This week we read the Torah portion of Bamidbar, which describes a census taken of the people of Israel as we are about to go to war to capture our land. The timing is fascinating, for today we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim on the Jewish calendar, the holiday that commemorates the reunification of the city of Jerusalem in the miraculous Six Day War of 1967. It has been exactly 50 years on the Jewish calendar since we were finally able to return to the Kotel, the Western Wall, holiest place on earth for Jews; 50 years since the commander of the troops who captured the Old City from Jordanian forces, Motta Gur, announced, Har HaBayit B’yadeinu—the Temple Mount is in our hands.
On the third of the incredible six days of war, Israeli paratroopers captured the Western Wall and the Temple Mount without using air power or artillery, lest they damage the many sacred sites. They restored the Jewish presence to the Old City of Jerusalem that Arabs had forcibly denied us. That same day, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan declared, famously,
“This morning, the Israel Defense Forces liberated Jerusalem. We have united Jerusalem, the divided capital of Israel. We have returned to the holiest of our holy places, never to part from it again. To our Arab neighbors we extend, also at this hour—and with added emphasis at this hour—our hand in peace. And to our Christian and Muslim fellow citizens, we solemnly promise full religious freedom and rights. We did not come to Jerusalem for the sake of other peoples' holy places, and not to interfere with the adherents of other faiths, but in order to safeguard its entirety, and to live there together with others, in unity.”
Today we mark the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, Yerushalayim, which in Hebrew is based on Ir Shalom, which means the City of Peace. Jerusalem has not often been that, a city of peace, but it has been the most sacred place in the entire world for Jews for three thousand years, and wherever we were scattered throughout the world we longed to return to her.
And now, of course, we have returned, and on the ruins of the Jewish Quarter destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948, the Israelis have built a magnificent new Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem out of stone and passion and love. It is beautiful, unique, vital. You must come visit it with me on our 2018 Temple Emanu-El Pilgrimage there next June.
By the way, it was not initially a military objective of Israel’s in 1967 to capture the Old City of Jerusalem, or the West Bank, or Jericho, or Masada—or the Golan Heights, for that matter. In fact, Israel tried very hard to keep Jordan out of the war altogether—Syria, too—and focus solely on Egypt, which had the largest military and the most militant leader, Nasser. But then Nasser strong-armed his ally Jordan into attacking Israel, partially by lying to King Hussein and pretending Egypt was winning and had destroyed most of the Israeli military when the opposite was already true after the first day of the war. Only after Jordan attacked IDF troops and positions did Israel seek to capture the Old City. And the Israelis only captured Jericho and Masada and most of the West Bank after they realized that the Jordanian army had completely abandoned them and fled east.
And so 50 years ago Israel recaptured Jerusalem. It also ended up with the West Bank, which has been, at the very best, a mixed blessing.
In Israel today, Yom Yerushalayim is celebrated with military parades and ceremonies throughout the country, and especially, of course, in Jerusalem. It is far less observed by Jewish communities outside of Israel, including ours, but it is historically a remarkable and very important day, especially on this 50th anniversary.
A little reflection is in order, here. If you don’t know already, Defense Minister is the most important position in the Israeli government after Prime Minister. Whatever his personal faults were, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in 1967 was a war hero. After coordinating one of the greatest military upsets of all time, a shocking and total victory over larger and better-equipped enemies, did something typical of Israeli leaders in that day and age.
Of course, Dayan’s olive branch offering to the Arabs in 1967 was categorically rejected, and it is not clear that any course of action Israel could have taken would have resulted in a lasting peace. In fact, just one week after the end of the 6-Day War, on June 19, 1967, the Israeli cabinet voted to offer to return the territories captured from Egypt and Syria in exchange for a peace treaty. That offer was categorically rejected two months later at the Khartoum Conference, in which the Arab League Summit declared a famous three “no’s”: “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel.”
Progress was made, eventually, after the tragic and costly Yom Kippur War in 1973, with Egypt, and in the 1990’s with Jordan, of course, during the Oslo Process. Peace with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, has been very slow to come, and seems in many ways farther away than ever before—let alone peace with the Islamic rejectionists in that Arab world.
But crucially, in those first moments after the 6-Day War, Israeli leaders, including the Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan, tried very hard to seek peace as the ultimate goal and made serious, concrete offers of captured territory for peace.
History isn’t always a good teacher: sometimes we see opportunities lost and assume that we can never again achieve something we missed earlier. The Middle East today is a very different place than it was nearly 50 years ago, both better and worse. Then, Arab military dictators, kings, and sheikhs publicly rejected Israel’s right to exist and sought to drive the Jews into the sea, while Palestinians tried to kill Jews in order to draw attention to their stateless situation. Today, Arab military dictators and kings have accommodated themselves to Israel’s existence, and sometimes even seek its assistance; it is Islamic fundamentalists who try to destroy the dictators, kings, and sheikhs and also Israel.
Israel has come a very long way from the nation that in 1967 teetered on the brink of destruction, and did so again in 1973. It is now a strong country militarily and economically, and a rich country in creativity and innovation.
The city of Jerusalem is proof of that incredible growth. It is not only the Jewish Quarter that has been rebuilt: the whole city is filled with new structures built of ancient-looking Jerusalem stone, with a new light rail line and an incredible diversity of peoples, cultures, food, and life. We should celebrate its vitality, beauty, and place at the heart of Jewish life, incredibly so two thousand years after its destruction, 50 years after its recovery for the Jewish people.
And on this Yom Yerushalayim, we can also pray that Jerusalem may someday truly be the City of Peace that is its name, and that its holiness for Jews, Christians, Muslims and so many others will allow it to become what we have always said: an or lagoyim, a light to the nations for hope and for peace.
Please join us for Confirmation Shabbat this Friday night, May 26th at 7:30 PM, when our outstanding confirmands of the second group for this year will lead our services with skill and talent and insight: Sabina Anderson, Miriam Arden, Cipora Cohon, Ari Parker, Zach Schlamowitz and Ben Spiegel. And celebrate Kyra Glassey’s Bat Mitzvah with us on Saturday, May 27th at 10 AM. Shavu’ot is coming up next Tuesday and Wednesday, with our wonderful Tikun Leil Shavu’ot service, study session, and cheesecake bake-off. We will be teaching, “The Ten Commandments, One at a Time”. Join us at 8 PM Tuesday night, and 9:30 AM Wednesday morning for Shavu’ot Yizkor services.