag Meir, but I chickened out of talking to her. Turning the corner and walking along Yafo St., I came upon a small green park dedicated to Yitzhak Rabin. Here was the picture-book Israel: birds chirping, girls lounging on the sunny grass reading books, lovers sitting on a bench. One might not have known from this scene that a hundred meters away was a raucous battle of voices. That’s Jerusalem: a city of secrets, with entire worlds hidden around a corner or behind an unmarked door.
I came again into the flag demonstration in Safra Square. I was not anxious to join the left-wing group, partly because I feared being confronted by right-wingers in a language in which I’m not fluent. If they told me to go back to America, I’d give them my stock response: “That’s not a very Zionist thing to say, is it?” That line always shuts them up, but I dreaded having to pull it out yet again.
Looking for any moral excuse not to join the left-wing rally, I started another circuit around City Hall when I found them: pleasant-looking people with an immense array of roses. This was it! I went over and, there being no objection, took a bunch of them and stood around with the other people who had roses. There was very little confrontation. Perhaps by design, it was not obvious that our roses were a protest; in fact, I don’t think they were a protest. There’s nothing wrong with handing out roses on a national holiday, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with caring about people’s feelings. Because if anyone chanted “Death to Arabs” this year like they did in past years, that would not represent the parade’s intentions, would it?
I located the organizer and asked her what was going on. As best I understood, she explained in Hebrew that we’d go down to the Old City along the parade route, and give the roses to Arab shopkeepers. That seemed reasonable. She also gave me a number of flyers, which consisted of nothing but two poems about flowers and peace, printed in Hebrew and Arabic, and a nice cartoon of Jerusalem with flowers and birds, and a smiling Arab and Jew. No political propaganda, not even a Tag Meir identification. Seemed pretty innocuous.
The organizer sent a first wave down to the Old City, but I stayed back, partly out of plain chickening out and partly because I didn’t want to be in the first wave of anything with my sub-fluent Hebrew. I held back and stayed with the second group, which left some time later. As we walked down the approach to the Jaffa Gate, I tried to stay with the group, not sure what to do and wishing to follow someone’s lead. I also wanted someone else nearby to explain what was going on in case someone confronted me in Hebrew. Nobody did. It seemed that the roses were not suspicious to mainstream revelers. A few wanted roses and we gave them out.
Inside the Jaffa Gate, my group fanned out among the little shops lining the plaza. I saw two of the other volunteers go into stores and offer roses and flyers, which were accepted. I chickened out of going into any of the stores; instead, I hung back and watched what the others were doing.
I took that opportunity to put on my Harvard Divinity School baseball cap. With a Harvard Divinity School T-shirt and matching cap, I wore what I call my Jerusalem armor. It prevents people from categorizing me as this or that kind of Jew; in that garb I could be anything from Modern Orthodox to secular. Usually I don’t wear both the shirt and the hat. But on a day like today, my “armor” also signifies to people that I might actually be from Harvard, meaning that if things got problematic it would be all over the New York Times. I find the easiest way to meet intensely gendered Orthodox settler testosterone is with a little bit of my own, because it has often seemed to me that as hostile as the scrawny kids with racist stickers are, they don’t actually want to bother me physically. This is how I deal with Jerusalem: biceps and armor, just as they did in medieval times, and for the same reasons.
At the far end of the Jaffa Gate plaza, a police barricade blocked the way to David St. and the merchant section of the Old City. I heard a police officer say over and over in Hebrew, “Ein ma’avar, ein ma’avar”: “there’s no passage, no passage, it’s only for residents who live there.” Just the same, a small line of people was walking right past the barricade. It was just like the security desk at the Central Bus Station, with people walking right by and nobody paying the guard any mind. I figured they pulled people out if they wanted to question them. I’ve been in Israel just long enough to know that nobody pays any attention to rules, so I joined the line of people going in, Harvard shirt and Harvard hat and all. Asking neither permission nor forgiveness, either unnoticed or deemed unworthy of notice, I walked with the others right past the barricade without incident. I didn’t look back.
* * *
I hadn’t walked fifty meters into David St. when I realized there was nobody behind me. Nor was there anybody in front of me. No shops were open, no doors were open. I don’t know what happened to the rest of my group. Maybe they didn’t get past the barricade; in any case, they weren’t around. The others who walked past the barricade with me must have turned a different way. There was nobody else in sight. My act of civic kindness may have just turned into civil disobedience.
The Old City’s streets are just narrow alleys, paved underfoot with the same beige stone that makes up the walls and houses. The pedestrian-only streets feature many stairs, which, combined with their narrowness and the frequency of buildings connecting above them, gives the whole place an indoor feeling. Usually, these alleys are utterly full of hawking shopkeepers and gawking tourists. Not on Jerusalem Day. I looked down an utterly empty corridor of closed and bolted green metal doors, the fifty-nine gentle stairs of David St. leading down into silence like so many dumbstruck friends. It was bizarre to see the Old City like that. The silence was absolute.
Not wanting to go back and talk to the officers again, and seeing no danger ahead, I walked on. The emptiness was eerie but not threatening. There is very little gun crime in Israel, there were no alleys for anyone to jump out, nor was there a reason anyone would. I did not fear for my safety. I figured I was ahead of the parade, which would soon be coming behind me. They’d probably come in through the Jaffa Gate, do a loop around the Christian and Muslim Quarters, and end at the Western Wall. I resolved to give my roses to any shopkeepers who were open, and then get out of the Old City via the Damascus Gate, where I figured would lead to an Arab neighborhood I knew, away from the parade.
I am not opposed to patriotic flag parades, even if the nations they celebrate are guilty of mass murder in the name of territorial expansion. I enjoy Fourth of July barbecues and I used to enjoy Canada Day fireworks as well. I would not begrudge my native country a stars-and-stripes parade. It ought to be fun, happy, a time to celebrate the good of the country even if we acknowledge the country’s many faults and wrongs. What could be wrong with a flag parade? But in a normal flag parade, shopkeepers would be jubilant, throwing open their doors to profit regardless of their politics, exulting at the chance to welcome in thirsty, hungry, drunk or joy-addled revelers with money to spend. Perhaps they’d buy those big foam #1 fingers for five dollars and regret it the next day. In a normal flag parade, merchants don’t lock up their shops in fear.
They do here. Jerusalem was silent. Silent in the face of racism.
Past a long, silent row of locked doors and empty stone, I found a couple of merchants still open. They looked like they were closing up. I asked them if they wanted a rose. I spoke Hebrew, being unable to speak Arabic but wanting to seem more substantial than an English-speaking tourist. The Old City merchants were suspicious at first but most ultimately took the roses. I explained that they were for the hope that there would be less racism in Jerusalem, and that we need more love in Jerusalem. I gave them the flyer with the Hebrew and Arabic poems. One of the merchants said a long prayer for peace in Arabic and partial Hebrew, to which I responded with an Ameen. One offered me a slice of plain whole wheat bread from his plastic bag, which I took and thanked him for.
There started to be a few ultra-Orthodox Jews walking down from the Western Wall area. The flow intensified until there were perhaps twenty people in sight at any given time, among the otherwise empty corridors and locked green metal doors of the normally bustling Old City center. I figured I’d better get out of there. I looped back to where my friend Omar’s jewelry store is, thinking I’d leave him a rose before I left. Omar had told me his family had lived on top of his store for 300 years, so I thought maybe I’d ask him if I could come upstairs and wait out the parade. But Omar was not among the few shopkeepers open. When I called him on the phone, he said he was at his other home in Ramallah. He didn’t want to be in Jerusalem that day.
I turned onto Muristan St., passing through the Christian Quarter. I considered waiting things out in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, figuring that it would be open, off the beaten path for the parade, and unlikely to be the scene of conflict in any case. I saw three shops and one restaurant open near the Church, but nobody took my roses and they were rather snarly. I did find a few takers down Aqbat e-Saraya St., on the way to the Damascus Gate, having decided to try to get out of the Old City that way. Here, too, most of the doors were locked and silent on a street usually busy with children playing and grandfathers smoking. I turned onto al-Khalidiya St., just a block from al-Wad St., which leads to the Damascus Gate. I’d given out all of my flyers and all but three of my roses.
There was a police barricade. I approached, nodded and smiled to one of the officers as if I were entitled to do that; he returned the gesture. I asked, in Hebrew, how to exit the Old City. He said I should go to Jewish Quarter St. and out the Zion Gate. I asked how you get there from here, not quite remembering the way but also hoping to appeal for sympathy. He gave me directions, which I understood, but I said I’d look at the map on my phone. I asked if he wanted a flower, just as a thank-you for the work he did. He declined. Finally, the officer asked me where I lived. I said in Jaffa—a mostly Arab neighborhood in southern Tel Aviv—and I quickly corrected myself and said Tel Aviv. He asked if I was Jewish and I said yes, I’m Jewish, obviously. He asked if I had an ID, and I showed him my Israeli ID card.
This officer was polite, professional, and helpful up to this point. But when he saw my ID card, he got very smiley and much more friendly, and said, with notable enthusiasm and relief, in English this time, “Oh, you—you can pass!” He opened the barricade for me. I went through. He shook my hand. I asked him if he was sure he didn’t want a flower. He was sure.
Unfortunately for me, the parade was already underway down al-Wad St., my way out through the Damascus Gate. Worse, the parade was coming in from the Damascus Gate: the opposite of the direction I thought it would be going. I thought I had been walking ahead of the parade, when in fact I was walking against it. The Damascus Gate was probably not a wise place to be right then, which was just as well because I couldn’t reach it anyway.
I was not eager to get close to the parade, but I also did not want to be stuck in an enclosed area between a line of spectators and a line of police, holding a bunch of Tag Meir roses. I suddenly realized that I needed to ditch the roses. I hastily got rid of all but my last one, a white one with red edges. I don’t remember who took the others. I figured one rose wasn’t so incriminating, and I resolved to give it to the owner of the first Arab restaurant I found open outside the Damascus Gate.
I clapped my hands in time with the chanting and smiled, knowing that was the shibboleth to pass the line of spectators and into the parade route. That was a gateway to an altogether different world.
* * *
True to its advertising, the parade featured enormous Israeli flags and much singing and jumping. I had passed from total, eerie silence right into the ultra-right-wing storm. I knew that my safety depended on my smiling and clapping in time, enthusiastically enough not to draw attention to myself for my discomfort, but not so enthusiastically that marchers would want to talk to me. I toed the line.
From here, I had three choices: I could join the parade and end up at the Western Wall (and God forbid the Dome of the Rock area, if things got crazy enough, where clashes have happened when Jews trespassed around the mosques), or I could wait for the parade to go by, or I could try to walk counter to the parade and out the Damascus Gate according to my original plan. Joining the parade was not an option: politics aside, I did not feel safe with thousands of young indoctrinated Orthodox men jumping around. There would be no way out once I took three steps with them. I found a place among a couple of photographers at the intersection of al-Wad St. and al-Khalidiya St. I pulled out my phone and started taking pictures: I would find photography (or, rather, posing as a photographer) a helpful excuse for not marching.
The parade seemed to come in waves: first the narrow alley that was al-Wad St. would be as packed with energetic young men as an escalator at a ballpark, then, in waves, the march would thin out. It seemed the waves of young men were from yeshivas, judging by the matching T-shirts they all wore, and between the yeshiva groups there were sundry other marchers. I realized that there were many outcroppings of stone doorways behind which I could stand and not be swept up in the march which utterly filled the narrow street.
I resolved to advance from one doorway outcropping to the next against the parade route, using my camera as cover and pretending to celebrate, until ultimately I got out of the Old City or the parade ended. I kept up the smiling and clapping, carefully calibrating, toning it down when the marchers seemed to react, stepping it up when they looked at me funny. I walked briskly against the flow of marchers at my first opportunity, as if I were looking for somebody (and that was the excuse I had on hand if anyone asked what I was doing), clapping and dancing all the way. It felt right to be moving in the opposite direction to this parade.
Behind my first outcropping, I realized I was alone again. But the photographer cover was working, and marchers tolerated my “filming,” some dancing for the camera not knowing it was not recording. I stayed behind one outcropping until I could make it to the next, letting the flow of marchers pass, until I reached the intersection of al-Wad St. and Sha’ar ha-Barzel St., where there was a large, square alcove with an abandoned grill, room enough for me to open my backpack and get my supplemental battery as my phone was dying. Blessedly, another Jewish man in a kippah came and started checking his phone as well. The man left toward the parade route, and I at length left against the parade route.
There was a heavy police presence. When the Israeli Supreme Court approved the parade route through the Muslim Quarter this year, they made clear they did so reluctantly but could find no legal justification for denying permission. The approval came on condition there would be strict enforcement of laws prohibiting property damage and racist slogans. With three or four officers at barricades in every side alley, the police seemed serious about that.
The average age of the marchers might have been 23, counting the few old rabbis punctuating the swarm of energetic, jumping men who looked half my age or less. The parade was very, very male. It wasn’t solely male, but the very few women were the exceptions proving the rule. They marched mostly in separate groups, perhaps reflecting the gender-segregated religious schools that most of the marchers were with. Only men were heard singing, mostly bouncy Carlebach melodies, as if the whole place were an Orthodox sanctuary except that the group was so young, and except that they punctuated their rhythms by forcefully smashing their sturdy wooden flagstaves onto the securely locked metal door of 130 Al-Wad St., across from where I was standing, in time to the hymn “Ivdu et Hashem b’Simcha” (Psalm 100:2). It will take a lot for me to get that image out of my mind the next time I sing that melody in my synagogue.
My friend Sarah Chandler, who was in the Old City documenting the parade with the organization Ir Amim, later told me that women were sent on a separate parade route, from the Jaffa Gate to the Western Wall. Only the male parade was sent through the Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter. Maybe the gender-segregated parade was due to the Orthodox prohibition on men hearing women sing, which has caused such trouble for women at the Western Wall recently. Perhaps the few groups from girls’ schools had missed the message, while the few older women looked like they might have been rabbis’ wives. In any case, the parade through the Muslim Quarter shared all the aggressive, macho tension of a high-school locker room at halftime, with none of the sportsmanship.
In front of 130 al-Wad St., I realized I was unlikely to get out the Damascus Gate before the parade ended, and in any case it might not be wise. My phone no longer working for any purpose but to cover for me, and with my last rose blessedly broken, giving me an excuse to throw out the long stem and stuff the flower and short remaining stem in my back pocket where it wouldn’t be so conspicuous, I realized my purpose was to bear witness to the rest of this.
Indeed, despite the banging on people’s doors, I witnessed neither violence to people nor vandalism of property. I witnessed no kindness either. Usually in parades there is lively, happy interaction between marchers and spectators, but nobody smiled at me or said a kind word to me. I tried to avoid eye contact with marchers; when it happened, the glances were hostile and superior, testing me to see if I was one of them or not. Noses wrinkled in disgust at my baseball-capped visage.
Twice marchers asked me if I was a leftist, either because I was not marching in step or because I was just that obvious. I pretended not to understand Hebrew.
Three times I was asked why I was filming. I said, “because it’s so cool, to remember!” Those questioners went away, though not without an obscene gesture from a young man of bar-mitzvah age and a “Kahane Was Right” sticker, on the third such encounter. Meir Kahane was a Jewish terrorist, banned from Knesset in 1988 because of his racist incitement. This year police promised to arrest anyone who shouted a racist slogan, which apparently helped. But the Kahane stickers were a clear reminder of where those kids stood—or more to the point, where their communities stood.
I counted twelve “Kahane Was Right” stickers, mostly worn by pubescent men who were part of larger yeshiva groups, including the boy of perhaps 14 who stuck his Kahane sticker on top of my lens, urging the “Kahane Was Right” slogan upon me in his early-teen falsetto.
I did my best to keep up the rhythm, letting the couple of questions whether I was a leftist prod me on to being a little more enthusiastic as yet another diminutive, pimply-faced Kahane crowd in matching T-shirts went by.
At long last the parade ended. A well-built Arab man in his thirties, who’d been looking out the metal grate of a half-shuttered window, opened his front door and ventured out onto the street, looking around, perhaps wondering, as I was, whether that was really it for the parade. I knew for sure the parade was over when five old Muslim women in hijab shuffled by, speaking in hushed tones, with their sad eyes and wrinkled faces cast downward. I gave my last rose to the woman who looked oldest. She took it with appreciation, either knowing what it was about or having deduced it on the spot. The storm was over, leaving in its wake no physical damage, and a heavy quiet took over where tense silence had left off.
Walking out al-Wad St. toward the Damascus Gate, I once again approached a line of police. They seemed to have already put their barricades away but were still standing across Damascus Gate St. I asked if it was possible to exit through the Damascus Gate; the officer said certainly and let me pass. I tried not to make it too obvious that I was very glad to be getting out of there, but I thought the police probably felt exactly the same way.
Shops were closed, inside and (to my dismay) outside of the Damascus Gate. I climbed the stairs to the Damascus Gate, exited the Old City into a silent plaza, and climbed the stairs up to Sultan Suleiman St. and toward the light-rail station. What was usually a busy and pleasant market plaza was bereft of customers and of vendors. Around the corner toward the light-rail station, two Arab restaurants were open. I bought a falafel pita for a shockingly low seven shekels, and as I walked to the light rail, I noticed that the normally taxi-clogged Ha-Neviim St. was utterly empty. Luckily, the light rail was running. I hopped on, and before long, I was never so happy to sit in the safety and anonymity of Café Net in the Central Bus Station.
* * *
Here is how bullying works. Bullies say or do outrageous things, and they get their jollies out of getting away with them. Within the young male locker-room atmosphere of the march through the Muslim Quarter tonight, I don’t know how many actually supported Meir Kahane; it might not have been a majority. But bullies revel in their ability to speak for everyone else. On the other hand, when they no longer succeed, it stops being fun for them, and they take their marbles and go home.
Jerusalem is a microcosm of the world, as Jewish tradition teaches. Jerusalem’s bullies are a microcosm of the world’s bullies. They define their Judaism as the only Judaism, as the only religion, as the only people worth respect. Those within their circle get egged on higher and higher into the ecstasy of groupthink, until children parade around with stickers honoring a Jewish terrorist. If you don’t walk their way, they treat you with derision and loathing.
First Jerusalem’s bullies claim to speak for the Jerusalem Day parade, turning what ought to be a fun if nationalistic celebration into something ugly and threatening, in advance of which merchants board up their doors in fear instead of putting out the welcome mat. Then the bullies want to speak for Jerusalem, with the enthusiastic cheerleading of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who said in his Jerusalem Day address that Jerusalem is the capital only of the Jewish people, not of anyone else. Then the bullies want to speak for the whole State of Israel. And then for whom?
The way to stop the bullies’ successes from spiraling out of control is to interrupt their narrative. They will always try to get away with more, setting a new norm and then breaking it with yet another outrage. But President Rivlin, a lifelong right-wing politician, has had it. He denounced Netanyahu’s words in his own Jerusalem Day speech, making it clear that in his view, Jerusalem is for everybody. President Rivlin promotes the idea of a unified Jerusalem under Israeli rule, free of racism and with equal city services for Jews and Arabs. That’s not the narrative of Jerusalem today, as President Rivlin clearly pointed out. And if time has not long since run out for President Rivlin’s vision, he has to know that it is flying fast.
Tag Meir also interrupted the bullies’ narrative today. The idea that shopkeepers receive a rose is quite a minor gesture. We’re not talking about political solidarity or grand ideas right now. It was nothing but a gesture of love. But love is just what the bullies can’t abide, and our gesture interrupted their narrative. With those roses in hand, at least a few Arab merchants knew that the “Kahane Was Right” stickers didn’t speak for all of Israel.
This is Israel. This ugliness is enthusiastically Netanyahu’s Israel and reluctantly Rivlin’s Israel. This is my Israel, with the sins of its bullies and the silence of its bullied threatening to wholly obscure its destiny. I am a Jew and an Israeli citizen, and I take responsibility for this. When it would be easy to run away from Israel, I embrace my Israeli identity as a counterexample to the hate displayed today, so that one day supporting Meir Kahane will be as unwelcome a sentiment in the Jerusalem Day parade as supporting the Ku Klux Klan would be in a Fourth of July parade. But we’re not there yet.
Israel’s detractors will gloat over this essay, claiming that the callousness of Jerusalem Day proves Jewish statehood is an evil, violent, racist, hateful enterprise. They agree with the Kahane kids on that point. I, however, went out with a bunch of roses from Tag Meir in order to interrupt that narrative. A small gesture, it was better than conceding to the far left and the far right in their shared narrative of Israel’s intrinsic evil. I reject that narrative. Every refusal to concede has the potential for a new beginning, and one has to start somewhere.
Jeremy D. Sher is an experienced leader in synagogue and nonprofit governance, progressive organizing, and political technology entrepreneurship. His studies toward rabbinical ordination at Organic Torah Institute include the Master of Divinity curriculum at Harvard Divinity School, where he is a Ministry Fellow and currently a Frederick Sheldon Traveling Fellow in Israel. His first book, Governance for Independent Synagogues, is under contract and will be out in