On the seventh night of Chanukah, we walked in a torch-light procession around the walls of the Old City to Lions' Gate to kindle the Chanukah lights. We were about 150 Jewish residents of the Old City, joined by some residents of newer Jerusalem neighborhoods, plus the Mayor of Jerusalem and two members of Knesset.
We left from the Western Wall (known locally as the Kotel), erroneously labeled the "holiest shrine in Judaism." The Wall is holy only because it is the retaining wall of the Temple Mount, which is truly our holiest site, the dwelling place of the Shechina, the Presence of God.
When Jacob awoke, he exclaimed, "God is truly in this place... the gate to heaven!"
The Torah describes how the patriarch Jacob slept on that spot and dreamed of a ladder of angels ascending and descending. When he awoke, he exclaimed, "God is truly in this place... This is the gate to heaven!" (Genesis 28:16-17)
King Solomon built the first Holy Temple on this inherently mystical site in 965 B.C.E. It dominated the life of Jerusalem for almost four centuries, until its destruction by the Babylonian conquerors. The Second Temple, built in 516 BCE, was the focal point of Jewish life for five centuries, until it was destroyed by the Romans.
According to the Sages, all of the prayers of humanity ascend to the higher worlds through the "black hole" of the Temple Mount (which is why Jews throughout the world pray facing the Temple Mount), and all the blessings bestowed on the world descend through the Temple Mount (Zohar 3:36, 3:74). When Isaac went out into the fields to pray prior to meeting Rebecca for the first time (Genesis 24:63-67), he was standing on the Temple Mount, the same place where his father Abraham had once bound him on the altar.
Place with an Ancient Past
Our torch-light procession exited the walls of the Old City through the Dung Gate, which is mentioned in the Bible (Nechemiah 3:14) and which was probably the gate through which the priests of the Temple went to dispose of the altar's ashes.
Turning left, we marched past the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount, where archeological excavations of Jewish houses from both the First Temple and Second Temple periods are clearly visible. The Temple Mount was the focal point of Jewish pilgrimages, which the entire nation undertook three times each year (Exodus 34:23). As we passed, we could see the actual steps to the Holy Temple, which archeologists have excavated, leading up to "Hulda's Gate," named after the Prophetess Hulda, through which the masses of Jews would enter the Temple compound. The area is marked by many mikvehs, or ritual baths, in which every Jew entering the Temple area had to immerse.
On the Temple Mount today, the Moslem religious authority, the Wakf, distributes pamphlets for tourists to the 7th century Dome of the Rock. Denying the vast historical evidence as well as recent archeological finds, these pamphlets describe the site: "The beauty and tranquillity of al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem attracts thousands of visitors annually. Some believe it was the site of the Temple of Solomon... although no documented historical or archaeological evidence exists to support this."
Our Chanukah procession passed the considerable archeological "evidence" on the Southern Wall excavations, and turned left again, ascending along the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount to the Lions' Gate.
We chose this site for our ceremony in order to reaffirm a Jewish presence at the Lions' Gate after repeated Arab rioting this year. Three times since Rosh Hashana the Israeli Police Station near Lions' Gate has been burned, its computer equipment destroyed, and numerous policemen injured. In ancient times, this gate was called the "Gate of the Tribes," because all the tribes of Israel used to come through here on their way to the Temple Mount.
A boy from the Jewish Quarter's religious youth movement kindled the Chanukah lights in large cans on an embankment near the gate. Chanukah celebrates two miracles, both of which took place on the Temple Mount. The "miracle of the oil" involved a single cruse of oil which was used to light a menorah in the Temple, and which lasted eight days until new pure oil could be brought from the Galilee.
The second miracle, mentioned in our Chanukah prayers, was the miraculous defeat of the Greek army by the much smaller Jewish forces under the Maccabees. The climax of their victory was recapturing the Temple Mount and restoring Jewish sovereignty over it.
As we stood at Lions' Gate watching the Chanukah lights blaze, I was poignantly aware of the historical paradox. In our time, in 1967, the recapturing of the Old City and the Temple Mount took place through this very gate. Yet even as we stood here, an already-resigned Prime Minister was offering to give away most of the Old City and the Temple Mount.
The "Jerusalem" which Jews have mentioned in their prayers, wedding ceremonies, and Passover seders for the last 2,000 years is precisely the Old City. Up until 140 years ago, this was the only Jerusalem – no east or west, old or new. The city existed only within these walls.
Focus of Prayers
And I wondered... How often does an observant Jew living in Cincinnati mention Jerusalem? Following a 2,000-year-old practice, three times every day in his prayers, he beseeches: "And to Jerusalem, Your city, may You return in compassion ... May You rebuild it soon in our days as an eternal structure ... Blessed are You, God, the Builder of Jerusalem."
How often does a Jew living in Cincinnati mention Jerusalem? Each time he prays, eats, rejoices.
After every meal, he prays: "Have mercy, Lord our God ... on Jerusalem Your city, on Zion [the Temple Mount] the resting place of Your Glory ... Rebuild Jerusalem, the Holy City, soon in our days." Even when he only snacks on cookies or crackers, he utters a short prayer mentioning Jerusalem.
At the end of the Passover Seder and the sacred Yom Kippur service, he cries, "Next Year in Jerusalem!"
When he gets married, standing under the chuppah he breaks a glass to commemorate the destruction of the Temple, while the wedding party recites part of Psalm 137: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy."
The only times in the last 3,000 years that Jews have not resided in Jerusalem was when they were barred from living there by the Roman, Moslem, and Christian rulers. When the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in July 1099, they found a flourishing Jewish community. They ordered all the Jews to their synagogues and then burned them alive. The great sage Nachmanides traveled to Jerusalem in 1260, and built a synagogue that is still in use today. Refugees from the Spanish Inquisition in 1498 fled to Jerusalem, where they established three distinct neighborhoods.
The official web site of the Egyptian Embassy in Washington declares that the Jews have no connection to Jerusalem. In a lengthy Egyptian version of Jerusalem's history, there is minimal mention of King David and King Solomon, without identifying them as Jews or connecting them to the Jewish People in any way. There is no mention of the Second Temple, the Maccabees, the Hasmonean kingdom, Herod the Great, or the Jewish wars against the Romans – all key points in the city's history.
Judaism is never mentioned by name, and the site proposes that no archaeological remnants of the Jews have ever been discovered in Jerusalem – only "Arab Jebusite, Arab Islamic and Arab Christian vestiges." The site claims that following the Arab conquest in 636 AD, and "since then and for 1,361 years [until 1967], Jerusalem remained a pure Arab city in population and language."
According to contemporary records, Jews comprised the majority of the population of the Old City from 1860 until 1936. Although the pro-Arab British, who ruled Palestine from 1917 until 1948, designated the largest part (60 percent) of the Old City as the "Moslem Quarter," their own census of 1920 revealed that 70 percent of the "Moslem Quarter" inhabitants were Jews.
The Arab mob virtually at their backs set their homes ablaze.
The Arab pogroms of 1920-36 effectively eliminated the Jewish residents from most of the Old City by murdering them or driving them into the tiny corner known as the "Jewish Quarter," although it is barely an eighth of the area of the Old City. In 1936, the British forcibly evacuated whatever Jews still remained in the Old City outside of the Jewish Quarter ghetto, on the grounds that the British police were unable to protect them from the Arab rioters.
During Israel's War of Independence in 1948, the embattled, under-armed Jews of the Jewish Quarter managed to hold out for only two weeks before surrendering to the onslaught of Jordan's Arab Legion. Jewish women, children, and elderly were driven out through the Zion Gate, while the Arab mob virtually at their backs set their homes ablaze. Some 58 synagogues and Torah institutions were dynamited and destroyed, including the landmark Hurva Synagogue, the largest and most majestic synagogue in the Middle East.
As the Jewish men were taken as prisoners of war to Jordan, the last of the centuries-old Jewish population of the Old City were exiled... through the Lions' Gate.
On June 7, 1967, the third day of the Six Day War, the Paratroopers of the Israel Defense Forces re-entered the Old City through Lions' Gate. Their commander, Mordechai Gur, issued a clarion call to his troops: "We are approaching the Old City. We are approaching the Temple Mount, the Kotel. The Jewish nation has been praying for thousands of years for this historic moment. Israel is awaiting our victory. Go forward to success!"
To open our Chanukah ceremony at Lions' Gate, someone played an audio recording of an Israeli military correspondent who took part in the recapture of the Old City. We heard his excited voice: "We are passing through Lions' Gate. We are again standing..." His voice broke. Then, in weeping tones, "We are again standing inside the Old City. Inside the Old City." More weeping. Then: "We are approaching the Temple Mount." Pause. "The Temple Mount is in our hands! The Temple Mount is in our hands!" Long pause. "We are descending the steps to the Kotel." The sound of a shofar blowing. "We are at the Kotel." Then a loud chorus of soldiers reciting the blessing, "Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this moment."
Several of us stood there before Lions' Gate and wept. We wept because we were so stirred by the monumental event of the recapture of the Temple Mount by the Jewish nation after 2,000 years of enforced banishment and exile. And we wept because of international pressure asking us to relinquish the heart of the nation, for vain prospects of peace.
Palestinian leaders have warned that a plan by Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert to relocate his office to the Western Wall Plaza will result in bloodshed. The head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Saeb Erekat, said that Olmert's presence at the Western Wall is a "very provocative act." (December 27, 2000)
The Returned Flag
The most famous video clip of the Six Day War shows several Israeli soldiers raising the flag of Israel over the Temple Mount. The first speaker at our Chanukah ceremony was one of those soldiers.
The flag they raised was no ordinary flag. When the paratrooper division first arrived in Jerusalem, they were stationed in the neighborhood of Beit HaKerem. One elderly resident approached the paratroopers and told them she had been driven out of the Old City, her ancestral birthplace, in 1948. Among the few belongings she had managed to take with her was a flag of the newly born State of Israel. The old woman handed her precious flag over to the paratroopers, saying, "Take it with you. Perhaps you'll be able to wave it over the Old City again some time."
This was the paratrooper division which went on to liberate the Old City, and this was the flag which they raised over the Temple Mount.
If the Temple Mount is relinquished, Jews will not be able to pray at the Western Wall.
At our Chanukah ceremony this year, Mayor Olmert spoke, followed by two members of the Knesset. One of them stated that if sovereignty over the Temple Mount is relinquished, Jews could lose access to the Western Wall. We residents of the Jewish Quarter recalled with trepidation three recent incidents of the Western Wall being closed due to rioting Arabs on the Temple Mount above bombarding the prayer plaza with rocks. From that height, a falling rock is a deadly weapon. Not to mention the possibility of Arab snipers targeting Jewish worshippers from the Mount above.
The Knesset member reminded us that although the 1949 armistice agreement between Israel and Jordan guaranteed Jews access to their holy sites, between 1948 and the Six Day War of 1967, not a single Jew was ever once permitted access to the Western Wall or other Jewish holy sites occupied by Jordan, including the Tomb of the Patriarchs (Judaism's second-holiest site), and the Tomb of Rachel (Judaism's third-holiest site).
No country in the world protested this blatant breech of an international agreement.
The Jerusalem Mufti, Sheikh Akram Sabri, the highest Islamic official in Israel, said that he and his followers reject all of the U.S. proposals on Jerusalem, including any Israeli connection to the Temple Mount area, or Jewish sovereignty underneath the mount at the Western Wall. (December 29, 2000)
When this year's Chanukah ceremony was over, a couple dozen of us decided to take the short cut home through the narrow lanes of the Old City instead of around it. We walked along Hagai Street, which used to be the main thoroughfare of the Old City because it connects the Damascus Gate with the Western Wall. As we walked through what is now an Arab market, I could not help remembering what the leading historian of Old Jerusalem wrote: "If you had walked from the Damascus Gate to the Western Wall in the 1920s, you would not have passed a single privately owned Moslem house."
Almost all of the 1,000 Jewish families who lived in the "Moslem Quarter," as well as tens of major Jewish institutions, held title to their own properties. When, from 1920 until 1936, the Arabs rose up against their Jewish neighbors, murdering some and driving away the rest, the Arabs moved into the now abandoned Jewish properties.
But every Jewish building has, of course, a tell-tale identifying sign: a mezuzah on the right-hand doorpost. The custom of Jerusalem's Jews was to carve a hollow out of the stone doorpost and place the scroll of the mezuzah inside, plastering over it so that only the Hebrew letter shin was visible. When the Arabs usurped the Jewish property in the Old City, they hacked out the mezuzot, but in most cases they did not bother to fill in the hollows. Thus, up to two years ago, one could walk through the "Moslem Quarter" and identify the many buildings which belonged to Jews. (Lately, the Arabs got wind of this, and filled in the hollows or totally replaced the tell-tale stones.)
The Israel Antiquities Authority has decried the wholesale destruction of Jewish antiquities on the Temple Mount being carried out by the Waqf (the Moslem authorities). The Waqf has brought in bulldozers and tractors and has destroyed priceless artifacts testifying to the existence of a Jewish presence on the Temple Mount, dumping hundreds of truckloads of the priceless evidence into garbage heaps. [Biblical Archeology Review].
When, in recent years, Jews tried to reclaim Jewish property by paying outrageous prices for crumbling ruins of buildings to Arab squatters who had "tenants' rights," the Jews were branded "settlers." Now 60 Jewish families, including some 200 children, plus 400 students in post-high school programs, live in the sector of the Old City closest to the Temple Mount.
We passed the old Torat Chaim Yeshiva, where the hum of Torah learning could be heard from the second floor study hall. Of the twenty-nine synagogues and eight yeshivot which thrived in the "Moslem Quarter" before the pogroms, only this one, the Torat Chaim Yeshiva, was spared desecration during the 19 years the Jordanians ruled the Old City.
Will History Repeat Itself?
By the time our group reached the Western Wall, my heart was aching with the question, "Will history repeat itself?" Will the synagogues and yeshivot of the Old City again be turned over to Arabs, who will certainly desecrate and destroy them, as they recently did to Joseph's Tomb and the ancient synagogue of Jericho?
Will history repeat itself? I remember my first trip to Israel, in 1964, when the closest we could come to the Western Wall was a rooftop on Mount Zion. We stood on our tiptoes, 100 teenagers, straining to see what the guide was pointing to behind the mass of domes and rooftops of the Old City. We left disappointed, unable even to glimpse the holy Wall.
Will the Temple Mount, and the Western Wall below it, despite international assurances and agreements, again be inaccessible to Jews?
In a recent interview, King Faysal of Saudi Arabia waved away any Jewish connection: "The Wailing Wall is a structure they weep against, and they have no historic right to it. Another wall can be built for them to weep against."
When, in 1936, the British forced the evacuation of Jews from throughout the Old City, they promised them security in the confines of the tiny Jewish Quarter. But just 12 years later, the Jewish Quarter also fell, making the Old City Judenrein for the first time in many centuries. Will history repeat itself? Will we, under international pressure, again evacuate the rest of the Old City, only to find that the isolated Jewish Quarter is indefensible?
The adage, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it," was spinning in my mind as I crossed the Western Wall Plaza. Then I noticed, beside the Wall, the two giant Chanukah menorahs still burning. They, too, attest to history, I realized. A small band of fervently religious Jews, unwilling to accept the prevailing assimilation and the universal admiration in which Greek culture was held, rose up against the most powerful empire in the world – and miraculously won.
Will history repeat itself?