Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jerusalem: Forty Years of Unification

Forty years ago Israeli paratroopers liberated Jerusalem from the Jordanian Army, then part of the Arab Legion. Had Jordan’s ruler, King Hussein, not fallen victim to Arab hyperbole, the Jordanians might still control East Jerusalem, and the West Bank. In truth, this may have solved a lot of Israel’s current problems.

The Egyptian propaganda machine broadcast fantastic reports of how successful the Arab Legion was against the Israeli Army. According to these broadcasts, Egyptian troops were just about to march into Tel Aviv. The truth was, as we all know, the converse.

Egypt was decimated within the first few hours of the war. Their air force was destroyed while still on the ground. The rest of their army was soon to follow suit. However, it wasn’t until day three of the war that Jordan attacked from the East, and Israel counter-attacked, smashing the Jordanian army as well as those of Syria and Lebanon.

The battle for Jerusalem, however, wasn’t simple. The Jordanians were brave and skillful fighters. They did not turn and run. The Jordanian army was dug into fortified positions facing West, towards pre-67 Israel. But the Israeli Army attacked from the East, from the same route travelers had taken from Jaffa to Jerusalem since the time of Jonah and the whale.

Resistance was fierce, but surprise was on Israel’s side. The IDF swept across the roads towards Nebe Samuel a hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem which holds the legendary tomb of the Prophet Samuel. Fighting there took place in the trenches against the fortified Jordanian positions. Once that battle was over the paratroopers raced toward Ammunition Hill, another Jordanian fortification, now part of the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Ramat Eshkol and Maalot Dafna. Hundreds of Israelis died in the fighting.

The now famous push over Ammunition Hill to the Rockefeller Museum, and the Lion’s Gate on the old city of Jerusalem’s East side, have been well documented. Fierce hand-to-hand fighting took place. And then came the famous IDF announcement “The old city is in our hands,” sent shivers of joy down many spines. Jerusalem’s Western Wall was in Jewish hands for the first time in 2,000 years.

It was then the mistakes began. Moshe Dayan, then Minister of Defense, forbade Jewish worshipers from going onto the Temple Mount, essentially ceding it to the Moslems. He thought this would be a gesture of Peace. In fact it became a gesture of weakness. No Jews could claim a part of the Temple Mount as theirs since they were forbidden to go there.

As the years wore on the Moslem Wakf religious authority took it as a given that the Temple Mount was Moslem. Had Dayan allowed a synagogue on the Temple Mount in ’67 Israel would today have a thriving community praying there, and have a de facto claim to the area. As it is, with no Jewish presence there, the Temple Mount is one of those areas up for discussion in the “final stages” of the peace talks, should they ever continue.

Yesterday forty National Religious Party Rabbis went up to the Temple Mount to pray. Suddenly the Israeli government realizes that some claim must be laid to the Temple Mount or it will be another 2,000 years before Israel has possession of it’s holiest site.
When Ehud Barak was Prime Minister he tried to give back the Temple Mount to Yassir Arafat, who had received all claims to the West Bank and E. Jerusalem from King Hussein.

Arafat, in the famous meeting, turned Barak down. Then President Bill Clinton was amazed. He thought he’d solved he Middle East’s Israeli-Palestinian problem once and for all. He never forgave Arafat, and the Israeli public never really forgave Barak. A recent poll showed that nearly 70 per cent of the Israeli public wanted to keep Jerusalem as it is.

The problem is that nearly one-third of Jerusalem is Arab. Pundits say that by 2020 40 percent of Jerusalem will be Arab. An Arab mayor is a distinct possibility. The politicians on Israel’s left believe that only by giving up E. Jerusalem can Israel manage to hold onto even West Jerusalem. The right-wing parties vehemently disagree.

Final Status negotiations over Jerusalem are expected to be the most bitter. A hint of this was seen when then Palestinian Chairman Arafat turning down Barak’s generous offer. It has been said in the past that while President Clinton was surprised, the Palestinians weren’t. One veteran Arab journalist said that Arafat knew Barak could never deliver E. Jerusalem that the Israeli public wouldn’t have allowed it. Moreover, had Arafat agreed, he would have been assassinated by his own people.

The separation fence going up essentially along the old pre-67 border has made it difficult for Arabs to get into Jerusalem, to work, to visit family, go to the doctor, or hospital; or simply make a trip shorter by not having to circumvent Jerusalem by driving hours down to Jericho and then back up to the West Bank, or Ramallah if one takes the reverse course.

Today Arab workers from up and down the west bank have found that there are still sections of the separation fence that haven’t been completed, or are tied up in court. These are the sections that the workers seep through every morning, hiding out in the Jerusalem forest while scouts go on ahead, calling by mobile phone, telling the pack to come ahead.

Sometimes the Border Police have a trap waiting, but mostly the overhead helicopter announces the Police’s intention. Jerusalemites walking in the forest these days are concerned for their safety. A pack of thirty or forty Arab workers suddenly appearing on a dirt path in the forest causes even the bravest pause.

Soon the wall will be completed, all the court cases resolved, and Jerusalem will have a new wall around it, wider, broader, grander than those during the First or Second Temples. And earthly Jerusalem will be circumscribed by cement rising ten meters in the sky, or cyclone fencing with sensors and barbed wire.
But what really does this all say for Jerusalem?

Most Israelis eschew visiting, and wouldn’t think of living in Jerusalem. Young people are leaving, so are the non-religious. In many ways, Jerusalem is not really a part of Israel, but rather an island of thought and belief. An island where dress codes are more conservative, behavior more radical religiously, and where, as the Talmud says, when a pin drops the echo is heard around the world.

Jerusalem is the Holy Place of the Jewish people. It is not the Mecca of the Moslems, or the Rome of the Christians. The Jewish People have no other place to direct their prayers; to believe that God’s house has been built there, that a Holy Presence exists there.

Jerusalem is different. Time is different in Jerusalem. The air is different in Jerusalem. The light is different in Jerusalem. Why? Is it only perception? Is the “Jerusalem Syndrome” self-fulfilling?

Perhaps Jerusalem should really be made an international city, as some suggest. But is the world really interested in the Jewish people’s claim to Jerusalem? Is the city as important to others as to the Jewish people? One has to assume that from a religious perspective the answer is clearly no. No other people have their history tied to Jerusalem like the Jewish people. No other people have a Bible that is based in Jerusalem. No other people consider Jerusalem the center of the universe.

But had King Hussein realized that Arab hyperbole had misrepresented their success, grossly exaggerated their victory, the Jewish people would still be standing on a hilltop, like Mt. Zion, looking down with yearning at the Holy City. But he didn’t understand the lies, and lost Jerusalem, and the west bank.

The current Arab governments are also concerned about the fate of Jerusalem, not because they have a religious commitment to Jerusalem (Jerusalem is a distant third in importance in Islam, and Rome and Bethlehem more important to the Christians), but because Jerusalem has become a political symbol. The capitol of the nation of the Jewish people. Should the Arabs control it, the capitol shifts to them, and the Jewish people are back without their center of the universe, cast adrift, floating in space like a satellite which has lost contact with its base station.

Today, on the fortieth anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem, Peace is no closer than it ever was, and Jerusalem is no more secure than it has ever been. Even during the 1,000 years that the Jewish people lived in Jerusalem, from King David until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., Jerusalem was never really secure. It was always being invaded, pillaged, plundered. Jerusalem was always a point of contention. Jerusalem was always different. Mysterious. Special.

In that respect, nothing much has changed in 3,000 years.