Confusion again reigns today in many Jewish circles, particularly in Israel: Some of us joyfully celebrate a festive holiday, while others watch from the side, not sure what to make of it. Some recite the usual Tachanun penitential prayer and bemusedly ask, "What, another religious-Zionist holiday?" as their neighbors recite the joyous Hallel prayer instead.
A quick review of the miraculously historic events of this month 48 years ago may help clear up some of the confusion. A brief synopsis: As on Purim, Passover, and other holidays, our enemies set out to destroy us – literally – and G-d came to the rescue at the last moment.
And now, in detail:
The Jerusalem Municipality's readying of thousands of body bags sufficiently indicates the national mood in May 1967. Several Arab nations, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, were threatening loudly and repeatedly to wipe Israel off the map. On May 18, 1967, for instance, Cairo Radio announced, “The Zionist barrack in Palestine is about to collapse and be destroyed. Every one of the 100 million Arabs has been living for the past 19 years on one hope – to live to see the day Israel is liquidated… The sole method we shall apply against Israel is a total war which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence.”
Egypt had just begun moving its massive forces towards the Sinai Peninsula, closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, and ordered the UN peacekeeping forces to leave. Israel had no choice but to take its own self-defense initiative – and, in a three-hour surprise attack, succeeded in wiping out practically the entire Egyptian Air Force on the ground. Thus began the Six Day War.
As noted by Israeli historian Dr. Hagai Ben-Artzi, the fact that Israel's planes reached the many Egyptian airfields without being detected – only one (!) plane was shot down, and that was two full hours after the surprise began – could not have happened had not the following "coincidences" conjoined:
- Top Egyptian and Iraqi commanders took part in an aerial survey over the Sinai that very morning (unbeknownst to Israel). For the sake of security, the Egyptian War Minister instructed all of his anti-aircraft units not to fire under any circumstances between the hours of 7:00 and 8:00 AM – the precise hour of the Israeli attack. (All the participants in the aerial tour were later put on military trial and demoted; some were imprisoned.)
- For several days prior, the Egyptians dispatched four Mig-21's to patrol the Sinai skies, at half-hour intervals, from 4:30 AM until 8:30 AM. Their purpose was to detect in advance a feared Israeli attack. On that Monday morning, the Egyptian flights took place as usual – except for the 7:30 patrol! It turned out that the deputy commander of the missing formation "had been delayed at home for personal reasons…" – namely, a morale-raising party, with belly-dancers, food, and drink in abundance, held for the Egyptian pilots the night before. When he finally arrived, he found that he no longer had reason to show up…
- Though the Egyptians did not detect the oncoming Israeli planes, the Jordanian army did – but when they tried to message their Egyptian colleagues, a mess-up in the code-words prevented the critical communication from getting through.
Only later, of course, did these miracles become known. The Six Day War continued in the meanwhile on two fronts, against Egypt and Syria. Israel asked Jordan – which then controlled Judea, Samaria, and most of the areas around Jerusalem, including the Old City – to stay out of the war. "We won't attack you if you don't attack us," came the message to Jordan.
Had this plea been heeded, and had events proceeded "naturally," Jerusalem would still be divided today, with no Jewish access to any of its holy sites. Similarly, Ramat Eshkol, Pisgat Ze'ev, Maaleh Adumim, Beit El, Elon Moreh, and many other dynamic Jewish communities that now thrive with Jews from all over the world – would not now exist…
The plea was not heeded, however. Instead, Jordan responded with a barrage against the Jews of Jerusalem – and the IDF took on a third front. The two critical developments that then followed were these:
1. Heroic battles in which the IDF captured important sites around Jerusalem (such as what became known as Ammunition Hill).
2. A courageous and historic decision by the Israeli Government not to suffice with encircling the Holy City and neutralizing the military threat, but rather to burst through and capture the entire city.
At 10:00 AM on Wednesday morning, the third day of the war – the 28th of Iyar – the Israeli forces broke through the walls of the Old City, via both Dung Gate in the southeast part of the city, near the Jewish Quarter, and Lions Gate in the northeast, capturing the Moslem Quarter and the Temple Mount.
As Dr. Hagai Ben-Artzi wrote in his "Scroll of the Six Days": "At 10:30, the voice of Mota Gur, commander of the Paratroopers Brigade, could be heard declaring on every IDF radio receiver: 'The Temple Mount is in our hands. I repeat: The Temple Mount is in our hands!' It was a moment of unparalleled, sheer excitement for everyone who heard it. One thousand nine hundred years after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Nation of Israel was privileged, with G-d's help, to return to the Temple Mount and to liberate it. The mayor of the Arab city stood waiting for the troops on the Mount, and presented them with his writ of surrender."
It is important to note that though most Jews were thrilled in 1948 when the renewed State of Israel was established, for others the joy was greatly tempered by the lack of inclusion in its borders of the holy sites of Jerusalem – and particularly the Temple Mount.
In fact, just three weeks before the Six Day War, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, the head of Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook, appeared to be gripped by prophecy when he cried out to his students on Independence Day of that year, "Where is our Hevron!? Have we forgotten it? And where is our Shechem (Nablus)? Have we forgotten it!? And where is our Jericho? Have we forgotten it?! … And where is all the rest of the Land of Israel? Where are all the pieces of G-d's Land? Do we have the right to give up even one millimeter? Heaven forbid!"
The continued longing for Jerusalem in the 19 years between ’48 and ’67 was expressed on another level by Naomi Shemer, in her famous song "Jerusalem of Gold." The original lyrics read, "The city that sits solitary, and in its midst – a wall… How the cisterns have dried, the market-place is empty, and no one frequents the Temple Mount, in the OldCity… Jerusalem of gold, and of bronze, and of light, Behold I am a violin for all your songs…"
Just a few months later, she was able to add these lyrics as the final stanza: "We have returned to the cisterns, To the market and to the market-place, A ram's horn (shofar) is heard on the Temple Mount, In the Old City." The song Jerusalem of Gold quickly became Israel's unofficial national anthem, sung in joy at every opportunity.
The grave-diggers around the country realized joyfully that their efforts just a few days earlier had largely been in vain.
Let us now all – yes, all of us! – recite Hallel and sing out in unison, "Happy Jerusalem Day!"