From Trump to Triumph
Friday, 15 December 2017 | 27 Kislev, 5778
I arrived in Jerusalem on the eve of Trump’s historic announcement and I left it on the eve of the historic festival of Chanukah. I would like to say I timed my visit deliberately, but then there were no calls from Jared Kushner and even though Rabbi Riskin may have heard I was in town Bibi seemed oblivious…
Jerusalem is always an edgy city. Even when it’s relaxed it’s looking over its’ shoulder. This past week it was a little sharper, more alert to the attention it was receiving worldwide. Everyone had an opinion but on the whole it seemed to me there was a collective shrug across Jerusalem, a kind of ‘what’s the fuss all about‘. Yes, people were a little more tense especially after a stabbing in the main bus terminal. I was having a coffee there shortly after when somebody suddenly shouted out randomly (about bringing the Mashiach). Everyone in the restaurant stopped in their tracks. And you could cut the tension in the air. But on the whole, the city beats with its own curious and distinct energy (a different beat to the uber-cool Tel Aviv); the streets are busy, Machaneh Yehuda, the fabled market is on steroids, the kotel clamours with open-eyed tourists and intense closed-eyed daveners and the cafes are full and varied. As my son Yoni and I explored genteel Rechavia, his phone alerted us to the most popular fast food place nearby called ‘From Gaza to Berlin’. With a name like that we were expecting an explosive menu. But the crowds jostling to get in were more interested in the mouth-watering hummus, kubeh and felafel that melted into your being. And when we enquired about the name it really was more pedestrian and about the location of the cafe between Gaza and Rabbi Chaim Berlin streets...
Yes, Jerusalem was in the news and for most Jerusalemites the affirmation of what they see when they walk past the PM’s residence or drive past the Knesset, was pleasing but not pivotal. Rav Benny Lau opined in his Shabbat drasha that more important than ‘what then the goyim/nations will say’ [about Israel] is ‘what then will the Jews do’. In other words it’s not so much about the sovereignty of Jerusalem as it’s about the morality and ethics of the Jewish people who live there and about how they treat their neighbours particularly those less fortunate. For the women in black protesting on the square outside the Prima Kings Hotel (including the daughter of a Shoah survivor) it was how the Israelis should relate to their non-Jewish Arab neighbours. Another rabbi-teacher said living independently in Jerusalem reflects the opinion of Hillel that a child fulfils the Mitzvah of pilgrimage to the Temple, aliya laregel, not when they can sit and be carried on their father’s shoulders (Shammai’s stance) but when they can walk on their own two feet. Being a Jew in Israel today is about owning your own history, walking on your own two feet and walking on your own Derech or path with integrity. So while for many Trump had given Israel a Chanukah gift - and the large Christian billboards across the city declaring “God bless Trump from Jerusalem DC (David’s Capital) to Washington DC” attested to this; for others their reaction was more nuanced: Don’t place too much trust in foreign benevolence - we’ve been there too often in our history, Jerusalem has been there too often in its history.
And to prove this point, on my last day in the Old City a triumphant walk took place through Jaffa Gate. Dressed in colourful costumes was a General Allenby look-alike (some of his descendants were present) and the Turkish Muslim mayor of Jerusalem surrendering the keys of the city to him. December 11 marked 100 years since General Edmund Allenby, Commander in Chief of the Army in Palestine, chose to walk through the gate solidifying British rule of the Holy Land. We may like to romanticise the moment and see it (like the liberation of Beersheba) as the beginning of the State of Israel but the British, despite the Balfour Declaration were deeply ambivalent about a Jewish State and it’s arguable whether it would have been born without Jewish determination, sacrifice and courage. It certainly wouldn’t be around today without those elements.
This leads us to another band of brave and resilient Jews, the Maccabees, whose victory over the Greek empire we celebrate at this time. In Jerusalem at Chanukah time it seemed everything was going doughnuts - The Jerusalem Post ran six pages on the best sufganiot and latkes; the main column was entitled: Holy holey and unholy in the holy city. My favourite cafe abandoned its usual tables and set up large trestle tables instead with a dazzling assortment of different flavoured doughnuts. Yes, there were also Menora motifs on the street lights and Chabad had a table at the airport to encourage candle lighting. Doughnuts and pictures aside this festival is of course about the assertion of Jewish independence, about the complexity of being independent in your own country. The Hasmoneans subsequently (like too many present day Israeli politicians) abused their power and lost sight of their purpose of providing moral, physical and spiritual leadership.
The challenge of being a free people in our own land is as great today as it ever was any other time of Jewish sovereignty. May the lights of Chanukah light the way for Israel’s political and religious leaders. May the lights of Jerusalem always burn bright and its eternal stones always reflect that golden sight!
Chag Sameach & Shabbat Shalom