Jerusalem Day – When the dream became the reality

“Ten measures of beauty were given to the world; Jerusalem received nine, while the rest of the world received one.” (Talmud Kiddushin 49)

Surrounding by IDF soldiers, army chief chaplain Rabbi Shlomo Goren blows a shofar in front of the Western Wall (photo credit: DAVID RUBINGER,GPO)
Surrounding by IDF soldiers, army chief chaplain Rabbi Shlomo Goren blows a shofar in front of the Western Wall
(photo credit: DAVID RUBINGER,GPO)
Growing up in the Bnei Akiva youth movement in America, we looked forward and geared our lives toward making aliyah. Our mantra then was: “We don’t care where we live in Israel, as long as it’s in Jerusalem!”
But God had different plans for us, and we ended up in the holy city of Ra’anana, a truly great place to live and to bring up kids. In a way, this has only increased our love for the city of gold, as we are filled with excitement and wonder every time we visit, a sensation perhaps lost on many who reside there on a day-to-day basis, who might take their good fortune for granted.
And so, as today is Jerusalem Day, some sentiments and stories about our fabled, eternal capital:
Jews first came to Jerusalem in the 10th century BCE (Muslims would arrive there only 1,600 years later). While Jerusalem is mentioned no less than 660 times in the Bible – as opposed to 146 times in the New Testament and zero times, yes zero times, in the Koran – it would take a masterful military strategy by King David to wrest it from the control of the Jebusites. We would build both of our holy Temples there – by tradition, on the very spot where Abraham brought his son Isaac to the akeida, demonstrating our unending faith in God.
That faith would hold us in good stead as the Temples, and the city, would be conquered and destroyed, first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans. We would watch from afar as a parade of other empires would occupy the coveted city that is the “eye of the universe,” the linchpin that connects the continents of Asia, Europe and Africa. The Byzantines, Persians, Muslims, Crusaders, Tatars, Mamluks, Ottomans (whose sultan Suleiman the Magnificent built the Old City walls in 1538) and British would come and go throughout the years, while we Jews kept a small presence in the land and prayed (at least) three times a day for our return to Zion.
Over the centuries, we had limited access to our holy places. For much of the time, we were permitted to enter only on the ninth of Av, the date on which the Temples were destroyed. The Kotel area was much smaller then, and even during the British Mandate, sounding the shofar at the Western Wall was an act fraught with danger. But still we came, at the risk of our lives, to be close to the spiritual epicenter of our world.
We came oh so close to reclaiming the Old City during the War of Independence, but failed to free it from the Jordanians. They would control it for 19 years, an occupation recognized by just two countries – the United Kingdom and Pakistan.
During their rule there, the “moderate” Jordanians – whose population remains viciously anti-Zionist – expelled 1,500 Jewish residents and imprisoned several hundred others. In violation of the armistice agreement signed with Israel, Jordan barred Jewish access to the holy sites and desecrated more than 30 synagogues, either destroying them or turning them into stables or chicken coops. The 3,000-year-old Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives was also desecrated, and many of its tombstones were used to make urinals and roads. Thirty-eight thousand graves were destroyed, and Jewish burial there was prohibited. The Kotel was made “judenrein” and was turned into a Muslim holy site.
But at long last, we returned to our capital – in miraculous fashion. The world watched in awe as Israel was first gripped by fear of the impending war – when our enemies boasted of our liquidation – and then burst into jubilation as we humbled the assembled Arab forces in lightning speed.
TWO OF the many thousands of stories epitomize our victory.
The first begins in 1964, when Pope Paul VI decided to visit the holy places. The first pontiff to leave Rome in more than 100 years, the pope would stop in several Israeli cities, but refused to come to west Jerusalem or to meet with chief rabbi Yitzhak Nissim. Any hope that the Vatican might establish ties with the Jewish state during the visit were dashed, and indeed Paul’s pilgrimage was labeled “The Pope in the Holy Land,” with no mention of Israel. The Jewish world was bitterly disappointed by the cleric’s cold shoulder.
When the pope had announced his intention to come to the Old City with a large entourage, there was no road large enough for the many vehicles, including the “Pope-mobile,” to travel upon as part of his journey. And so the Jordanians and Israelis, in a rare moment of cooperation, jointly built a new, wide road from western Jerusalem to Mount Zion in the Old City to accommodate the papal visit.
Fast-forward now to 1967. The Jordanians, despite being warned by Israel not to enter the war, foolishly believed the lies being broadcast by Egypt that Tel Aviv was in flames. And so, lusting after their own spoils, they joined the battle. Their British-trained soldiers were excellent fighters, and we suffered many casualties in hand-to-hand combat in the Old City’s narrow streets.
Israel’s key to victory, a veteran army officer told me, was cutting off the Jordanian supply line, but there was one problem: there was no road strong and wide enough to support the Israeli tanks and half-tracks. But then they remembered that there was, indeed, one such road: the Pope’s Road. And it was precisely that highway that secured our success.
When the Israeli troops began to push back the Jordanian Legion, IDF chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren was desperate to be the first to reach the Kotel. He had taken the shofar of his brother-in-law, Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen, later the chief rabbi of Haifa. He spied Col. Motta Gur, commander of the 55th Paratroop Brigade, and asked to ride in his jeep. “I will give you a portion of my olam haba, my eternal reward, if you get me there!” exclaimed Goren. And so the two of them arrived first; their triumphant picture and the sound of that shofar made an indelible impression on the Jewish consciousness.
In this world of ours, there are only occasional glimpses of paradise and redemption. The moment we reclaimed Jerusalem – all of Jerusalem – was just such a moment.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana,