A soldier remembers

Yisrael Ariel, founder and head of the Jerusalem-based Temple Institute, reminisces about life as a young paratrooper in 1967, 7-year-old boy in 1948.

YISRAEL ARIEL giving a tour of the Temple Mount 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
YISRAEL ARIEL giving a tour of the Temple Mount 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Perhaps it was sheer coincidence. Then again, maybe it wasn’t. Either way, it was eerily appropriate that when I left the modest Old City Jewish Quarter apartment of Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, who was one of the first paratroopers to reach the Temple Mount during the liberation of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War alongside IDF chief-of-staff Gen. Mordechai “Motta” Gur, that the swearing-in ceremony for this year’s class of new IDF paratrooper inductees was taking place at the Western Wall plaza below.
Ariel speaks in whispers, and – out of principle – only in Hebrew. He seems frail at the age of 73, nearly 45 years to the day since taking part in of one of the most defining moments in modern Jewish history, but there is no doubt that his mental capacities are completely intact.
I had come prepared to ask him questions – to interview him on his thoughts and feelings and give him the opportunity to offer his reflections 45 years after witnessing what he believed at the time was the final redemption of the Jewish people.
But for more than an hour in his cramped study overflowing with holy texts, Ariel reminisces about what life was like in Jerusalem not only from the perspective of a young paratrooper in 1967 but also from the perspective of a seven-year-old boy in 1948, when he lived with his family on Ben-Yehuda Street in the center of town and watched his father go off to fight in the battle for independence.
He is able to describe with precise detail and include examples of how difficult those days were, with food and water scarce in Jerusalem as the Jordanians kept the city under siege.
He also recalls his family miraculously surviving the February 28, 1948, Arab bombing on his street, which claimed the lives of 58 Jewish civilians and blew the windows out of his apartment.
Ariel maintains an intense schedule. He is the founder and head of the Jerusalem-based Temple Institute and is involved in the organization’s daily activities. He is also a widely sought-after authority on Halacha, regularly giving classes and lectures on Torah subjects.
THE RABBI speaks candidly about the jubilation experienced while liberating Jerusalem and standing on the Temple Mount, but becomes visibly pained when talking about his fellow soldiers who fell in battle and whose bodies he personality was charged to gather and load onto a truck for burial.
He describes the joyous scene that occurred moments later as soldiers gathered at the wall for the blowing of the shofar by IDF chief rabbi Gen. Shlomo Goren – the first time Jews had gathered at the site in 19 years – but his voice quivers with regret as he describes how control of the Temple Mount was turned over by the Israeli political echelon to the Muslim Wakf (religious trust) shortly after.
With all of his accomplishments, Ariel’s life seems incomplete as his yearning for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple remains an unfulfilled dream. But he says, “we only have ourselves to blame” since, in his view, based on years of Torah scholarship, construction should begin immediately. According to his interpretation of halacha there is no requirement to wait for a Messianic period before starting to build.
Below are excerpts from Ariel’s account as a young paratrooper during the days leading up to the Six Day War and the battle to liberate Jerusalem, along with other anecdotes he shared based on his firsthand accounts during the remainder of the war.
“AROUND INDEPENDENCE Day in 1967, we got wind that war was on the horizon. The Egyptians mobilized 100,000 soldiers, sending them north, to our southern border. Egypt then closed the Straits of Eilat [Tiran] to Israeli shipping. At the same time the Syrians were mobilizing their troops, sending them toward our northern border. We then learned of an alliance pact between Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
“Israel’s leaders were questioning whether a preemptive attack should be launched. At the same time, the country feared the worst, as 30,000 graves were prepared in Tel Aviv in case a of a major attack resulting in mass casualties. Entire neighborhoods got on planes and fled the country. It was crazy to think that only about 20 years after the Holocaust, with people in Israel still with numbers on their arms, they once again feared for their lives.
There was a joke going around, as we worried about the state’s survival ‘that the last person who leaves via the airport should remember to turn off the lights.’ “Shortly after the war broke out, there was widespread panic because of our own media sources. Reports came in that Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem were all on fire, being burned to the ground. I remember thinking that all the evil prophecies were coming true. But it turns out these were all lies. The Israeli media was using Arab sources who were spewing propaganda as a way to motivate their own forces and demoralize ours.
“Originally we received orders from our commanders that we would be parachuting into the Rafah area of Gaza in order to assist in the fight against Egyptian tank divisions. But then we were somewhat disappointed to hear that we were being sent to Jerusalem instead. As paratroopers, there was great pride jumping into enemy territory, and each successful jump was rewarded with decoration.
“Nevertheless we were sent to Jerusalem, arriving in the middle of the night between the first and second days of the war. We saw the destruction all around us.
Mortar shells strewn everywhere, and the people of the city confined to bomb shelters.
“But we went straight into battle in the middle of the night against the Jordanian forces at Ammunition Hill.”
ARIEL PAUSES from his chronological recollections to describe how 11 of his fellow soldiers, whom he calls “my friends,” were killed during the fighting in a mortar bombardment near the Old City’s Damascus Gate.
He says that he survived because of a miracle, for which he thanks God with a special blessing every time he passes that spot in the city.
“The sun came up the next morning among the fire and the ash that was literally hovering in the air,” the account continues. “I was with the group of soldiers who entered the Old City along with ‘Motta’ Gur and we made our way toward the Temple Mount. As we ascended the Temple Mount, I saw two soldiers running into the Dome of the Rock and I was in shock. I was conflicted. I was always taught that as a Jew it was forbidden to walk on the Temple Mount. But here I was, with Gen. Motta Gur, who was given permission from Rabbi Goren [because of the circumstances] to walk freely throughout the Temple Mount so I felt a little more comfortable. They then raised the Israeli flag on the mosque and I thought to myself ‘this is a different world we live in today than yesterday.’ [The flag was removed soon after.] “As we reached the dome, we were all exhausted. I overheard a conversation between Rabbi Goren and Gen. Motta Gur, in regard to what should be done with the bodies of those that died in the battle for Jerusalem.
Rabbi Goren suggested that they be buried on the Mount of Olives, but Gen. Motta Gur refused. It was then that I felt a sense of disappointment. It seemed that even though we fought, and many died so that this entire area would be in our hands, that the plan was never to remain there long-term. I couldn’t believe that the same man who just a few minutes before announced to the world ‘the Temple Mount is in our hands,’ which I heard with my own ears, knew that our intention wasn’t to remain there. In fact, as we know, a few days later this became the reality with the keys handed over to the Wakf.
“Nevertheless, my emotions quickly shifted once more. From the mount, atop of the Western Wall, I saw two elderly men dressed in white stirring about near the wall below. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought at the time that these men were Elijah the Prophet along with the King Messiah himself.
“But only afterwards, when we descended to the Wall, I realized it wasn’t what I thought. In fact it, was my two rabbis and mentors, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook [the leader of religious Zionism and then-headmaster of the prominent Yeshivat Merkaz Harav], along with his student, Hanazir [Rabbi David Cohen, a prominent Torah scholar and Nazirite who had taken a vow never to leave his house until the Western Wall was in Jewish hands], whose daughter was Rabbi Goren’s wife.
As the horde of soldiers gathered in what was then a tiny plaza and Rabbi Goren blew the shofar and recited the Sheheheyanu blessing – thanking God for returning [us] to that spot after so many years – my emotions began running wild once again.
“On one hand there was complete joy. On the other hand, there were bodies, our soldiers’ bodies still strewn about from the battle, and there was grief. Not to mention all the wounded soldiers. So while there was a debate in my mind whether or not to recite the Hallel prayer [of thanksgiving], others wanted to say Tahanun [a mournful supplication] to honor the dead. In the end, Rabbi Goren decided that Hallel was most appropriate so I accepted his ruling.
Afterwards I was charged with collecting the Jewish bodies in the area for burial. I helped load them on a truck where they were taken to the military cemetery at Mount Herzl.
“The sounds that came out of the shofar on that day sent shock waves throughout the country and around the world. Even non-Jews in places like the Soviet Union, who were against the existence of a Jewish state, realized that Jews now belonged in Israel. They felt what was going on here. Also, there was a whole ba’alei teshuva [return to Judaism] movement and a wave of aliya following that shofar blast.
“Our immense joy was short-lived as buses were brought in to take our unit to another front of the war – up to the Golan Heights. We were still lacking information on how the war was progressing when, as we left Jerusalem, someone threw a stack of Ma’ariv newspapers onto the bus. We all grabbed copies to learn that Israel had achieved tremendous successes – capturing Sinai, Judea and Samaria, etc. It was a truly uplifting and amazing turn of events – from one second fearing another Holocaust, to actually being on the verge of winning the war the next.
“It was Friday, and Shabbat was quickly approaching as our bus reached Kfar Tavor in the North, on the way to the Golan. As the sun set, we decided to get off the bus in order to pray kabbalat Shabbat. There were many types of soldiers with me, representing a wide segment of Israeli society. Religious, secular and everything in between. All of a sudden the secular soldiers started covering their heads with hats. ‘We need a minyan,’ one of them said. It was obvious that they felt a strong desire to thank God for what was going on.
“As we sang the Lecha Dodi [prayer], I explained to some of the soldiers the relevance of the words, ‘kumi tze’i mitoch hahafecha [‘Arise! Get out from amidst the turmoil’], an especially appropriate passage for what we were going through. That, in addition to the words from the prayer ‘yamin usmol tifrotzi [‘to your right and your left will burst forth,’] a reference to the redemption in Jerusalem. We then recited the Hallel with such emotion, which is difficult to express in words.”
AFTER RELATING his story, Ariel ties the experience of liberating Jerusalem with his views and philosophies on Jewish life in Israel today, especially with regard to the Temple.
“It would have been unheard of at that time for someone to deny the miracles and the meaning of the events we were experiencing. But today, in our generation, there are those who are ‘against the miracles,’ meaning those who refuse to recognize God’s hand in the establishment of the state and the victory in 1967, reclaiming Jerusalem.
“Yet those same people, when they buy a nectarine that just came into season in the market, they give special thanks to God. For a nectarine they can thank God but when Jewish soldiers gave their lives and we won against insurmountable odds, for that they can’t recognize that they should say ‘thank you’? To me that’s like we are crippled, walking with a cane.’ “This is one of the biggest disappointments – that [those who do not see a reason to celebrate these miracles] turn [their] faces away from God in contempt and don’t say thank you. That first Jerusalem Day in 1967, the whole country said Hallel – ultra-Orthodox, religious- Zionist, secular, etc. – but since we turned over the keys to the Wakf, since the Messiah didn’t come, we started acting like we we’re crippled and not acting like the rightful owners [of Jerusalem, an attitude] which continues until today. How many people are saying Hallel today? Some say that nothing miraculous truly happened.
“In addition, now on Jerusalem Day we are not allowed to hold the flag marching through the traditional route of Damascus Gate because police are afraid of a possible confrontation or Arab sensitivities. But what about those soldiers, those 180 paratroopers who gave their lives for the sake of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem – they died for this. They were brave, and we’re scared? We’re not being asked to die for Jerusalem! Only to rule over her, and even that we can’t do! “Now is the time we must fulfill our destiny and build the Third Temple. People have gotten used to going to the Western Wall, but that’s like being satisfied with standing under the mountain [Sinai], while Moses is up on top.
“But for someone like me, who saw what happened on the Temple Mount with my own eyes, who heard the shots, gathered the bodies and experienced the victory, on one hand I am thankful for my life and the fact that we have a State of Israel, and Jerusalem, but on the other hand it is disappointing that too many people pay lip service to the concept of the Temple. But I do think people are starting to come around to this realization, albeit slowly.
“The Temple Institute has over 100,000 visitors a year and we have built all of the Temple vessels, but this is not enough. A temple is not a place for nostalgia; we are supposed to build it in our days. I hope that one day we’ll all see it.”
After the war, Ariel became the yeshiva head and spiritual leader of Yamit in the Sinai until the city was dismantled as part of the peace accords with Egypt in 1982.
Ariel is the author of many Hebrew works, including the highly acclaimed Atlas of the Biblical Boundaries of the Land of Israel. His focus today, clearly demonstrated in his writings, is his belief that every generation is obligated to do everything within its power toward rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. ■