"Just a pile of Rocks"
Fifty-four years after June 7, 1967 ... taking a moment to reflect
A couple of years ago, I was driving, listening to the radio, and heard an interview with a woman whose brother had been killed in the battle for the Old City of Jerusalem, some fifty years earlier. She was likely in her 70’s when she gave the interview, but she remembered that period clearly. Her family was not religious, she said, but still, when Israel permitted Israelis to visit many of the sites that had been captured (Jerusalem, Jericho, the West Bank, etc.), she and her family headed to the kotel. They wanted to see what it was that her brother had died for.
When they arrived, she said, she was stunned. She’d expected to be moved, to feel that his sacrifice had been worth something, but no. “It was just a pile of rocks,” she reported feeling. “For this my brother died?” It seemed to her an utterly worthless loss.
She had more to say, but we’ll come back to her in a bit.
Today is June 7 – the secular anniversary of Israel’s capturing the Old City of Jerusalem. Israel has had the Old City for so long – for 54 of its 73 years – that it’s hard for us to remember Israel without it. It’s hard to remember Israel merely nine miles wide, or Israel without the Old City or the Western Wall. But what’s really almost impossible to fathom is something we hardly ever think about: Israel with no holy places whatsoever.
Israel before 1967 had already accomplished much, but it had a blemished soul; it was a Jewish state, but it had no hallowed Jewish places.
To bring Israeli history to life, to make it three dimensional, Israel from the Inside will periodically examine famous speeches, events, eulogies, songs and the like that afford us a more robust understanding of the Jewish state, certainly more than the news can, and even more than many books do. To understand the veritable messianic sentiment that the Six Day War unleashed, we have to return to a speech little known outside Orthodox circles today, delivered on Yom Ha-Atzma’ut 1967 by Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, the son of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Chief Rabbi of the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in the Land of Israel).
By 1967, Rabbi Kook the elder had already died (he did not live to see the state founded), but his son, Tzvi Yehudah, was at the height of his powers. And on Independence Day in 1967 (a few weeks before the war), he addressed the students at his yeshiva, explaining why unlike virtually everyone else on that famous night of the United Nations vote on November 29, 1947, he could not rejoice. (In a later post, we’ll examine Amos Oz’s now classic description of that night, one of the most powerful pieces of Israeli writing I’ve ever encountered.)
Rabbi Kook said this, on Independence Day 1967:
...Nineteen years ago, on the night when news of the United Nations decision in favor of the Re-establishment of the State of Israel reached us, when the People streamed into the streets to celebrate and rejoice, I could not go out and join in the jubilation. I sat alone and silent; a burden lay upon me. During those first hours I could not resign myself to what had been done. I could not accept the fact that indeed “they have … divided My land.” (Joel 4:2)! — Yes [and now after nineteen years] where is our Hebron - have we forgotten her?! Where is our Shechem [Nablus], our Jericho—where? —Have we forgotten them?! And all that lies beyond the Jordan—each and every clod of earth, every region, hill, valley, every plot of land, that is part of Eretz Israel—have we the right to give up even one grain of the Land of G-d?! —On that night, nineteen years ago, during those hours, as I sat trembling in every limb of my body, wounded, cut, torn to pieces—I could not then rejoice.
Rabbi Kook reminded his students that Israel’s relative success notwithstanding, it was a body torn asunder, a state that still needed a soul. Jerusalem. Hebron. Jericho. Holy places of whatever sort.
Astoundingly, a month later, Israel would have all of those, and for many of his students, Rabbi Kook’s tear-rinsed speech suddenly took on messianic overtones. He had reminded them that Israel was not whole, but halved—and now, in June 1967, Israel was healed. The religious fervor that his speech and the ensuing battles unleashed shapes Israel to this very day.
It can be challenging these days, with all the political, territorial, moral and PR complications, to remember that the reunification of Jerusalem in some ways transformed Israel from a small state with many Jews to a state with a Jewish soul, to a country with sacred Jewish sites. Though we commonly think of June 1967 through the lens of its military victories, we too often overlook the religious overtones of Israel’s change that speak powerfully to even the most secular of Jews (how many visit Israel but do not visit the kotel)?
Therefore, today, on the secular anniversary of that day, it is worth revisiting a few of the images of that transformative moment. (The following video is in Hebrew; I couldn’t find a version with English subtitles that wasn’t sullied by sappy music; below the video, I note a few of the things to listen for as you watch the two minute clip).
00:39 — har ha-bayit be-yadeinu [“The Temple Mount is in our hands…”] You can hear this phrase uttered a couple of times. The phrase is iconic in Israeli life; this “the Eagle has landed.” Same thing. You hear it said with reverence, and sometimes in jest. Send someone to the library to pick up a book for you, and you might get a text back— har ha-bayit be-yadeinu—meaning that they found the book. But whether with reverences or with jest, this is the moment in which the phrase was born.
00:54 — here, you hear a soldier saying that he is not religious and has never been religious; but then you hear voice brimming with emotion as he says, “I’m now touching the stones of the Western Wall.”
01:12 — soldiers reciting the Shehecheyanu blessing. Keep in mind that in those days, unlike today, the wellspring of military leadership and Zionist passion came from the secular kibbutzim. Today that’s changed (the subject for a subsequent post), but for now just take it in—many of these secular paratroopers reciting the Shehecheyahu blessing.
01:20 — Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Chief Rabbi of the IDF, reciting a prayer of thanksgiving.
01:48 — Rabbi Goren blows the shofar at the kotel. Blowing the shofar might seem like a natural thing to do, or it might seem like an odd thing. Many of us have seen the image so often that we take it as much for granted as we do Israel’s very being, or Israel’s having sacred places. But here, too, there’s a back-story, a history of the shofar and the kotel which makes Goren’s sounding the shofar not quaint, but deeply powerful. That story will be the subject of the next post, in a couple of days.
In the meantime, this will be a tense week in Israel. It remains to be seen whether the fledgling coalition recently announced can hold together long enough even to be sworn in. We will have to pray that the Shin Bet’s warning that there is potential for political violence and that “people could be hurt” (a euphemism for potential assassination) does not come to fruition. We will see whether a March of Flags around the Old City planned for later this week (a “redo” of the one that was largely canceled when hostilities broke out last month) actually takes place, and whether Hamas carries out its threats of revenge if anything should transpire near the Damascus gate.
Whether extremists on both sides manage to inflame the region once again, or whether cooler heads will prevail, also remains to be seen. But as we hold our breath for the next couple of weeks and watch, with worry and with hope, it behooves us—no matter where we situate ourselves on the religious or political spectra—to think back more than half a century, and to remember the changed Jewish state that emerged from the battles of June 7, 1967.
Which brings us back to the woman on the radio. The kotel, she said, seemed like a pile of rocks in June 1967. Her brother’s dying to capture that pile of rocks felt to her like an utter waste. But then, she continued: In the ensuing decades she’s come to understand that she was wrong. For the Jewish state to be as emotionally compelling as it is, she said, it needs to possess the places that are the roots of our history here. Her brother died to give that to Israel, she said. The Israel we know and too often take entirely for granted is an Israel we have because of her brother and people like him. She still misses him terribly, she said, but she finds the kotel comforting.
Yesh anashim im lev shel even
Yesh avanim im lev adam
There are people who have hearts of stone
And there are stones with human hearts.
This week, amidst the tension and the worry, one can still hope that keeping in mind the images of June 7, 1967 might somehow enable us to hear the still beating hearts of those highly contended stones.
In our continuing series of podcasts, available to subscribers to Israel from the Inside, I met with Tahel Harris, a young married mother of two who lives in Lod, and described the violence in her neighborhood, perpetrated by people who until then had been neighbors and even friends. You can listen to an excerpt of the interview here.
Also interviewed Yotam Ben-Hillel, a noted Israeli civil rights lawyer, who explained the complex legal background surrounding the possible evictions in the Sheikh Jarakh neighborhood, a subject which contributed to the passions in the region that finally exploded in violence. We’re making a brief excerpt of the interview publicly available here.
A brief excerpt of each of the podcasts in the series is available here.
A number of readers asked for a brief explanation of why the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas broke out now; many wanted something concise that they could share with friends, children, grandchildren, etc. So we’ve put together two quick videos, the first video covering the long-term background causes, while the second video covers the more immediate “perfect” storm that led to the fighting. Feel free to share the links to both videos.
Other readers have asked for a list of books to read to get a more robust understanding of Israel’s history, culture and politics. We’ll soon be posting a list of “thirty-something books to read about Israel to know what you’re talking about.” They’re just suggestions … you don’t have to read all 30! Or any, for that matter.
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