Fundamentally Freund: The longest battle

It took 2000 years to get back Jerusalem - but keeping it also demands determination.

michael freund 88 (photo credit: )
michael freund 88
(photo credit: )
The emperor Vespasian must be rolling over in his grave. Some 19 centuries after the nefarious Roman ruler sent his legions to pillage Jerusalem under the command of his son Titus, the city once again serves as the united capital of a sovereign Jewish state. It just goes to show what a difference two millennia can make. Back then, at the height of the struggle, the Romans were convinced of their own superiority. They looked down on the Jews with contempt, making light of their religious beliefs and military prowess, and confident that they would crush them once and for all. In his book The Jewish War, the historian Josephus records the speech given by Titus to his men as he urged them to press forward in the battle for Jerusalem. "It is unbecoming you, who are Romans and my soldiers," Titus told them, "to be inferior to Jews, either in action of the hand, or in courage of the soul." He did not hesitate to assure them of "a certain and sudden victory," stressing the "immortality of those men who are slain in the midst of their martial bravery." Interestingly, if you replace the word "Romans" with "jihadists," Titus starts to sound a lot like an ancient version of a Hamas or al-Qaida operative. The Romans, of course, did eventually prevail, murdering some 1.1 million Jews during the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and taking another 97,000 into captivity, many of whom were either sold into slavery or fed to the lions. The Jewish commonwealth was snuffed out, the long and dark exile began and the Temple and its sacred daily rituals were abruptly taken from us. Nonetheless, despite the devastating blow which the Jewish people were dealt, here we are in 2009, preparing once again to celebrate Yom Yerushalayim. THIS FRIDAY marks 42 years on the Hebrew calendar since that wonderful day back in 1967 when Israel liberated the Old City and proudly raised the blue-and-white over the Temple Mount. What the Romans sought to quash forever has miraculously come back to life, and we must be grateful to God for the mercy He has shown in bringing about our wondrous return. And yet, even as commemorate this very special day, it is hard not to escape the gnawing feeling that with each passing year, the reunified city of Jerusalem is increasingly coming under siege yet again. Never, it seems, has the pressure been so great, with most of the world demanding that we "share" or "internationalize" the city, and criticizing even the most mundane of governmental actions regarding Jerusalem. Earlier this month, for example, the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs released a special report slamming Israel for demolishing Palestinian homes built without permits in the eastern part of the city. This was followed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon blasting the Jewish state publicly for its policies in this regard. And back in March, during her visit to the region, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also highlighted the issue of house demolitions, saying that they were "not in keeping with the obligations entered into under the road map." Where else in the world does the enforcement of local building codes generate such condemnation? It is a sign of how obsessed the international community has become with twisting our collective arm to redivide the city in order to make way for a Palestinian state. Indeed, they want nothing less than to see a Palestinian flag flying over Jerusalem. How will we ever be able to withstand such pressure? In this respect, it is worth recalling an episode that took place more than a century ago here in Jerusalem, one that contains within it the key to ensuring our continued control over the Holy City. ON LAG BA'OMER in 1869, the cornerstone was laid for Nahalat Shiva, the first Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem built outside the walls of the Old City. Two of the main people behind its establishment were Rabbi Yosef Rivlin and Rabbi Yoel Moshe Salomon, and they were aided in their efforts by Rabbi Meir Auerbach and Rabbi Binyamin Beinish Salant (who was the son of Jerusalem's chief rabbi at the time, Rabbi Shmuel Salant, a relative of mine). By 1875, some 50 Jewish families were living in the area. As author Dovid Rossof recounts in his wonderful book, Where Heaven Touches Earth: Jewish Life in Jerusalem From Medieval Times to the Present, the community quickly came under intense pressure from its Arab neighbors. One night, Rivlin was awakened to the sounds of a commotion. When he looked through the window, he saw a group of Arab men mulling about. Their leader exhorted them, "Remember! Slaughter them all and then take their lumber!" Dozens of Arabs armed with clubs, daggers and guns rapidly approached the entrance to the neighborhood, preparing to attack. Rivlin reached for his gun and his shofar. He stood by the window and concentrated deeply for several seconds, before bringing the shofar to his lips and blowing the notes that are sounded on Rosh Hashana. He took a breath and then fired a shot out the window, before proceeding to blow the shofar yet again. Suddenly, the Arabs were struck with terror. "Run for your lives!" one shouted hysterically. "The Jews are killing us!" yelled another, and the group fled in panic and disarray. Later, the residents learned that the Arabs had planned to kill them all and take their possessions. "This time," Rivlin told his neighbors, "The Lord was with us. Let us pray that the fear which God put into them will keep them away from us forever." Just as it was over a century ago, Jerusalem is again under siege. And just as our adversaries then sought to remove the Jewish presence from parts of the city, they now seek to do so once more. But like the residents of Nahalat Shiva, we must not be deterred. They continued to build, expanding Jewish Jerusalem whether their foes liked it or not. And that too must be our guide. Whether it is the E1 project connecting Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim, or the nascent Jewish neighborhoods near the Beit Orot yeshiva and the Tomb of Shimon Hatzaddik, it is essential that Israel continue to develop these areas. They will strengthen our capital and reinforce its Jewish majority, safeguarding the city and preventing it from ever being divided. Even in the face of American and Arab opposition, we must press forward with these important plans. By doing so, we can ensure that Jerusalem will remain ours, never again to be taken away. The last laugh will belong neither to Vespasian or to Titus, nor even their modern-day surrogates, but rather to the descendants of Judah whom they sought to destroy - which is, after all, as it should be.