October 20, 2018

‘For 2,000 years, the Temple Mount was off-limits to Jews’

Excerpted from Yossi Klein Halevi’s “Like Dreamers: The Story of Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation”

The next morning, the three battalions of Brigade 55 assembled on the Temple Mount, for a victory lineup. Only a week earlier they had been boarding buses ascending in a slow convoy to Jerusalem.

They gathered in the area between the Dome of the Rock and the silver-domed Al Aqsa mosque. The ceremony was delayed for the wounded. Motta had given the order that those who could be moved from their hospital beds should be brought to the ceremony.

Yoel Bin-Nun stood at the foot of the steps leading up to the Dome of the Rock. Any further, and he risked treading on the area of the Holy of Holies.

“Why aren’t you going up?” a kibbutznik asked him.

“This is the area of the Temple,” Yoel explained. “A victory lineup could have been done at the Wall. I see the bulldozers have already cleared the area,” he added sarcastically.

“But Yoel, isn’t the Temple Mount the essence?”

Yoel savored the irony: Here was a kibbutznik from Hashomer Hatzair berating a Kookian for seemingly underplaying the centrality of the Temple Mount. Kibbutzniks and Kookniks together: That’s what made the victory possible. 

In two days, Israel would be celebrating the holiday of Shavuot, marking the giving of the Torah at Sinai. For Yoel, it was also the festival of Jewish unity: The Torah was received by the whole people of Israel, functioning like a single body with one heart. And not since Sinai had the Jews been as united they were in these last weeks. The spiritual calculus was self-evident: Disunity brings destruction; unity, redemption.

The midday sun was strong, and men began removing their helmets. One dropped to the stone ground, then another, until there was a volley of crashing helmets. To Hanan Porat, it seemed a spontaneous ceremony marking the end of the war, perhaps the end of all war.

Accompanied by nurses, the wounded arrived, in casts and on wheelchairs. Avital Geva wasn’t among them: He was recovering from one operation and awaiting the next.

The intact rushed over to the wounded. There were hugs, anxious inquiries about missing friends.

Then the men lined up by battalion and faced the Dome of the Rock. Motta, Stempel and Uzi Narkiss stood before the soldiers. Motta had asked Arik to join them, but he preferred to stand with his staff.

I would gladly have forgone this victory, thought Arik, had it not been forced on us. Motta addressed his men: “For two thousand years, the Temple Mount was off-limits to Jews. Until you came — you, the paratroopers — and restored it to the embrace of the nation. The Western Wall, toward which every heart beats, is again in our hands.

“Many Jews risked their lives, throughout our long history, to come to Jerusalem and live in it. Innumerable songs expressed the deep longing … In the War of Independence, great efforts were made to return to the nation its heart — the Old City and the Western Wall.

“To you fell the great honor of completing the circle, to return to the nation its capital and the center of its holiness.

“Many paratroopers, including our closest friends, the most veteran and the best among us, fell in the difficult battle. It was a merciless battle, in which you functioned as a body that pushes aside everything in its way without noting its wounds. You didn’t complain … Instead, you aspired only forward …

“Jerusalem is yours — forever.”

The brigade was discharged, but the officers stayed on for debriefings and hospital visits to see the wounded. Motta asked Arik to remain in uniform for another three months, until the fall semester at university, to prepare the final report on the battle for Jerusalem. Arik had had other plans. He needed to make up exams. And he intended to marry Yehudit Hazan. But he couldn’t say no to Motta.

That night, the two men shared a hotel room. After showering, they sat in their underwear, on the edge of their beds. “Tell me who,” said Motta.

Until then, Motta hadn’t had a complete list of the brigade’s dead. Arik began reciting from memory the names of their fallen friends, over 20 of the brigade’s veterans alone, with whom they’d served since the mid-1950s.

Motta broke out in loud sobs.

Arik couldn’t remember the last time he had wept; that was a privilege denied him. He bowed his head, averting his gaze to give Motta an approximation of privacy, and waited until the weeping passed.