Forty-six years ago today, the 28th day of Iyyar according to the Jewish calendar, Israeli forces liberated the Old City of Jerusalem from the illegal Jordanian occupation. The days were the days of the Six Day War, which broke out because the Egyptians had summarily dismissed the United Nations peacekeeping forces in the Sinai peninsula, and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. Thus, the expectation was that if hostilities should break out, these would be limited to the southern front and to war between Israel and Egypt, as in the 1956 Sinai (Suez) Campaign.
The Shabbat before the war started, I had a dream. I dreamed I was walking through the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, on my way to HaKotel Hama’aravi, the Western Wall. I had never been to Jerusalem, nor had I seen pictures of the Old City’s crowded alleyways. The following day, I told my dream to my classmates in cheder – Sunday Religion Classes. It is interesting to note their reaction: “What? You want there to be a war?” (All I had said was, that if war breaks out, maybe we will at last regain control of the Kotel.)
The Six Day War began the very next day – Monday, June 5th, 1967. Monday was “Games Day” at my school. The entire school used to travel down by coach to the playing fields at Grove Park, in South-East London since, prior to the school’s move to the Barbican, we had no field sports facilities of our own. I remember, as we were waiting for the coaches, I nipped into a nearby newsagents and bought the Evening Standard. IT’S WAR, the banner headline stated, baldly. By the weekend, the war was over and we had, indeed, regained control of the Kotel. I can’t begin to describe the feeling when I knew that I would, at last, have a chance to visit the holy places. That didn’t happen, in fact, for another three and a half years. It wasn’t until the winter of 1970-71 that, on a visit to Israel with my family, I found myself in the alleys of Old Jerusalem and, amazingly, it was all familiar territory. The way from the Jaffa Gate to the Wall was just as it had been in my dream. How shall I describe that first glimpse of the Kotel? Can anyone who has never experienced it imagine the pounding of the heart, the catching of the breath, the pricking of tears in the eyes?
I was a young girl then. Forty-three years have passed since that first visit, during which time, I have visited the Wall many times, always with a feeling of suppressed excitement. It isn’t necessarily a feeling of overwhelming sanctity. It is more a feeling of – Destiny.
Every Israeli is familiar with the famous recording of Motta Gur, commander of the Paratroop Brigade which liberated the Old City of Jerusalem, announcing “The Temple Mount is in our hands.” Thrilling words – and yet, they are only half true. Soon after the miraculous victory and liberation of the holiest of our holy places, Defence Minister Moshe Dayan handed the keys of the Temple Mount back to the Muslim Waqf, as a gesture of respect for Muslim “rights” at the site. But the Muslims do not show any reciprocal respect. For years now, they have carried out illegal excavations on the Temple Mount, creating underground mosques there and, in the process, throwing out and destroying thousands of tons of rubble, including archaeological remnants from the First and Second Temples, in a deliberate attempt to eradicate all proof of the Jewish connection to the site, which they brazenly deny, claiming we never had a temple there! To this day, Jews cannot pray on the Temple Mount. Even a solitary Jew who dares to stand and pray openly with a siddur ( סידור – prayer-book, accent on the second syllable), is liable to be arrested by the Israeli Police, for “unruly behaviour liable to cause a breach of the peace” or for “obstructing a police officer in the performance of his duty”! Any hint of a negative Muslim reaction is enough for the police to severely curtail, or even completely prohibit, the presence of Jews on the Temple Mount. Yesterday, for example, the police reaction to riots by Muslims on the Temple Mount was to limit the number of Jewish visitors – on the very eve of the anniversary of the liberation and reunification of Jerusalem.The police say this is for the safety of the Jewish visitors. But Reason and Justice require that the rioters be punished – not the people they attacked. To all intents and purposes, the Israeli Authorities have awarded the Muslims a “Heckler’s Veto“.
So, while I rejoice at the sight of the tens of thousands of Jews, young and old, marching through the streets of Jerusalem to the gathering-place in the Plaza in front of the Western Wall, there to take part in the traditional Dance of the Flags, it is a joy tinged with sadness at the knowledge that the Liberation of our Holy City is incomplete. I have no wish to prevent Muslims from praying at the Dome of the Rock or at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. I was brought up to respect other people’s religious sensitivities. But I demand the same respect from others – including Muslims. We are not preventing them from praying on Haram ash-Sharif, as the Temple Mount is known in Arabic. Why, then, should we not pray there too? There is plenty of room on the Holy Mountain for hundreds of thousands of worshippers – and does not the Prophet Isaiah tell us: “Mine house shall be called a house of prayer for all people”?
I will leave you with the song “HaKotel” – “The Wall” – performed by the incomparable Ofra Haza, in which a young girl, a paratrooper and a bereaved mother sing, in turn, about what the Wall symbolises for them: “The Wall is hyssop and grief“, goes the refrain. “The Wall is lead and blood. There are men with hearts of stone. There are stones with hearts of men”.