Jerusalem Day Rikudgalim march
Jerusalem Day Rikudgalim march Arutz Sheva

This coming Sunday on Jerusalem Day, will Hamas once again begin to fire missiles from Gaza toward Jewish communities and cities in Israel, just as it did last year?

Will another violent Intifada break out throughout the country?

Or will the Government of Israel back down to Arab threats and prevent sixty thousand Jews from joyously parading with Israeli flags through the Damascus Gate to the Kotel during this year’s Jerusalem Day ceremonies?

Time will tell. Head of Hamas’s political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, has warned against Jews ascending the Temple Mount during the Flag Parade in Jerusalem next week (even though the ascent to the Temple Mount has never been a feature of the parade nor is it a part of this year’s agenda). "We will fight with all means available to prevent this desecration of the Al Aqsa Mosque," Haniyeh was quoted as saying.

Ministers from the Meretz party protested against Public Security Minister Omer Barlev's decision to approve the route of the Jerusalem Day Flag March through the Damascus Gate. Political analysts note that Prime Minister Bennett will be under tremendous pressure from the Arab parties to overrule the decision if he hopes to keep his vanishing coalition intact.

The situation is explosive indeed.

This year as always, hundreds of buses will arrive in the city in the early afternoon from all over the country. Women gather near the Great Synagogue, and men in Zion Square in the center of Jaffa Road, in keeping with standards of halakha in a march as crowded as is this one. With thousands of blue-and-white flags waving like Zionist oceans, youngsters dance in circles and follow after the musical bands riding on flat-bed trucks, which converge on the Old City from several directions to symbolize the unification of Jerusalem and Jewish sovereignty over the Holy City.

A review of the festive “Rekud-Degalim” Jerusalem Day Parade and the history of Jewish life in the so-called “Muslim Quarter” will help us understand the importance of the annual parade route, especially in the light of this year’s powder-keg potential and the Biden Administration’s hopes to divide the eternal capital of the Jewish People.

What happened on Jerusalem Day 1967 and after that?

On the day that Jerusalem was unified under Israel sovereignty during the Six Day War, Chief IDF Rabbi Shlomo Goren and paratroopers from the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva brought the Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, to the Old City to lead the first national Mincha prayer at the Kotel after a separation of almost two-thousand years.

Rav Tzvi Yehuda comes to liberated Kotel
Rav Tzvi Yehuda comes to liberated Kotel Archives

“Every eye was filled with tears,” the Rosh Yeshiva later recalled. “Soldiers prostrated themselves on the ground in front of the Kotel. Others wedged their fingers between the stones of the Wall. Everyone chanted the Psalm, “When the Lord brought back the exiles of Zion, we were like those who dream.”

Afterwards, journalists from around the world gathered about the Rabbi to record his reactions. “Behold,” he declared. “We announce to all of the Jewish People and to all of the world that by a Divine command we have returned to our home and to our Holy City. From this day forth, we shall never budge from here. We have come home! All of the rulers of the world cannot alter this Divine historic fact. The counsel of the Lord endures forever.”

The following year, at midnight, after a Jerusalem Day celebration at the yeshiva highlighted by speeches of outstanding Torah Scholars, HaRav Tzvi Yehuda led students on a march to the Kotel. As years went by, young people from all over the country gathered at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva for the evening celebration and midnight march to the Kotel.

Some twenty years later, in an effort to enlarge the celebration, one of the Rabbis of the yeshiva, HaRav Yehuda Hazani, established a flag-waving, daytime, musical parade through the streets of Jerusalem to the Kotel. Each year, the event grew larger and larger, until it evolved into a joyous celebration of more than fifty-thousand participants, mostly from the Religious-Zionist community, culminating with hours of song and dancing in the jammed-packed Western Wall Plaza.

And what happened to me?

I first met Rabbi Hazani, of blessed memory, when he came to New York during the First War in Lebanon in the summer of 1982, in order to recruit volunteers to work on moshavim and in Tzahal warehouses during the war. At the time, I was an assimilated Hollywood screenwriter, beginning to become a baal t’shuva. I was learning Hebrew in an ulpan in the Jewish Agency building on Park Avenue when the long-bearded Rabbi showed up with Meir Indor, now the head of the Almagor Terror Victims Association. They called for American Jews to sign up for the emergency volunteer recruitment drive which they called “Volunteers for Israel” (which later became known as “Sarel”).

Rav Hazani and Tzvi Fishman in New York
Rav Hazani and Tzvi Fishman in New York Tzvi Fishman

To make a long story short, inspired by Rabbi Hazani’s round-the-clock dedication to the project, his towering love for Israel, and his deep Torah wisdom, I decided to make him my Rabbi. Every morning I reported to the headquarters which the Israeli shlichim set up in the Jewish Press newspaper building in Brooklyn, in order to write press releases and help out in the very busy office. When it came time for my flight to Israel, Rabbi Hazani requested me to delay my departure and run the organization in New York since he and Indor had to fly back to Israel to welcome the arriving American volunteers and assign them to army bases around the country.

After two years at the task, filling El-Al flights with eager volunteers, I received permission from Rabbi Hazani to make aliyah. Arriving at his home in the Givat Shaul neighborhood in Jerusalem, I was taken by him to the Machon Meir Yeshiva for baale t’shuva and ordered to learn there for at least two years before leaving the beit midrash. Not long later, he founded the daytime flag-waving parade to the Kotel on Jerusalem Day and I helped out in any way I could, mostly by helping to raise money and by acting as a liaison to the English-speaking media.

When Rabbi Hazani tragically died in a hiking accident in the Judean Desert, his friend Rabbi Yaacov Novik took charge of the annual Jerusalem Day Parade which is now dedicated in the name of its founder. I became a member of the planning board of the “Am K’Lavie” educational foundation which runs the event, continuing to help with the parade’s organization.

Tensions surrounding the flag parade

Let’s jump to the Damascus Gate and what is commonly known as the “Muslim Quarter” of the Old City – the focus of the tensions surrounding the parade. Initially, and without public debate, marchers reached the Kotel via the main gates of the Old City. After parading along Jaffa Road and Agron Street, the flag-waving crowd of teenagers, adults, and families wheeling baby carriages split up at the Tzahal Plaza and set off toward the gala celebration in the Kotel Plaza via the Jaffa, Damascus, Lion’s, and Dung Gate which encompass the Old City, as a symbol of the unification of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.

In the beginning, the Israeli Police welcomed the festive event and readily worked with the parade organizers to ensure the parade’s success. However, as the numbers of participants increased each year, and as Arab aggressiveness swelled with the Oslo Accords, the security situation became increasingly problematic. Nonetheless, the organizers of the parade maintained friendly negotiations with the police authorities who were faced with manpower problems and political concerns emanating from Washington regarding a re-division of Jerusalem.

While agreeing to cancel the parade routes via the Dung and Lion’s Gate, we insisted that the procession through the Damascus Gate and “Muslim Quarter” remain intact.

The misnomered "Muslim" Quarter of Jerusalem

I put the “Muslim Quarter” in quotations marks because the description is a gross misnomer. While many Arabs live throughout this quarter of the Old City, it is not the Muslim Quarter at all. In fact, its original name was the Western Wall Quarter or the Old Jewish Quarter, for here was the center of Jewish life in Jerusalem.

For example, according to the British census of 1920, in the Jewish neighborhoods surrounding Hevron and HaGai Streets in this thriving Jewish center, there were nearly a thousand Jewish families, many of them clustered in small apartments in the Galicia Compound and the Wittenberg Courtyard. Dozens of Jewish businesses filled the busy neighborhood, including a number of venerable Jerusalem institutions, the Diskin Orphange, which housed dozens of children; the Strauss Soup Kitchen, the Ezrat Nashim Home for the Mentally Ill, and the overcrowded Chayai Olam Yeshiva which was founded in the late 1880’s on the initiative of illustrious Torah giants such as Rav Yehoshua of Kutna, Rav Leib Diskin, Rav Shmuel Salant, Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, Rav Chaim Sonnenfeld, Rav Chaim Berlin Yaacov Meir, and Rav Ben Zion Meir Chai Uziel.

Rabbi Kook’s son, Rav Tzvi Yehuda, learned at the nearby Torat Chaim Yeshiva as a youth. At the time, there were 30 synagogues and eight bustling yeshivot in the quarter. The neighborhood was only renamed the “Muslim Quarter” after the Arab uprisings and murderous pogroms in the Twenties and Thirties forced all of the Jews to flee the area.

The area remained Judenrein until 1979 when a few idealistic pioneers including Mati Dan of the Ateret Cohanim Organization discovered intrepid equally idealist philanthropists Dr. Irving Moskowitz z"l and his wife Cherna (may she merit long life) whose love for the Jewish people's return to the Land of Israel caused them to be interested in helping to purchase and reclaim the buildings which had been abandoned by Jewish families during the Arab pogroms and British evacuation.

“Mati was a young man with a winning smile and a dynamic drive that made you feel he was involved with the most important thing in the world,” Dr. Moskowitz once told me. “He took my wife and myself on an eye-opening tour of the so-called ‘Muslim Quarter.’ On the doorposts of building after building, he showed us the empty holes where mezuzot had once been affixed. At the time I didn’t know anything about the history of the Old City, and here he was presenting us with an opportunity to acquire the famous Chai Olam Yeshiva building which had been stolen from the Jews by the Arabs.”

Irving and Cherna Moskowitz
Irving and Cherna Moskowitz INN:HS

Returning buildings to their rightful Jewish ownership meant long research and negotiations through a maze of antiquated property laws still in effect from the periods of Turkish, British, and Jordanian rule. These included complicated ownership and tenancy rights, leasing arrangements, squatter rights, and different forms of “chazaka” whereby apartments were handed down from one generation to the next.

Up until today the Moskowitz Foundation has been involved with the purchase of dozens of former Jewish properties throughout the Old Jewish Quarter. Mezuzahs have returned to doorways all along HaGai Street and Israeli Flags fly proudly on rooftops and terraces. The Ateret Yerushalayim Yeshiva led by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner is housed in the old Torat Chaim Yeshiva building, and the newly renovated Ohel Yitzhak Synagogue has returned to being the “pearl” of the neighborhood, all thanks to Moskowitz sponsorship.

Thus the insistence of Jerusalem Parade organizers to march through the Damascus Gate via HaGai Street is no deliberate “act of incitement” against Arab residents of the quarter, but a clear statement that all of Jerusalem belongs exclusively under the authority of Medinat Yisrael.

One year during the Obama Administration, along the parade route on Agron Street in front of the American Consulate, I was invited to read a declaration in English written by Rabbi Novik, in response to President Obama’s threatening pronouncements about dividing the Land of Israel and Jerusalem, G-d forbid. In front of a large banner reading, “GOD GAVE THE LAND OF ISRAEL TO THE JEWS,” I held up a Bible and proclaimed:

Tzvi Fishman and Meir Indor at march on Jerusalem Day
Tzvi Fishman and Meir Indor at march on Jerusalem Day T. Fishman

“On this historic day which marks the reunification of Jerusalem, we proclaim to the President of the United States, to the people of the America, and to all the nations of the world, that we will not relinquish any part of our Holy City and our Holy Land!

“Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish People, and the Jewish People alone. Jerusalem is the city of our kings, of King David and King Solomon; Jerusalem is the city of our Holy Temple; Jerusalem is the city of our prophets, the prophets of Israel, the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, who all declared that the nations of the world would one day gather in Jerusalem before the rebuilt House of the Lord on the Temple Mount to receive a blessing of peace and prosperity, not only for the Jews but for all peoples in the world.

“This book, the Bible, the eternal word of God, is our deed to the Land of Israel and to Jerusalem. Therefore, on Jerusalem Day, we call out to the President of United States, and to the people of America, and to all the believers in the Bible the world over, to stand by us in defending the unity of our ancient capital, Jerusalem, and in defending the indivisible unity of our ancient, Promised Land.

"In the words of a great American, Martin Luther King, we call out in a loud, united voice, “WE HAVE A DREAM!” We have a dream, Mr. President – a dream of 2000 years. For 2000 years the Jewish People dreamed of returning to our Holy City, and now that God has brought us back, we will never allow Jerusalem to be stolen from us or divided ever again!”