Israel’s reunification of Jerusalem, during the Six Day War of 1967, is a seminal moment in modern history.
It is also soaked with controversy.
As the 50th anniversary approaches in June, it is fascinating to note the interviews, books and documentaries that have chronicled this extraordinary moment in history.
The setting: encircled by hostile armies, chief among them the age-old enemy Egypt, Israel is in a precarious position through the spring of 1967. Appearing to dither, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol finally decides to strike first. Israel Air Force jets bomb Egyptian planes on the ground, setting the stage for a breathtaking – and short – Middle East war. By June 10, Israel had captured the Sinai, Golan Heights, and the West Bank … including the fabled Old City of Jerusalem.
Today, Israel remains in control of all this territory (save for the Sinai Peninsula, ceded back to Egypt during the presidency of Jimmy Carter). The Palestinian Territories, located in the West Bank, are a real point of contention and no one knows where that will end up.
We do know how we got to this point. A fabulous book by Steven Pressfield, “The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War,” tells the story through the eyes and memories of those who participated in it from the Israeli side.
(An aside: I have been to Lion’s Gate in the Old City, seen a plaque commemorating the assault by Motta Gur’s 66th Paratroop Brigade, and come away like everyone else: amazed.)
Pressfield utilized hundreds of hours of interviews, along with the memoirs of Israeli legend Moshe Dayan, to construct what he calls a subjective look at the Six Day War. He puts you right on the front lines, and of all the books on that war, this is one of the very best.
The pulsating pace is set early. In a piece titled “The Waiting,” Pressfield relates the story of Major Eliezer “Cheetah” Cohen, who is visiting his brother three weeks before the war. The brother is a member of the counter-terrorism unit, Sayeret Matkal.
On a hill immediately south of the Old City (then under the control of the Jordanians), Cohen visits with his family:
This is how we saw the situation, Nechemiah and I, on the roof of the villa above no-man’s-land. We both knew that war was coming. ‘Does it frustrate you, brother,’ I asked, ‘to be stuck here in Jerusalem when the fighting will surely be in Sinai or Syria?’ Our understanding in that moment was that war would not come to the Holy City. Jordan wouldn’t risk attacking Israel; she might lose. And Israel could not make the first move. The outside world would never let her.
But the moment would not depend on world opinion. For in the middle of the week, Israel found itself poised to do what so many Jews had longed for, for millennia: retake Jerusalem. Jordan foolishly entered the war, leaving the Old City vulnerable and about to no longer be trodden down by the Gentiles.
Pressfield’s book continues on in this vein, re-telling one of the great battles in all of history.
Eventually, the Jordanians placed an old bus inside the Lion’s Gate, on the east side of the Old City. It would prove to be a poor obstacle for a determined IDF. By the end of June 7, Israeli paratroopers had rocked the Arab world by placing the Star of David over the Temple Mount.
One account of Dayan makes the reader feel the hot sweat rolling off the troops as they pause to glimpse the Old City and the Temple Mount:
The war is building to its climax. Dayan wants to be Joshua; he wants to be David. But as minister of defense he can no longer operate by the sword alone. He has to be the wise man now. He has to be the statesman. I can see him struggling against his own Old Testament heart. Dayan once said, ‘I would rather have to rein in the eager warhorse than to prod the reluctant mule.’ Now that horse is history. It’s the momentum of events. Dayan controls the steed for as long as he can. He’s right to say no to his generals when they first want to take the Old City, and he’s right to order “Enter by the Lion’s Gate” when he finally does.
So goes the whole of “”The Lion’s Gate,” a first-rate history, written by a Jew, about his people. For those observing the golden anniversary of the change in the Golden City, there is no better account.