Following the Israeli War of Independence, the infant Jewish state was left in control of only the western, modern portion of Jerusalem. The Jewish Quarter of the Old City had been besieged by the Jordanian Arab Legion. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion threw everything he had into the defense of the Jewish Quarter – he said that Israel without Jerusalem would be like a body without its heart. The Jews of the Old City held out despite shortages of ammunition and water, and despite more than 10,000 incoming mortars per day. But ultimately they surrendered, and were allowed to evacuate the Old City.
For nearly twenty years, the Jordanians did what the Arab landowners had done for hundreds of years before: they systematically neglected Jerusalem. Attention was only paid to Jerusalem insofar as the Arab Legion dynamited every synagogue in the Old City. Such was the status of religious freedom and plurality throughout the Jordanian occupation.
In 1967, what would become known as the Six-Day War broke out between Israel and her neighbors. On the third day of fighting, June 7, 1967, with Jordanian defenses crumbling and rumors of a UN-imposed cease-fire circulating, Israel’s top military commander, Gen. Moshe Dayan, ordered his troops to take the Old City. Mordechai Gur, commander of the paratroopers and later the IDF Chief of Staff, personally led his men to take the Old City and the Temple Mount to ensure that no harm came to holy sites. As he realized what he had done – that he had achieved the 2,000-year-old dream of his people – he excitedly shouted into his radio har habayit b’yadeinu (the Temple Mount is in our hands)!
Later that day, Gen. Dayan made the following statement to Israelis and to an amazed world:
This morning, the Israel Defense Forces liberated Jerusalem. We have united Jerusalem, the divided capital of Israel. We have returned to the holiest of our holy places, never to part from it again. To our Arab neighbors we extend, also at this hour—and with added emphasis at this hour—our hand in peace. And to our Christian and Muslim fellow citizens, we solemnly promise full religious freedom and rights. We did not come to Jerusalem for the sake of other peoples’ holy places, and not to interfere with the adherents of other faiths, but in order to safeguard its entirety, and to live there together with others, in unity.
Israel has steadfastly kept Dayan’s promise. Today, Jerusalem is a complicated and vibrant mix of faiths, with all adherents free to worship in their own way, in their own places, and at the times of their choosing.
Naomi Shemer, Israel’s great nationalist songwriter, had written a song called Yerushalayim shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold) just before the start of the war. One of the most beautiful love songs anyone has ever written to a city, it quickly became the anthem of the conflict. Following Israel’s miraculous victory, she felt compelled to go back and write a new paragraph with which to end the song:
We have returned to the water cisterns, the market, and the square
A shofar (ram’s horn) calls from Temple Mount in the Old City
And from the caves in the stone, a thousand suns shine
Again, we will go down to the Dead Sea by way of Jericho
On the Jewish calendar, Sunday is Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day). One can hardly overstate the religious, historic, and cultural significance to the Jewish people of holding sovereignty over Jerusalem after 2,000 years of exile and suffering. It was, and continues to be, a new day for Jews everywhere; a new day on which a thousand suns shine.