In perhaps the largest Jewish gathering in the city's history, a massive crowd estimated at well over 300,000 people filled the streets around the Old City of Jerusalem on Monday night, waving flags and signs in a display of Jewish loyalty to a united city under Israeli rule.
The huge rally "Jerusalem, I pledge to You" was organized in response to the growing impression that Israel and the Jewish people were ready to cede the Temple Mount and other parts of the city to Palestinian rule, based on the peace proposals recently outlined by outgoing US President Bill Clinton.
The picturesque Old City walls took on new grandeur as night fell, with colored floodlights and torches along the ramparts reflecting off the ancient stones. The theme "Jerusalem, I pledge" was projected in Hebrew onto the wall near the center stage at Jaffa Gate. The crowd below continued to swell, stretching from Sultan's Pool up Jaffa Road to Safra Square and beyond towards Zion Square.
The event was organized by Russian immigrant leader Natan Sharansky and the One Jerusalem Forum with representatives from a wide spectrum of Israeli society, as well as Diaspora Jews, invited to participate. A diverse roster of speakers from different Jewish sectors reflected the non-partisan message of the rally.
Each speech and greeting focused on Jerusalem as a central element of Jewish identity, which they "cannot afford to lose," as one participant said. In the words of another, it was "an outpouring of love" for Jerusalem. Most speakers quoted Hebrew Scriptures concerning the revered holy city, and repeated the words of the Psalmist: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning."
Hundreds of Christians from Israel and abroad joined the throng to witness the vows of Jewish loyalty to Jerusalem and express support for a Jewish Jerusalem, according to biblical principles and promises.
Former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau spoke first, referring to the Temple Mount as "the very heart" of the Jewish people. "It is said about the nation of Israel that we have a long memory. At times it seems, however, that our memory is a bit weak," he continued. "We tend to forget what Jerusalem was like before 1967, when thick defensive walls bisected our streets, and all agreements regarding freedom of worship were broken by the other side."
Later in the evening, a giant picture of the capture of the Temple Mount during the 1967 Six-Day War was projected onto the city walls, while loudspeakers broadcast Motta Gur's famous statement, "The Temple Mount is in our hands."
Landau told the rally that Clinton should keep to himself his "creative and confidence-building proposals" to transfer sovereignty over the Temple Mount. "We received a precious deposit from our predecessors, and it is our duty to pass it on to those who come after us unharmed," he said.
Rishon LeZion Mayor Meir Nitzan, a Labor Party member, quoted sections of a speech made by the late Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, in which he promised as prime minister that Jerusalem would remain united under Israeli sovereignty.
Nitzan was followed by Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, who spoke of the deep Jewish connection to Israel's eternal, undivided capital, "the basis of our very existence in this land." He said that no other nation in the world wants peace as much as Israel does, "but no nation in the world was ever asked to give up its holiest treasures to placate another nation. We will not give up the most precious treasures of Jewish history," vowed Olmert.
Olmert also called on Clinton to abandon his proposals for Jerusalem. "Think about it, Mr. President," Olmert said. "For the sake of the Jewish people and for the sake of the city of Jerusalem, do not be the first president in the history of America who has proposed dividing the ancient and eternal capital of the Jewish people."
Despite controversy, American Jewish millionaire Ron Lauder, currently chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations and President of the Jewish National Fund, attended the rally and addressed the crowd "as an individual Jew," on behalf of "millions of Jews throughout the world."
The final speaker was Avital Sharansky, wife of the famous Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky, who said the "liberation of Jerusalem" in 1967, causing the "heart of the nation to beat again," had sparked the Jewish awakening in the Soviet Union.
The centerpiece of the rally was the lighting of torches by individuals representing various population sectors, each of whom pledged allegiance to Jerusalem while lighting the torch. Earlier, thousands of people joined hands around most of the Old City, excluding a few sections where police denied the demonstrators a permit, for fear of Arab violence.
Among the many political figures who attended but did not speak were former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and MK Dan Meridor of the Center party, still a part of the minority coalition government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Netanyahu told reporters that the demonstration was reminiscent of the ancient custom of making pilgrimages on foot to the city during the major biblical holidays. "Jerusalem is our heart, our soul, and the center of our being. We cannot tear our heart in two, and we will never, ever divide Jerusalem," he said.
The rally riled pro-Oslo elements in Israel and the US, who charged it was a political event staged to help Likud chairman Ariel Sharon in his bid to unseat Barak in the upcoming special election for prime minister on February 6 and may violate campaign financing laws. Barak still has a cloud hanging over him from the 1999 general elections, when his campaign team deliberately used illegal funding channeled through a network of 18 non-profit associations to assist in his race for the premiership.
One Israel MK Ophir Pines-Paz, deputy chairman of the Central Elections Committee, asked State Comptroller Eliezer Goldberg yesterday to act to expose the sources of the funding, and to transfer findings to the police for investigation A frantic effort also has been underway by left-leaning media to find out the identity of the funding sources for the rally, which could be used to charge Sharon and Likud with campaign financing violations.
Organizers of last night's rally confirmed it was partly financed by donations from abroad, but declined to disclose the identities of the donors or the amount of money involved and denied it was meant to promote Sharon. "For three thousand years, Jerusalem has been the heart and soul of the Jewish people," said Sharansky, the primary initiator of the event. "While our leaders need to make hard decisions and even sacrifices for peace, we cannot cut our heart out in the name of peace, for if we do we are likely to lose our soul in the process," he said.
In keeping with the rally's declared non-political nature, Sharansky decided not to speak at the event and banned signs endorsing either one of the prime ministerial candidates. "The issue of Jerusalem is not a security issue, or a question of borders, it is the very identity of the Jewish people," he said.
"This is not a demonstration against anything but a demonstration in support of a united Jerusalem," said Mayor Olmert on Sunday, who called upon the people of Israel "to express the same determination and enthusiasm that has symbolized their attitude toward the city all these years."
The rally also highlighted a growing schism in the American Jewish community about the role of the Jewish Diaspora in helping determine the fate of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. The breach began after the failed Camp David summit in July, when Barak agreed to discuss proposals for severing Israeli sovereignty in parts of the city, especially on the Temple Mount.
At that time, Malcolm Hoenlein, the influential executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, said: "In future years, all of us will have to answer our children and grandchildren when they ask us why we did not do more to protect their heritage and safeguard Har HaBayit" - the Temple Mount.
"Israel has a right to make decisions that affect its security. All Jews have a right to discuss it, but it's up to the government of Israel," Hoenlein said. The "Temple Mount is a different issue. It belongs to all Jews, it is the inheritance of all Jews, and all Jews have a vested interest in it." The notion that Diaspora Jews have a say over the fate of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount was mirrored by the Arab world, where leaders warned PLO chief Yasser Arafat that Jerusalem is a matter for the entire Muslim world as well.
But Hoenlein was accused by some of attempting to derail Barak's effort to negotiate control of the Mount, and of breaking an accepted principle that the Conference - an umbrella of some 50 prominent American Jewish groups - would not take stands on the peace process counter to the Israeli government.
Hoenlein's words recently found their way into an advertisement initiated by the Zionist Organization of America and endorsed by some 30 prominent American Jews, including six past chair-people of the Conference of Presidents. The ad campaign was launched in response to comments made recently by Israeli Absorption Minister Yuli Tamir in New York. Tamir was quoted as saying that Israel "must make painful concessions, renouncing one way or another our sovereignty over the Temple Mount if necessary."
Faring poorly in the polls, Barak has repeatedly attempted over the past week to reassure Israelis and American Jews that he "does not intend to sign any agreement that transfers sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the Palestinians." Many remain concerned, however, that the carefully worded disclaimer would allow him, for example, to transfer the Temple Mount to a third party, which would then convey rights to the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, Israel's Chief Rabbinical Council last week issued a ruling not only prohibiting conceding sovereignty over the Temple Mount in negotiations with the Palestinians, but banning such negotiations. "It is absolutely forbidden by halacha (Jewish laws on ritual purity) to hand over sovereignty or ownership of the Temple Mount, directly or indirectly, to gentiles," the rabbinate ruled. "The sovereignty belongs to the people of Israel, so even discussing it would be a desecration of God's name."
At the same time, the Council also rejected a petition to lift the religious ban on Jews traversing the Temple Mount. "We are in a state of war, and halacha states that in times of war ascending the Mount is permitted," argued Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party. Yahalom contended that in the eyes of the world, the Jews only talked about the Temple Mount, while Moslems actively demonstrated their connection by visiting the site. He said permitting Jews to pray there en masse would show Clinton and Jews around the world that the Mount is indeed Judaism's holiest site and an inseparable part of the state. The Council responded the ritual impediments remain and the ban was reaffirmed.
On a related note, in recent days Arafat and other Palestinian leaders have clarified that they are opposed not only to Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount, but also at the Western Wall, which the Clinton plan would leave in Jewish hands. The Palestinians are demanding that the Kotel be placed under Palestinian control, with limited Jewish access in accordance with a 1931 order by British mandatory authorities which strictly controlled Jewish worship at the holy site. That ruling declared the site a Muslim holy place - part of the Al-Aqsa mosque - and prohibited the blowing of shofars at the Wall, among other draconian restrictions.
The Palestinians also oppose Jewish control of any area within eastern Jerusalem, including all of the the Old City, and continue to refuse to recognize any Jewish connection to any holy site there. In addition, they want Jewish immigration to Israel tied to the Palestinian "right of return."
Finally, just hours before the Jerusalem rally yesterday, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Ikrema Sabri, called a press conference and issued a fatwa (religious ruling) that "the entire area comprising the Temple Mount is a Muslim Wakf domain." Sabri vehemently rejected any possible plans for dual control of the Temple Mount, and said his edict was binding on millions of Muslims worldwide, which would include the Palestinian negotiators.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.