Jerusalem may be “the city of peace,” but peace has never come easy to it.
In 63 B.C.E., the Roman general Pompey invaded Jerusalem in support of Hyrcanus II, who was locked in a fratricidal power struggle over the Judean throne with his younger brother Aristobulus II. Aristobulus was routed and Hyrcanus was declared king—but the city from then until the next 2,000 years ceased to be a city under actual Jewish control.
That changed 55 years ago, on the 28th day of Iyar, 5727, June 7, 1967, on the secular calendar. To us, Iyar 28 is Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day. This year, it fell out on the day before Memorial Day. Last Tuesday was June 7.
On that day 55 years ago, the late Col. Mordechai “Motta” Gur stood on the observation plaza of the Intercontinental Hotel on the Mount of Olives. At 8:30 a.m. he picked up a field telephone and uttered only one word—and with that word he overturned 2,000 years of Jewish history.
That word was “Kadimah,” the Hebrew word for “Advance.”
At his command, the 55th Paratroop Brigade stormed through 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 now complete and irrevocable; God’s stamp of approval had been placed on a miracle of history.
In Behaalotecha, the Torah portion we read two weeks ago, on the day before Yom Yerushalayim, God warned of the exiles to come, but then God made this promise:
“And I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and even My covenant with Isaac, and even My covenant with Abraham will I remember, and I will remember the Land.” (See Leviticus 26:42.)
That promise was fulfilled in large part on May 15, 1948 (Iyar 5, 5708), but there was still a part of God’s promise that remained unfulfilled, a part pronounced later by the prophet Isaiah in God’s name (see Isaiah 66):
“[I will] send from them survivors to the nations…. And out of all the nations, said the Lord, they shall bring all your brothers…to My holy mountain, Jerusalem….”
Before Motta Gur uttered the word “kadimah,” many people doubted that God had decided to end our long and bitter exile in 1948. Such doubts, however, should have ended at 10 a.m. on that June 7th 55 years ago, with that piercing shofar blast, because it announced to the world that Jerusalem, the real Jerusalem, east Jerusalem, the “old city,” the only Jerusalem that matters, was once again and forever more, God willing, part of a united Jewish Jerusalem.
There is no question that if all the other issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are resolved, the one sticking point will be Jerusalem. This was obvious immediately after the 1967 war ended and it remains obvious today.
There has been and will continue to be tremendous pressure on Israel, and on all of us in the diaspora, to redivide Jerusalem once again, with the Palestinians back in control of the real Jerusalem. Those who apply that pressure consciously ignore this one fact, or simply deny that it is a fact: Jerusalem is ours, not theirs. Jerusalem never was theirs.
Until the city was divided in 1949, the only times that Jews did not live in Jerusalem were immediately after the Roman destruction in 70 C.E. (there was no “west Jerusalem” back then) and for a short time during the Crusades with the founding of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1099. That, in fact, was also the only time in history when non-Jews claimed Jerusalem as their capital—and it was Christians who did so, not Muslims. Jerusalem was never the capital city of any of the Muslim rulers who controlled the region for 400 years.
To the Muslims, Jerusalem is their third holiest city, after Mecca and Medina. To many Christians, and especially to the Catholic and Eastern churches, it is the second holiest city, after Rome for Catholics, and either Constantinople or Moscow for the Eastern church.
To us, however, Jerusalem is not just Israel’s capital, nor is it simply our holy city. It is our only holy city, third to none and second to none. As the late David Ben-Gurion once said, “If the Land of Israel is the heart of the Jewish nation, then Jerusalem is its heart of hearts.”
Our prayers have always reflected that sentiment. Before the Birkat Hamazon (the Grace After Meals) on weekdays, we recite Psalm 137, which contains these words: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.” We end the Passover seder and so many other events with “Next year in Jerusalem.”
We can debate whether to hold on to such West Bank sites as Nablus, which we call Shechem; or to Hebron, which was a Jewish city until the Arab massacre of 1929; or to Bethlehem, where Mother Rachel supposedly 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.
As the pressure continues to mount on us to again divide the city in two in order to accommodate the necessities of peace—and it will surely mount exponentially if the Biden administration moves ahead with its plan—we, all of us, in the diaspora as well as in Israel, must stand firm and united and uncompromising.
The line of accommodation must stop at the borders of Jerusalem—and those borders must include such eastern suburbs as Maaleh Adumim and Efrat, so-called West Bank settlements that, in fact, provide Jerusalem with a necessary buffer zone.
There is, of course, a possible solution that Israel and the Palestinians (deceptively, as it turned out) actually agreed on in the late 1990s: turning the Arab village of Abu Dis into Al-Quds, the Arab name for Jerusalem. Based on that agreement, the Palestinians actually began to build their new parliament building there. Construction began in 1996, but then came the Second Intifada in September 2000 and the unfinished building was abandoned in 2003. Today, it is in ruins, a place dogs run through.
The blame for that must fall on the head of the late, unlamented, and shamelessly duplicitous Yasir Arafat, who never really intended for Abu Dis to become Al Quds. He only authorized beginning construction of the parliament building to stall for time, a favorite ploy of his.
The Trump peace plan sought to revive the Abu Dis solution, but that plan went nowhere because it was filled with things the Palestinians would never accept. Now the Biden administration is preparing to propose something the Palestinians will accept, but that we, in the diaspora as well as in Israel, must staunchly reject.
For many decades, there was a U.S. consulate on Agron Street in downtown west Jerusalem that dealt exclusively with Palestinian issues (there was nowhere safe in the West Bank to put it). Trump shut the consulate down, but now Biden’s administration plans to reopen it—and that is the problem. That building is only steps away from the very popular Mamilla Mall, and just a few hundred feet away from the Israeli prime minister’s residence.
Putting the consulate back in that building sends a very dangerous—albeit, I hope, unintended — message to the Palestinians. It also will serve as the biggest roadblock yet to peace, because it will create an enormous symbol for the Palestinians, one they already are crowing about it. Symbols are often more important than reality in the Arab world.
As the Palestinian Authority’s Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, for example, put it, “the message from this [Biden] administration is that Jerusalem is not one [united Israeli] city and that the American administration does not recognize the annexation of Arab Jerusalem by the Israeli side.”
He adds, ominously, “We want the American consulate to constitute the seed of a U.S. embassy in the State of Palestine.” That suggests that he expects even that part of west Jerusalem to be a part of “Arab Jerusalem,” something it never was. Embassies to a country are not located in the country next door.
That consulate would make better sense in Abu Dis, because that would send a message that the United States stands by that not-so-secret deal Arafat agreed to in 1996. It would make the most sense in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority’s government. That would send a powerful message that the United States is committed to a two-state solution.
To many on both sides, putting the consulate on Agron Street is viewed as the first step in redividing Jerusalem.
Keeping both halves of Jerusalem united under Jewish control is non-negotiable. We need to make that clear to Biden, to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and to our members of Congress.
This year and every year in Jerusalem — in united Jerusalem.
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.