It was great to be a Jew in Jerusalem today.
More than 300,000 Jews from throughout Israel and the world ― the largest rally in the history of Israel ― gathered together to express their loyalty to Jerusalem as the eternal, undivided capital of the Jewish nation.
The rally began at eventide when Jews from all over Israel, holding torches and Israeli flags, formed a human chain around the Old City. Hebrew songs of love and longing for Jerusalem blared from mammoth speakers set up along the 16th century walls. By nightfall, the crowds stretched from Jaffa Gate for more than a kilometer up Jerusalem's main street.
Most of the speakers were simple citizens, representing the gamut of Israel's society.
The rally was billed as non-political and nonpartisan, and indeed, no politicians nor members of Knesset spoke. As Mayor of Jerusalem Ehud Olmert said: "This is not a demonstration. This is not a political rally. This is simply the natural expression and outpouring of the love and fidelity of the Jewish people for Jerusalem."
Most of the speakers were simple citizens, representing the gamut of Israel's society; from a 13-year-old boy to a retired general; from a woman who made aliyah only three years ago to a man whose ancestors had walked to Israel from Yemen a century ago; from a secular left-wing kibbutznik to a rabbi who was a member of the paratroops division which liberated the Old City in 1967.
The crowd itself was even more diverse than the speakers.
They had come from every corner of the country: the Golan, Eilat at the southernmost tip, the northernmost town of Kiryat Shemona, and all the towns along the coast. Planeloads of supporters had flown in from England, France, the United States, and Russia. Sympathetic Christians also attended. There were Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Ethiopians and Russians, American students and fourth-generation sabras.
No signs representing any particular party were held up. No statements were made against any political figure or group (except Bill Clinton, whom the Mayor of Jerusalem called upon not to be the first President in American history to seek to divide Jerusalem). No negative notes were sounded. It felt like a giant love-in, with Jerusalem as the beloved.
Together we felt invincible. Nothing could overwhelm us.
Israel is a nation of only 5.5 million people with two dozen political parties, where the adage, "Two Jews, three opinions," proves itself in constant divisiveness and strife. But this night we were united around a common love. This night all hearts beat in unison. This night witnessed the strength of the unity of the Jewish people.
Together we felt invincible. Nothing could overwhelm us ― not international pressure, not CNN's caustic censure, not Arab terrorism and violence, not post-Zionist despair. Standing there along the brightly-lit walls of the Old City, we were a nation united in resolution, true to our Jewish history, committed to our Jewish future.
The rally had been organized by Natan Sharansky, the Soviet refusenik who spent fourteen years in the gulag and is now a Knesset member and the head of the largest Russian immigrant party. True to his own definition of the event as apolitical, Sharansky himself did not speak. Instead, his wife Avital addressed the crowd.
Testimony to a Miracle
Before thousands of us who believe that only a miracle can save the Jewish state, Avital Sharansky stood there ― a living example of how faith and persistence can make a miracle happen. She left the Soviet Union the day after her wedding and did not see her bridegroom for 14 years. With her dissident-husband imprisoned by the Communist authorities, Avital took on the Soviet system, publicizing the plight of the refuseniks and garnering support for them all over the world.
Angered by this sprightly young Jewish woman, the Soviet government decided on the ultimate revenge: they would keep Sharansky imprisoned until Avital was past child-bearing age. But Avital could not be cowed nor silenced. She made her husband's name into a household word, and eventually she won his release. The couple now has two daughters.
Avital, a petite woman with wire-rimmed glasses and a scarf covering her head, compared the relationship between Jerusalem and the Jewish people to that of the heart and the body.
Just as only a healthy heart can effectively pump blood to all the extremities, so Jerusalem's reunification in 1967 heralded a spiritual awakening among Russian Jews like her, distant from their Jewish heritage. In fact, the worldwide teshuva movement of tens of thousands of assimilated Jews returning to their religious roots traces its beginnings to the aftermath of the Six-Day War, which liberated and reunified Jerusalem. A healthy heart feeds even the most distant limbs.
Pledge of Allegiance
Publicity for the rally said that it would culminate in a mass swearing of allegiance to Jerusalem. As an observant Jew, I worried about what kind of oath we would be asked to take. Jewish law considers swearing such a serious matter that it should be undertaken only in the most extreme situations. Even then, stories abound of great rabbis who forfeited significant sums of money rather than swear in court.
The moment for the mass pledge arrived. I felt my jaw clenching.
The moment for the mass pledge arrived. All the speakers, including the Mayor, assembled around the podium. The MC instructed us that he would say a phrase, then we should all repeat after him, phrase by phrase. I felt my jaw clenching.
Then he pronounced the words: "If I forget you, O Jerusalem..."
The crowd roared in response: "If I forget you, O Jerusalem."
The MC continued the words of the 137th Psalm: "let my right hand wither..."
"Let my right hand wither," more than 300,000 voices cried out in unison.
"Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth," the MC intoned.
The man with the pony tail in front of me, together with the Hassid with the long peyos to his left, shouted out the words: "Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth."
"If I fail to remember you..." led the MC.
The religious family to my right and the old Sephardi couple behind them fervently repeated: "If I fail to remember you."
"If I fail to elevate Jerusalem..." the MC continued.
"If I fail to elevate Jerusalem," the three punk-haired teenagers on my left cried earnestly, in concert with a group of young yeshiva students.
"Above my foremost joy!" the MC concluded.
"Above my foremost joy!" The words rose up into the moonlit night and echoed off the Old City walls. Or perhaps the walls themselves were joining in our ancient oath.
And we, who had turned out more than 300,000 strong for the sake of the unity of Jerusalem, experienced Jerusalem bestowing on us a unity we had not known.
The Jewish people at one ― at last.