The Meaning of Jerusalem Day

The city that was joined together will not be split again.

Jerusalem-green-buildingOn Wednesday May 28, 2014, Jerusalem Day was celebrated in Israel and in Jewish communities throughout the free world.  Bible believing Christians also commemorate the day. The date is marked by the Hebrew lunar calendar, and celebrates the day when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) liberated the Old City of Jerusalem (June 7, 1967), and its holiest shrines, including the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, the only remnant of the Holy Temple.

On June 27, 1967, the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) voted to annex Eastern Jerusalem as part of the State of Israel.  “Municipal unification” of the two parts of the city of Jerusalem, brought to an end 19 years of separation between the predominantly Arab East Jerusalem and Jewish Western Jerusalem. The Jordanians conquered Eastern Jerusalem during the 1948 War of Independence, and expelled the Jewish residents from Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter in eastern Jerusalem), separating Jews from their ancient synagogues and shrines, including the Western Wall. The act of reunification gave Jews for the first time in over 2000 years, full control over the Holy City.  A year later, on May 12, 1968, the Israeli government voted to commemorate this momentous milestone by adding the 28th of Iyar to the Jewish calendar and recognizing it as “Jerusalem Day.” 

Israel’s Prime Minister at the time Levi Eshkol, assured the spiritual leaders of all faiths that Israel was determined to protect the Holy Places. The Knesset passed the Protection of Holy Places Law granting special legal status to the Holy Sites and making it a criminal offence to desecrate or violate them, or to impede freedom of access to them. Jerusalem became a reunified city that ensured freedom of religion and access to holy sites for all.

To many in Israel, the recapturing of Jerusalem’s Old City by the IDF during the Six Day War was a God given miracle.  Israel had no quarrel with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and certainly not with its ruler King Hussein.  And while Egypt and Syria threatened to throw the Jews of Israel into the Mediterranean Sea, no such declarations were made by King Hussein.  However, under pressure from Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser, Hussein agreed to join Egypt and Syria in a war against Israel. 

Israel’s reticent Prime Minister Eshkol sent a message to King Hussein saying Israel would not attack Jordan unless he initiated hostilities.  Earlier on May 30, 1967, King Hussein signed a defense pact with Egypt (albeit reluctantly).  On June 5th, Jordanian radar picked up a cluster of planes flying from Egypt to Israel. Egyptian officials told Hussein that it was their planes he detected. Presuming an attack was imminent, Jordanian troops began shelling Western Jerusalem on Hussein's orders. In actuality the planes were Israeli planes returning from Egypt after having destroyed Egyptian planes on the ground.

Just days before the outbreak of the Six Day War, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was touring the Central Command with its commander General Uzi Narkiss.  Watching the Jordanian positions from on top of the Kastel, Dayan warned Narkiss that the upcoming war would be entirely focused on Egypt.  The Central command he said should keep a low profile, and cause a diversion of forces from the Southern front (Egypt). “You must not get involved in forays that would embroil us with Jordan.” 

King David made Jerusalem his capital more than 3000 years ago, and it has since played a central role in Jewish life.  “Next Year in Jerusalem” ends the Passover Seder; it is also the final verse of Israel’s national anthem-Hatikva, “The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”  Moreover, Jerusalem was never the capital of any other nation but the Jewish nation.  Mount Moriah (site of the Holy Temples), where Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, and where the Ark of the Covenant and the tablets with the Ten Commandments were stored. Jerusalem is considered the epicenter of Judaism, and where the Divine presence rests.

Jerusalem was the site of King Solomon’s Temple destroyed by the Babylonians in 586BCE, and rebuilt in 515BCE.  In 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple.  Following the Bar Kochva revolt (132-135 CE) against the Romans, Emperor Hadrian renamed Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina, and prohibited Jews from residing in the city.  Jews, however, always returned to the Holy City.  In the mid-19th Century, Jews represented a majority of Jerusalem’s population. During the British Mandate period (1917-1948) Jewish access to the Western Wall was limited, and Jews were forbidden from blowing the Shofar on Rosh Ha’Shana and Yom Kippur.  Jordan held the Old City from 1948 to 1967, and Jews had no access to their holiest sites.

This reporter remembers looking at the Old City through the barbed wires of the Mandelbaum gate, which served as the border between Israel’s side of Jerusalem and that held by Jordan.  In June 1967, just days after the Israeli paratroopers stormed the Old city and secured it, this reporter approached the Western Wall (Kotel).  It appeared deserted and neglected, wild bushes blocked direct access, rubbish was spread all around.  The paratroopers must have cleaned the area within 5-10 feet of the Wall, but beyond that the signs of neglect were glaring.  To see the Kotel for the first time was a moving experience, as if prophetic words came alive.  Being within the Walls of the Old City, and going down the narrow streets of the Arab open-air marketplace (souk), was exhilarating. Jerusalem smelled differently, it had an air of holiness. The ancient, narrow alleyways told of millennia of history and mysteries. All the while, the melancholic verses of the song “Jerusalem of Gold,” which became a second national anthem prior to the outbreak of the war, echoed in one’s ears, the prayed for wishes fulfilled.  Zion (Jerusalem) yearned for her beloved people, who loved her intensely, and prayed for her two long millennia.  On June 7th, 1967, the prayers were answered.

Secular Jewish paratroopers, who rarely held a prayer book in their hands, wept on that Tuesday, June 7, 1967, as they reached the Kotel and touched its ancient stones.  Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Chief-of-Staff Yitzhak Rabin arrived at the Kotel and officially declared the return of the Jews to their historic capital and their holiest site.  The IDF’s Chief Chaplain, Rabbi Shlomo Goren blew the shofar to mark the momentous and historical event.

Addressing the students and rabbis of Yeshivat Merkaz Ha’rav in Jerusalem on Wednesday (May 28, 2014), Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed “the city that was joined together (1967) shall never be split again. We shall never split our heart again.” He quoted the Prophet Isaiah, “Rejoice in Jerusalem and celebrate her glory.”

Today, Jerusalem Day has become a pilgrimage day for thousands of Israelis and foreign tourists to express their solidarity with the united city. Parades and numerous lectures are offered throughout the city on Jerusalem.  Special TV and radio programming mark the occasion, and in schools, time is dedicated to study the city’s history, geography, and its special meaning in Jewish life and hopes.

Although Jerusalem Day is a minor holiday in today’s Israel, its significance is rather immense.  It signifies the unity and redemption of Zion (Jerusalem), and the fulfillment of a Jewish and Zionist dream.

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