June 5–10, 1967, (earlier this year according to the Hebrew calendar) is the most consequential period in the history of modern Israel except for May 14, 1948, when David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence. In the midst of this six-day period, Jerusalem Day marks the 50th anniversary of the capture of the Old City during the remarkable Six Day War, which reunited Jerusalem and regained the heartland of Judea and Samaria, following 19 years of Arab occupation. In addition, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, from where many Arab attacks on Jews were launched, were also conquered.

Israel’s War of Independence secured a national home for the Jews in 1948, but it was notably deficient in that the ancient homeland of the Jews, the highlands of Samaria and Judea (which includes Jerusalem), were occupied by King Hussein of Jordan’s British-trained troops. One result of the 1948 was that Jerusalem’s Old City, the site of the Jews’ most holy site, the Temple Mount, was cut off from the Jews. The Jordanian troops destroyed many of the Jewish Quarter’s synagogues and the most ancient Jewish cemetery, on the Mount of Olives, was desecrated, with its gravestones used to build roads, latrines and Jordanian army fortifications.

Though now it’s just an historical footnote, it’s important to note that the intent of the Jordanian occupation (1948-1967) WAS NOT to found a State of Palestine for the Arabs, but to destroy the nascent State of Israel – and throw the Jews into the sea. The idea of Palestinian Arab self-determination barely entered the consciousness of the Arabs under Jordanian (or Egyptian in the case of Gaza) occupation, as their living conditions deteriorated. Only with formation of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) in 1964, did the majority of Arabs living under Jordanian/Egyptian rule begin to call themselves “Palestinians,” contemplating a state of their own.

During the 1948-9 war, Israel tried mightily to defeat the British trained and led (Jordanian) Arab Legion occupying Jerusalem’s Old City, but failed. Under Jordanian rule, the occupied eastern portion of Jerusalem and the newly-named “West Bank,” once again became an 0Arab backwater. No non-Jordanian rulers visited Jerusalem, despite the Muslim claim that Jerusalem is Islam’s third holiest site. The “new” city, the western portion of Jerusalem built up by the Jews was successfully defended and under the new Israeli administration, it flourished.

King Hussein’s ingenious ploy to rename Judea and Samaria the “West Bank” of the Jordan River worked, in the same way that the Romans’ renaming of the Land of Israel to “Palestine” did. Both instances undercut the Jews’ heritage in their homeland, nearly erasing its Jewish history.

Most people, including non-Israeli Jews, don’t realize that the highlands of Judea and Samaria are the cradle of Jewish civilization, not the coastal plain which includes Ashkelon, Ashdod, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. The Philistines populated most of the Mediterranean coast when the Israelites entered the Land of Israel, roughly 3,500 years ago. Westerners do know the story of Samson, who destroyed the Philistines’ pagan temple in the city of Gaza, one of the five Philistine cites (Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza) west of the mountainous region where the Israelites settled.

In the 11th c BCE (Before Common Era), Saul was anointed the first King of the Israelites; he failed to establish a permanent capital. David, who first came into prominence by slaying the Philistine giant, Goliath, succeeded Saul as the King of the tribe of Judah. He established his capital in Hebron, the second most holy Jewish site, where Abraham had purchased land to bury his wife Sarah. Eventually, David became king of all the tribes of Israel.

“David’s first action as king was to capture the area now called the City of David in Jerusalem, fortify it and build himself a palace. When the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king and was threatening their hegemony over all of [Philistia], they attacked, spread out over the Valley of Raphaim and captured Bethlehem. David retaliated and, in three battles, forced the Philistines out of Israel.
Once David had established the safety of his kingdom, he brought the Holy Ark, which had been passed from city to city, to Jerusalem. He then wanted to build a temple to God and consulted Nathan the prophet. Nathan replied to David that God would always be with David, but it would be up to David’s son [Solomon] to build the Temple because David had been a warrior and shed blood.” (jewishvirtuallibrary.com)

Capsule history: After the death of King Solomon, discord among his heirs resulted in the splitting of his powerful and rich empire into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Assyrians defeated the Israelites (8th c BCE) and dispersed them throughout their kingdom (the Lost Ten Tribes). After the Assyrians were themselves defeated by the Babylonians, it was the turn of the majority of Judeans to be dispersed. The Babylon Captivity began in early 6th c BCE, with the Holy Temple in Jerusalem destroyed in 586 BCE. The Hasmonean kings (heirs of the Maccabbees), who degenerated into puppets of Rome, ruled from the 2nd c BCE until the end of the 1st c CE (Common Era).

Jews remained in the Land of Israel during the Roman period and thereafter, but never regained lasting sovereignty until 1948. Palestine, as it was renamed by the Romans, absorbed many peoples into its population because it was a nexus between Europe, Asia, and Africa. Jews continued to live in the land throughout the Ottoman Turk rule (1517-1917), along with Balkan Christians, Turks, Armenians, and Arabs, but no one group predominated for long.

By the mid-19th century, at the time of the first recorded, modern census, the Jews were the majority in Jerusalem, the primary city of the region (though still a minor one) under Ottoman and European influence. The Jews, alone among all the assorted peoples there, began to build the foundation for a state on the European model. When the British dissolved the Mandate in 1948, the Israelis fought hard against six Arab invading armies to control all of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, but failed to gain control of all of Israel. Thus the city of Jerusalem was divided, for a mere 19 years, in its 3,000 year history and the Jews, the indigenous people of the highlands, were denied sovereignty over their birthplace.

When the opportunity to regain Judea and Samaria occurred during 1967’s Six Day War, the Israeli government hesitated, because of the expected backlash from both the Christian and Muslim authorities. This arose only after King Hussein rejected Israel’s request to stand down or suffer the consequences. Betting on an Arab onslaught, Hussein joined the other Arab invaders, and because of his poor decision, Israel quickly regained control of all of Jerusalem and the Jews’ biblical heartland, just 50 years ago.

Suddenly, the Jewish people had regained their capital and their patrimony! The Israeli leaders had trouble absorbing this miracle and immediately sought to trade territory back to the Arabs for peace, but to no avail; the Arabs rejected all Israeli overtures. Subsequently, in the newly conquered Jewish heartland beyond the 1949 Armistice Line (specifically not defined as a border), Israelis began to build homes, yeshivas, and synagogues, while still hoping to trade “land for peace.” Negotiations eventually succeeded with Egypt and Jordan and treaties were signed, resulting in the present cold peace with both countries.

Jerusalem, now Israel’s most populous city, is enjoying a renaissance as a religious, cultural, and high tech center, a backwater no more. The next article will explore the consequences, good and bad, of the stupendous — some say miraculous — Six Day War.