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The Day of Jerusalem’s Liberation

Harav Yaakov Medan
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The Essence of the Day

The day of Jerusalem’s liberation, Yom Yerushalayim,[1] is a celebration of three events: the great deliverance that we merited in the Six Day War – from threats that Israel would be annihilated, heaven forefend, to the astounding victory; the historic arrival of the IDF paratroopers at the Kotel; and the conquest of Jerusalem, along with Yehuda and Shomron.

First of all, we must give praise and thanks to God for our deliverance from death to life. On the eve of the Six Day War, King Hussein of Jordan told his people, “Kill the Jews wherever you find them. Kill them with your arms and your hands, with your nails and your teeth.” Make no mistake – he meant this in all seriousness. A little later, when some two thousand Jordanian Legion soldiers were taken as prisoners of war in the Old City, they were literally shaking with fear. Their terror was the clearest evidence of what they had planned to do to the Jews, had the situation been reversed. Their intentions were exposed to all when IDF soldiers later seized the operational orders to the Legion’s soldiers concerning “treatment” of the towns of Sha’alabim and Motza; the soldiers were ordered to kill all inhabitants, young and old, men and women, leaving no one alive. We have no similar documentary evidence from the Egyptian and Syrian armies, but there is no reason to think that they would have acted differently. On the eve of the war, Jews living overseas begged their Israeli relatives to send their children so that at least they would be saved.

The Israeli Air Force’s crushing victory in the very first hours of the war was unexpected, to say the least. The Holy One, blessed be He, saved us and delivered us – literally – from death.

The importance of this day also flows from the iconic conquest of the Kotel by the Paratroopers Brigade. During those historic moments, the entire nation was united around Jerusalem and around the Kotel at its heart. It was a renewed acceptance of the Torah at the place to which the longing and prayers of many generations of Jews had been directed, and a joint declaration of unity and commitment to the fate and destiny of the Jewish People. It was as if the ancient oath – “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning; let my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not raise Jerusalem over my highest joy” (Tehillim 137:5-7) – was renewed, not only in relation to the earthly Jerusalem, but in relation to the heavenly Jerusalem, as well.

Nevertheless, deliverance from danger – even so great a deliverance – is not sufficient basis to declare a holiday for all future generations. A festival is declared when the nation is elevated to a spiritual level that it had not attained up until that time. For this reason, we do not have a festival celebrating our victory in the Yom Kippur War, although the deliverance at that time was the greatest of all. It would seem that the significance of the victory in the Six Day War, justifying the establishment of the festival, goes beyond the military victory and transcends the conquest of the Kotel. It pertains to the importance of Jerusalem.

The Longing of Generations

Jerusalem was always a dream and a promise longed for by generations of Jews. Prayers and supplications mentioned the return not to the Land of Israel, but to Jerusalem. To Nechemia, upon moving from Shushan to Eretz Yisrael and upon learning of the pitiful situation of his fellow returnees, it was clear that the reason for their wretched state was the degradation of the holy city, whose walls were breached and broken:

The remnant who are left of the captivity there in the province suffer much hardship and insult, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and is gates are burned with fire. (Nechemia 1:3)

In his audience with the king, Nechemia mentions only this last point – the source of the returnees’ troubles:

Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of the tombs of my ancestors, lies waste, and its gates are consumed with fire? (Nechemia 2:3)

Jerusalem, the eternal city, the site of the Temple, was the heartbeat of the sovereign and spiritual life of the Jewish People. It was the heart that connected the separate tribes. During the exile, it was Jerusalem that was invoked in prayer as the supreme expression of independence and the homeland – concepts so basic to any nation, and yet a dream for the Jewish People, cut off from its land and at the mercy of other nations.

Above all, Jerusalem is a combination of sovereignty and Temple. Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem expresses a state of national unity that had not been achieved throughout the period of the Judges; and that combines with the Temple, a connection to sanctity that is beyond the physical world. The Mishkan in Shilo, which was a “religious” site that had no connection to Jewish sovereignty, did not succeed in drawing the broad public. Only Jerusalem, the capital of King David, the singer of psalms, and of King Shlomo, poet of the Song of Songs, could capture the heart of the entire nation by virtue of its unique merging of sanctity and royalty.

Jerusalem of 5708 (1948)

David Ben Gurion knew the significance of Jerusalem. In the War of Independence, he pitched most of the fighting forces into the defense of Jerusalem. Thus, we arrived at the state described by R. Yehuda Ha-Levi at the end of the Kuzari:

For Jerusalem will not be rebuilt until the Jewish People yearn for it with an utmost longing, until they cherish its very stones and dust.

Operation Nachshon, which was meant to break the siege on Jerusalem, the construction of the Burma Road by emergency manpower (following the two failed Bin Nun Operations to capture Latrun), the heroic battle for Gush Etzion, and more – all had as their aim to save Jerusalem and halt the enemy forces that were closing in from all directions. Ben Gurion was well aware of the stakes. Without Jerusalem, he would not be able to turn the Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael into a magnet for the Jews of the Diaspora. It was Jerusalem, not Eretz Yisrael, that they had prayed for all their lives. Ben Gurion also knew that without a strong connection between the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael and Jewish brethren in the Diaspora, there would be no hope for the young state surrounded by a sea of enemies.

But Ben Gurion’s feelings for Jerusalem were directed towards the western part of the city. He feared the sanctity of Mount Moriah and the City of David. He was afraid that this part of the city could create too strong a connection to the Torah. He loved the “new Jews,” the pioneers of the Galilee. While he valued Jewish history and sought a merging of the new with traditional sources, he wanted a merger that was not binding. He was interested in Jerusalem as a source of inspiration, but not as a source of religious commitment. He knowingly relinquished the Old City and the Jewish Quarter, among other reasons out of concern for the political complications of internationalization of the city. In dealing with the Peel Commission, he preferred to insist on Mount Scopus, symbolizing a vision of what was referred to at the time as the “temple of knowledge” – modern science and culture – while forgoing the holy places. Since Jerusalem was, from this perspective, indeed not the object of longing of the Jewish People, the Jewish People did not merit to control these parts of the city. And so the situation remained for nineteen years.

Jerusalem of Gold

The Six Day War forced Israel to conquer Jerusalem against its will. The government begged King Hussein not to join the war; he did anyway. With Mount Scopus and its one hundred a twenty soldiers in danger, the Jordanian Legion about to capture it; with the Jordanian armored brigade heading for Jerusalem via Ma’aleh Adumim, aiming to attack the Jewish neighborhoods; with the Legion reaching Armon Ha-Netziv, a position only a few dozen meters away from the Talpiot suburb in the southern part of the city; with the northern suburbs under merciless bombardment – there was no choice. The war plans were changed, and the Harel Brigade and the Paratroopers Brigade joined the Jerusalem Brigade in the task of defending the city.

The government at the time adopted a realistic position that sought control only over the peripheral areas surrounding the city. The decision to liberate eastern Jerusalem was made because of the heavy death toll, which demanded some appropriate recompense, and due to the insistence of Menachem Begin, who had been appointed a minister in the national unity government, and who argued for the importance of the eastern side of the city for historical reasons. At that moment, we earned the reward for national unity – the IDF entered Mount Moriah and the Old City and liberated them.

After the war, the fear of religious complications led to a loosening of our hold on the Temple Mount. Here, so-called “realism” came face to face with the living pulse of history and the revelation of God’s Presence – and, unfortunately, it prevailed.

There are singular moments in the life of a nation when it must be “a nation that dwells alone and is not counted among the peoples,” when it stands before God alone. At these moments, the love between the “maiden” and her “Beloved” bursts forth, and she tells her companions: “Do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” These are moments of intimacy when there is no place for outsiders. This is not a constant situation. Most of the time, reality calls for cold, realistic, sober, and rational thought. But there are moments that belong to a different dimension – the hours prior to the akeida, for instance, when Avraham left his attendants with the donkey and walked with his only son to Mount Moriah.

The conquest of Jerusalem was another such time, but we did not succeed in elevating ourselves to the consciousness appropriate to the occasion. In the imagery of Shir Ha-Shirim, we were looking for the cloak we had just removed, trying to find our slippers so that our feet would not become soiled. We never got to the door, where our Beloved was waiting…

There have been moments when the Israeli government stood its ground and had its say, and the nations of the world heard and understood. An example was the signing of the Armistice Agreements at the end of the War of Independence. The lines specified then were markedly different from those originally set down in the UN Partition Plan. The nations of the world complained, but understood. Likewise, they understood when Israel put abandoned Arab homes to use after the war ended, so that the Jewish state, in its minimal borders, could exist. Ben Gurion declared that the IDF would parade through Jerusalem on Independence Day with tanks and cannons, in violation of the ceasefire agreements, as long as the Arabs failed to meet their commitment to allow Jews to pray at the Kotel. The nations protested, but they understood the government’s position and respected it. There were further instances later on. But the one-time opportunity that presented itself with the liberation of the Temple Mount was missed.

Netanyahu vs. R. Amnon

One more such moment, related to Yom Yerushalayim, occurred during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as Prime Minister. Then, too, there were those in the American administration, headed by President Clinton, who questioned our right to build in Jerusalem. Secretary of State Madelaine Albright met with Netanyahu in London and rebuked him for the construction underway in the city. She threatened that if the building was not halted immediately, and if talks were not launched with the Palestinian Authority concerning the fate of Jerusalem, the United States would stop exercising its veto rights in the UN Security Council when it came to resolutions hostile towards Israel. She told Netanyahu that he did not need to give an immediate response; he had three days in which to consult with his advisors and formulate his response.

Netanyahu replied without a moment’s delay, and told Albright, “I don’t need three days. My answer is in the negative. We will not negotiate over Jerusalem, our eternal capital, and we will continue to build in it.”

It was Albright who blinked first. Ultimately, the US did not remove its veto umbrella. The United States understood.

This story was recounted to me by Uri Elitzur z”l, who was Netanyahu’s chief of staff at the time. He compared Netanyahu’s stand to the negotiations between the Archbishop of Mainz and Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. When the Archbishop pressured R. Amnon to convert to Christianity, the saintly rabbi pretended to agree to “think it over” for three days. Although it never occurred to him for a second that there was anything to think about, he paid a heavy price for the sin of having given such an impression; his hands and feet were cut off, and he died a slow death in terrible agony. He made atonement for his sin by sanctifying God’s Name when the three days were over, and he refused to convert despite his torture. In the prayer “U-Netaneh Tokef,” which he composed and which is recited as the introduction to the Kedusha section of the Mussaf prayer on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, he emphasizes the immeasurable holiness of God and how His glory fills the world. Netanyahu, by refusing to even think (or even to pretend to think) for three days about relinquishing Jerusalem, reinforced the third verse of the Kedusha: “The Lord shall reign forever – your God, O Zion – from generation to generation, Hallelu-ya.”

The Rightful Heir

The political struggle over Jerusalem is a struggle over the identity of the rightful heir to Yishayahu’s vision of the End of Days:

And it shall be, at the end of days, that the mountain of the Lord’s House shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills, and all the nations shall flow to it. And many people shall go and say: Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the House of the God of Yaakov, and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths, for out of Zion shall emerge Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall decide among many people, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. (Yishayahu 2:2-4)

These verses are etched on the walls of the UN building in New York, but everyone senses that there is no substitute for the place itself – the “mountain of the Lord’s House, established on the top of the mountains.” The Christian tradition concerning the burial place of Jesus, and the Muslim tradition concerning the spot from which Mohammad ascended to heaven, are in fact tools in the struggle over succession of Am Yisrael, which bequeathed to the world the legacy of the Torah and God’s Kingship. If we truly believe that we – Am Yisrael – are the rightful heirs of Yishayahu’s prophecy, and that it is through us that his prophecy is destined to be fulfilled, then we must express this in a determined struggle for Jerusalem and for a strengthened hold on the Temple Mount.


[1] The “Jerusalem Day Law 5758-1998,” passed by the Knesset, establishes the special status of the day of Jerusalem’s liberation, known in Hebrew as “Yom Yerushalayim” (Jerusalem Day). In traditional sources, “Yom Yerushalayim” is actually a reference to Tish’a Be-Av, the day of the city’s destruction, as we find in Tehillim (137:7): “Remember, O Lord, against the children of Edom the day of Jerusalem, when they said, ‘Raze it! Raze it, to its very foundations.’”

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