Jerusalem has become my adopted home over the past few months. Its stones, its people, its diversity, its history and its raw energy combine to make it one of the most unique places on the planet. Weaving through its ancient streets and modern cafes listening to the cacophony of languages is an achingly beautiful way to spend an afternoon.
Yesterday afternoon, though, Jerusalem’s delicate splendour was fractured. I watched as a nationalist mob of thousands of juvenile testosterone-filled boys marched through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem. They were having a great day out, some with families, most with their classmates. There was singing, shouting, screaming, chanting. Flags were waved, held aloft and worn as scarves. The police kept a watchful eye on proceedings.
It felt awfully like an English Defence League demo or maybe a Trump rally, albeit with more kippot, more niggunim and far fewer muscles.
I was there helping to document the event, which has a history of racist rhetoric and violence. The organisation Ir Amim station volunteers along the route. It seemed like the presence of our cameras – and those of other left-wing organisations – had some tangible effect.
“Eugh, there are tonnes of smolanim [lefties] here,” pouted one boy.
“Right, so be on your best behaviour,” barked his elder.
Two 14-year olds wearing Israel flags then started bashing on the shutters of an Arab shop. Noticing us filming, their guardian grabbed them and moved them on, telling our cameras that, on this happy day, it doesn’t matter that we are lefties, and that G-d loves us anyway. (Thanks!).
Meanwhile, a cute family were posing for a photograph. They smiled as they basked in the joy of the Jewish conquest of Jerusalem 49 years ago. Their backdrop? A shuttered Palestinian coffee shop. It was an almost comically perfect portrait of the dual realities that coexist in space and time in this city.
Racism is embedded in the march itself: could you imagine the Israeli police shutting down the Jewish Quarter for a Naqba Day march replete with Palestinian flags and Hamas propaganda? The state, while seeking to manage and minimise the damage, effectively supports a march which requires Palestinians to be cleared out of their neighbourhood and kept behind army barricades for their own security. There is no reason at all for the march not to happen in the Jewish area of the Old City (incidentally, where most of the seminary girls march). The only reason it happens here is as a muscular demonstration of Jewish power over Palestinians. It’s the very definition of state-endorsed racism.
At one point, an Arab woman in a wheelchair braved the crowd, pushed along by her elderly husband. We got our cameras out, expecting the worst. But the marching boys made space for her, shouting at each other to create a channel through which the pair could travel. This woman’s vulnerability seemed to wash out the drug of religious-infused ultra-nationalism, and, for a moment, the boys stopped being threatening marchers and became boys again. I don’t know whether that’s hopeful or just painfully sad.
The meshuganas continued for a couple of hours. I spotted the largely-French group from my MASA programme in the crowd with our madrich (leader) – despite his promise that they would not be marching through the Muslim Quarter. They shouted over to me, their euphoria clearly obscuring the fairly obvious fact that I was one of the spoil-sport smolanim ruining the fun.
After the march finished and the garbage-filled streets slowly returned to an eerie silence, what remained were the stickers. The day ended with the Muslim Quarter literally plastered with Jewish nationalist angst in the form of hateful slogans: “Transfer [Arabs] now!”; “The daughters of Israel for the nation of Israel!”; “Free the Temple Mount”.
We began to pick them off the walls, climbing on each other’s shoulders to reach the high ones, which earnt some chuckles from the Palestinians returning to their shops. The police helped out, as did the Essex-born Israeli cameraman from the Israeli news channel Arutz 2. We made to leave the Old City and we all agreed to exit via the Damascus Gate. Here we were – a group of Jews and Israelis, living in this place and deeply committed to its future – and we didn’t want to step foot in the Jewish Quarter. So much for United Jerusalem.
A version of this post first appeared on the All That’s Left Collective website.