I'm in the middle of reading a fascinating old book about Jerusalem--Jerusalem is Called Liberty, written by Walter Lever, an English professor and rabidly secular British Jew, who arrived in Palestine with his wife and two children in September 1947 to take up a teaching position at Hebrew University.
Lever's narrative, published in 1951, spans the tumultuous period between the autumn of 1947-1949. The young professor is drafted into the Civil Guard and courageously plays a role in defending his neighborhood of Beit Hakerem. He routinely rides in the armored convoys traveling between Jerusalem and Hebrew University's Mt Scopus campus. He describes the agony of the siege of Jerusalem and meticulously chronicles the despicable behavior of the supposedly neutral British Mandatory authorities.
For Lever and those who lived through that extraordinarily tense period, the idea of Jews walking freely around the walls of the Old City protected by a Jewish police force and army would have seemed completely preposterous. Yet that's exactly what occurs here in Jerusalem every erev Tisha B'Av for the last fifteen years.
Last night, the walk organized by the indefatigable Women in Green started out across the street from the American Consulate, where hundreds gathered to read the mournful words of Megillat Eicha written by the prophet Jeremiah.
We're there to mourn the long litany of national tragedies that has befallen the Jewish people around this date all through Jewish history. While Yom Kippur is the day for personal reckoning, Tisha B'Av is the occasion for some national soul-searching over what led to our various ancient and more recent disasters. Several in the crowd hold placards in English with slogans like: The US Consulate is an Illegal Settlement
As the marchers move off following a huge banner proclaiming a slogan of allegiance to Jerusalem, organizer Nadia Matar reminds the crowd that this is not a social event. In fact, no reminder is necessary, as the restrained mass of Jews soberly sets out to encircle the gates of the Holy City.
Scattered amongst the marchers are a significant number of non-observant Israelis. Women wearing pants walk side by side with others whose hair is carefully covered with a scarf or hat. The predominant languages are French and English, but over the years, the march has developed its own loyal following with little advertising needed to bring out Israelis from all walks of life.
There are wheelchair "marchers" and a number of octagenarian walkers, some supported by younger relatives, who all manage to reach the end of the hour-long route.
As we approach Damascus Gate, the main entry to the Moslem Quarter, we see that all traffic on Route #1 (the main north/south gateway through the city) has been halted by police as we take over the streets and pour down the road toward the east. This year, we find ourselves crossing the tracks of the light rail system that is endlessly under construction.
Spotlights and snipers are visible on the rooftops and although most of the Arab stores are shuttered tight, soldiers keep a tight watch over several dozen Arabs who watch us march by as we pass Saleh el Din Street, the main commercial avenue of eastern Jerusalem. Border police on horseback hold back a few Arabs coming out of Herod's Gate as we stream past.
Walking down the hill we turn to look back at those behind us. People as far back as we can see.
We stop to listen to a few speeches in front of Lions Gate, where Israeli paratroopers broke through to liberate the Temple Mount in the 1967 Six Day War. Looking up to the summit of the Mt of Olives to the east, a huge Israeli flag flutters over the one piece of Jewish-owned property on the hill. All around us and scattered through the nearby Moslem cemetery, Israeli police carrying green glow sticks stand quietly by.
Addressing the crowd seated on the pavement, Knesset member Aryeh Eldad recalls the tragic expulsion of Jews from Gush Katif that occurred on the day after Tisha B'Av in 2005. As Eldad goes on to exhort the crowd to "build, build, build"in defiance of American pressure, a lone elderly Arab makes his way purposefully up the hill through the crowd. Leaning on his stick, his brown robes swaying with his gait, the man proceeds undisturbed through the throng of a couple of thousand Jews.
Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich, former Prisoner of Zion and one of Israel's most unsung heroes, explains that he feels compelled to say Kaddish at this spot just outside the Temple Mount "for the heroes who fell here." He turns to face the site of the Temple and the thousands of marchers who had listened quietly to the speeches rise behind him to gaze up at Lions Gate and join in the response to his passionate rendition of the ancient words of praise and hope.
In front of us we see the Mount of Olives crowned with its Arab and Christian institutions. There's a refreshing feeling of freedom as thousands walk freely down the road above the Kidron Valley across from the ghostly moon-lit tombstones where generations of Jerusalemites lie in repose.
Many marchers wander over to the wall to gaze at the Kidron Valley below with Absalom's Tomb and the monument to the prophet Zechariah. Across the valley we can see the Maale Hazeitim development that acts as a buffer between Abu Dis and the Temple Mount.
"Up there the Jordanians had their soldiers stationed…" "When mashiach will come, it will be through that gate over there…" ""Saba (grandpa) fought here in the Six Day War." Snippets of conversation overheard in a hands-on outdoor classroom as parents walk with their children.
Rounding the corner, we look up at the imposing Southern Wall of the Temple with the steps and Huldah's Gate, before making the ascent towards Dung Gate and the entrance to the Western Wall. A bright half moon lights our way.
"Look over there," says a young mother to her wide-eyed daughter. "You can see the stairs where the Jews used to go up to the Temple," she says as we walk up the hill in front of the southern wall.
Glancing backwards again, the sight of the crowds of people still behind us is awesome. Quiet and dignified, the march has once again gone off without incident.
Watching the masses of faithful Jews still pouring into the Kotel plaza at almost midnight, it's hard not to hearken back to something Walter Lever wrote back in 1951:
"To the story of Jerusalem there is indeed no end. Rather do we seem to face a new beginning. Siege and survival, independence and reconstruction, are only preliminaries to the huge task ahead; and the consummation of a millenial dream becomes an awakening to the first morning of our history."