One on One: Homeland security

Menashe Ben-Ari's personal account of Jerusalem's liberation and 'miracle' of the Six-Day War victory.

menashe ben ari 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
menashe ben ari 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Menashe (Muni) Ben-Ari meets me at the parking lot near the school and synagogue of Kfar Adumim, the mixed religious-secular settlement he initiated and helped establish "for all Jews" in 1979. From there, he escorts me to his house, a short walk away. He stops to proudly point to the panoramic view of the Judean Desert hills (an example of life's imitating art if there ever was one) - a sight he says he blesses every morning when he wakes up, like a Shaharit prayer. A lot has changed, says Ben-Ari, formerly the Jerusalem mayor's adviser on development, who left his post a year and a half ago to work for a non-profit organization whose aim is to purchase property in Jerusalem and settle it with Jews.
Jerusalem celebrates 40 years of unification
One thing that has remained constant, however, is Ben-Ari's love for and faith in the city. Ben-Ari, 65, comes by his passion for Jerusalem honestly. The son of Ukrainian-born parents (before the establishment of the state, his father, Arie Altman, was the Revisionist Party chairman, and he later served for Herut in four Knessets) who settled in the neighborhood of Rehavia, Ben-Ari was raised on the dream of liberating the capital. It is a dream he would live to fulfill as a commander during the Six Day War - a war he says he was sure he would not survive, yet nevertheless was ready to fight, "to defend our home." For the secular Ben-Ari, who calls himself a "believing Jew," the home he has spent his life defending is Israel and Greater Jerusalem, its necessarily undivided capital. In a two-hour interview on the eve of celebrating the 40th anniversary of the victory he calls a "a miracle," the quintessential Jerusalemite describes the atmosphere prior to, during and after the war - comparing the situation in 1967 to that of today. "That was a time when young Israelis were dubbed the 'Espresso Generation,'" says Ben-Ari, punctuating his otherwise measured Hebrew and mild manner with spontaneous eruptions of let-loose laughter. "As though all they cared about was hanging out at cafes. And then came the war, and all of them ran to fight it. Just as they did last summer." Describe your part in the Six Day War. I had just turned 25 when the war broke out. I served in the paratroopers as a regular soldier. I knew that I wanted to do reserve duty in Jerusalem, so that if I was lucky enough to see the city liberated during my lifetime as a soldier, I would be a part of it. Fortunately, in 1967, I did my reserve duty as a platoon commander in the reconnaissance outfit of the Jerusalem Brigade. We were the first force - made up of reservists - to be sent by the IDF to retaliate against the Jordanian attack. Together with the Tank Corps, we were sent to Armon Hanatziv [the UN's headquarters]. Though, according to the 1949 cease-fire agreements, it had been one of two demilitarized zones - the other was Mount Scopus - the Jordanians entered on June 5, and we were sent to kick them out of there. Which we did. And we took advantage of the success to conquer the "Sausage" Outpost [which is now the East Talpiot neighborhood]. Before nightfall, we had also taken over the "Bell" Outpost [a Jordanian army position in Sur Bahir, next to Ramat Rahel]. On Wednesday - the third day of the war, and the day of the liberation of the Temple Mount - we attacked Har Homa, where there was also a Jordanian outpost. By the time we attacked, though, it was already abandoned, because the Jordanians had received a withdrawal order from King Hussein. We proceeded on from there to Gush Etzion, and the next day - Thursday - we liberated Hebron and joined up with the Southern Command. To put it in "dry" terms, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And in less "dry" terms? It was an event that I had dreamed about. It was the meeting of places I had learned about and seen and waited for: the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, Bethlehem, Hebron, Jericho. I hadn't assumed that the war would end up being so short. I did, however, assume that my own end to that war would be "six feet under," given the conditions and balance of forces. In spite of the assumption on your part that you weren't going to survive that war, you still felt that it was worth your while to fight it? There was no question about that at all. You have to understand that my father (who was exactly the age I am now) and my mother were in Rehavia, and somebody had to defend them. As trite as this may sound, in a larger sense, as well, it was a life-or-death war to defend our home. Today, there's all kinds of blather on the part of propagandists whom I'd rather not name to the effect that the Six Day War was some kind of "original sin." But, if you examine the days leading up to the war, you will see that the feeling among the Israeli public, and even among many government ministers, was that of the eve of a holocaust. From my own perspective, there was absolutely no question about all of this - not when I got drafted years earlier; not during the war; and not during the years afterward, up until I shed my uniform at the age of 50. When I think about my life between the ages of 18 and 50, seven and a half of them, net, were spent in uniform - which comes to about one day out of four during all those years. And this is in spite of the fact that I was never a professional soldier. I'm talking about all this army service during my life as a civilian. It was central to my life and the lives of my friends. It was a righteous path that was clear then, and one that is still clear today. This doesn't mean I don't have criticisms, like anybody else. But this is our homeland. We have no other. They attacked us in 1967. They attacked us before that in 1948. They attacked us afterward. That's the truth. There is no other truth, whatever the politically correct version of events on the part of the Left in Israel and abroad - and on the part of the anti-Semites. So, when you ask me if it was worth my while to fight that war... It was so worthwhile that I felt at the time that even if I had only managed to survive to that point, dayeinu [it would have sufficed - as is recited during the Pessah Seder]. While getting prepared for the war, the only thing I regretted was not having gotten married and started a family. I thought sadly that I would be exiting this world without having created a future generation. I remember that sharp awareness. I remember scolding myself, "You lazy bum! Why didn't you do it?" Well, I corrected that after the war [he laughs]. Of course, not immediately. I waited until I found the right woman for me, which took a bit of time. And, thank God, I have four sons. [He is now a remarried widower.] The larger point is that it is a great privilege to be born here, to be raised here and, if necessary, to fight here. It is also a duty, and I never separate privileges from duties. Furthermore, as a believing Jew, the Six Day War victory appeared to me to be a miracle. Its intensity was awe-inspiring. On the national level, I have experienced two miracles - the Six Day War and the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union - both of which prove that the laws governing the Jewish people have never been entirely natural. To call them "unusual" would be an understatement. You refer to yourself as a "believing Jew," yet you are not religious. I'm a Jew from the Land of Israel. That definition is enough for me. Is it hard for you to believe that 40 years have passed since the war? Is the memory of the "miracle" you describe still fresh, or has it faded somewhat? Not only is it still fresh, but it lives on every single day of my life, from the moment I wake up in the morning. Like the Shaharit prayer. From my roof, I can see Mount Scopus, where I was born (and where my grandchildren were born, as well); the Mount of Olives, where my parents are buried; and Armon Hanatziv, where I fought. Every day, when I leave the house for work, I look at this village I initiated and am one of its founders and feel blessed. As it says in the Psalms [128:5-6]: "...See thou the good of Jerusalem all the days of thy life; and see thy children's children. Peace be upon Israel." You couldn't express my life in a nutshell better than the way King David did. Compare the national mood then and now. It is said that the post-Six Day War euphoria was crushed by the Yom Kippur War, and that the national morale has never quite recuperated. Is that true? As I said before, the feeling right before the Six Day War was that we were on the verge of a holocaust. One Arab country, and another Arab country, and another and another created a pact and were bent on our annihilation. And an apathetic world: France, our great friend from 1956, saying that it would oppose the side that fired the first shot, so that, heaven forbid, we shouldn't defend ourselves. This despite the fact that the Straits of Tiran were closed, which was casus belli - cause enough for declaring war. And the US State Department "couldn't find" the documents signed by the US, England and France from '56-7, committing to opening the Eilat waterways - one of the only achievements of the Sinai Campaign in 1956. They couldn't find them in the drawers of the State Department. Not to mention communist Russia, a harsh enemy. And then, to win such an amazing victory, after being attacked - well, what you call euphoria was simply the happiness on the part of a people saved from annihilation. That was only natural. As for the national morale: Don't forget that it was right before the Six Day War that everyone had heard the flippant remark: "The last one to leave the country, please turn out the lights at Lod Airport." That was a time when young Israelis were dubbed the "Espresso Generation" - as though all they cared about was hanging out at cafes. And then came the war, and all of them ran to fight it. Just as they did last summer. Everybody did his duty. Look at all those thousands of people in the North who spent the summer in bomb shelters. All they wanted was for us to beat those bastards. They were willing to spend many months more in those shelters, if only we would win. The rotting process took place in the upper echelons of the government, not on the ground. Immediately after the war, did you give thought at the time to what should be done with Judea, Samaria and Gaza? I thought that what we had to do was settle the land. Settle the land, without regard to "occupation"? In the first place, how can you "occupy" your homeland? Even the territory beyond the Jordan River is my homeland. So, calling it "occupation" is unbearable. Will Jerusalem remain Israel's capital? Absolutely. In spite of the talk of redividing it? Of course, we have to work to prevent that. But even those Jews who favor the division of Jerusalem are not relinquishing it as Israel's capital. They're only relinquishing its unification - though no other people in the world are eligible to call Jerusalem their capital. But can Jerusalem remain unified, when even the likes of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a former Jerusalem mayor, seems to have given up on insisting that it remain undivided? Well, it certainly is in danger of division. You mention the prime minister. For 10 years, I was his adviser at City Hall, and during that period, he struggled to safeguard, strengthen and build Jerusalem. I watch his change of heart with sadness. Is there really as much emigration out of Jerusalem as everybody says? Is it true that the secular middle class is leaving the city? Well, yes. Aside from the job market and housing costs - which are the causes for some flight - it is in part due to people who are good children to their parents, who for years have been slandering this city. And this country and this city vomit out anyone who slanders them. In my opinion, it's a very cruel punishment. Like exile. Unfortunately, many people criticize Jerusalem for being a city of haredim and Arabs - though the Arabs bother them less than the haredim, because the haredim are a reminder of where we came from. And the fact is that among the city's 400,000 Jews, a minority are haredim. I, too, am critical of the haredi agenda of not serving in the army or with regard to some of them not participating in the workforce. But I also admire their community spirit - their mutual assistance and modest living; their enormous vibrance. Just go to Mea She'arim before Pessah and watch the massive food distribution for the needy. Furthermore, it is the haredim who are leaving the city in greater numbers, though secular people are leaving, as well. But look, of all those who are leaving the city, many of them are not leaving Greater Jerusalem - they're moving to places like Mevaseret and Ma'aleh Adumim, and to Efrat, Betar Illit and Har Adar. Those are all part of the Jerusalem hinterland. Will the light rail system be good for Jerusalem? Will it not ruin the ancient look of the city? The light rail system not only will - but already has - upgraded the entire city center and its infrastructure. If we compare what it looks like today to what it looked like a few years ago, there is a dramatic difference. Look at the Mahaneh Yehuda market. It's at a whole different level today. There are concerts there and cafes. As far as the older neighborhoods and the city's "ancient look" are concerned, there have been several conservation projects to preserve and upgrade the historical structures. For example, the old Shaare Zedek hospital which now houses the Broadcasting Authority, and many many others. In addition, the railway will eliminate the noise and pollution caused by buses. It will be a first-rate means of transportation - fast, safe, user friendly and wheelchair accessible. My office is on Jaffa Road, and during all hours of the day and night, there are thousands of young people out enjoying themselves. Discos, clubs, restaurants. Forty years ago, there were about four cafes in Jerusalem, and everything shut down at 8 p.m. For this there's nostalgia? It's true that there are still problems, but they can be fixed. What's your view of the "frozen" Safdie Plan? It's a good thing that it was put on hold. Western Jerusalem should remain green. My attitude is and has always been that the construction effort should focus on the eastern part of the city anyway - as well as in its periphery. One should not view Jerusalem as a dead-end city as it was in '67, but as the center of the country - the way King David intended - as a capital. Jerusalem has to extend to the Jordan River, and from there the way is clear to it extending southward to Eilat and northward to the Galilee. The greatest privilege I have is being able to continue to participate in the development of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Jewish people.