Every historian researching and writing about a particular era or event knows that there are always missing pieces to the puzzle.
Often, there is a legend that somehow mushrooms into what is taken as gospel, when in fact it lacks several elements of truth.
A case in point is the history of the 1967 Six Day War, particularly the capturing of the Old City. Most people remembering the history of that event will laud the success of the paratroopers, famously captured in David Rubinger’s iconic photograph of the three soldiers gazing in awe at the Western Wall or in the recording of Motta Gur declaring “The Temple Mount is in our hands.”
But according to IDF veterans of the conquest of the Old City and the reunification of Jerusalem, Israeli tank units were also in the immediate vicinity of the Wall and had they reached it minutes earlier, history would have been recorded differently.
There were close to 900 Israeli casualties in that brief but brutal war that changed the destiny of the nation. Many of their spouses, children and grandchildren, together with veterans and retired commanders – some of who had fought in the 1948 War of Independence, the 1973 Yom Kippur War or all three wars – convened on Monday at the official residence of another veteran of the Six Day War, Maj. (ret.) Reuven Rivlin, a former intelligence officer.
In addition to the occasion being a reunion towards the tail end of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the reunification of Jerusalem, it was primarily to launch the book by Gideon Avital-Epstein ’67, Jerusalem, War.
President Rivlin said that in the three and a half years that he had been in office, he had hosted many important and even emotional events, “but this is the most meaningful.” Rivlin, who had already read the book, was the first to mention that the Jerusalem and Harel Brigades had missed out on their moments of glory in history simply because it has become the norm to relate to Motta Gur and the paratroopers. He had no wish to detract from Gur’s triumph or that of the paratroopers, but he said that Avital-Epstein had performed a great service in presenting the unvarnished reality of what had transpired during the war, and what to a large extent had been previously overlooked or ignored.
Rivlin regretted that the personal stories of so many people had disappeared into dusty archives and that the recordings of the sounds of war had been silenced. He credited Avital-Epstein with bringing comfort to bereaved families by telling a more authentic story about Jerusalem.
When you have a story that has so incredibly impacted the reality of Israel, said Rivlin, “we want to be able to learn from it and to understand it. Now, after all this time, stories that were barely heard before – including those from the Jordanian and Palestinian standpoints – are being revealed and are providing new perspectives.” Rivlin termed the book “a monumental work.”
JUDGING BY the nodding heads in the packed hall, there was a consensus on this score. Among the people present were commanders who in both military and civilian circles have become somewhat of household names, including Gen. (ret.) Yossi Langotzky, Nachum Bruchi, Itzik Mordechai – who had also served as defense minister, Amos Horev, Uzi Eilam, Aharon Shavit, Asher Dar, Tzvika Zahav, Gedalia Gal, Doron Mor, Dan Ziv, Eitan Arieli, and Shimon Kahana – who Rivlin referred to by his nickname of “Katche.”
Missing among those names but who are engraved in the annals of history are Moshe Dayan, Itzhak Rabin, Uzi Narkis, Motta Gur, Avraham Yoffe and Hanan Porat among many others.
Menachem Landau, chairman of the Ammunition Hill Foundation which is the guardian of one of the areas captured by Israeli troops, said that the idea of writing an academically researched history of the Six Day War had been broached four years earlier, and although it was generally agreed by the board of the foundation that too much injustice had been done in writings about the war, there was a certain hesitancy.
First and foremost was the knowledge that this would be a costly enterprise, and there were insufficient financial resources available. Then there was the worry of starting something tantamount to a civil war, because there had been so many disputes among officers during the war that if all this were to be rehashed it would provoke a lot of hostility among the parties still living.
But eventually, funding was found, there was consensus that the book should be researched and published and that Avital-Epstein, who had previously written about Israel’s collective memory of the Yom Kippur War, should write it.
The project was not without obstacles along the way, but in the long run, there was agreement that he had done a sterling job for which he deserved to be saluted.
Listing the many places that had served as battlegrounds between Israeli and Jordanian forces, Langotsky said that for years he had been urging that one letter of the Hebrew alphabet be added when telling the story of the paratroopers entering and capturing the Old City – the letter Mem – which would signify that they were among other battalions that also brought about the conquest.
This had finally been achieved by Avital-Epstein, he said, adding that he hopes that the book closes a circle and brings an end to a historic inequity.
Bruchi noted that the majority of Israeli soldiers in the Six Day War had no combat experience, and detailed some of the amazing heroism of the soldiers under his command, such as the one who dismantled a land mine with his bare hands while surrounded by gunfire and exploding grenades. In the first phase of the war, Bruchi started out with 80 men. He continued with only 42 and there were more casualties along the way.
Turning to Avital-Epstein, he said: “Gideon, after 50 years, you wrote an ode.”
Mor, who had been a volunteer paratrooper, recalled an act of humanity, when in the midst of the fighting soldiers stopped to help an Arab woman in labor deliver her baby. He also paid tribute to the courage of Jordanian soldiers, who from their point of view were protecting their holy city, which was no less important to them than the reunification of Jerusalem was to the Israelis.
War widow, Jerusalem-born Yael Magril, who had also lost members of her family in 1948, said that when she first heard about the book she asked why it was necessary to publish yet another volume about the Six Day War. So much had already been written and spoken she said, that there was no need to open old wounds and to bring back the pain.
But when Avital-Epstein had explained the purpose of the book to her and had interviewed her in a manner that no one else had done before, she changed her mind and saw the value of the book.
“Once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down,” she said. “It’s a book about real people, with names and arguments and the traumas of those who survived.”
Lauding Avital-Epstein as a man who had the courage to tell the truth, she said “Gideon you are a man who dared – and succeeded.”