Dear Friends of The Fellowship,
Every year Israel marks Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day – the commemoration of the Holy City’s miraculous liberation during 1967’s Six Day War. This year’s celebrations will begin on May 19 at sundown, which corresponds to the 28th day of the Hebrew month of Iyyar.
The story of the return of Jerusalem to Israeli control is one of the most compelling in Israel’s history. In 1967, Israel endured extreme threats and provocations from her neighbors. In May, Egypt blocked the straits of Tiran, putting a stranglehold on shipping in and out of Israel’s crucially important port in the southern city of Eilat. The combined armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon were poised for attack on the borders of the tiny Jewish state.
Israel was presented with a sobering choice: 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 paratrooper unit, described the retaking of the Holy City, part of which was then under Jordanian control. His commanding officer said, “You the veterans will get a special prize… You will get to free the Western Wall.” But the “special prize” came at a high cost—a cost paid in Israeli blood. As Yoske recalled, “The Jordanian soldiers knew the place well, and were some of the best fighters I’d ever seen… [They] fought to the death. We fought for hours, and many died.”
When the Jordanian troops were finally beaten back, Yoske and his friends found themselves in an ironic situation. They were Jews, having to ask local residents for directions to the holiest place of their faith! “I remember that we were trying to get to the Western Wall and we didn’t know where it was,” he says. “With difficulty we found it, we didn’t know the place, we had to ask Arabs, ‘Where is the place that Jews used to cry to many years ago?'”
Approaching the Western Wall (known to Israelis as the Kotel), the impact of the battle began to sink in. Many of the men who fought bravely alongside Yoske had been killed. But there was no time to mourn. Already Yoske’s commanders were gathering him and his men to take them to northern Israel, where fighting was still raging. But before they left, Yoske and some of his friends found a moment to pray. It is a moment forever emblazoned in his 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 recalls. “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.”
The psalmist wrote, “If I forget you O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its strength.” As we do every year at this time, let us resolve never to forget this ancient, holy city, sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike–the capital of Jewish life and culture for more than 3,000 years.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Chairman, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews® of Australia