June 2 marked Yom Yerushalayim,” celebrating the 41st anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification, achieved in June 1967. Anniversaries invite celebration and contemplation. We delight in our good fortune, while reflecting on how to deepen our relationships with individuals or guiding ideas.
There is much to celebrate, especially when we recall the situation in May 1967. For 19 years, the border between Israel and Jordan had run through the city. This jagged gash cut across the heart of the Jewish people, divided the Old City from the new, east Jerusalem from west.
This border was neither quiet nor peaceful. Snipers from the Jordanian side occasionally took potshots at innocent Israelis, keeping them wary whenever they glanced toward their historic Old City. Meanwhile, the Jewish community that had thrived in the Jewish Quarter for centuries was in exile. Their homes were ransacked, and 58 of their 59 synagogues were destroyed and defiled. The Mount of Olives, a Jewish cemetery in continuous use for 2,500 years, had tombstones that were wrenched off and used to build a road and the Intercontinental Hotel, where Yasser Arafat formally launched his Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964.
Contrary to some recent historians’ claims, Israel had no desire to launch the broader 1967 war or conquer Jerusalem. Even after the war began, even after the Jordanians had begun shelling west Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Eshkol sent Jordan’s King Hussein a letter through the good offices of the United Nations general, Odd Bull, requesting peace – and warning of the risks if the Jordanians continued attacking. This gesture was not simply a hope for peace. Israel had few soldiers and minimal armaments in its capital, with little hope of repulsing a major Jordanian assault.
Israel’s lightening quick and surgical victory was, therefore, all the more extraordinary. We need to remember the fragility and wonder of those times today. And we need to ask ourselves, “What does having a united Jerusalem do for us, for those living far away in Canada, the United States or elsewhere?”
Some think of Jerusalem as the great Jewish gravitational force, focusing the Jewish people throughout the years of exile – and today. As one speaker celebrating Israel’s anniversary proclaimed, Israel’s story “is the story of how faith guided the Jewish people through centuries of bitter exile. It is a story of how those living behind ghetto walls and barbed wire never lost sight of Jerusalem. And it is a story of how brave pioneers risked everything to redeem the promise of this land. It is a marvellous story.”
Others think of Jerusalem as more of a building block of identity. A second speaker, celebrating Israel’s anniversary recently marvelled: “The idea that one could hang onto one’s sense of values, and have a sense of family, and despite being an outsider, somehow still have a place to come back to… Not only [to] a physical place, but also an emotional place and a spiritual place, was very powerful to me. So even before I fully understood the history of the Jewish people, the Zionist movement was something that I related to and connected to from my own experience.”
The first speaker, U.S. President George W. Bush, deftly intertwined the forces of faith and history, emphasizing Judaism’s uniqueness as both a religion and a nation – for a religion does not need a capital city, only a nation does. The second speaker, American Senator and presidential hopeful Barack Obama, appreciated the multiple dimensions of Jerusalem’s meaning for Jews, both yesterday and today.
Together, these two tributes bring alive the words of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harter, who said: “All of my life, Israel has been a symbol – a symbol of the triumph of hope and faith.”
It’s time to learn from our leaders. If these non-Jewish statesmen can find this much inspiration in our story, in our homeland, in our capital, why can’t more of us? If these individuals can articulate what Jerusalem and Israel mean to them, why can’t we?
We need more of this kind of depth and understanding in our lives, individually and collectively. Starting that kind of engagement is the best way to celebrate 41 years of peace and reunification. We need more Jerusalem in our lives.