The time: 8:30 a.m., Iyar ‘8, 57’7. The place: the observation plaza of the Intercontinental Hotel on the Mount of Olives.
Nineteen hundred years earlier, in the year 38’7, there was no hotel on the spot, but it was still an observation post. On it, very likely, stood Vespasian, commanding general and soon-to-be emperor of Rome, looking at the city below and planning the siege he hoped would bring the Jews to their knees.
Now another commander stood there. His name should mean something to all of us, because on that day he changed the course of Jewish history. To him fell the singular honor of completing the "Return to Zion."
His name was Col. Mordechai "Motta" Gur. At 8:30 a.m. on that fate-filled Wednesday — June 7, 1967, on the secular calendar — Gur picked up a field telephone and uttered a single word. One can only imagine the emotions that ran through him as he enunciated each of its three syllables.
"Kadimah," he ordered. Advance.
The word given, Gur’s 55th Paratroop Brigade stormed through the Old City’s Lion’s Gate into history. Ninety minutes later, the sound of a shofar announced to the world that the return of the Jewish people to their land was irrevocable.
If anyone had any doubts before then that God had decided to end the long and bitter exile, those doubts should have ended with the piercing blast of the shofar. The ancient prophecies had been fulfilled. Now, we were truly home.
Without Jerusalem, there was only a geographical land called Israel that was more a hope than a reality. Only with Jerusalem — the real Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of our prayers and tears, the Jerusalem people refer to as the "old city" — only with that Jerusalem could our tikvah, our hope, become reality.
At 10 a.m. Israel time on that day 40 years ago, that Jerusalem, the real Jerusalem, the only Jerusalem that matters, was once again and forever more a Jewish Jerusalem.
The victory of that day — and its meaning — should be etched in our hearts forever.
The scenes that collectively as a people we must never forget are endless:
…of dancing soldiers embracing Golda Meir, then a private citizen;
…of Shlomo Goren, chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, blowing that shofar with tears in his eyes;
…of a soldier, helmet in his hand, staring through glistening eyes at dirty old stones that to him were more beautiful than the most precious gems;
…of the IDF chief of staff, Gen. Yitzhak Rabin, smiling with amusement at the sight of his otherwise very secular defense minister, Moshe Dayan, inscribing a prayer to God on a scrap of paper and placing it into the cracks in the Wall.
That is why now we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, each year. (It fell on May 16, but that likely will be overshadowed this year by 40th anniversary commemorations on June 7.) That is why we must celebrate this day over and again, forever, by the grace of God and with His help.
Nowadays, there is much said about the future of Jerusalem. From that moment 40 years ago when Motta Gur gave his one-word order, Jerusalem has been the thorniest issue to resolve if ever there is to be peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Many in the world want Israel to divide the city once again and they want us in the diaspora to pressure Israel into doing so.
To the Muslims, it is their third holiest city, after Mecca and Medina. They want it back and it makes little difference that it was only early in the ‘0th century, fueled by an ascendant Zionism on the one hand and British colonial machinations on the other, that Jerusalem’s religious significance grew in their eyes.
To the Christians, and especially to the Catholic Church, it is the second holiest city, after Rome. A Jewish state is, for the church, a theological problem. A Jewish Jerusalem, in law as well as in fact, would be a theological nightmare.
To Jews, however, Jerusalem is not just Israel’s capital, nor simply our holy city, our only holy city, third to none and second to none. It is the heart and soul of our existence as a people. Before the shofar sounded that day 40 years ago, we remained a nation of wanderers despite the existence of a "State of Israel." Because of Motta Gur, his commander Yitzhak Rabin, and the men and women they commanded that day, many of whom paid for our joy with their lives, we are a nation redeemed.
We can debate all we want about whether to hold on to Nablus, which we call Shechem, where Abram and Sarai arrived from Haran and where their great-grandson Joseph is buried; or to Hebron, which was a Jewish city until the Arab massacre of 19’9; or to Bethlehem, where mother Rachel is buried and where King David was born; or to Tel Salun, which we call Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant rested for so many years; or to any other part of the west bank.
But as the pressure mounts for Israel to be accommodating to the necessities of peace by once again dividing the city in two — as Al Jolson said 90 years ago, "You ain’t seen nothin’ yet" — Jews worldwide must stand firm and united and undaunted. The line of accommodation must stop at the borders of Jerusalem — and that must include such places as Maaleh Adumim and Efrat, so-called settlements that, in fact, provide Jerusalem with a necessary buffer zone.
And that, alas, is the problem. An increasingly large percentage of Jews inside Israel and many outside it — from modern Orthodox to the secular — no longer feel comfortable in Jerusalem. Indeed, for some it no longer even is a welcoming place. The city increasingly has become a haredi preserve — with many of those haredim not even recognizing the legitimacy of the Jewish state.
In such a climate, it is unlikely that a "Jerusalem forever Jewish" campaign would gain wide support, to the great shame of us all.
There is ever-growing pressure on Israel to redivide Jerusalem. Before time runs out and Israel is forced into a decision, we need to pressure ourselves into resolving our own conflicts.
Without Jerusalem, the real Jerusalem, all the rest is nice, but it might as well have been Uganda.
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and an instructor in the UJA-Federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University. He is the editor of Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.