I had never been to Israel. But the fear for Israel’s safety in 1967 was overbearing. I skipped out of my New York yeshiva high school to travel to a solidarity rally in Washington DC’s Lafayette Park near the White House. The murmuring started in small groups, then picked up decibels until it was declared from the stage, “Israel captured the Western Wall.” I thought I would faint. Why?
Several rare photographs show the dismal state of Jewish life and the Kotel in Jerusalem prior to 1967. The pictures put into perspective why the Jewish people were so surprised and ecstatic when the IDF’s Jerusalem Brigade and Paratroopers captured the Old City.
The State of the Western Wall
The descriptions of the Jewish experience at the Western Wall are shocking. The walk to the Kotel was through a labyrinth of slums, and Jews were often insulted or assaulted. Garbage and sewage was thrown into the holy site’s alley. Domestic animals were driven through the narrow passage and left their filth in their wake. Eyewitness accounts describe a public latrine built adjacent to the wall, and a mosque was established nearby so that a muezzin could disturb Jewish prayers five times a day.
The Muslims, led by the fanatic Mufti Haj Amin el Husseini, demanded from the British authorities strict limitations on the Jews’ worship at the Western Wall. The famed photographer John Phillips photographed a similar picture to the one below (his has copyright restrictions). His caption was very informative. “The house in the background,” Phillips wrote, “is where the Mufti of Jerusalem used to spend his days watching the Jews to see if they committed any crimes.” The “crimes” included bringing chairs, benches, or screens (mechitzot) to divide the sexes during prayers. The blowing of a shofar could — and did — result in anti-Jewish riots.
The Expulsion of the Jews
With the surrender of the Jewish Quarter in 1948, hundreds of Jews were expelled through the Zion Gate by the Jordanians and others were taken as prisoners of war to a camp in the Jordan desert.
What Was Left Behind?
With the Jews expelled, the Western Wall was bereft of Jewish worshippers for the next 19 years.
With the Jewish Quarter cleansed of Jews, the homes and buildings were destroyed or taken over by squatters. Synagogues and yeshivot were demolished. The commander of the Jordanian Legion, Abdullah el-Tal, reported: “For the first time in 1,000 years not a single Jew remains in the Jewish Quarter. Not a single building remains intact. This makes the Jews’ return here impossible.”
But the Jews did return.