The Kotel in Jerusalem. (photo by Marek69)
Jerusalem has been reunited now for 50 years. For five decades, we have had the privilege of praying at the Kotel, the Western Wall. On Jerusalem Day, 28 Iyar, which falls this year on May 13, thousands of worshippers will flock to the city, many before sunrise.
Nothing has ever come easily to the Jewish people. For 19 years, from 1948 to 1967, Jerusalem was cut in half and, at the Mandelbaum Gate, outside the Old City, there were signs: “Danger. Frontier ahead. Snipers nearby … stay out of the middle of the street!” Neighbourhoods and streets were split down the middle. Jews were evicted from their homes and synagogues in the Old City, and the Western Wall was out of bounds. Across the dividing line, Jordanian troops stood with rifles at the ready.
Jerusalem’s story covers thousands of years, but this segment began in 1948. Before the ceasefire was signed on Nov. 30 that year, Moshe Dayan, the commander of Israel’s forces in Jerusalem, met with his Jordanian counterpart, Abdullah El-Tel. In a deserted house in Musrara, they marked out their respective positions. These rough, indistinct marks expanded from the heat and blurred over time, yet they were accepted as the borders between Jordan and Israel in Jerusalem. The map was locked up at Government House and referred to in all disputes.
On June 5, 1967, while Israel was still warning King Hussein of Jordan to stay out of the impending war, a foreign radio station announced the conquest of Mount Scopus by Jordanian troops. It was a mistake, but it confirmed Israel’s suspicions of Jordan’s intentions, and that Mount Scopus, with its Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital, was in danger. The Jordanians believed that Israeli troops would come from east to west, but instead the Jerusalem Brigade attacked from the opposite direction, taking Armon HaNetziv, three Jordanian positions, the Arab village of Sur Baher and Mutzav HaPaamon, before several Arab troops came out of hiding and killed six Israeli soldiers.
Below, on the road to Bethlehem, stands Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. Jordanians and Egyptians fought Israelis on the southernmost part of the dividing line and the kibbutz changed hands three times. However, the Israelis eventually held it, which helped stop the Arab invasion of southern Jerusalem.
Soldiers of the Jordanian legion conquered the British High Commissioner’s residence, but were driven back by the Israeli Defence Forces, who moved towards the City of David. At dawn on Tuesday, 27 Iyar, a unit of paratroopers advanced, taking the police school, the district of Sheikh Jarrah, the American Colony and the area of the Rockefeller Museum. After a bloody battle at Ammunition Hill, the paratroopers reached Mount Scopus.
Jerusalem’s great day was 28 Iyar. With a daring thrust, Israeli soldiers scaled Mount of Olives, advancing beyond the village of Al-Azariya. Armoured vehicles burst through the Lions’ Gate towards the Temple Mount. At 10 a.m. came the announcement: “The Temple Mount is ours. It is in our hands!” Soldiers, even secular ones, ran towards the Western Wall, caressing its stones, their eyes full of tears and with a prayer on their lips, even if they didn’t know the words. A few minutes later, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, then IDF chaplain, blew the shofar at the holy site. David Rubinger, a military photographer, took the now-famous photo that has been reproduced around the world, of a soldier named Yitzhak Yifat (who is now a gynecologist living in Rishon lesion), removing his helmet and looking up at the wall in awe.
One of the first to reach the Kotel was a former Australian, Mordecai (Mark) Rechtschafner, from my hometown of Melbourne. He told me that, although he was overwhelmed by the sense of history at that moment, he was far from euphoric. Heavy losses had been sustained and he had lost many comrades. “I was exhausted, filled with sadness at the unbearable death of so many of my friends,” he said. “The Six Day War ended swiftly, but we paid a heavy price.” Every year, on Jerusalem Day, he comes to the city from Kibbutz Ein Zurim, where he lives, for the memorial service, to pay tribute to the many friends he lost in the battle.
Until the First Intifada and its ongoing aftermath, the hope of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs seemed a possibility and some believe it still is. Thousands of Arabs used to pour into Western Jerusalem each morning to work. On weekends, the narrow lanes of the Old City’s Arab shuk (market) would be packed with Israeli shoppers, but, today, it is mostly tourists who fill the market. The future is a question mark, as ongoing violence brings renewed tears to families throughout the land.
But the city of Jerusalem remains unforgettable and heartbreakingly beautiful. To me, it is a poem. One night, as darkness descended, I was moved to write these lines:
Black velvet spangled with stars
Is night in Jerusalem.
Splashes of silver,
The sob of the wind,
An ancient perfume,
A taste of nectar.
Skyline of turrets and domes
Is night in Jerusalem.
Pine trees are sighing.
Through a tracery of leaves
Golden lights dot
A midnight canvas.
Landscape of enchantment
Is night in Jerusalem.
Dvora Waysman is a Jerusalem-based author. She has written 14 books, including The Pomegranate Pendant, which was made into a movie, and her latest novella, Searching for Sarah. She can be contacted at [email protected] or through her blog dvorawaysman.com.