The most famous image of Israel’s recapture of Jerusalem in June 1967 is undoubtedly the iconic photo, taken by the late David Rubinger, of three young Israeli paratroopers standing in front of the Western Wall, looking up at that symbol of Jewish longing.
The site had only minutes earlier fallen into Jewish hands after being under foreign control for close to 1,900 years.
This week, to mark the 50th anniversary of that moment in time, those same three soldiers — Zion Karasanti, Haim Oshri and Itzik Yifat, all of them now in their seventies — retraced the steps of that fateful day, accompanied by photographers and journalists eager to join the trio, and hear how they now feel about that moment.
Perhaps inevitably, the interviews soon degenerated into an argument, as the discussion turned to the difficulties generated for Israel by the recapture of Jerusalem. Responding to one of the journalists, who asked whether the soldiers thought the 1967 photograph represented the start of a tragedy for the State of Israel, Itzik Yifat curtly responded, “I don’t believe that we should be ruling over another nation.”
His erstwhile military buddy, Zion Karasanti, was horrified. “How can you say that, as an Israeli who fought for something after 2,000 years of longing?” he snapped. “We returned the heart of the Jewish people to this country!”
Yifat was not so easily silenced. “What am I supposed to tell my grandchildren?” he asked, seemingly rhetorically, then immediately added his own sardonic answer: “that there will be war every year?”
What a far cry from the incredible unity that marked the recapture of Jerusalem 50 years ago, and the euphoria that swept across the Jewish world in its wake.
It was the morning of Wednesday, June 7, 1967, which corresponded to the Hebrew calendar date of the 28th of Iyar, just a week before the festival of Shavuot.
The war had begun two days earlier, and — at that stage — no one dreamt that it would all be over only four days later. Jewish Jerusalem was suddenly bombarded by artillery fire, despite Israel’s behind-the-scenes appeals to Jordan’s King Hussein to stay out of the war, so as to avoid potentially devastating consequences for both sides.
Israel’s emergency government then decided to advance into East Jerusalem, and to try and capture the Old City and Temple Mount, which had been under Jordanian control since 1948.
About a year ago someone emailed me some audio highlights of Israel Radio’s live reporting that day as it unfolded. General Uzi Narkiss, the local IDF commander, can be heard asking, “Tell me, where is the Western Wall? How do we get there?”
Radio reporter Yossi Ronen, a macho, secular Israeli, was embedded with the soldiers as they battled their way through the winding alleyways of the Old City. His voice is emotional as he improvises a live commentary: “I’m walking right now down the steps towards the Western Wall. I’m not a religious man. I never have been. But this is the Western Wall, and I’m touching the stones of the Western Wall.” You can hear his voice trembling, as he declares: “I am touching the Wall!”
The “shehecheyanu” blessing, always recited at special moments in Jewish life, is intoned aloud by the troops, and emotions are clearly running high.
Rabbi Shlomo Goren, then chief rabbi of the IDF, later chief rabbi of Israel, his voice choking and excited, recites a unique blessing: “Blessed is God, who comforts Zion and builds Jerusalem.” The soldiers with him respond with a resounding “Amen!” You can hear many of them weeping. The shofar is sounded, and the weeping continues.
You can still hear gunfire in the background as Rabbi Goren shouts: “Le-shana HAZOT be-Yerushalayim!” — altering the perennial Jewish prayer of hope, ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’ into a declaration that translates: “This year in Jerusalem!”
The following day, Israel’s secular newspapers gushed with the story of Jerusalem’s recapture. Ma’ariv’s headline read, “The place for which we have waited for 2,000 years,” while Yedioth Ahronoth included a verse from Isaiah 52 on its masthead:
כִּי נִחַם ה’ עַמוֹ גָאַל יְרוּשָלָיִם – “God has comforted His People, He has redeemed Jerusalem!”
So what has happened since then? How has this euphoria dissipated so drastically, that for many Jews Yom Yerushalayim has limited significance — if any at all? How can we reignite the passion that was so evident 50 years ago? How can we get Jews across the board to realize just how incredible our ownership of Jerusalem is?
I believe that the answer to all these questions emerges out of a Midrash in the Torah portion of Bamidbar.
The Midrash informs us that Moses voiced his concern to God about organizing the 12 Israelite tribes into a specific formation around the sanctuary, as God had instructed. Irrespective of where they would be positioned, the tribes would inevitably complain and seek to be repositioned, Moses said. B
ut God pacified him, and told him not to worry. The tribes already knew where to go, God said; when Jacob’s sons had transported his remains from Egypt to Canaan, the formation had been identical with the one that was now being implemented.
God’s response is baffling. Why would some historic formation involving their ancestors be relevant centuries later? After all, Jacob’s funeral was a one-off event — why should it have any repercussions for the future?
It seems that this was exactly the point. When something extraordinary happens, the default response has a purity and a lack of calculation that can be used as an example of how one can behave in the future.
If, upon the death of their father, Jacob’s sons had sorted themselves into a formation, this could be used as proof to future generations that this was the right way to do it for all time.
The euphoric reaction of every Jew to the recapture of Jerusalem in 1967, whatever their level of religiosity and connectedness to Judaism, presents us with the perfect example of how every Jew should respond to this remarkable miracle — no matter how many years have passed, and notwithstanding any complicating factors that may have been brought into the mix since that miraculous day.