More than 2,000 people braved intermittent showers and cool temperatures Tuesday to form a human chain along the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City in order to send a clear, loud message to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and US President George W. Bush ahead of the latter’s visit to Israel: Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel and the Jewish People, and must not be divided.
The protest, organized by the One Jerusalem organization, included a cross-cultural and cross-generational mix of native and immigrant Israelis, yeshiva students, professionals and blue-collar workers, Jerusalemites and residents of nearly every section of the country. Dozens of participants carried large Israeli flags as organizers stretched flag strings along the Old City wall near Jaffa Gate and passed out gold ribbons – an echo of the orange ribbons associated with the anti-disengagement campaign two-and-a-half years ago. The new ribbons are intended to show solidarity with Jerusalem as a united city and Israel’s capital.
Of course, no protest rally would be complete without appearances by politicians and other public figures, and Tuesday’s gathering was no exception. Notable figures in the rain included former Prisoner of Zion and former Knesset Member Natan Sharansky, current MK Yisrael Katz, Jerusalem City Council Member Nir Barkat and Yechiel Leiter, a former Chief of Staff to Binyamin Netanyahu, One Jerusalem spokesman and veteran Yesha leader.
As the human chain broke into a short rally in favor of united Jerusalem, Leiter stirred the already-energized crowd by quoting former Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert’s comments from a protest rally held on January 8, 2001 – eight years to the day (according to the Gregorian calendar) before Tuesday’s gathering. Then, Olmert pleaded with then-President Bill Clinton not to pressure Israel into dividing Jerusalem: “Please, Mr. President. Do not lend your hand to dividing Jerusalem,” he said.
Organizers estimate that 400,000 people attended that rally, making it the largest demonstration the capital has ever seen.
Leiter continued to denounce the current prime minister for not only agreeing to divide the Holy City, but for asking for Bush’s help to implement the plan, and said a majority of Israelis opposed such a move.
“We are here to tell President Bush that Ehud Olmert does not represent the Israeli public with regard to Jerusalem,” he told the crowd. “We are also here to tell our own parliamentarians that we will be watching. In two weeks the Knesset Laws Committee will begin debating a law to require a special parliamentary majority of 80 MKs to approve any changes to Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries. We will be watching to see who votes in favor of the law, who votes against and who abstains. And we will act accordingly on Election Day.”
Leiter’s words clearly found a mark with many audience members. 19-year-old Elisha Breningstall, a native of Minneapolis, Minnesota who now studies at the Netiv Aryeh yeshiva next door to the Western Wall, cited both historical and security reasons for coming to the rally.
“I am 100 percent against giving up any part of the Land of Israel, especially in Jerusalem,” he told Israel National News. “For 19 years, the Jordanians controlled our holiest places, and no Jews were allowed to set foot on them. Today, Moslems can visit al-Aqsa Mosque whenever they want. How could we even think about reverting to the former scenario?
“Furthermore,” he said, “look at what’s happened in Sderot. We gave away our land and now there is a constant rain of Kassam rockets on the city. It’s a direct result of disengagement.”
In contrast to many, or even most, political protest rallies, the event had something of a non-political feel, perhaps due to the presence of hundreds of teenagers from Jerusalem and around the country. Many sang songs about Jerusalem and there was even a bit of dancing despite the rain, giving the event a marked sense of joy and celebration, rather than the anger that often grips “traditional” political rallies.
One group of ninth-grade girls who traveled by bus from Rechovot to attend the rally were clearly in awe of the fact they were standing in the shadow of the Jerusalem; another group of teenaged boys organized a minyan (prayer group) for the afternoon service. One man in his fifties or sixties wore a shirt declaring, “I am a settler from Givatayim,” referring to a middle-class suburb of Tel Aviv. An uninitiated passer-by could easily have come away with the impression that several thousand people had spontaneously gathered to celebrate Jerusalem, rather than come to deliver a potent political message.
At the end of the day, the most compelling message of the afternoon did not come from the central stage or from any of the polished speeches by accomplished public figures in attendance. Rather, the centrality of Jerusalem to the Jewish people was best expressed by 14-year-old Frima Bubis, a resident of the capital’s Har Nof neighborhood.
“The reality of what our soldiers went through so that we could be here today,” she told Arutz Sheva, “is why I’m here today. When you live in Jerusalem, it’s easy to forget about it or to get all caught up in politics. But when you think about what it was like before those critical six days (the 1967 Six Day War), what they went through for us – it really hits home, and brings the point home for a lot of people.”