If I Forget You, O Jerusalem

Celebrating the Holy City’s 49th year of reunification

Jerusalem Day (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem Day
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The annals of history are filled with tales of wars and battles that have shaped the destiny of nations and shook the status quo: Thermopylae, Waterloo, the Siege of Orleans, the Battle of Gallipoli and the beaches of Normandy. Yet no list of conflicts that have altered the course of history is complete without Israel’s Six Day War.
Some call it the war that changed the Middle East. More still hail it as a transformative episode in Israeli and world history. Others see it as the watershed event that launched the infant Jewish state from a rag-tag nation to regional superpower.
The Six Day War was arguably all of the above. Yet in Jewish hearts and minds, it stands out for yet another reason: the reunion between Jerusalem and the people who have longed for, prayed over and held fast to the promise of return to her ancient walls.
This month marks the 49th anniversary of the Six Day War. Almost half a century has passed since the morning of June 5 1967, when a command from the head of the Israel Air Force unleashed a surprise aerial attack on the Egyptian air force – and signaled the start of six days of war.
The odds of victory were not in Israel’s favor. As with every other war in her short history, the Jewish state fought from a desperate position: back against the wall, all alone and vastly outgunned and outnumbered. Her enemies had their sights set on an easy conquest. Armed with double the amount of soldiers, three times the tanks and four times as many combat aircraft, the armies of Syria, Egypt and Jordan stood baying on three of Israel’s borders, ready to finally “drive the Jews into the sea.”
Yet in a miraculous twist of events, the tiny, war-weary nation, forced into another conflict it did not want, smashed the combined forces of three Arab armies – all in under a week. When the smoke from battle settled, the Syrians, Egyptians and Jordanians had fled. The people of Israel remained in the Land of their Promise, tripling the territory under their control.
And for the first time in nearly 2,000 years, Jerusalem, with its holy places, its echo of Jewish patriarchs, prophets and kings, and its memory – and promise – of a place chosen specifically by the Almighty for His presence to rest, was once again in the hands of her rightful owners. The Jewish people returned to their eternal capital, to the sites where their ancestors have lived and worshiped. Jerusalem, the City of Gold, was reunited.
The Six Day War went down into the annals of history as a conflict that shook the status quo and shaped the destiny of a people. But within the six bloody days of battle, it achieved more than that. It restored the heart and soul of the Jewish nation – Jerusalem – to its people.
A City Divided
Following the War of Independence in 1948, Jerusalem was a city divided. The eastern half, with the Temple Mount, Western Wall and other sites holy to Judaism, fell under Jordanian occupation, while the Jews ruled over the western part.
One year later in 1949, Israel’s government declared Jerusalem the capital of the nation reborn. The United Nations objected. Under the Partition Plan of 1947, they protested, Jerusalem remained an international city.
Yet Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, held firm. Jewish Jerusalem, he told the UN, was an “organic, inseparable part of the State of Israel, just as it is an integral part of Jewish history and belief.”
“Twice in the history of our nation were we driven out of Jerusalem,” he explained. Yet during 2,500 years of wondering homesick among the nations, the Jewish people “faithfully adhered to the vow made by the first exiles by the waters of Babylon not to forget Jerusalem.”
Thousands of years of separation merely fortified the bond between the Jewish people and the City of Gold, the promise of return a beacon of hope through the bleakest years of persecution and horror. “Next year in Jerusalem!” became the heart cry into which a dispersed people poured their longing for home.
Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion told the UN, was the beating heart of the State of Israel. And never again would her people be separated from their heart. Moreover, after liberating their historic homeland and redeeming their capital for the third time, he added, the Jews would not relinquish Jerusalem again to foreign rule.
For nearly two decades after Ben-Gurion’s declaration, Jerusalem remained a city divided. Then, in June 1967, on the third of six bloody days of war, a reserve brigade of Israeli paratroopers broke through the Old City walls at the Lion’s Gate. After 30 hours of heavy fighting, the joyous shout from Lt.-Gen. Motta Gur, commander of the Israeli forces in the Old City, ushered in an era of promise fulfilled: “The Temple Mount is in our hands! I repeat, the Temple Mount is in our hands!” A historic live broadcast recorded the wonder, awe and disbelief as Israeli soldiers walk through the alleyways of the Old City – the first Jewish presence within the ancient walls for thousands of years. There is the sound of shofars blowing, of weary voices singing in the shadow of the Western Wall and of battle-hardened men weeping at the realization that after 2,000 years of exile, the homecoming was now complete.
Finally, the declaration, from Rabbi Shlomo Goren, “Blessed are Thou, Lord our God, Who comforts Zion and builds Jerusalem. This year in rebuilt Jerusalem! In the Jerusalem of old!” Forty-nine years have passed since the city was reunited and Jerusalem was declared the undivided capital of the Jewish people. And every year, on the Hebrew date of the 28th Iyar (which falls this year on June 5), the streets in the City of Gold run white and blue as flag-clad crowds of rejoicing Israelis celebrate Jerusalem Day or Yom Yerushalayim – in remembrance of the reunion between the City of Gold and its rightful owners.
Today, some 800,000 Jews, Arabs, Christians and internationals from all over the world call Jerusalem home. On tiny cobbled alleyways and modern sidewalks the religious rub shoulders with the spiritual and the wholly secular. New immigrants from Russia, Yemen, France and South Africa join the throngs of native Jerusalemites on Friday mornings to shop for fresh produce at the shuk (open air market) or linger over breakfast in a swanky coffee shop. Restaurants, buses and city streets resound with guttural Hebrew, clipped English, raspy Arabic and an oddly melodious harmony of other tongues.
The city is an enchanting union of ancient and modern, of age-old and cutting edge. Here, a hi-tech society, true to the ways of their forefathers, Abraham, Moses and David, live amongst the fragments of millennia past. Archeological remnants share space with shopping malls, universities, state-of-the-art hospitals and high-rises. Bullet-shaped, high-speed trains hurry past ancient walls bleached by centuries of sunlight.
Center of the World
A large print of Heinrich Bünting’s map of the ancient world adorns the courtyard of the Israeli capital’s municipal buildings. In the curious mix of color, fantasy and geography, Jerusalem fills the prominent place at the center of the world, around which all continents cluster.
The notion of the City of Gold at the heart of the earth originates from the Almighty Himself. “‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: This is Jerusalem, which I have set in the center of the nations, with countries all around her.’” (Ezekiel 5:5). The Jewish sages agree. The Land of Israel, they say, nestles at the nucleus of the world. And Jerusalem then, lies at the very center of the core.
Today, hundreds of years after Bünting finished his famous artwork and millennia after God spoke by the mouth of the Prophet Ezekiel, the eyes of the world remain riveted on Jerusalem. International bodies bicker over her status and fate, world governments rally to help carve at her borders around a negotiation table and Arabs bay to stake a claim in a city and history that does not bare their footprints.
Meanwhile, the hearts of Jewish people continue to flock to Jerusalem, as if drawn by some invisible hand, Christians pray for peace to wrap around her ancient walls and news crews clamor to sensationalize every word and action before feeding it to a hungry global audience.
No other city in the world is the object of such diligent scrutiny, intense deliberation or bitter disputes. And no other spot on earth evokes such floods of heightened emotions.
But why specifically Jerusalem? What is it about this particular spot wedged between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan that continues to enthrall and enrage the world? A City Chosen The very name Jerusalem resonates in the hearts of the three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – all of whom consider the city holy, home to some of its most sacred places.
For Christians, Jerusalem is where Jesus walked, talked, healed and taught. This is also where He was captured, crucified, raised up and ascended to heaven. To Muslims, it is where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven after his mysterious night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem.
In Judaism, the City of Gold beats as the heart and soul of their history, faith and future. This is where the two holy temples stood and from where the kings and prophets of old established a kingdom. Yet to the Jewish heart, Jerusalem more than a concentration of holy sites or ancestral and spiritual history. The city itself is holy.
The Bible teaches, however, that Jerusalem also holds a special place in the heart of the Almighty. “I am zealous for Zion with great zeal,” the Lord declares in Zechariah 8:2. “With great fervor I am zealous for her.”
In fact, God identifies Jerusalem as the city He has chosen for Himself. Why? Because He desired it as His dwelling place, the spot where His presence would rest forever (Psalm 132:13-14) and the dedicated place on earth where He would place His Name for all the world to see and marvel (2 Chronicles 6:6).
Out of all the physical spots available around the globe, God picked Jerusalem as His chosen city. And then He gave it to the nation He calls his chosen people.
Years ago, former prime minister, Menachem Begin proclaimed boldly, “Jerusalem is the eternal, undivided capital of the nation of Israel and the Jewish people.” Begin’s declaration earned him quite the tongue lashing from the international community. But he was right.
The story of Israel and its people is inextricably woven into the story of Jerusalem – and vice versa. One tale cannot be told without the other. In fact, the Bible introduces us to father of the Jews and the city that would one day be called Jerusalem at roughly the same time.
Some 4,000 years ago, God called a man from Ur to birth a nation He would name Israel. God also pledged that the land to which He would lead Abraham, then known as Canaan, would belong to his decedents as an everlasting possession as the Land of Israel (Genesis 13:14-17, Genesis 15:18b). Abraham believed God. And left his home for the Promised Land.
A few years later, a triumphant Abraham returns home to Hebron from battle against a confederation of Canaanite kings and has an encounter with a man named Melchizedek. Genesis 14 tells that the meeting took place in the Valley of Shaveh, the Kings Valley, at the south end of the ridge where the Kidron and Hinnom valleys meet. Melchizedek is the priest of the Most High God – and king of a city named Salem, located between the Kidron and Central Valley (Genesis 14:18). Salem, the City of Peace, ruled by a priest whose name means the King of Righteousness, would one day be named Jerusalem and become the heart of the nation God would bring forth from Abraham.
After this brief introduction in Genesis 14, Jerusalem disappears from the forefront of Israel’s history for some time. Scriptures show, however, that during the time of the Judges, the Jebusites ruled over the City of Peace and called her Jebus.
Then, approximately 3,000 years ago, a young shepherd king set his sights on the city nestled into the Judean hills. Capturing her from the Jebusites in around 1,000 BC (2 Samuel 5:6-9), King David established Jerusalem as the capital of a united Israel. The city became the political, cultural and economic hub of the nation. His son, King Solomon, later realized his father’s dream of building a house to the God of Israel in the midst of Jerusalem. Once the Temple was constructed on Mount Zion, Jerusalem also shone as the spiritual and religious center the Jewish people. And God promised, “My eyes and My heart will be there perpetually” (1 Kings 9:3).
A City of Divine Choice History teaches that Jerusalem was not the obvious choice for the new capital of a nation on its way to greatness. Politically and tactically speaking, King David had other, more viable, options. Capital cities are generally selected because of their strategic location, Biblical scholar and Jerusalemite, Lance Lambert, writes in The Uniqueness of Israel. They usually lie at the crossroads of important trade routes, offer a natural, secure harbor or sprawl beside a navigable river. Capital cities, he explains, are selected because they offer “commercially viable and attractive centers, naturally drawing trade to themselves and providing a good venue for business.”
Yet Jerusalem had none of these advantages. In fact, from a human perspective, the City of Gold had a number of attributes that should have disqualified her as capital of any nation, let alone a nation chosen by God. But then, the city was not selected based on logic, commonsense or a list of pros and cons. Jerusalem is the city chosen by God – for His purposes.
“But you are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go,” God told the nation of former slaves on their journey through the desert to the Promised Land in Deuteronomy 12:5. And years later, when Israel was established as a people under King David, He revealed His choice: “But now I have chosen Jerusalem for my Name to be there, and I have chosen David to rule my people Israel.” (2 Chronicles 6:6).
Jewish tradition teaches that Jerusalem has more than 70 names. Zion, the Lord is Seen, Lion of God, Righteous Dwelling and Sought After are but some of her monikers. Many believe, though, that the Hebrew name, Yerushalayim, is a conjunction of two words: ir and shalem. Ir means city, while shalem derives from shalom, or peace. Jerusalem is thus the City of Peace.
Yet over the past millennia, peace has remained an elusive ideal for those who called her home. Jerusalem is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth, its history spanning more than four thousand years. Over this time, some of the world’s most famous empires have won, lost and fought over her.
The city with the name that promises peace has been attacked 52 times, besieged 23 times, captured and recaptured 44 times and utterly destroyed twice. King Nebuchadnezzar exiled the Jews from Jerusalem to Babylon, from which they returned some 70 years later to rebuild the city. Destruction struck a second time in 70 CE, when Rome razed the city to the ground and once again forced the Jews into exile – this time for almost 2,000 years.
Jerusalem has seen the occupying forces of foreign armies come and go, with the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans and Jordanians remaining for some time within her walls as conquerors. Yet despite the city’s many foreign rulers, masters and overlords, she has only ever served as beloved capital city and center of worship for one people: the Jews.
Jerusalem has arguably witnessed more devastation, suffering, triumph and victory than any other city on earth. Battles for, in and around her remained a constant through the ages, even if those who engaged in them changed over time.
That war continues today. And the battle lines have been drawn. Through the ancient Jewish prophet, Zechariah, God reveals that the destiny of peoples and nations hinges on which side of the conflict they choose. “This is the word of the Lord concerning Israel. The Lord , who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms the spirit of man within him, declares: “I am going to make Jerusalem a cup that sends all the surrounding peoples reeling. Judah will be besieged as well as Jerusalem...On that day I will set out to destroy all the nations that attack Jerusalem.” (Zechariah 12:1-2;9).
“In the eternal counsel of God, He has determined to make Jerusalem the decisive issue by which He will deal with the nations,” explains author and Bible teacher, Derek Prince. God’s intention, he argues, has always been to establish the City of Peace as the wellspring of blessing to all the peoples of the earth. “Those nations who align themselves with God’s purposes for Jerusalem will receive His blessing. But those who follow a policy in opposition to God’s purposes will be severely dealt with.”
An Eternal City
The Bible teaches that the significance of Jerusalem – and her prominence on the world stage – will only increase. The eyes of the world will remain riveted on the City of Gold tucked like a crown jewel into the Judean hills. International bodies and world governments will continue to rally for negotiations over her borders with Arabs desperate to claim a city and history in which they have no part. News crews will continue to clamor, eager to embellish every word and action for a hungry global audience. And the city that has been the object of such diligent scrutiny, intense deliberation and bitter disputes, that evokes such floods of heightened emotions, will continue to enthrall and enrage the world.
Why Jerusalem? The answer is perhaps startlingly simple – and intricately complex. Jerusalem’s troubled history of four millennia of conflict and conquest cannot be ascribed to a battle for land, power or control over a city. God’s divine choice of Jerusalem, Lance Lambert argues, secured her status as the only city selected by the Lord – and made her the perpetual rallying point for future clashes. “Behind all the fighting, devastation and sorrow lie spiritual forces bent on destroying even the earthly symbol of God’s eternal purpose and calling.”
And so, the clarion call of Israel’s famous shepherd king, who turned Jerusalem into the heart of Israel some 3,000 years ago on the command of the Almighty, continues to beseech Christians today. “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” King David wrote in Psalm 122:6. “May those who love you be secure.”
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