In 1967, less than a week after Israel liberated Jerusalem, unified the city and opened the doors to its holy sites, the Jewish people expressed its longing to bring back the fundamental principle of the three holidays of pilgrimage – none other than the pilgrimage itself.“Huge waves of people, more than 200,000, ascended to the last remnant of the Western Wall yesterday on the holiday of Shavuot,” wrote Yosef Harif in the June 15, 1967 issue of Maariv.“The pilgrimage began already at twilight, when it was still difficult to tell between the colors of azure and white [referring to one being able to differentiate between the color of the tzitzit’s threads, signifying the beginning of the time to recite the Shema Yisrael declaration]. The first who came were the ones who said the [kabbalistic] Tikkun Leil Shavuot passages all night, both old and young, and when the sunrise began, the flow of worshipers increased.”In the 1949 armistice agreements drafted after the War of Independence, Jordan was obligated to allow Israelis access to their holy sites in the Old City and the eastern portion of Zion. They refused, however, and gradually the Arab Legion destroyed more than 30 synagogues in the Jewish Quarter and all but completely demolished the neighborhood. No Jew was able to visit the Wall for 19 years.But even over the course of the history prior to the Jordanian occupation and annexation of Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1948, Jews were only sporadically allowed to visit the ancient limestone wall. After being banned from the city after the defeat of the Bar Kochba revolt in the second century, more than 150 years later Roman Emperor Constantine let the Jews pray at the Kotel once a year, on Tisha Be’av. In subsequent centuries they could visit freely, but never were they given full recognition or rights to perform their ritual services as they pleased.Even on holidays when worshipers would make a special effort to reach the Herodian structure, only a minimal number of people would be able assemble at the wall compared to today’s pilgrimages. The Moroccan Quarter had its houses built four meters away from the wall, and near today’s entrance to the Temple Mount via the Mughrabi Bridge, the neighborhood’s buildings brushed up against the wall itself. This locked in the Western Wall plaza, which at best could accommodate a crowd up to 500 people on the busiest of days.
Despite the limited access and limited freedom of worship, the Jewish people clung to the words of fourth-century scholar Rav Acha, who said “The divine presence has never departed from the Western Wall, as it says in Song of Solomon (2:9) ‘Look! There he stands behind our wall’” (Exodus Raba 2:2). The gates would be flooded if they were only opened.Mere days after the Six Day War ended, with the foresight and the knowledge that every Jew in Israel, and in the whole world, would take the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the Western Wall – with less than a week before the first major opportunity to do so, the pilgrimage festival of Shavuot – mayor Teddy Kollek and IDF chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin decided to establish new facts on the ground “before it would be too late.”Immediately after Shabbat on June 10, the “Kotel Fraternity,” as the exclusive group of contractors nicknamed themselves, finished bulldozing the Mughrabi Quarter at 3 a.m., with the removal of the debris taking place in the subsequent days, creating the Western Wall plaza as it is known today, allowing for a mass pilgrimage.“This tradition was renewed yesterday with an enthusiasm and fervor and in such number as must have astonished even those who were aware that these great blocks of stone that are said to date back to the Temple, recipients of the fervent prayers of so many generations, have acquired a national symbolism quite unmatched in Jewish life, which has dealt so largely in abstractions,” The Jerusalem Post wrote.Some 50 years later, against the backdrop of the UNESCO resolution denying Jewish ties to Jerusalem’s Old City, it is only fitting to repeat the Post’s declaration from 1967: “Under no circumstances, whatever the pressures may be, will the citizens of Israel allow anyone to cut them off again from the Wall that stands at the center of their city and is the essence and reason for its existence.”This is the fervor the nation has for a remnant of an outer wall built by a foreign king. One is only left to imagine the excitement upon feeling the Divine Presence in the Temple itself.
Israeli documents from days after war have familiar ring 50 years on (credit: REUTERS)