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“If I Forget You, O Jerusalem…”

May 31, 2016

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein

Dear Friend of The Fellowship,

The story of the return of Jerusalem to Israeli control – a miraculous, joyous event remembered this coming Sunday on Yom Yerushalayim, or Jerusalem Day – is one of the most compelling in Israel’s history.

Even after the formation of the state of Israel, the fate of Jerusalem was still very much in question. In the war that followed Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, Jordan had seized control of and annexed the eastern part of the city, including the Old City.

In its thousands of years of existence, Jerusalem had never been divided, and this division crippled the city and the life of its citizens. Arab forces destroyed the Jewish quarter of the Old City and expelled its residents. Synagogues were razed and Jewish cemeteries desecrated. Jews were denied access to their holy sites, including the Western Wall, the holiest in all Judaism. Christians’ access to their holy sites in the Old City was severely restricted. Jordanian snipers perched on the walls of the Old City fired at will upon Israelis across the armistice line.

All of this changed in 1967, after Israel had endured threats and provocations from her neighbours. With the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon poised for attack on her borders, Israel’s choice was clear: wait to be invaded, or fight back in self-defense. Knowing that her very existence was in peril, she chose the latter course. The resulting battle, the Six Day War, ended in a stunning victory for Israel that led to the reunification of Jerusalem under Israeli rule.

In an interview years later, Yoske "Balagan" Schwartz, then a member of an elite Israeli paratrooper unit, described the retaking of the Holy City from Jordan. "The Jordanian soldiers knew the place well, and were some of the best fighters I’d ever seen,” he recalled. “We fought for hours, and many died."

When the Jordanian troops were finally beaten back, Yoske and his friends found themselves approaching the Western Wall, known as the Kotel by Israelis. It is a moment forever emblazoned in Yoske’s memory. "I remember suddenly tens of thousands of Jews young, old, men and women, were all running to the Western Wall, crying and hugging us and calling us heroes," he said. "We didn’t feel like heroes, but we cried and prayed with them… On the one hand, so many of my friends had been killed. But on the other hand, sitting in front of the Western Wall, I felt Jerusalem. I always say that I had once thought, ‘Who are these people with streimels and payot [the fur hat and side curls worn by many Orthodox Jewish men]? I’m not like them, I’m a new Israeli man.’ But when I got to the Kotel I understood that I was just a Jew. It was an amazing feeling."

What does Jerusalem look like today, now that the city has been united for decades under Israeli rule? It’s a bustling, at times chaotic city, brimming over with activity and commerce. It’s a place where religious freedom is written into law and respected in practice, where Jews, Christians, and Muslims live together and are free to worship according to their beliefs. It’s a city where ancient history is respected, but modern life is allowed to flourish; there is nowhere in the world that I know of where the balance between ancient and modern is as respected as it is in Jerusalem.

The psalmist wrote, "If I forget you O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its strength" (Psalm 137:5). As we do every year at this time, let us resolve never to forget this ancient, holy city, sacred to Jews and Christians alike, and the capital of Jewish life and culture for more than 3,000 years.

With prayers for shalom, peace,


Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
President and Founder, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews® of Canada

 

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