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A Strange Day
Youth Movement members celebrate Jerusalem Day 2003
by Judy Lash Balint
May 30, 2003

Jerusalem--It was supposed to be a day of celebration of the 36th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, a day traditionally marked by formal ceremonies, fireworks, speeches, concerts and marches through the city. But this year, events and nature conspired to make the day feel slightly off target.

For would-be celebrants, two elements put many of them off from turning out to take part in the events marking Israel's miraculous achievements in reuniting Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War. Politics and the weather.

Many Jerusalemites were still reeling from the Cabinet vote supporting the Road Map just a few days earlier. If carried out, the Map threatens to return Jerusalem to its pre-1967 status. As a Jerusalem Day editorial pointed out in the Jerusalem Post: "...never has the future of Jerusalem been as fraught with uncertainty."

Weather-wise, the day was marked by a fierce sharav--one of those unique Middle Eastern heat waves that combine abnormally high temperatures with blowing sand. In much of the country, temperatures hovered around 104 F, while Jerusalem struggled through a day of "only" 95 F. Health authorities issued an advisory for the elderly and those with respiratory or heart problems to stay indoors, while the rest of us attempted to clear our eyes and noses of the fine-particled sand from which it was impossible to escape.

A string of fires broke out all over the country fanned by the strong easterly winds. The worst damage occurred in the Haifa area where thick smoke blanketed the bay and the port area. Along the heavily traveled Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, smoke from brush fires mixed with the sand-filled air to reduce visibility to almost nothing.

In the late afternoon and into the evening, rain was added to the mix. Mixed with the sand, the rain turned to liquid mud, coating everything with a layer of brown. It was far too hot to wear a coat with a hood, so most people either just ignored it or accepted the brown flecks all over their clothes, while others carried umbrellas.

A free outdoor concert in the courtyard of the Jerusalem Theater that was supposed to mark the opening of the two-week long Israel Festival was cancelled at the last minute. Even though the elaborate stage had been covered with plastic at the first sign of the raindrops, organizers didn't want to risk ruining the $70,000 worth of equipment when it became clear, an hour after the scheduled starting time, that the rain wasn't going to stop any time soon.

But earlier in the day, thousands did make it into the city--for the first time in months, streets and parking lots were clogged with tour buses from all over the country. Most of the passengers were exuberant teenagers who were happy to get a day off school to come to fill out the various public events.

The PR department of the Jerusalem Municipality billed the opening parade that took place the night before, as "The Working Agricultural Settlement marches in Jerusalem." By way of explanation in an English language news release to the foreign press, they added the following paragraph:

"The local councils from all around the nation carry on a past tradition of bringing bikurim to Jerusalem in Shavuoth. Large agricultural representatives will be passing through the streets of the city showing agricultural tools dating from the beginning of the century and until today. Thousands of teenagers from the Working Agricultural Settlement of around the country will bring the country's greetings to Jerusalem."

Foreign reporters could be forgiven for thinking they were going back in time to a Soviet-style parade. In fact, the "large agricultural representatives" were parade-style figures depicting various aspects of kibbutz and moshav life, and tractors driven by kibbutzniks dressed in those old Russian white collarless shirts, embroidered with red stitching around the neckline.

Highlight of the parade was a sneak preview of a life size mock-up of the light-rail train scheduled to make its appearance on Jerusalem streets a few years from now. Most poignant was the drive by of more than a dozen ZAKA units--the mostly Haredi volunteer Disaster Victim Identification teams who spring into action after every terror tragedy.

Along the route that had the floats gliding down Jaffa Road, up King George Street and down Betzalel into Gan Sacher, the crowd was sparse, with the exception of a few clusters around Zion Square.

A little later in the evening, thousands did show up to enjoy a free concert dedicated to the memory of two American students who were killed last August in the Hebrew University cafeteria bombing. Ben Blutstein and Marla Bennett were remembered by an eclectic audience who came to the Haas Promenade overlooking the city to listen to the world-style music of Sheva and the rapstyle Dag Hanahash group. The Blutstein family from Harrisburg, PA were sitting near the stage as Sheva's lead singer asked the crowd for a moment of "deep silence" to think of the soldiers and wounded.

The main events of the day itself were the Flag parade and the official commemoration at Ammunition Hill. An estimated 50,000 took part in the Flag parade--predominantly students from national religious schools. The girls gathered at Gan Sacher and the boys at Independence Park to pick up thousands of Israeli flags before marching through the city, stopping for spirited singing and dancing along the way. The groups split up to enter the Old City through the various gates symbolically marking Israeli sovereignty over all parts of the city. They converged on the Kotel joining with thousands of adults spilling over into the streets of the Jewish and Moslem Quarters. A continuous round of prayer and speeches took place on into the evening despite the heat, rain and wind.

Over at Binyanei Hauma, the International Congress Hall not far from the western entrance to the city, an all night women's gathering was going on to mark Jerusalem Day. Thousands of observant high school students and religious women recited psalms, listened to speeches from prominent rabbis and swayed and danced to all-womens music groups throughout the night.

The other all-night event took place at Yeshivat Beit Orot, the hesder yeshiva on the Mt of Olives. Traditionally known as THE happening Jerusalem Day party place for the national religious yeshiva crowd, this year's concert upheld its reputation. The bands stopped playing around 4:30 a.m. when the young crowd picked up their flags to retrace the footsteps of the paratroopers of 1967. They walked down the same road from the Mt of Olives, turning left at the Kidron Valley and following the Jericho Road as far as Lion's Gate where they climbed the hill to enter the Old City, just like the soldiers in their tanks 36 years ago. This morning, the crowd made it to the Kotel in time for the Vatikin early morning prayers. Thirty-six years ago, it was midday as the IDF soldiers made their way down from their conquest of the Temple Mount to become the first Jews in 19 years to gain access to the Kotel.

Recalling the emotions of that momentous day in Jewish history, made this year's official Jerusalem Day commemoration all the more difficult to comprehend. In his remarks at the Ammunition Hill ceremony, Prime Minister Arik Sharon vowed to keep Jerusalem united. Standard boilerplate language used by every prime minister on every Jerusalem Day. What was shocking, and perhaps in keeping with his linguistic faux pas about "the occupation" earlier in the week, was Sharon's statement that: "For 36 years there have been no missiles in Jerusalem..and no enemy has watched us and spit fire from the gun embrasures of its walls and towers. Never again will gunfire be directed at it (Jerusalem)..." Go tell that to the residents of Gilo.

So, at the end of the day, the celebrating and commemorating did little to assuage the trepidation of many in the capital about what the future may bring.