Battle for Jerusalem Set Stage for Half-Century of Conflict

Eyewitness Saw Fractious History Unfold on Temple Mount

Fresh Off Boat: Five days after arriving in Israel, Abraham Rabinovich, center, found himself on the newly conquered Temple Mount in Jerusalem in 1967.
courtesy of abraham rabinowitz
Fresh Off Boat: Five days after arriving in Israel, Abraham Rabinovich, center, found himself on the newly conquered Temple Mount in Jerusalem in 1967.

By Abraham Rabinovich

Published May 08, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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Late in the afternoon on June 7, 1967, sober dark suits and homburgs mixed with the paratroopers’ battle dress as the leaders of the nation began to arrive at the Western Wall, most of them looking dazed. The paratroopers were, for the most part, too young to have seen the Wall before, yet young enough to have expected that one day they would — through peace or war. On the other hand, few of the veteran political and religious leaders had believed they would live to see it again.

With shots still ringing out periodically, the plan to bring Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and his party through the Damascus Gate and the Muslim quarter was dropped. Instead, the dignitaries were led in through Lions’Gate and across the Temple Mount, a route that did not require passage through residential quarters. Accompanying Eshkol were two chief rabbis, the Askenazi with a top hat and the Sephardi with a turban.

The two men who had led Jerusalem through the siege of 1948, not always amicably, were standing together at the Wall — Dov Joseph, the former governor of the city, and David Shaltiel, the former military commander. The Haga, or civil defense, district chiefs who had shepherded the city’s population through the current crisis arrived together. The one religious officer among them led them in prayer. All were weeping.

Two venerable rabbis arrived on the Temple Mount in a recoilless rifle jeep that had been specially dispatched by a chaplain to bring them, their white beards bending in the wind as they clung to the vehicle. The pair consisted of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, leading spiritual authority for many in Israel, and the saintly Talmud scholar known as the Nazir, Rabbi David Cohen. The Nazir had made, years earlier, a vow not to leave his house and his studies for the outside world. The vow could be waived on infrequent occasions, such as funerals or weddings, but three people — adult Jewish males — were needed to grant permission. When he asked the three men with him in his apartment if he had their permission to leave for the Western Wall, they repeated three times, in unison, “You may.”

At the Wall, the Nazir went immediately to the stones and began a solitary prayer, but Kook acted with strange indifference. He stood in the midst of the crowd, chatting absently with an old friend, asking the address of a mutual acquaintance and commenting on a religious tome he had just written. Suddenly, as if a door in his mind had just opened, the rabbi burst into tears and threw himself at the Wall, spreading his arms to embrace the stones.

While piety marked the scene in the cramped alley before the Wall, power dominated the monumental stage of the Temple Mount above. Long lines of Arabs were silhouetted against the sky as they moved across the platform of the Dome of the Rock guarded by helmeted paratroopers cradling Uzis. The Arabs, all in civilian dress, were ordered to kneel in lines facing a stone wall, their hands on their heads, until they were called individually for interrogation. Some of the prisoners were older men, but many young men with military bearing could be seen among the rest. Their interrogators identified some as soldiers by dog tags or compass straps that they had retained after discarding their uniforms.


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