Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Yom Yerushalayim

It is Yom Yerushalayim, celebrating the day (on the Jewish calendar), that IDF forces conquered the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War, 1967.

I was old enough then to have a fully formed consciousness, Jewish and Zionist. My mother, z”l, sister, and I, had been to Israel for the first time the summer before. It was a life changing experience. My mother was the only survivor of her immediate family. Here, in Israel, she had two nephews– I had two first cousins! Only someone whose family has been wiped out can begin to appreciate what that meant; one even looked like me: so, I was not hatched!

My mother’s eldest brother, Simcha, z”l, got to Palestine before the Nazis. He left Czechoslovakia out of love of Zion, not hate of anyone, or fear of anyone. He wrote poems about sunrise over the Old City walls, over the Kotel.

He married, and had these two sons. Simcha was killed in the Jordanian Siege of Jerusalem, in 1948, after he ran out to help another civilian who had been shot by indiscriminate Jordanian shooting raining down from the Old City, near which Simcha and his family lived, and was shot himself.

Cousins, childhood friends of my mother’s who had survived the Nazis were here. We met them, went around Israel finding them, and toured from Metullah to Eilat, loving every bit of it, buoyed, thrilled, by all of it. Family, family. Biology mattered, and did not. Relationships, connection, did, and we had both here. It was Home. Home. Home.

Jerusalem was then divided in the most gross, ugly, scary way, concrete wall, barbed wire, Jordanian snipers above who occasionally, shot people on our side. On tish’a be’av, we traced the route of those walls, hoping not to get shot.

We could not go to the Kotel– that was seared into my experience. My sister and I climbed the tower of the YMCA, straining to try to see into the Old City. All three of us, my mother, too, went up Har Zion, got as close as we possibly could, to the Old City. The yearning was as strong as any physical sensation.

And the sense of injustice. The Jordanians, occupiers of the Old City and west bank since 1948, allowed no Jews in. No access whatever to that holy site, or to historic synagogues, batei midrash, batei kvarot– the Mount of Olives. They had it, and they would keep it from us.

Then, but a few months later, Israel’s very existence was threatened. I watched the evening news, heard the openly threatening voices of Arab representatives at the UN, we will destroy, we will end you. I remember seeing on one news broadcast a map showing arrows from all directions surrounding Israel, all pointing in: showing the invasion of Arab armies. I saw no arrows going out.

All that I had just met a few months before and loved, was going to be destroyed. It had happened, after all, nothing was impossible.

And then, it didn’t.

The astounding news pouring in, day after day. Until, the day I heard that we got Jerusalem.

I was a good, very good, Orthodox girl. But that morning, there was no way I was not going to stay tuned to the news. I took a transistor radio with an ear piece with me to school and threaded the wire under my sleeve and the ear piece, up into my ear. I heard the news that we had gotten Jerusalem.

I leapt out of my seat, no asking permission this time, and raced down flights of stairs to the only pay phone in the place to call my sister and tell her. On the way, I passed an Israeli teacher and cried out, kavashnu et yerushalyim! We conquered Jerusalem. We, not they.

I remember thinking, now, for the first time, I understand why anyone would bring a korban. Korban todah, a thanksgiving sacrifice.

On this day, so many decades later, I remember all that.

I am also very conscious of other things.

As said, I was raised Orthodox. But all Jews, I am pretty sure, do one thing at our seders: we remove drops of wine from our celebratory glasses as we count out the plagues the ancient Egyptians suffered in the birth pangs of our exodus and redemption.

Some of us know the extraordinary Rashi, classic, iconic Rashi, about the Israelites singing and rejoicing at the Reed Sea after they had passed through, miraculously, and were on the other side of Egypt and danger– and God– the same God who just took them out, out! of Egypt, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm– admonishing them: maasei yadei tov’im bayam, ve’atem omrim shira? The work of my hands– the Egyptians, your enslavers– are drowning in the sea, and you sing?

We also know that, because of this, because it is cheap, unseemly, unworthy, and un-Jewish–

we say only half Hallel, the prayer of praise, on most of Pesach, our high holiday of redemption. Because it is good and right to celebrate something wonderful but it is ugly to rejoice in the pain even of enemies.

I was raised on these teachings, too.

Some, many, on this day, go on a flag march deliberately routed through shaar schem, through the Muslim quarter of the Old City. There are other routes to get to the Kotel, the ultimate destination of the march. This route has one point and one point only: to rub our victory and domination in the eyes of the residents of that quarter, and to those beyond it, for whom today is not a day of celebration.

Some of the marchers ram their flag poles onto the shuttered doors of shops to make the point clearer. Some have attacked shop keepers. Out of fear or protest, many shops close, the proprietors losing money.

It is ugly, revolting, and the grief and outrage is as palpable as any physical feeling.

The wonderful organization, Tag Meir, in which I am a member, holds a different march this day, the Flower March. We gather, get armfuls of beautiful flowers, and distribute them to our Muslim fellow residents of this city, who live in the Old City. I have engaged some of them in the past, or rather, they have engaged me, as they tell what it is like to live under such gross domination and desire to humiliate. Il hak ma’akom, I say. You are right. Mit’asfa. I apologize.

I do not apologize for my existence, my history, or my future.

I am, absolutely, shamed beyond words by those who disgrace that history and any meaning it can bequeathe us, who disgrace its lessons, the lessons of a long dominated people, and who endanger our future. Our joint future. Because that is what we have here and it is up to us to make it a future we want to inhabit, or leave to our children and grandchildren.

ציון במשפט תפדה ושביה בצדקה

Zion will be redeemed through justice, and those who return to her, through doing right. Isaiah 1:27

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She is the author of four published books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her new book is the first history of agunot and iggun from medieval times to the present, across the Jewish map. It also presents analysis and critique of current policy on Jewish marital capitivity and proposals to end this abuse. Entitled, "Thinking Outside the Chains About Jewish Marital Captivity," it is forthcoming from NYU Press. She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, the Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post.
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