May 12, 2017
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
In addition to counting the Omer now, we are in a unique period of the year where Israel is concerned. We celebrated Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israeli Independence Day last week, Israel’s 69th birthday, and in less than two weeks, on May 25th, we will rejoice on Yom Yerushalayim, the day that commemorates the reunification of the city of Jerusalem in 1967. This will mark the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War and the remarkable, miraculous Israeli victory that allowed Jews to return to the holiest place on earth for us, the Kotel, the Western Wall, and to the Old City of Jerusalem. This anniversary, while extraordinary, is also controversial. You cannot help but see criticism of Israel and its half-century long “occupation”, whatever that means to you, and see criticism of how the nation has handled a highly complex and challenging situation for the past five decades.
Over the next weeks I’ll continue to explore this theme, and discuss the West Bank and the possibility of a Palestinian State.
But I’ll start our process of remembering this anniversary by recalling what Israel was before the 6-Day War, and the precariousness of its very existence. It’s hard to fathom now, in 2017, but in the mid-1960’s the tiny Jewish state was surrounded by a cordon of enemies sworn to destroy it—well, that’s still semi-true today—who also seemed to have the power and will to actually do so, which is not true today. Gamal Abdul Nasser had unified the Arab world, or at least Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, into a confederation that fully intended to drive the Jews into the Mediterranean Sea and annihilate Israel. In the midst of the Cold War, Russia armed the Arabs with the latest weapons and a huge armory of MIGs and tanks and big guns. In contrast, the US was only very tepidly supporting Israel, whose closest ally was probably France. Israel was surviving on its wits, its dedication to build a Jewish state, and the simple fact that Jews had nowhere else to go.
The borders of Israel were set at the armistice lines as they existed at the end of the costly War of Independence in 1948. In the middle of the country, just north of Tel Aviv, the entire width of the nation of Israel was less than 9 miles. A brisk tank invasion from Jordan right there could easily have cut the country in half in less than an hour.
The capital of Israel was then, as now, western Jerusalem, the “New City”, which Jews built beginning in the 19th century. But many parts of it were within shooting range of snipers in the Jordanian Army, making whole areas of the eastern edge of the city virtually uninhabitable. In 1967 you could purchase land on King David Street very inexpensively, because it simply wasn’t safe. That’s, in fact, how Hebrew Union College came to be located down the block from the ritzy King David Hotel; you were likely to get shot if you weren’t careful there then.
Gallows humor was the order of the day for Israelis. In those days, the Israeli economy was a shaky thing indeed: the old joke was “how do you make a small fortune in Israel? It’s easy. Come with a large fortune…” Israelis might have drained the swamps and planted forests, but they were confronted with huge and hostile Arab armies on every border, and were isolated internationally. Israel was an amazing country even then, but it was also a very tough place to actually live.
The build-up to the 1967 war was awful for Israelis. They knew that Nasser intended to attack, sooner or later, and as he massed tanks and troops on the southern border with Egypt, Israeli society went into deep stress mode. Considering how stressed most Jews are most of the time, this is hard to fully imagine today. But it was clear that in the coming conflict, brought on by the abiding Arab ambition to destroy the Jewish state and annihilate its population, Israel simply had to win or there would likely be another Holocaust for Jews, this time in the Middle East.
The pressure before what turned out to be the 6-Day War was so intense that as strong a man as Yitzhak Rabin, the Chief of Staff, actually had a nervous breakdown as he contemplated the military options and realized that any failure would lead to annihilation. Most pre-war assessments saw Israel as extremely endangered. The Israeli army and air force were well-trained and commanded and unified, but they were vastly outnumbered, and would have to fight on three different fronts: Egypt in the south, Jordan to the east, Syria and Lebanon in the north.
We know now that after Egypt mobilized against Israel, as did Syria and Jordan, the Israeli Air Force launched an attack that destroyed the enemy air forces on the ground. We know now that in a lightning campaign Israeli forces quickly routed the Egyptians and captured the entire Sinai peninsula, including Sharm el Sheikh, while the Egyptian army fled across the Suez Canal, that Israel responded to Jordanian attacks by driving the Jordanian Army from the Old City of Jerusalem and its eastern suburbs and captured the entire West Bank of the Jordan River, that Israeli troops conquered the Golan Heights and drove the Syrians out of their bunkers and sent them running back to Damascus.
But none of that was predicted. It appeared as a near-miracle at the time—oh, heck, a miracle full-on—and when Israeli soldiers were photographed praying at the Kotel, the Western Wall for the first time in decades it was a truly amazing time for Jews everywhere in the world.
That miraculous moment has to be remembered for what it was at the time: a period of intense relief, great pride, and amazing hope. Now, we thought, the Arabs must accept Israel and make peace. Now, Israel has become an established nation. It was one of the greatest military miracles in history. And it was a gift to Jews everywhere in the world. Suddenly, all young people wanted to move to Israel. Everyone thought that living on a kibbutz would be fabulous. Look at what those Israelis had done! That’s what Jews should be like. That’s where Jews should live…
A word about when we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim in sin order. The actual 6-Day War took place in June of 1967, with the reunification of Jerusalem occurring following its capture from the Jordanian Army on June 7, 1967. But on the Hebrew calendar that date, the 29th of Iyyar, falls this year on May 25th. And that’s when it is observed in Israel.
In the Six Days of War Israeli forces miraculously captured the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank. But the jewel, the pinnacle of the accomplishment was conquering Jerusalem itself. As many of you know, Jerusalem consisted then, as now, of two major parts, the walled Old City and the modern New City, East and West Jerusalem. The new city is the much larger and much more populous part of the city of peace—that’s what Ir-Shalom, the source words for Yerushalayim, means. Of course, that’s not an accurate name historically, for Jerusalem has been attacked 52 times, conquered militarily 44 times, besieged 23 times, and totally destroyed several times in historic time. In particular, in 586 BCE the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the First Temple and razed the city; then in the year 70 the Roman general and later emperor Titus destroyed the Second Temple and burned the city; and then Jerusalem was partially destroyed again in the year 135 by the Roman Emperor Hadrian at the end of the Bar Cochba revolt. The Mongols destroyed a lot of it, too, in the year 1260. This magnificent city, unlike any in the world, has had a hard life. But the final time Jerusalem was captured is now 50 years ago this month.
What you might not know, or think about, is that besides the new city and the Old City, Jerusalem is also ringed by many neighborhoods both east and west—they are not really suburbs, since they are part of the city, but they are spread all around edges of the capital city of Israel. Many of the neighborhoods to the east of the Old City are Arab, either Muslim or Christian Arabs, and there are also some Arab villages that lie very close to the middle of Jerusalem. Almost all of the neighborhoods to the west are Jewish, including large housing areas built on land that became part of Israel in 1967. When people in the media or politics complain about “Israeli settlement building”, they are often really talking about housing units in established Jewish neighborhoods all around Jerusalem that happen to lie on land that wasn’t officially Israel prior to 1967. No one really expects Israel to hand over these areas to any future Palestinian state, and adding homes in these neighborhoods is not a “deliberate provocation” or justification for terrorism against innocent Israelis. They are part of Jewish Jerusalem, and will remain so.
Of course, the heart of Yerushalayim is the amazing Old City. The Old City is confined within the walls built by the Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent around the year 1540. It has less than a third of a square mile within those walls, but within a very small area it has three of the most sacred sites in the world: The Kotel, the Western Wall Plaza; the Temple Mount with the Dome of the Rock and El Aqsa Mosque; and the Church the Holy Sepulcher. The Kotel is next to al Aqsa and just below the Dome of the Rock; the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is 1500 feet away, less than a third of a mile. Standing on the roof of the Austrian Hospice in Christian Quarter you can easily see parts of all three places: the holiest Jewish place in the world, the holiest Christian place in the world, and third holiest, approximately, Muslim place in the world. Proximity does not necessarily breed peace in the ir shalom. But today under Israel’s overall authority, all holy sites are fully accessible to the faithful of their religion, as they have been for 50 years.
The Old City is divided into four quarters of somewhat unequal size and very different population: the small Armenian Quarter is devoted primarily to buildings and clergy of the Armenian Orthodox Christian Patriarchate. The Christian Quarter is primarily occupied by Christian Arabs, and as you would expect it holds many churches and international Christian organizations as well as shops and restaurants. The Muslim Quarter is larger and busier and more atmospheric than the Christian Quarter, and has the famous shuk marketplace. The Jewish Quarter was totally destroyed by the Jordanians after the Israelis surrendered the Old City to their army in 1948, but it has been and continues to be rebuilt magnificently, and it has grown substantially in population since 1967. But in general the Old City is small compared to the large modern city that now surrounds it. All told, only about 40,000 of Jerusalem’s over 800,000 residents live in the Old City.
While most of the extensive territory Israel captured in 1967 was not formally annexed by Israel—the thinking even then was that Israel would trade captured land for peace treaties with the Arab nations—the Old City, including the holiest places on earth for Jews, the Temple Mount and the Kotel, the Western Wall, were fully annexed into Israel. That is not likely to change, and 50 years after that annexation the Old City remains the epicenter of religious energy for Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others.
For many Muslims, Jerusalem is called Al-Quds, meaning “the holy one”, and East Jerusalem, including the Old City, should become the capital of a new State of Palestine. In the 1990’s the Oslo Peace Process attempted to create movement towards a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. It made remarkable progress for some time, mostly because the leaders who created it left the hardest question of all, just what would happen to East Jerusalem and especially the Old City of Jerusalem with its centrally sacred places, as the last item to be negotiated. In effect, when they had resolved nearly all the rest of the issues they would then decide how to divide responsibility for Jerusalem.
They never got there, as Palestinian terrorism and security differences destroyed the peace process before any decisions needed to be made about Jerusalem. Still, it is hard to see how they could have resolved any division of the Old City.
Because for Jews, Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people, of our religion, of our hearts. To stand and pray at the Kotel—or its extensions where we can pray together as men and women—is one of the most powerful religious and spiritual experiences that can be conceived. And to walk the winding stone streets of the Old City, to lose yourself in a place so deeply imbued with holiness and history, is a paramount duty for every Jew.
And it was all made possible because of Yom Yerushalayim, the victory that allowed us to return to the Wall, to the true source of our faith. Today, fifty years after the paratroopers commanding general Motta Gur announced, “Har HaBayit Beyadeinu! The Temple Mount is in our hands!” Jerusalem is more than in our hands: it is, forever, in our hearts. May it always remain so.