Israeli medical personnel taking away the dead body of one of the terrorists involved in a shooting attack near the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem’s Old City on July 14. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90

2 Israeli police officers killed in Jerusalem terrorist attack


Two Israeli police officers were killed and another one was injured by Arab Israelis of Palestinian origin who opened fire on security forces in Jerusalem’s Old City.

At least three armed terrorists were killed in a gunfight with security forces on Friday at the Lions’ Gate, which is situated directly northeast of the Temple Mount compound, the Israeli Broadcasting Corp., or IBC, reported.

The officers killed were Kamil Shanan, 22, and Hail Satawi, 30, Army Radio reported. The officers were Druze, according to a statement condemning the attack by Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister. The third officer hurt in the attack is in stable condition.

The attack was considerably bloodier and better organized than the dozens of terrorist attacks that Israel’s security services record each month in Jerusalem. Featuring semi-automatic weapons and multiple assailants, it constituted a substantial escalation compared to most of the attacks, which feature the use of knives and homemade firebombs.

The attack occurred at around 7 a.m., police told the IBC, when the Temple Mount compound was largely empty. The gunmen fired on the police officers before fleeing into an area housing several mosques before they were shot dead by security forces in pursuit. They were carrying a handgun and two Carlo assault rifles — makeshift weapons favored by Palestinian terrorists that are produced in metal workshops in the West Bank and Gaza.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, condemned the attack during a telephone conversation he initiated with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Channel 2 reported.

Attacks rarely occur so close to the Temple Mount compound, which also houses the Haram a Sharif mosque.

The suspected assailants were from Umm al Fahm, the Israel Security Agency, or Shin Bet, said in a statement. The agency identified them as Mohammed Hammed Abed al-Latif and Mohammed Ahmed Mafdl Jadarin, both 19, and Mohammed Ahmed Mohammed Jabarin, 29. They had no previous record of terrorist activity.

Gilad Erdan, Israel’s interior security minister, told Army Radio that the “unusual and severe incident may require Israel to review its security arrangements around the Temple Mount.” And Zeev Elkin, the Cabinet minister responsible for issues connected with Jerusalem, told the radio station the attack was possible because of Israel’s desire to allow freedom of worship to Muslims and others at the site.

“Though we want to allow freedom of worship to Muslims at the Temple Mount, we need to balance that with the desire to prevent the cynical use of precisely this holy site for staging terrorist attacks,” Elkin said.

Separately, an 18-year-old Palestinian was killed Friday morning during clashes with Israeli troops near Bethlehem, IBC reported. The Palestinian Maan news agency identified him as Baraa Hamamda. An Israeli army spokesman told Maan that during a detention raid in Bethlehem’s al-Duheisha neighborhood, Palestinians threw “explosive devices and blocks” at Israeli forces, who fired toward the youth.

The Israel Security Service recorded a total of 94 terrorist attacks against Israelis in June – a 35 percent drop over the previous month. Of those, 21 occurred in Jerusalem, compared to 29 in May. One victim was killed in terrorist attacks in June, an Israel Border Police agent, and three other security personnel were wounded.

Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks to the U.N. Security Council as it meets to discuss the recent ballistic missile launch by North Korea at U.N. headquarters in New York on July 5. Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters

Trump’s lack of State Department appointments can hurt Israel, experts say


Carmel Shama HaCohen, Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, is second to none in his admiration for the Trump administration’s United Nations envoy, Nikki Haley. In fact, he’d like to clone her.

Shama HaCohen appreciated Haley’s efforts in trying to head off last week’s vote by UNESCO’s Heritage Committee naming Hebron’s Old City an endangered heritage site. And he believes the joint U.S.-Israeli bid to kill a resolution Israel saw as one-sided might have succeeded had a U.S. official of Haley’s caliber been onsite in Krakow, where the vote took place. (Haley conducted her efforts from New York.)

“We didn’t have the spirit that was strong enough,” Shama HaCohen said in an interview.

Crystal Nix-Hines, the Obama administration’s UNESCO envoy, left on Jan. 20. The Trump administration’s failure to replace her is part of a broader slowdown in naming top State Department positions. According to reports, fewer than 10 of the approximately 200 State Department positions that require nomination and confirmation have been filled.

Shama HaCohen, a blunt-speaking former Likud member of Knesset, said the absence of Israel’s most important ally at UNESCO was having far-reaching effects on defending his country.

“As soon as you have an ambassador, you have an ability to create a relationship with Washington, to advance an agenda,” he said. The absence of envoys “harms our efforts” to defend Israel, he said. “The United States is far from a capacity to bring her full complement to defend Israel.”

Shama Hacohen is not the only official on the front lines of defending Israel concerned about under-staffing among the U.S. diplomatic corps.

“The issue of staffing at the State Department is critical — at UNESCO and in the myriad other areas where U.S. leadership is crucial,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO, told JTA. “While there was a good-faith effort by Ambassador Nikki Haley and other members of the administration at UNESCO last week, the fact that there was no ambassador on the ground had an impact.”

For months, a broad array of Jewish groups and lawmakers from both parties have decried the Trump administration’s failure to fill another role: the State Department’s anti-Semitism monitor.

“We are also concerned by the Secretary of State’s seeming reluctance to appoint a special envoy to monitor and combat Anti-Semitism, which plays a critical role in raising awareness and action against anti-Semitism and anti-Israel actions globally,” Greenblatt said. “These positions should be filled as soon as possible.”

The understaffing and how it affects Israel-related diplomacy has also caught the attention of Republicans in Congress.

We “need more appointees in place,” said Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the Jewish state’s most ardent defenders in the Senate, when asked about Israel-related diplomacy. He pointed to remarks by Graham on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday: “Secretary (Rex) Tillerson needs to staff up the State Department and use it wisely,” Graham said, referring to a range of areas where he said it was AWOL. “I’m so worried about the State Department.”

A State Department official told JTA that the Trump administration remained committed to defending Israel in every international forum.

“We have been clear that the United States will oppose any effort to delegitimize or isolate Israel, wherever it occurs. We continue to do that,” said the official. “With respect to staffing, we continue to have a deep bench of experienced career professionals serving in key positions that are highly capable and able to help the Secretary lead the Department. We will continue the process of exploring and evaluating ways to improve organizational effectiveness and efficiency, including optimizing the impact of available resources.”

The White House has blamed Senate Democrats for obstructing nominations, noting in a release this week that Trump’s nominees are on average taking longer to clear the Senate than those of his predecessors. But Trump has also been slow to nominate: A June 29 count by the Washington Post showed that of the 200-plus State Department positions filled by nomination, Trump had formally nominated just 20 and that the Senate had confirmed eight.

Dan Shapiro, until January the Obama administration’s envoy to Israel, said career professionals were no substitute for diplomats who had the confidence of the administration.

“When in the past, during the Obama administration when we were fighting an anti-Israel resolution to recognize a Palestinian state, it was all hands on deck,” he said. “We would have ambassadors in capitals raising it, we would have senior officials, secretaries and under secretaries weighing with counterparts.”

Without the personal relationships diplomats cultivate with their counterparts in other countries, Shapiro said, “you don’t have the tools available, you can’t get to the most senior officials in other governments to be engaged to rally other countries to stand with us.”

Shapiro said the lack of appointees is hindering another issue Israel says is critical: Pressing the Palestinians to stop paying families of people jailed or killed while carrying out attacks on Israelis.

“We should be engaging many other governments at senior levels to urge them to let the Palestinians know we think it’s unacceptable,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is generally pleased with the Trump administration’s priorities, and appreciates that Trump himself raised the payments-to-prisoners issue in his meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Indeed, Shama HaCohen said that part of his frustration was that the career diplomats in the U.S. UNESCO office were carrying out Obama-era policies seen as friendlier to UNESCO — not because they sought to undermine Trump, but because it was the only guidance they had in hand.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the UNESCO vote might have been an outlier: The Obama administration stopped paying dues in 2011 because UNESCO recognized “Palestine” as a state, and as a result the United States lost its capacity to vote, diminishing its influence at the body in any case.

“We take the UNESCO issues very seriously and welcome the strong statements by Ambassador Haley,” Hoenlein told JTA.

Daniel Mariaschin, the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, said that the lack of staffing was a problem, but that Israel’s overall obstacle at the U.N. and its affiliated bodies was institutional bias.

“There’s no question, having ambassadors with the worldview of Nikki Haley, building relationships, is important,” he said. “But automatic majorities, block voting which is built in the U.N. infrastructure. that’s really where these problems lie.”

PM Benjamin Netanyahu at the Western Wall (Photo: Reuters)

Charles Bronfman to Prime Minister Netanyahu: “Do What’s Right”


Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Like many in the Diaspora I have been dismayed, then shocked, then angry, then sorrowful, concerning the events of this past week.

Both the delay of the agreement concerning  non-Orthodox praying at the Western Wall, and the confirmation, if it passes, enabling only the Chief Rabbi and those designated by him, to rule in conversions, are, as you know by now, anathema to Diaspora Jewry.

Prime Minister, as Israel is the spiritual and emotional home of the Jewish People, these two insults confirm that only a certain denomination or Jew is welcome. To my knowledge, no other country in the world denies any Jew based on denomination.

We who love Israel and the Jewish People are left to ponder our relationship with Israel – and particularly with the coalition you lead. Significant damage has been done to our relationship in the last years because of reasons to which I need not allude. These two new issues will ensure that our youth will be more and more estranged from the great Nation that we adore..

Yes, a Birthright trip, which your Government generously funds, helps. But I foresee a decline in registration that will affect the future of our younger Jews. And polls among our youth who have. It experience Birthright demonstrate forcibly that their majority now feel estranged from Israel. What a shame!

And what a shame for all those fighting BDS throughout the world!

Prime Minister, I believe that it is your duty to do what’s right, rather than what’s politically expedient.

Please immediately instigate the Agreement spearheaded by Natan Sharansky. And please withdraw your support of the Conversion Bill.

Yours,

Charles Bronfman

Women of the Wall members bringing Torahs to the Western Wall on Nov. 2, 2016. Screenshot from Twitter

Divided at the Wall


In January 2016 the Israeli government, and the Rabbi of the Western Wall, agreed to legally cordon off a section of the Wall for egalitarian prayer services — a sort of miniature Kotel that would entail official government management and funding. Last week Netanyahu’s cabinet passed a motion formally freezing all plans for the site until further notice.

Before we explore the reaction to this move a few critical facts should be established. Firstly, women as individuals can pray as they wish at the regular section of the Western Wall. If they prefer to wear a prayer shawl and tefillin, noone prevents them. All they are not allowed to do is read from the Torah scroll. Secondly, they can read from the Torah scroll by the Southern side of the Western Wall, where any and all prayer services have been permitted for nearly twenty years. All the cabinet freeze means for egalitarian Jews is that for the time being the Southern Wall won’t be officially cordoned off for their exclusive use.

There were certainly some Israelis who shunned the move, but not all that many. Protests in the wake of the decision drew only a few hundred participants. In Israel, a country that has more politically-driven demonstrations than any other on earth,[1] that isn’t much. To put it into perspective, two thousand Israelis recently protested the kidnapping of Yemeni Children nearly seventy years ago, with another 7,000 Israelis taking to a Tel Aviv square in 2015 to protest a gas deal. A year before that, over 300,000 protesters gathered to the streets in Israel to decry Israel’s planned draft plan, and three years before that 450,000 took to the streets to push for improvements in social justice. So, a few hundred people holding placards outside the Prime Minister’s home doesn’t indicate any exceptional outrage. At least, not in Israel.

And, it’s also fairly easy to understand why. Israelis have proven remarkably indifferent to the Reform and Conservative movements, with less than 3% and 2% of Israelis identifying themselves with each of those movements, respectively. Moreover, the Chairman of the Union of Synagogues and Communities in Israel, Eliezer Sheffer, has reported that there are over 10,500 synagogues in the State of Israel. Of that number, only about forty identify with Reform Judaism — less than 0.4%.

Thus, it was largely the American Jewish community that would form the brunt of the backlash, with leading Jewish-American organizations swiftly condemning the move.

In an Op-Ed published in the New York Times, Lesley Sachs, the Executive Director of Women of the Wall, took a harsher approach. Resorting to unfortunate orthodox-bashing tropes, Sachs described efforts of the Western Wall Foundation to provide shawls to immodestly dressed women as “medieval.” Guards, she went on to claim, forced women to pray silently lest they send the men into a “sexual frenzy.”

Most surprising, however, was the decision by real estate tycoon Isaac Fisher, himself a leading fundraiser in the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and member of the board of AIPAC, to freeze his philanthropic activities for the Jewish state unless the government reversed its decisions.

But Israel is a sovereign democracy and its decisions must reflect the will of its citizens rather than that of foreign Jewish donors. As for Lesley Sachs’ claims of the “medieval” practice of “enforcing” modest-dress, women are offered scarves at the Kotel but cannot be forced to take them. If the mere suggestion seems intrusive, one should consider that there are plenty of memorials throughout the United States that enforce a dress code, such as wearing shoes. They do so not to oppress but to accord respect to hallowed ground. If that level of respect can be demanded at a memorial going back just a hundred years, the holiest site of the Jewish Nation should be granted similar latitude.

With regard to Sachs’ claims that female singing is not allowed, any visit to the Western Wall on any Friday night this summer will bear witness to hundreds of Jewish women singing and dancing to their heart’s content. 

When my son and I visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, we had to take off our shoes and rinse our hands regardless of what our own religious beliefs were because that was the custom the local orthodoxy upheld. No modernist interpretations of Islam, however popular, would expect to exert its customs in the mosque either. The same can be said of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem — protestant services cannot be held there, though it is considered a holy site to Protestants as well. The Western Wall should not be faulted, in a similar vein, for preserving the customs of those who administer it — namely, Israel’s orthodox Rabbinate.

I have seen some ultra-orthodox Jews behave disgracefully at the Kotel, including toward my own family this past Shavuot when I was teaching a Torah class in middle of the night to approximately 60 young men and women gathered in a circle. My children were pushed by extremists who were offended by even the idea of men and women merely sitting together in the very back of the Kotel plaza. These fundamentalists disgraced themselves. But they are no more representative of Judaism than Sachs’ tirade against the State of Israel is representative of egalitarian Jews.

The lesson, as always in the Middle East, is that the real danger to peace is not from people of good will but from extremists and fundamentalists who only know how to disagree with their opponents by demonizing them.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books including his most recent “The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

 [1] Alan Dowty, in Politics and Society in the Contemporary Middle East, 2nd ed., edited by Michael Penner Angrist, (Boulder, CO: Rienner Publishers, 2017), p. 309. 

People pray at the Western Wall on Jan. 12. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

UNESCO World Heritage Council votes to condemn Israeli actions in Jerusalem


The United Nations’ cultural agency voted to condemn Israeli actions in Jerusalem.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization’s World Heritage Council on Tuesday during its meeting in Poland passed a resolution submitted by the council’s Arab states rejecting Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem.

The resolution that was passed was a softened version of the original text submitted, reportedly due to pressure exerted by Israel and the United States.

The resolution was passed by a vote of 10 countries in favor, three opposed and eight abstentions.

The three states that opposed the resolution were Jamaica, the Philippines and Burkina Faso. The eight countries that abstained were: Angola, Croatia, Finland, Peru, Poland, Portugal, South Korea and Tanzania.

The resolution called Israel the “occupying power” and said that  the UN body “regrets the failure of the Israeli occupying authorities to cease the persistent excavations, tunneling, works, projects and other illegal practices in East Jerusalem, particularly in and around the Old City of Jerusalem, which are illegal under international law,” the Times of Israel reported, citing the resolution.

Unlike in previous years, the resolution stressed “the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions,” and does not refer to the Temple Mount compound solely by its Muslim names, “Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif,” instead calling it “a Muslim holy site of worship,” according to the Times of Israel.

A UNESCO resolution passed last October  ignored Jewish ties to the Western Wall and Temple Mount sites. In May, UNESCO approved a resolution that called on Israel to rescind any “legislative and administrative measures and actions” it has taken to “alter the character and status” of Jerusalem and rejected the idea of a “basic law” in Jerusalem, based off of a 1980 Knesset law, which implies that the city is one unified whole and governed solely by Israel.

The UNESCO World Heritage Council is expected to vote Friday on a resolution which would declare  the Old City of Hebron — including the Tomb of the Patriarchs — a Palestinian “World Heritage Site in danger.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on Friday sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova asking them to oppose the resolution that would designate Hebron as a Palestinian heritage site.

The resolution, in which  Palestinians claim that the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Old City of Hebron are endangered by the Israeli occupation, needs a two-thirds vote to pass.

In her letter, Haley said passage of the resolution could undermine the Trump Administration’s efforts to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Haaretz reported.

“The Tomb of the Patriarchs, which is sacred to three faiths, is in no immediate threat. Such a designation risks undermining the seriousness such an assessment by UNESCO should have,” Haley also wrote. “Many precious sites — from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Libya to Iraq to Syria — are under real and imminent threat of destruction today. They urgently demand UNESCO’s full and immediate attention, which should not be wasted on this sort of symbolic action.”

Jason Greenblatt, left, meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Jerusalem on March 13. Photo by Government Press Office

Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt returning to Jerusalem this week


Two top advisers to President Donald Trump, including his Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner, will return to Jerusalem this week to push for restarted peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The visits to Jerusalem and Ramallah by Kushner, a senior adviser to Trump, and national security aide Jason Greenblatt were widely reported on Sunday night, all citing unnamed White House officials. The visits were first reported in The Wall Street Journal.

It will be the first major peace push by the White House since Trump visited the region last month.

Kushner, who reportedly will arrive in Israel on Wednesday, is scheduled to meet in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Greenblatt is scheduled to arrive Monday in Jerusalem.

An unnamed White House official told The Wall Street Journal that no three-way talks are expected during the visits and that no major breakthroughs are anticipated. Reuters reported that the White House has been holding behind-the-scene talks since Trump’s visit at the end of May, which reportedly was planned by Kushner.

Unnamed White House officials cited by several news sources reiterated that an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians is a priority for the Trump administration.

Kushner is currently under scrutiny as part of the investigation into whether Trump officials colluded with Russia to sway the outcome of the presidential election.

Staff Sgt. Hadas Malka, 23, was killed in a knife attack at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, June 16.

Israeli police officer killed in Jerusalem stabbing, attackers killed


An Israeli policewoman was killed in a stabbing attack in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Two assailants attacked a group of officers with knives on Friday at Damascus Gate, The Times of Israel reported. Both were shot and killed. One of the attackers was reportedly holding a gun, but it jammed.

Staff Sergeant Major Hadas Malka, 23, was evacuated to Hadassah University Medical Center in critical condition from her stab wounds. Hospital officials later pronounced her dead.

Israeli security services later identified the attackers as 19-year-old Bara Ibrahim Muhammad Saleh; Adel Hassan Ahmad Anakush, 18; and Osama Ahmad Mustafa Atta, 19. All are from the West Bank.

The first attack occurred near Damascus Gate at the entrance of the Old City, resulting in the death of the Border Patrol officer.

The second attack reportedly occurred near Zedekiah’s Cave, located in the Muslim quarter of the Old City.

Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, visits the Western Wall on June 7. Photo by Ammar Awad/Reuters

Nikki Haley calls UN a ‘bully’ against Israel during meeting with Netanyahu


Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, called the U.N. a “bully” against Israel, during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu thanked the envoy for “standing up for Israel” in the U.N.

“You know, that’s all I’ve done, is tell the truth, and it’s kind of overwhelming at the reaction,” Haley said in response.

She called Israel-bashing at the U.N. “a habit.”

“It was something that we’re so used to doing,” she said. “And if there’s anything I have no patience for is bullies, and the U.N. was being such a bully to Israel, because they could.”

She added: “We’re starting to see a turn in New York. I think they know they can’t keep responding in the way they’ve been responding. They sense that the tone has changed.”

She said that some members of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, where she attended a meeting before arriving in Israel, were “embarrassed” by the council’s permanent Agenda Item Seven, which discusses “the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories,” and routinely singles out Israel for condemnation.

At the Human Rights Council meeting Tuesday, Haley said the U.S. is reconsidering its membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council, citing among other things bias against Israel.

“It’s hard to accept that this council has never considered a resolution on Venezuela and yet it adopted five biased resolutions in March against a single country – Israel,” Haley said Tuesday. “It is essential that this council address its chronic anti-Israel bias if it is to have any credibility.”

She also met Wednesday with Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin at his residence in Jerusalem.

Rivlin called Haley a “dear friend of Israel. We appreciate your strong stand on the world’s most important stage, in support of the security of the people and the State of Israel. With your support, we see the beginning of a new era. Israel is no longer alone at the U.N. Israel is no longer the U.N.’s punching bag.”

During her three-day visit to Israel,  Haley is expected to fly over the country’s northern and southern borders in a helicopter, visit Tel Aviv and lay a wreath at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial center. Haley’s visit to the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall are being billed as “private and religious,” however, and she will not be accompanied by Israeli officials. President Trump, during  his recent visit to holy sites in Jerusalem, was also unaccompanied by Israeli political leaders.

U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Photo via JTA.

American UN Ambassador Nikki Haley to visit Israel on Wednesday


U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley will visit Israel, including the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall.

Haley will arrive in Israel on Wednesday, according to Israeli news reports.

She is scheduled to meet with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as senior Palestinian officials, the Times of Israel reported.

Haley is scheduled to fly over the country’s northern and southern borders in a helicopter, visit Tel Aviv and lay a wreath at Yad Vashem, accompanied by Israel’s UN Ambassador Danny Danon. Her visit to the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall are being billed as “private and religious,” however, and she will not be accompanied by Israeli officials. President Trump, in his recent visit to holy sites in Jerusalem, was also unaccompanied by Israeli political leaders.

In an interview in May with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Haley said that the Western Wall belongs to Israel and that Israel’s capital is Jerusalem. “I don’t know what the policy of the administration is, but I believe the Western Wall is part of Israel and I think that that is how we’ve always seen it and that’s how we should pursue it,” Haley said. “We’ve always thought the Western Wall was part of Israel.”

The comments came in the wake of reports that a Trump administration official, responding to a request that Israeli officials accompany the president when he visited the Western Wall, replied that the Western Wall “is not your territory, it’s part of the West Bank.”

In the interview, Haley also reiterated her support for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

“Obviously I believe that the capital should be Jerusalem and the embassy should be moved to Jerusalem because if you look at all their government is in Jerusalem,” she said. “So much of what goes on is in Jerusalem, and I think we have to see that for what it is.”

As a candidate, Trump promised to move the embassy. But last week, Trump signed an order renewing the six-month waiver that allows the U.S. embassy to remain in Tel Aviv. An act of Congress in 1995 required relocating the embassy to Jerusalem, but successive administrations have delayed the change with a series of six-month waivers, citing national security concerns.

Ariel Sharon, third from left, meeting with his officers a week before the start of the Six-Day War, May 29, 1967, at their headquarters somewhere in southern Israel. Photo by Micha Han/GPO via Getty Images

‘I have a feeling the war is going to start tomorrow’: Three days in June 1967


Five days before the Six-Day War broke out in June 1967, the American reporter Abraham Rabinovich arrived in Jerusalem. When the war ended, he decided to remain and write an account of Israel’s lightning victory. Over the next two years he interviewed close to 300 soldiers and civilians. 

In this excerpt from the 50th anniversary edition of “The Battle for Jerusalem: An Unintended Conquest,”Rabinovich recounts the days leading up to the war’s start and the decisions of the Israeli politicians and generals on the ground.

(JTA) — The date for war was fixed on Friday, June 2, 1967, the day after Prime Minister Levi Eshkol relinquished the defense portfolio to Israel’s military icon, Moshe Dayan. For two weeks, Eshkol had blocked his generals’ demand for a strike against Egypt, but the signing of a defense pact between Jordan and Egypt had finally convinced him that war was inevitable.

At a meeting with Eshkol and Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, Dayan said that if the cabinet on Sunday approved a preemptive strike, the air force would carry it out the following morning. He rejected as irrelevant the army’s plans for attacking the Gaza Strip and the coastal guns overlooking the Tiran Straits, which Egypt had closed to Israel-bound shipping.

The army’s primary task, he said, was the destruction of Egypt’s tank divisions, the core of  its army. The brazenness of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in sending his army into Sinai, banishing a U.N. buffer force, and closing the straits meant that he no longer feared Israel. Therefore, Dayan argued, his challenge must be met head-on. The army would bring the Egyptian tank formations to battle and leave the Straits of Tiran and Gaza Strip for later. Rabin said that nothing would be done to provoke the Jordanians in order not to draw forces away from the Egyptian front. Jerusalem’s Old City was on no one’s agenda.

Air Force Commander Motti Hod had never revealed details of the preemptive strike to his colleagues on the general staff. Even now, at a meeting Saturday night, June 3, he revealed only one element: zero hour. The planes would strike at 7:45 a.m. Intelligence knew that the Egyptian air force mounted patrols from first light until 7 a.m. in anticipation of a possible Israeli attack out of the rising sun. At 7:45 the Egyptian pilots would be back at their bases having breakfast. Senior commanders lived off base and arrived about 8 a.m. They would still be in their cars when the planes struck. At zero hour, Israel’s armored divisions would shed camouflage netting and cross into Sinai.

Dayan, in his first press conference as defense minister that Saturday night, declared that the time for a spontaneous response to the closing of the straits had passed. A diplomatic solution, he said, would now be sought. At an English-language newspaper in Jordanian Jerusalem, skeptical journalists joked that they should run Dayan’s soothing remarks under the headline “Israel about to attack.”

Sunday morning, at the crucial cabinet meeting, several ministers asked that a decision be put off, but for the first time Eshkol came out clearly for war. Washington’s objection to an Israeli first-strike, while officially still in place, had softened,  he said, in the wake of the Jordanian-Egyptian pact. Washington had not flashed a green light, “but the light was no longer red.”

Dayan warned that if the Egyptians struck first (“to do to us what we want to do to them”), one of their first targets would be the nuclear reactor at Dimona, which the Egyptians believed was about to come on line. “Our only chance of winning the war is to initiate it and shape it,” he said. The cabinet voted 12-2 for military action.

Gen. Hod summoned his base commanders after the cabinet decision and informed them that the long-mooted attack would be launched in the morning. In the first wave, 160 planes would attack. Only 12 planes would remain behind  to guard Israel’s airspace.

Gen. Uzi Narkiss, commanding the Jordanian front, met Sunday night with his brigade commanders for a final briefing. He had been informed of the cabinet’s decision but gave no hint of it to his officers. On a wall map, an intelligence officer reviewed the Jordanian deployment. Five infantry brigades on the West Bank had been reinforced by an additional brigade, held in reserve 10 miles east of Jerusalem. Troops had been shifted in substantial numbers from rear encampments to the front line and Jordan’s two armored brigades were poised to cross the Jordan River to the West Bank. A large Iraqi force was expected to take up positions threatening  Israel’s narrow waist within a few days.

At Narkiss’ request, his brigade commanders rose in turn to outline their operational plans. The commander of the Jerusalem Brigade, Col. Eliezer Amitai, was restrained. The Jordanian army was considered the best in the Arab world. In the War of Independence, the Israeli army had failed to dislodge it from any  fortified position. The British officers who commanded the Arab Legion, as it was known then, were dismissed by Hussein a decade later and replaced by Jordanian officers but the army’s reputation remained.

Israel’s Jerusalem Brigade had more than twice as many men as the Jordanians opposite them in the city but it was a hometown unit of reservists, many of them over 30. Contingency planning called for an elite regular army unit to break through stout Jordanian defenses to relieve the 120-man garrison on Mount Scopus, a mile behind Jordanian lines, if it was threatened. But it was doubtful whether elite units could be spared for the task in a multi-front war.

At an Israeli position on Mount Zion, adjacent to the Old City, a platoon commander challenged one of his men to chess Sunday evening. There was little conversation as they concentrated on the board. Suddenly the officer looked up and said, “I have a feeling the war is going to start tomorrow.”

At Tel Nof air base, pilots were wakened at 3:45 a.m. on Monday, June 5. Filing into the briefing room, their eyes focused on the terse announcement on the blackboard: “Zero Hour 0745.” When all were seated, the squadron leader said, “Good morning. We go to war with Egypt today.”

In nearby orange groves, Col. Motta Gur’s reserve paratroop brigade had spent the night in anticipation of boarding troop carriers for a jump into Sinai. An officer rose before dawn and looked expectantly towards the air base but could see no sign of unusual activity. The troops were wakened at six, and the orchards were soon bustling. The men were making coffee when a succession of roars erupted from the airbase. As the sound intensified, planes began to rise above the tree line — dozens of them following each other into the sky like children playing tag. Low-slung with bombs and rockets, the aircraft wove themselves into formations of four and headed southwest at treetop level. At the airfield, a mechanic wept as the planes swept past him, wave after wave, glinting in the sky like a sword unsheathed. In the orchards the paratroopers watched in silence, awed by what they were seeing and by what they knew must come. They then drifted off to write postcards home. “We’re seeing the start of the war,” wrote one. “We hope it’s finished soon. We’ll do what we can to finish it soon.”

In the afternoon, Col. Gur was informed that the fast-moving tank divisions in Sinai would overrun the paratroopers’ planned target.  The brigade was being sent instead to Jerusalem to break through to Mount Scopus. No one in authority mentioned the Old City. Some, however, were beginning to think about it.


Abraham Rabinovich is a journalist born and raised in New York City. He is the author of six books, including “The Yom Kippur War,” “The Boats of Cherbourg” and “Jerusalem on Earth.” He lives in Jerusalem.

Israeli troops preparing for battle during the Six-Day War in 1967. Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images

6 things you didn’t know about the Six-Day War


The three paratroopers casting eyes upward at the Western Wall. The troops reveling in the waters of the Suez Canal. The sweeping views of a Galilee no longer vulnerable to shelling from atop the Golan Heights.

Not to mention Naomi Shemer’s anthem “Jerusalem of Gold,” reissued after the Six-Day War with a new verse celebrating access to the Old City. Or the settlements, the Palestinians, the tensions, the violence.

These – and many others – are the images, memories and challenges that persist after 50 years of triumph, soul searching and grief.

But there are anomalies – small, telling wrinkles in what the war wrought – that, if not quite forgotten, have faded into the recesses of memory. They are worth reviving to deepen our understanding of an event that changed Jewish history.

For 20 years, Jews paid fees to a symbol of Palestinian pride.

In the wake of Jerusalem’s reunification, its mayor, Teddy Kollek, was faced with a dilemma: Jewish neighborhoods were sprouting up in the eastern part of the city. Any attempt to extend electricity to them from the electricity provider in Israel would likely elicit local and international protest because the world did not recognize Israel’s claims to the city.

Kollek’s solution: Allow the Palestinian-run Jerusalem District Electric Company, or JDEC, predating Israel’s establishment, to continue providing power in and around the Old City, including the new Jewish neighborhoods.

So until 1987, Jews living in the Old City and the new neighborhoods received electric bills that seemed a mirror image of their other utility bills: First the text was in Arabic, then in Hebrew.

The JDEC held exclusive rights to a radius of 50 kilometers, or 31 miles, around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Old City site believed to be the site of Jesus’ burial.

After 1948, Israel assumed responsibility for providing electricity to western Jerusalem.

The JDEC, which had become a symbol of Palestinian aspirations for independence, was helmed by Anwar Nusseibeh, the scion of an ancient Palestinian family.

According to the 1999 book “Separate and Unequal,” about relations between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem, even after the JDEC’s limited capacities were exhausted by the rapidly expanding demand, Israeli authorities balked at extending the Israel Electric Corp.’s reach into eastern Jerusalem. Instead, the Israeli company sold capacity to the JDEC.

In December 1987, the government finally – quietly – shifted total responsibility for the Jewish neighborhoods to the Israeli company.

“Separate and Unequal,” penned by three Israelis – Amir Cheshin and Avi Melamed, two former municipality liaisons to the city’s Palestinian population, and journalist Bill Hutman – cited the conundrum as an example of the balancing act that Israeli officials had to perform: Maintaining a Jewish claim to the entire city, while at times deferring to Palestinian nationalism, in order to keep the peace.

“Israel could not expect to wipe out an important Palestinian national symbol without a reaction, possibly a severe reaction, from the Palestinian public,” they wrote.

The JDEC still exists, albeit providing electricity only to Palestinian residents.

King Hussein longed for peace — and liked his Israeli hardware.

King Hussein

King Hussein of Jordan at London Airport, May 4, 1964. (George Stroud/Express/Getty Images)

 

During most of his reign, King Hussein of Jordan sought a peaceful arrangement with Israel, taking a cue from his beloved grandfather, King Abdullah I, whom he saw assassinated in Jerusalem in 1951 because he was seeking peace with Israel.

Like his grandfather, he sought peace in secret but did not escape opprobrium – and was wary of meeting Abdullah’s fate. Hussein felt he had little choice but to join President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt in saber rattling against Israel in 1967 – Nasser, wildly popular in the Arab world, had already taunted the king as being subservient to Israel.

Moreover, Israel had humiliated Hussein a year earlier with a massive daylight raid into his territory to exact revenge for an attack carried out by Palestinian Fatah troops, who then operated with relative impunity from Jordanian soil.

According to historian Martin Gilbert’s “Jerusalem Illustrated History Atlas,” on June 4, 1967, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol relayed a message to Hussein: “We shall not initiate any action whatsoever against Jordan. However, should Jordan open hostilities, we shall react with all our might and (Hussein) will have to bear the full responsibility for all the consequences.”

At 8:30 a.m. the following day, Jordan started shelling western Jerusalem, and at 9:30 a.m., Hussein broadcast, “The hour of revenge has come.”

That kind of talk and the ensuing bloody battles — plus prior years that witnessed the destruction of Jewish properties in eastern Jerusalem and Hussein’s refusal for 19 years to allow Jewish access to the Western Wall — left some Israelis wondering whether Hussein truly sought peace.

The answers came over time – King Hussein drove Fatah out of Jordan in 1970 and in 1973 waited out the Yom Kippur War. In 1986, he came close to signing a peace deal with Israel.

In 1994, symbols bold and subtle made evident that Hussein had earned the trust of leading Israelis. The king was present at Israel’s Arava terminal when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed a peace treaty with his Jordanian counterpart, Abdelsalam al-Majali.

The next day Maariv, a newspaper then owned by the Nimrodi family, published a full-page photo captioned “1965, collection of Yaakov Nimrodi,” with no other comment. Nimrodi, the clan patriarch, was Israel’s leading private arms dealer.

In the photo, a smiling King Hussein is cradling an Israeli-manufactured Uzi submachine gun.

When did Israel unite Jerusalem? Did it unite Jerusalem?

Smoke rising from the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War, June 1967. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

“The future belongs to the complete Jerusalem that shall never again be divided,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said two years ago on Jerusalem Day, which marks the Hebrew calendar anniversary of Israel’s capture of eastern Jerusalem during the Six-Day War.

The adjectives vary – “complete,” “united,” “indivisible” — but the meaning is clear enough: Israel will never cede an inch of the Jerusalem it reunited.

Except when it formally reunited Jerusalem is not so clear: 1967? 1980? 2000? Ever?

On June 27, 1967, less than three weeks after the war’s end, Israel’s Knesset passed ordinances that allowed Israeli officials to extend Israeli law into areas of their designations. The next day, the Interior Ministry acted on those new ordinances, extending  Israeli law into the areas that now constitute the Jerusalem municipality. They included 28 Palestinian villages, the Old City and what had been defined by Jordan as municipal Jerusalem.

So, June 28, 1967, apparently is when Israel “united” Jerusalem. Except Ian Lustick, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, published a widely cited paper in 1997 that showed unification was not necessarily the intention of the 1967 ordinances.

An Interior Ministry news release on June 28, 1967, said the “basic purpose” of its order was “to provide full municipal and social services to all inhabitants of the city.” Absent was any expression of political purpose.

Not long after, Abba Eban, then Israel’s foreign minister, told the United Nations that the ordinances had a practical, not a national consequence.

“The term ‘annexation’ is out of place,” he said. “The measures adopted related to the integration of Jerusalem in the administrative and municipal spheres and furnish a legal basis for the protection of the Holy Places.”

As Lustick noted, even within these parameters, anomalies persisted: For decades, Jordanian curricula prevailed in Palestinian schools in eastern Jerusalem.

In 1980, the Knesset passed a Basic Law – what passes in Israel for a constitution – declaring united Jerusalem to be Israeli. “The complete and united Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” it said.

But left out of the law was a definition of what constituted the “complete and united” Jerusalem. It took until 2000 for the Knesset to pass an amendment to the 1980 Basic Law specifying that Jerusalem was defined by the Interior Ministry order of June 28, 1967.

So was 2000 when Israel formally set down in law what constituted the united, indivisible, complete Jerusalem?

Not exactly, according to a Haaretz analysis in 2015, which said the 1980 law is essentially declarative: Nowhere does it include the words “annexation” or “sovereignty.”

Marshall Breger and Thomas Idinopulos, in a 1998 Washington Institute for Near East Policy tract, “Jerusalem’s Holy Places and the Peace Process,” suggest that these are distinctions without a difference and say that Israeli court decisions that treat eastern Jerusalem as essentially annexed should be determinative.

The first Jewish settlement in the captured territories

There are plenty of dramatic markers in the history of the return of Jews to the areas Israel captured in the Six-Day War:

The first homes reoccupied by Jews in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, in 1969; the Jews, led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, who moved into a Hebron hotel to mark Passover 1968 and would not leave until the government allowed them to establish the settlement that would become Kiryat Arba; the settlers who would not leave the area of Sebastia in the northern West Bank until the government in 1975 allowed them to establish Elon Moreh.

But the first settlement? That would be Merom Golan, a kibbutz originally named Kibbutz Golan, when Israelis quietly moved in on July 14, 1967, just over a month after the war.

Why the urgency? A clue is in who founded the kibbutz: Israelis from the eastern Galilee, who had suffered potshots and shelling from Syrian troops for years.

The Israeli attachment to the West Bank and to Jerusalem has been from the outset one defined by emotion, history and identity. Occupying and settling the Golan Heights — an area traditionally not defined as within the boundaries of the biblical Land of Israel — was seen as a matter of security and practical necessity: Israel, atop the Golan, was less vulnerable.

These days, Merom Golan is a resort.

That ancient church in Gaza? It was a synagogue.

The Western Wall, Qumran, Shiloh, King Herod’s tomb – the Six-Day War was a boon for historians seeking evidence of ancient Jewish settlement in the Holy Land.

Most of these sites are in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. But a team of archaeologists rushed to the Gaza Strip within weeks of its capture.

Why? In 1966, Egypt’s Department of Antiquities announced the discovery of what it said was an ancient church on Gaza’s coast. Examining the pictures in the Italian antiquities journal Orientala, Israeli archaeologists immediately understood it was no church – it was a synagogue.

Visible in one photograph was a Hebrew inscription, “David,” alongside a harpist – King David.

According to an article published in 1994 in Biblical Archaeology Review, by the time the Israelis reached it a year later, the David mosaic had been damaged – evidence perhaps that the Egyptians understood that the biblical king’s depiction validated claims of ancient Jewish settlement and sought to erase it.

They set about excavating the site, which turned out to be one of the largest Byzantine-era synagogues in the region.

At the foot of one mosaic they found the following inscription: “(We) Menahem and Yeshua, sons of the late Isai (Jesse), wood traders, as a sign of respect for a most holy place, donated this mosaic in the month of Louos (the year of) 569.”

The quiet reunifications

Israeli soldiers approaching the Dome on the Rock in Jerusalem, June 7, 1967. (Newsmakers/Getty Images)

 

This was the myth: Between 1949 and 1967, the heart of a city identified since the beginnings of history with the Jews had been made Judenrein.

The myth was largely based in fact, but there were exceptions: Every two weeks, a convoy of Israeli troops would travel through Jordanian Jerusalem to Mount Scopus, the Hebrew University campus that remained Israel’s as part of the 1949 armistice. Intrepid non-Israeli Jews occasionally passed through the Mandelbaum Gate, the gateway between Jordanian and Israeli Jerusalem. Muriel Spark, the Scottish novelist, captured the danger in such a crossing in her 1961 novel “The Mandelbaum Gate.”

And then there were stories like this one: In 1991, the building where I owned an apartment obtained permission from the municipality to add rooms and balconies. The contractor subcontracted some of the work. One day, a gregarious Palestinian subcontractor came by to measure my balcony for the railing he would build.

But the contractor disappeared just before completing the job. I paid others to complete the work and asked around for the number of the subcontractor.

He lived in Silwan, the ancient neighborhood abutting the Old City. I called.

A woman speaking fluent Hebrew answered; this in itself was striking. It was not unusual for Palestinian men, who worked throughout Israel, to speak Hebrew, but it was a rarity at the time to encounter a Hebrew-speaking Palestinian woman. Moreover, her Hebrew was unaccented and flawless.

She was the subcontractor’s mother. Of course he would come and install the railing, it was gathering dust in their yard, and he had forgotten my exact address, she said Not only that, but I wasn’t to pay him a shekel extra, he had been paid for his work and wouldn’t hear of it.

I couldn’t resist asking her to explain her Hebrew.

She was Jewish, born and raised in Jerusalem. She had married a Palestinian Muslim before independence. And she remained in Silwan after the war. Did she reunite with family? Yes, she said, immediately after the Six-Day War, but would not elaborate.

The subcontractor came by.

“I spoke to your mother,” I said.

“Yes,” he said and smiled.

I asked the neighbors who had used the same contractor, I asked other Jerusalemites, and no one expressed surprise.

They had heard similar stories of excommunication and then tentative reunification. How many were there? No one knew. No one compiled these stories. There was no shame to the phenomenon, but neither was there a celebration of it.

It seemed unresolved, like so much else about the Six-Day War.

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Israeli soldiers, blowing the shofar at the Western Wall, Temple Mount, 1967

The Six-Day war anniversary: I can still hear the sirens, even though I was not yet born


A.

June 5, 1967. Fifty years ago, today. Israel launches an attack on Egypt. The Six-Day War begins.

Do you remember that day? I do not remember it, as I was not yet born at that time. And yet, I feel as if I almost remember it. I can taste the three weeks of apprehensive waiting for war. I can hear the sound of sirens and roaring airplanes. I can sense the amazed realization of sudden success. The dreamy – surreal – nature of great victory.

I was born a year after the war, like many other Israeli baby boomers. I was born early enough to still be able to imagine how it was like. But not early enough to be there. Also, I suspect, not early enough for my sons and daughters to be born at a time when such feelings of apprehension and amazement and glee still linger, available for the taking. For many young Israelis, and non-Israelis, the anniversary of the Six-Day war is not much different than the anniversary of the First World War, or the Second Punic War.

There was once a war. It was dramatic, or so they say. It was a long time ago. Before we were born. Before our parents were born. Soon it will be before our grandparents were born. Any attempt to connect the dots between then and now, to explain why certain events that happened fifty years ago still impact us today, might feel natural and easy for some of us. But for younger people it feels irrelevant. What was then is history. What is now is reality. The fact that the Six-Day War is or isn’t the reason for some of the challenges Israel faces today hardly matters.

B.

An anniversary is a good time for a photo-op, for a campaign, for fundraising. It is not a good time to resolve challenges. Not better than the time before it – or after it.

An anniversary is a good time for reflection, so we all reflect. We write and read books about the war and its consequences. We write and read articles about the war and its consequences. We unite in facing the challenge. We do not unite in prescribing a remedy for it.

I don’t know anyone for whom the anniversary has been an eye-opening experience. I don’t know anyone for whom the many books and articles published this week have served as a wakeup call for long-term action. I haven’t seen any surveys showing that attitudes are changing because of the anniversary.

Yesterday, the Israel Democracy Institute published interesting data on its web site. It is a series of surveys of Israelis from 50 years ago – from before, during, and after the war. In these surveys (the ones during and after the war), 94% of respondents, Jews from major cities, argued that Israel must hold the Old City of Jerusalem “at any cost.”

Has this changed after fifty years? It has, but not by much. According to one survey, 73% of Jewish Israelis today think that the Temple Mount must remain under Israeli control. They might agree to compromise on some Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem – as another survey found. But this is hardly a consolation for those seeking an agreed upon compromise in the Middle East. Can we have peace with the Palestinians without relinquishing Israeli control over parts of the so called Holy Basin? In a survey by Israel Hayom last weekend, 87% of Israelis say that if they’d have to choose between a peace agreement with the Palestinians and keeping the Old City under Israeli control – they’d accept the reality of no agreement and keep the territory.

What is the story that these numbers tell us? A simple story, really. Israel believes that many of the assets it acquired in the Six-Day War are more valuable than a dubious agreement with the Palestinians. Nothing thus far has convinced these Israelis that they ought to change their minds. In fact, they were actively convinced by the Palestinians (because of their violence and rejectionist approach) that an agreement with them is worth less than the tangible possessions that Israel collected fifty years ago.

C.

This should give one a realistic sense of what’s possible and what’s impossible as we mark the fifty year anniversary of the war. We can analyze, or reminisce, or mourn, or celebrate, or fundraise, or get angry, or get nostalgic, until some of us will get bored.

What we can’t do it turn the clock back.

And we can’t turn the clock forward either.

We are stuck in a certain situation. Not great, but also not as bad as some people argue. Far from ideal, but also far from being the worst imaginable situation. The fact that this situation has lasted for fifty years is not relevant. It was not ideal in the first fifty years, and it will still not be the end of the world after five hundred years.

The only question that matters today is not “how long has this been going on?” – but rather “do we have a way of changing it for the better?” If all we can do is change the situation for the worse, we ought not change it. In fact, it would be immoral to change it.

 

A group of Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall after it was recaptured in the Six-Day War. Photo by David Rubinger

Six-Day War: Voices after victory


Few wars fought on any soil have had as profound an impact as the Six-Day War, which began June 5, 1967. The Jewish Journal asked Jewish leaders and thinkers to assess the war’s aftermath 50 years later.

Six Days, Followed by 50 Years of Palestinian Posturing

The Six-Day War was a turning point. Until then, Arab leaders were all about avenging Palestine; the defeat in 1948 swept the old elites out of power and brought in younger ones from the military. They made Palestine the central issue — not to resolve it but to use it internally and in their rivalries with other Arab leaders to see who could dominate the Arab world. Pan-Arabism — one Arab nation — was the idiom, and Palestine was the vehicle around which it was built. That, for all practical purposes, ended after those six days in June 1967.

Dennis Ross

Palestinians, who had left their fate to the Arabs after 1948, now knew they could not count on them. Unfortunately, the Palestinian leaders — while claiming they now would assume responsibility for fulfilling national aspirations — found it easier to focus on symbols and not substance, rejection rather than reconciliation, and grievance rather than achievement. Even today, their tendency remains more a flag at the United Nations than state and institution-building. There are those like former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad who recognize that the State of Palestine is far more likely to emerge when the rule of law becomes more important than seeking resolutions in international forums that deny the Jewish connection to Jerusalem.

Israelis expected peace after the war. The Cabinet adopted a secret resolution on June 19, 1967, accepting withdrawal to the international border in return for peace with Egypt and Syria. More discussion was needed on the West Bank/Gaza. Israelis had not expected to be occupiers of what at that time were a million Arabs. The Oslo process was supposed to resolve the problem of occupation, but has not.

The challenge now — 50 years after 1967 — is for Israeli leaders to figure out how to avoid becoming a binational state when it is not clear that two states for two peoples can be negotiated, much less implemented, anytime soon.    

DENNIS ROSS is a former Middle East envoy and negotiator under four U.S. presidents.


From Auschwitz to Jerusalem and From Jerusalem to …

As the three-week buildup to the Six-Day War began, Jews sensed that Jewish life was again at risk, this time in the State of Israel. Once again, the world was turning its back. The United States would not come to Israel’s aid. The United Nations troops left.

Michael Berenbaum

A friend suggested that we bring the Israeli children to the U.S., where they would be safe. I decided that my place was to be in Israel. If the Jewish people were threatened, it was my fight, my responsibility. So instead of attending my college graduation ceremony, I left for Jerusalem. I was in the air when the June war began, and landed in Israel just in time to be in Jerusalem when the city was reunified.

I can still hear the words of the bus radio announcement as it was driving on old Highway 1: 

“An IDF (Israel Defense Forces) spokesman has said: The Old City is ours; I repeat the Old City is ours.”

I can still see the tears in the eyes of my fellow passengers as they embraced one another.

On the fifth day of the war, I went to Shabbat eve services and heard then-Israeli  President Zalman Shazar speak the words of “Lecha Dodi”: “ ‘Put on the clothes of your majesty, my people. … Wake up, arise.’ All my days I have prayed these words and now I have lived to see them.”

Never were those words more true. Never did they touch my soul more completely. I was a participant in Jewish history; I was at home in Jewish memory; I was embraced by Jewish triumph. However much skepticism — political and religious — has entered my understanding of that war and its consequences in the past 50 years, that moment is indelible in my soul and touched it, oh, so deeply.

My role in the war was anything but heroic. I organized a group of American volunteers to drive and work on garbage trucks. In that capacity, I helped clear the rubble of the war that divided Jerusalem at Jaffa Road and some of the stones from the homes demolished near the Wall. I was there on Shavuot when 100,000 Jews went to the Wall — under Jewish sovereignty for the first time in 1,878 years — and women in miniskirts danced alongside Charedi men, each fully absorbed in the moment, oblivious to the incongruity of what they were doing.

And yet, looking back, I think we are still fighting the Six-Day War, now a 50-years war. The “victory” has lost its majesty and mystery, though not its necessity. Even without walls in the center of Jaffa Street, Jerusalem is a divided city, nationally, ethnically and religiously. Repeated triumphs have not yielded security. The Jewish narrative is anything but simple: From Auschwitz to Jerusalem, and from Jerusalem of Gold to an earthly place divided and dividing. Time has made it more difficult to return to that heroic, miraculous moment -— more difficult but perhaps not less urgent.

MICHAEL BERENBAUM is a professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University.


Following Maestro’s Advice Changed His Life

Both of my parents are seventh-generation Israelis. On June 3, 1967, I was in medical school in Philadelphia studying for my med boards when the Arabs were surrounding Israel, screaming for its destruction.

Howard Rosenman

I flew to Israel,  volunteered as an intern in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and was stationed in Gaza. On the morning of June 8, my commanding officer, who knew of my family — called “Vatikay Yerushalayim” (“The Ancients of Jerusalem”) — said, “Tzahal [the Hebrew acronym for the IDF] is about to recapture the Old City. Go up to Jerusalem.”

I was there when Rabbi Shlomo Goren blew the shofar on Har ha’Bayit (the Temple Mount). It was the most important moment in my life.

I was then transferred to the Hadassah Medical Center, and Leonard Bernstein came to conduct Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony” on the newly reconquered Har ha’Tzofim (Mount Scopus).

Bernstein came to visit the volunteers. “You look exactly like a waiter of mine at a discotheque in New York City,” he said to me.

“I am your waiter,” I answered. He immediately invited me to the concert.

Afterward, at the party at the King David Hotel, he offered me a “gofer” job on the documentary film of “the maestro” conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Judea and Samaria for the Tzahal, with Isaac Stern playing the violin. It was a war zone and you couldn’t go unless you got special clearance. 

Lenny encouraged me to leave medical school: “You are too good of a storyteller. Go into the arts. You will never bow to the Mistress of Science.”

Back in Philly, while assisting on an amputation, I decided to take a leave of absence. I called up Mr. Bernstein and told him, “I took your advice.”

Mr. Bernstein then introduced me to Katharine Hepburn, whose assistant I became on [the Broadway musical] “Coco,” and Stephen Sondheim … and my life was never the same again.

HOWARD ROSENMAN is a Hollywood producer.


An Unexpected Narrative

Eight years ago, I happened to be in Memphis, Tenn., where I visited the National Civil Rights Museum. The guided tour was led by an elderly gentleman, probably in his early 80s, who introduced himself as a civil rights activist and a personal friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Sharon Nazarian

As he walked us through the museum, we arrived in the hall showcasing an actual Freedom Rider bus. He proceeded to share with us the story of young students bravely coming to Memphis, in racially mixed groups, to show solidarity with the civil rights movement.

Knowing that many of the courageous riders were Jewish students, I raised my hand to ask his perspective on the role of the American-Jewish community in the civil rights struggle.

His answer has plagued me to this day. He said that at the height of the civil rights battles, the Jewish community had stood side by side with the African-American community, that is, until the 1967 Six-Day War.

During and after the war, he said, the attention and passion of the Jewish community turned completely toward Israel and away from the equal rights struggle in the United States. He went on to say that he, along with the leadership of the civil rights movement, felt completely abandoned and forgotten and continue to feel that way to this day.

Although this was a narrative I had never heard before, it helped explain what may have been the beginning of the deep rift that has taken hold between the Jewish and Black communities in the U.S., as felt and viewed from the perspective of the African-American community. We are still realizing the ripple effects of those momentous six days; this is another ripple that continues to impact our community here in the U.S.

SHARON NAZARIAN is president of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation.


Millennials and the War

Jesse Gabriel

For my parents and many of their friends, the Six-Day War brings to mind David Rubinger’s iconic photograph of Israeli paratroopers standing in front of the Western Wall, their hopeful young faces an indelible reminder of Israel’s miraculous military victory less than 25 years after the Holocaust. But for many millennials, the Six-Day War is not what comes to mind when they think about Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. On the contrary, my peers have tended to view Israel largely through the lens of more recent conflicts. As we tell Israel’s story on college campuses and to a new generation of U.S. policymakers, we should keep in mind that Israel’s incredible contributions to science and technology, its vibrant democracy and free press, and its commitment to treating victims of the Syrian civil war are likely to resonate more strongly than its struggle for survival in 1967.

JESSE GABRIEL is an attorney and board member of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.


Six-Day War: A Poem

Rabbi David Wolpe

The war
Became the wall.
But it was also
Families fleeing, fighters dying
Ghosts returning, rejoicing.
The city no longer a widow
The people no longer an orphan.
The tangle of promise and power
Tight as a schoolgirl’s braids.
And the Jews,
Bearing rifles and regulations
Dove deeper into history,
Brutal, fickle history,
Afraid
And unafraid.

RABBI DAVID WOLPE is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple.

Left: An undated picture of Mula Goldman during his service as a paratrooper for the Israel Defense Forces. Right: Goldman recently at his home in Tarzana. Photo by Eitan Arom

Mula Goldman on the Six-Day War: ‘You can’t even think about losing’


Two weeks after Sam “Mula” Goldman was discharged from active duty military service in May 1967, war broke out in between Israel and its neighbors. Around him, Tel Aviv began to empty out as the fighting-age men went to war.

“The way you mobilize at that time was you just go from door to door, people go get people,” he said in a recent interview.

But because he had just left active service and wasn’t yet on the roster of reservists, nobody came to get him. So, unbidden, Goldman turned up to his unit. It was never a question of whether he should report for duty.

“When there is a war, you go fight the war,” he said, speaking on the phone from Texas.

Goldman now works in construction, commuting between Tarzana and Dallas. His three sons, all of whom live in the United States, also were Israel Defense Forces soldiers, including one, Erez, the Los Angeles regional director of the Israeli American Council, who was a paratrooper like his father.

Fighting in 1967 was something like a rite of passage for many members of Goldman’s generation. In Israel, war is a fact of life, he said.

“It’s part of growing up,” he said. “It’s part of the culture. … But we don’t make a big deal out of it. You’re not unique. Many people go through the same thing, you know what I’m saying? You don’t brag about being in the army.”

When Goldman reported for duty, the army found a job for him, commissioning him to organize a unit that would drop behind enemy lines with mortar equipment.

“We were trained only a few days,” he said. “I never dealt with that stuff before.”

The plan was to jump out of planes into the Mitla Pass in the Sinai Desert. But on the way to the plane, plans changed and the mission was canceled. Instead, Goldman was sent to the Sinai to fight alongside regular infantry. Then, plans changed again, and Goldman was moved to the Golan Heights.

“All the way across the country,” he said. “And then everything was so quick — in six days it was over, man.”

For the remainder for the war — three or four days — Goldman fought a literal uphill battle in the Golan, exchanging mortar fire with Syrian forces until the Israelis gained the higher ground.

The experience was not without its frightening moments, but actual battle left no room for the emotion, he said. “You’re afraid on the way going there, on the way back maybe. While you’re doing it, eh — no time to be afraid.”

Instead, Goldman’s narrative betrays a tone of absolute necessity, where failure was simply out of the question.

“In Israel, you can’t even think about losing,” he said. “You gotta win. Losing is not an option. … If Israel lost the Six-Day War, there wouldn’t be Israel anymore.”

As the child of Holocaust survivors, the thought of annihilation was not far from Goldman’s mind. Of his mother’s 12 siblings, only four survived World War II. Goldman himself was born in 1946 in the displaced persons camp at Bergen-Belsen before his parents took him to Israel two years later.

“We grew up with the slogan, ‘Never again,’ ” he said. “So, of course, it’s in the background.”

But after the war, any fear evaporated, replaced almost overnight by jubilation.

“We lived for a little while in a euphoria. We the garesh [apostrophe],” he said, a reference to the Jewish state’s diminutive size. “The little Israel can do what nobody can do.”

Shortly after the war, Goldman moved to Pennsylvania to attend Philadelphia University, but Israel was never far from his heart. When war broke out again in 1973, he decided to join the fray. By his telling, Israeli expatriates were fighting for seats on flights to Tel Aviv.

“Of course, you don’t have to go,” he said, “but I came. I wasn’t by myself. A lot of people did it.”

Why join a war when you’re tens of thousands of miles away with no specific obligation to fight?

“Because that’s your country,” Goldman said. “What do you mean? It’s your country, and if not you, who will?” n

Left: David Bahat, wearing the red beret of the Israeli paratroopers, with his wife, Hannah, in 1968, shortly after his service in the Six-Day War. Right: David and Hannah at the Grand Canyon in April. Photos courtesy of David Bahat

David Bahat on the Six-Day War: ‘Like sitting ducks just waiting for the war’


David Bahat used to marvel at the paratroopers who would practice their jumps near where his family lived, in a refugee camp outside Tel Aviv.

His parents brought him there from Baghdad in 1951 and moved into a shack in Kiryat Ono. The contrast between dirt-poor immigrants like Bahat and the men heroically throwing themselves from planes was vast. He and his elementary school friends used to ditch class to watch them.

“We were fascinated to see the people jumping,” he said in an interview in his Encino home. “I was maybe 8 years old at that time. I said, ‘I want to be a paratrooper.’ ”

Less than 10 years later, Bahat lived up to that dream, donning the red beret worn by the elite soldiers. But he describes his own service fighting with Hativat HaTzanchanim, Israel’s legendary paratroopers brigade, in 1967 as nothing more than an ordinary man called on to do his duty.

“I don’t consider myself a hero,” he said. “I just happened to be a young paratrooper who was in the service at that time and ended up in the war.”

Bahat agreed to an interview only reluctantly, worried about portraying himself as something extraordinary rather than a person who just did what was expected of him in the service of his country. Eventually, though, he agreed to meet a reporter at his townhome, answering the door on his day off in gym shorts and an AC/DC T-shirt. “I’m a classic rock kind of guy,” he explained.

Bahat, 67, was a 17-year-old soldier when tensions began to escalate between Israel and its neighbors in May 1967. He and his unit were sent to the Negev Desert to await action, where they slept under the stars, battle ready.

“We were on alert for, like, three weeks, like sitting ducks just waiting for the war,” he said.

Bahat saw combat during the six days of hostilities, “but it’s something that I don’t like to talk about. It’s war,” he said.

Instead, he chose to recall other memories, like listening to the news that came in from the other theaters of battle — of victories in Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. As much as they could, other units kept Bahat and his companions up to date via radio with what was going on. Meanwhile, he said, an Egyptian station was broadcasting false news reports in broken Hebrew aimed at demoralizing the Israeli troops, relating how Arab armies had taken Tel Aviv.

Tuning into the broadcasts from his fellow soldiers scattered across the country, Bahat was particularly moved to hear about the unification of Jerusalem under Israeli rule. He used to spend his summers there as a kid, visiting relatives, and always was confused when he turned a street corner and suddenly came face to face with barbed wire and barricades.

“I couldn’t understand,” he said. “It’s like you go on Ventura Boulevard and all of a sudden there’s a border there. As a kid, I could not comprehend that. … So when I heard in Sinai in the war that Jerusalem was liberated, the first thing that came to mind was, ‘Now I can actually cross that street.’ ”

Another cherished memory comes from the second day of the war, when Mike Burstyn, the Israeli-American actor and singer, came to entertain Bahat’s unit at Rafiah.

The soldiers arranged their jeeps and turned on their headlights to create a makeshift stage, and Burstyn pulled out a piece of paper on which singer-songwriter Naomi Shemer had written the lyrics to her new song, “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (Jerusalem of Gold), which would later become an anthem for a reunified Jerusalem. For years afterward, Bahat would tell his wife that the first time he heard the song was from Burstyn in the midst of war and chaos in the Sinai Desert.

About five or six years ago, Bahat ran into Burstyn at an event in Los Angeles and reminded the performer about the show in the Sinai.

“We both were crying,” Bahat said, choking up at the recollection. “He didn’t believe he could see a guy after 40 years here who remembered that he came to Rafiah the second day [of the war].”

After finishing his military service, Bahat returned to civilian life and married his elementary school sweetheart. In 1976, with two young daughters in tow, they moved to Los Angeles and ended up in the San Fernando Valley, where Bahat works in the jewelry business. With his wife, Hannah, an administrator and teacher at Wise School, he has eight grandchildren.

From time to time, he talks about his wartime experiences with his grandchildren, to make sure they understand the State of Israel and its origins. But sometimes, they just want to hear about his exploits.

“ ‘Saba, how can you jump from a plane? Were you scared?’ ” he said, recalling their inquires. “All kinds of questions like that. They take pride.”

President Donald Trump touches the Western Wall on May 22. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Trump signs waiver, won’t move embassy to Jerusalem now


President Donald Trump signed an order to renew the six-month waiver that allows the U.S. embassy to remain in Tel Aviv rather than moving it to Jerusalem.

As a candidate, Trump promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem, which was required by an act of Congress in 1995 but which successive administrations have delayed with a series of six-month waivers, citing national security concerns. The latest waiver, signed by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, expired on Thursday.

Trump’s signing of the waiver was first reported Thursday morning by the New York Times, though there had been much speculation in political circles and in the media that he would do so.

“While President Donald J. Trump signed the waiver under the Jerusalem Embassy Act and delayed moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, no one should consider this step to be in any way a retreat from the President’s strong support for Israel and for the United States-Israel alliance,” the White House said in a statement announcing the signing of the waiver. “President Trump made this decision to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, fulfilling his solemn obligation to defend America’s national security interests. But, as he has repeatedly stated his intention to move the embassy, the question is not if that move happens, but only when.”

Trump did not discuss the waiver publicly during his visit to Jerusalem late last month. He was, however, the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall. He has stated that he would like to broker the “ultimate deal,” a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians with the approval of the rest of the Arab world. He reportedly was convinced on his recent visit to Saudi Arabia and to the Palestinian Authority that moving the embassy at this time would imperil such a deal.

The United States, like most countries throughout the world, does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Israel calls all of Jerusalem its “undivided capital,” while the Palestinians consider eastern Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement issued by his office said that Israelis “disappointed” that the embassy will not move at this time.

“Israel’s consistent position is that the American embassy, like the embassies of all countries with whom we have diplomatic relations, should be in Jerusalem, our eternal capital,” the statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office said. “Maintaining embassies outside the capital drives peace further away by helping keep alive the Palestinian fantasy that the Jewish people and the Jewish state have no connection to Jerusalem.”

“Though Israel is disappointed that the embassy will not move at this time, we appreciate today’s expression of President Trump’s friendship to Israel and his commitment to moving the embassy in the future,” the statement said.

J Street in a statement, welcomed Trump’s decision to sign the waiver, calling it “in keeping with 20 years of bipartisan policy” since the passage of the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act.

“J Street believes that Jerusalem is absolutely central to the history, culture and identity of the Jewish people. We look forward to it, one day, being recognized by the entire world as Israel’s capital, as part of a negotiated two-state solution,” the statement also said.

An aerial view shows the Dome of the Rock (R) on the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, and the Western Wall (L) in Jerusalem's Old City October 10, 2006. REUTERS/Eliana Aponte/File Photo

Jerusalem is already divided? Think again


All I will do today is draw your attention to an interim report by the Jewish People Policy Institute about Jerusalem and the Jewish People. This short summary of a much longer report scheduled for the end of the summer was presented two weeks ago, just before Jerusalem Day, to the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat.

The report is not very long and you can read it here, but I’d like to tie some of its findings to a survey that was released two days ago by Israel’s Walla news (Hebrew only).

What JPPI reported, based on its Structured World Jewish Dialogue on Jerusalem, is that “most Jews in Israel and Dialogue participants around the world believe that Jerusalem’s development is moving in the ‘wrong direction.’” That is to say: hundreds of participants in discussions held by the institute in Jewish communities around the world agreed with the statement: “Jerusalem is moving in the wrong direction.” Similarly, a survey JPPI conducted in Israel showed that a majority of Jewish Israelis believe that Jerusalem is moving in the wrong direction.

So do we have a consensus? No, we do not. As we reported (we is my JPPI colleague John Ruskay and me), there are in fact “three circles of reference” when discussing Jerusalem’s direction. Jews around the world “are highly concerned about the direction in which the city is moving.” 70% of them – and by “them” we mean the 500 dialogue participants – assert that it is moving in the wrong direction. Jews in Israel “also have a relatively dim view of the city’s current trajectory.” Based on our survey, 60% of them argue that it is moving in the wrong direction. However – and we believe that this is significant – “the Jewish residents of Jerusalem have a much more positive assessment of the direction the city is taking.” Namely, “the people who are most familiar with the city also have a more positive view of the direction in which it is moving.”

Here’s the graph with the numbers. Note that the numbers concerning world Jewry are from a self-selected group of JPPI dialogue participants, while the numbers from Israel are drawn from a poll of a representative sample of all Jewish Israelis.

The report also argued that Jews are highly connected to Jerusalem. JPPI asked Dialogue participants to coin slogans meant to strengthen the connection of Jerusalem to world Jewry, and many proposed taglines such as “Jerusalem – Welcome Home” and “Jerusalem – Our City.” Half “completely” agreed with the statement “When visiting Jerusalem I feel at home,” and 30 percent more “somewhat” agreed with this statement. And, of course, not all Jews connect to Jerusalem with similar intensity. The sense of connection among Jews around the world is stronger for religious Jews than for secular Jews and stronger among Orthodox Jews than Reform Jews. In Israel, based on JPPI’s survey of Israelis, it is stronger among Jews who define themselves as “right wing” than among Jews who self-identify as “left wing.”

What we do not have in the JPPI data but do have now, thanks to Walla news (they used the same pollster we use at JPPI, Menachem Lazar of Panels Politics), is numbers on how many Israeli Jews visit the parts of Jerusalem that make the city a special place – that is, the holy city, the old city, or, if you want to describe it in political terms, the eastern part of the city.

The survey asked Jewish Israelis when was the last time they visited East Jerusalem. 50% of Jewish Israelis reported that they’ve been to eastern parts of Jerusalem in the last year. I was surprised by this number. It seems high. An additional 30% of Israeli Jews reported having been to East Jerusalem in the past five years. Only 3% say there have never been to that part of Jerusalem (12% have been there in the “last decade”).

What do we learn from this? We learn that at least some of the familiar the-city-is-already-divided song is not accurate. 80% of Jewish Israelis have visited the eastern part of Jerusalem in the past five years. It’s hard to believe that a similar number would have visited these areas had they not been under Israeli jurisdiction. Should they therefore remain under Israeli jurisdiction? A majority of Jewish Israelis say yes. But their answer is not always consistent – as is the answer of JPPI dialogue participants (that is, highly engaged Jews from around the world).

As JPPI reported: “when it comes to the nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the issue of who should control the city, and whether there should be a compromise that divides the city between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews are more ambivalent, and at times even contradictory. On the one hand, a clear majority of more than 70 percent agreed that ‘The Temple Mount must remain under Israeli jurisdiction.’ A 55 percent majority agreed that ‘Jerusalem should never be divided.’”

Yet, “when presented with a more nuanced statement regarding a theoretical peace arrangement they responded differently”. 61% of world Jews that we interviewed agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement: “In the framework of a permanent peace with the Palestinians, if satisfied with the rest of the agreement, Israel should be willing to compromise on the status of Jerusalem as a united city under Israeli jurisdiction.”

So “even though a majority oppose a division of Jerusalem, and even though a majority oppose non-Israeli control over the ‘Holy Basin’ – a clear majority was still willing to ‘compromise on the status of Jerusalem as a united city under Israeli jurisdiction’ under the above-mentioned circumstances of a satisfactory, durable peace agreement.” A confusing, contradictory, position. As confusing as the state of Jerusalem.

 

 

 

 

The Western Wall and Dome of the Rock in the old city of Jerusalem. Photo via WikiCommons

The problem with Jerusalem


In 1967, when Israeli paratroopers stormed the Old City of Jerusalem and commander Mordechai “Motta” Gur proclaimed, “Har HaBayit BeYadeinu (the Temple Mount is in our hands!)” — the Six-Day War had reached its historic and emotional climax.

“The events of 1967 did for Judaism what 1948 did for Jewish nationalism,” B’nai David-Judea Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky said during the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Six-Day War conference.

The reunification of Jerusalem and the assertion of Jewish religious primacy there “returned Judaism to the stage of world history,” he said.

For the first time in two decades, the Jews had regained access to their holiest sites — including the Temple Mount and the Western Wall — and brought a “reunified” Jerusalem under their control for the first time since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

But a Jewish-controlled Jerusalem came with a price: East Jerusalem, the location of the holy sites, was an Arab-majority neighborhood. And the Temple Mount — where Jews believe the world began, where the first human was created, and where Abraham bound his son Isaac — also happens to be one of Islam’s holiest sites.

Known in Arabic as Haram esh-Sharif, the Temple Mount is home to the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, and is the place Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven on the Night Journey. It is considered the third-holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina.

While Jews have made the Western Wall the focus of their prayer life, the Temple Mount remains the most contested holy site in the world. And yet, it is only one aspect of a larger quarrel over Jerusalem, in which Christians also have a stake: Jesus Christ arrived in Jerusalem to preach his message to the masses, and, according to Christianity, was crucified, resurrected and ascended to heaven from there.

Throughout history, the “City of Peace” also has seen violent discord. Even as Jerusalem remains under Israeli control, efforts to discount one another’s claims to the city persist.

Before the anniversary of reunification, I asked Israeli tour guide Michael Bauer why Jerusalem remains a quandary. He identified several areas that explain, at least in part, the gaps separating the aspirations of each faith tradition and the reality of political Jerusalem.

Knowledge: Both within Israel and the Palestinian territories, there is a concerted effort to teach identity-building, nationalistic versions of history that do not leave room for learning about other faiths or alternative perspectives.

“I’m shocked when I see kids finishing high school and they literally don’t know anything about Christianity, which is, in a way, part of our history and part of our surroundings,” Bauer said. “I also teach the Palestinian narrative in a pre-army program, and if I don’t do that, no one does it. I’m always shocked at the lack of knowledge.”

The same is true of Palestinians: Most are not taught about Jewish religious and historical claims to the land, leaving both sides mostly ignorant of the other’s place there.

Emotion: “Jerusalem is where all the emotions are,” Bauer said. “For things to get better in Jerusalem, things need to be solved around Jerusalem.”

After 1967, Bauer pointed out, Arab Muslims were humiliated at losing control of Jerusalem, a defeat made worse by the fact that they had to pass through Israeli security checkpoints to visit their holy sites. Until their dignity is restored through political compromise, Jerusalem remains a proxy for conflict.

History versus faith: “When you walk in Jerusalem, you’re looking at stories which for one person is history and for another is faith,” Bauer said. “If I say the words ‘Jesus,’ and ‘resurrected,’ one person in front of me has heard not only a fact but maybe one of the most important facts of his life, because to believe in resurrection is a fact that defines his Christianity. But for a Jew or Muslim, they’ve heard something that they think is just not true.”

Historical and spiritual claims are equally fraught in a place that encompasses both.

Human frailty: “Religion is not the problem in Jerusalem. The problem is people,” Bauer said. “They don’t know how to get along with ‘the other’ too well. And in Jerusalem, there are a lot of ‘others’ in one small place. As long as people do not know how to live with someone different, Jerusalem will be challenged.”

This pretty much explains why we need religion in the first place.

But let’s face it: Except for periodic skirmishes and flare-ups, and the intrareligious conflicts that plague all three faiths’ holy sites, Jerusalem has been in pretty good hands since ’67.

“Most days, it works,” Bauer said. “It depends what you want to focus on. You can choose to see a reality that is very conflicted. Or you can take another look, walk the same route in a different mood, and you will see coexistence.”

A historian, Bauer prefers to look at the precedents of the past rather than predict the future.

“Through everything that has happened over 3,000 years, there were eras of stability,” he said. “Last year was terrible in Jerusalem; there were stabbings all the time and al-Aqsa was a horrible place to visit. There were kids and women yelling at every Jew that went up there, singing songs, ‘With blood we will redeem Palestine.’ But it’s not happening there now. It’s a different Jerusalem from last year. It’s like a roller coaster. Things get better and then they get worse again.”


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

People pray at the Western Wall on Jan. 12. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Why Are There Two Jerusalems?


Why is Yerushalayim plural,

One on high and one below?…

I want to live in one “Yerushal,”

Because I am just “I” and not “I”s.

—- Yehuda Amichai, “Open Closed Open”

 

Welcome to one of the great grammatical conundrums in the history of Jewish geography: why is the Hebrew word for Jerusalem – Yerushalayim — in the plural form?

Because, in fact, there is not one Jerusalem; there are two.

On a political level, there are two Jerusalems — the “new city” of west Jerusalem, and the Old City and eastern Jerusalem — two entities forged into one fifty years ago with the Six Day War.

On a linguistic level, there are two Jerusalems – Yerushalayim in Hebrew; al-Quds (“the holy city”) in Arabic.

On a geographical level, there are two Jerusalems. Jerusalem is on the border between the coastal plain that leads to Tel Aviv, and the wilderness that begins to its east. As soon as you leave Jerusalem, and head east, the Asian desert begins. Jerusalem, therefore, is at the nexus point of a Mediterranean climate and central Asian climate.

What is the origin of the “two Jerusalem” theory?

The first mention of Jerusalem in the Hebrew Bible is in Genesis 14, in the account of Abram’s war against the kings.

There Abram encounters Melchizedek, who is both the king of Salem and a priest of the Canaanite god El Elyon, God Most High. Melchizedek greets Abram with bread and wine and blesses him in the name of El Elyon. It is the first interfaith dialogue in history. There, the place is called Salem, or Shalem.

A few chapters later, in Genesis 21, Abraham returns to that place. He brings his son, Isaac, to “the land of Moriah” as a potential sacrifice.

Abraham calls the place Adonai-yireh, “God will see” — or simply, Yireh.

Abraham named the place Yireh, and Melchizedek knew it as Shalem. Yireh-Shalem becomes Yerushalayim. Those two names are soldered together: One name, given to it by a pagan king who blesses Abraham — representing the possibility of peace; and another name, given to it by Abraham himself, representing the presence of God and the sacrificial offerings that will be there at that place.

Peace between people and peace with God — wedded together in one name. A promise and a goad. A duality.

But, there is far more than this; as the late poet, Yehuda Amichai, intimates, there is a spiritual duality as well.

Jerusalem is Yerushalayim because of a subtle duality that is nevertheless omnipresent in our literature and thinking — the earthly Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel matah) and the heavenly Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel maalah).

Where does one begin on this quest for the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly Jerusalem?

The idea of a supernal Jerusalem begins in Isaiah 6. The prophet has a vision of God in a supernal temple, surrounded by angelic beings, each one chanting “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts.”

The rabbis imagined that the heavenly Jerusalem served as an alternative and antidote to the real, imperfect Jerusalem. Their fantasies took on new fervor after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. They believed that the heavenly Jerusalem had its own temple with its own elite of priests and prophets.

Resh Lakish said: There are seven firmaments, and in one of those firmaments there is a place where millstones grind manna for the righteous, and in one of those firmaments there is a place where the heavenly Jerusalem, and the Temple, and the very altar are built, where the angel Michael stands and every day brings an offering.

The Rabbis idealized Jerusalem, twisting it beyond its own reality. For them, the mountains of Jerusalem pointed straight to heaven. They imagined Jerusalem as a place where no woman ever miscarried, where no one was ever stung by serpent or scorpion, where the fires of the altar were never doused with rain, where no wind blew the pillar of smoke over the worshipers.

The idea of a heavenly Jerusalem exists in Christianity as well.

For Christians, the earthly Jerusalem is Jewish and sinful; the heavenly Jerusalem, Christian and righteous. The heavenly Jerusalem is the place of the new covenant sealed through the blood of Jesus.

But you are come unto mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant. (Hebrews 12:22-24)

The ultimate vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem comes from Revelations. John sees the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband in gold and precious stones.

I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is the new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name…And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. (Revelations 3;12)

For Christians, the heavenly Jerusalem was not real. It was an ideal. In the Middle Ages, there were many fanciful descriptions, maps, and paintings of Jerusalem, each one showing Jerusalem as the center of the world, as the sages themselves imagined it – as axis mundi.

The idea of the heavenly Jerusalem finds its way into even the very architecture and design of the modern city of Jerusalem.

Anyone who has been to Jerusalem marvels at the beauty of Jerusalem stone as a building material.

The man who first figured this out was Sir Ronald Storrs, the first British military governor of Jerusalem, and a vicar’s son. He enacted a law that permitted only Jerusalem stone to be used as a building material used in construction in Jerusalem. In his memoirs recalls the medieval hymn “Jerusalem is built in heaven/ Of living stone.” He believed that the earthly Jerusalem should be a replica of the heavenly Jerusalem.

By contrast, the Jewish view of the heavenly Jerusalem is that it is actually not entirely in heaven.

In fact, the heavenly Jerusalem is adjacent to the earthly Jerusalem.

Towards where should we pray? Rabbi Hiyya said: Toward the heavenly Holy of Holies. Rabbi Simeon ben Halafta said: Toward the earthly Holy of Holies. Rabbi Pinchas said: There is no disagreement here. The earthly holy of holies is directly opposite the heavenly Holy of Holies. (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 4:5).

Jerusalem represents the revealed presence of God in human history. In the liturgy, in seder kriat ha-Torah (the service for the reading of the Torah), you would expect references to the place from which Torah came – Sinai.

Not so. Instead, Jerusalem has a starring role. As we take the Torah from the ark, we echo the plaintive cry of Jews in Jerusalem during Crusader times: “Rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.” “For out of Zion Torah goes forth, and the word of God from Jerusalem.” In fact, the revelation at Sinai is absent; instead, the Torah service asks us to remember and dramatize the first time that Ezra read the Torah to the returning exiles at the newly built, makeshift second Temple.

Jerusalem represents the homecoming of the soul. At the end of Neilah, as well as at the end of Pesach seder: “Next year in Jerusalem!”

We can understand singing those words at the end of the seder; we have just imagined ourselves leaving Egypt, and about to trek into the wilderness on our way to the land of Israel/

But, why do we say those words at the end of the Day of Atonement? Because, here, Jerusalem is not “really” Jerusalem. It is a metaphor for inner wholeness, forgiveness, and redemption.

Jerusalem ultimately represents God. The Jerusalem Talmud says that in days to come, the name of the city will be “Adonai is there.” “Do not read ‘shama,’ there, but rather, shemah — her name.”

Jerusalem and God will have the same name.

Let us not read this as the deification of a city.

Rather, let us read this as the urbanization of an ideal of holiness.

Let us return to the Christian perception of the heavenly Jerusalem.

Because Jerusalem is not just Jerusalem. It is, properly, Zion – and beyond that, it is the state of Israel itself.

A theology is only as good as the implications that flow from it. Were it not for Christian (more precisely, British) philo-semitism of the nineteenth century, Zionism could never have come into existence. Sir Ronald Storrs – but not only Storrs, Balfour himself – personified that thrust. Christian Zionism is itself a child of this phenomenon – an over-idealization of the Jews and their land.

Over the last fifty years, since the Six Day War, criticism of the state of Israel – its policies, and even its very existence – has mounted. While some of the sharper, more pointed critiques verge on anti-Semitism, not all of them do.

Some, in fact, are the results of a welcome, but ultimately misplaced, philo-semitism. It is the expectation — not that Jews are devils, but that they should be angels. The same should be true of a Jewish state – that it should be angelic, perfect, beyond reproach.

Christian perceptions of the heavenly Jerusalem crowd into the public imagination. It is the problem of a misplaced philo-semitism. Like anti-semitism, philo-semitism relies on distorted, fantastical views of Jews and Judaism. Philo-semitism can become a malevolence, masked in benevolence. In fact, this love-hate relationship with Jews and Judaism is one of the most pre-dominant themes in Christian history.

Philo-semitism is the hope – even the expectation – of the moral excellence of the Jewish people. It is a moral excellence that has yet to be achieved.

The liberal Christian philo-semite does not hate the Jew because the Jew has rejected Jesus. The liberal Christian philo-semite is merely disappointed with the Jew because the Jews have not yet lived up to the advertisements of moral excellence that they have created for themselves. The liberal Christian philo-semite sees the reality of the earthly Jerusalem – an Israel that must still fight, has problematic policies, where the people are far from saintly – and is disappointed, sometimes, radically disappointed — that the heavenly Jerusalem is not yet here. They are not like the fabled Southern anti-semites who used to look for the horns on the Jews they met. They are looking for angel’s wings. And when they do not find those wings, the disappointment can become anger, can become hatred.

That disappointment with the all-too-human, realpolitik failures of the Jewish state has seeped into leftist Jewish critiques of Israel and Zionism. They are addicted to the prophetic ideal, while often forgetting that the Jews and the Jewish state have real enemies who never got that prophetic memo.

That is the paradox. In the Jewish soul, we live with the vision of a heavenly, perfect Jerusalem of our ideals. But, in real life and in real time, we live with the imperfect, morally tainted, earthly Jerusalem. The tension is built into Zionism, and Jewish historical longing – the struggle between being a “light to the nations” or “like all the nations.”

It does not seem likely that we will solve this conundrum and this tension any time soon. Jerusalem – like all of us – is a spiritual work in progress. Reb Naftali of Ropschitz, a Hasidic master, taught: “By our service to God, we build Jerusalem daily. One of us adds a row, another only a brick. When Jerusalem is completed, redemption will come.”

Let that be a new definition of Zionism, in our time – the work of making the earthly Jerusalem look more like the heavenly Jerusalem.

 

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Trump’s trip: experts react


“If President Trump wanted to demonstrate his stunningly pro-Israeli credentials to pave the way for pressing [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu for concessions down the road, this trip couldn’t have gone any better.”

Aaron David Miller, Middle East analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars


“President Trump risked stepping on his own narrative of strong support for Israel and restarting peace talks with his ‘I didn’t say the word Israel’ moment. … Regardless, the president is likely to leave Israel with the well-deserved sense that the visit was a success.”

Dan Shapiro, former United States ambassador to Israel


“The president’s belief that the Palestinians are ready to reach for peace appears to be based on statements made to him by [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas. But actions by the PLO speak louder than words. The previous Israeli offers of peace were rejected, the glorification of terror continues, and payments to terrorists continue to be made.”

Elliott Abrams, former United States assistant secretary of state


“If he is going to try the same flawed policies that have failed for decades, he, too, will fail. The road to peace will begin in the towns and cities of Judea and Samaria, and we pray that he will accept our invitation to come and see real peace and coexistence in action.”

Oded Revivi, chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council of West Bank Jewish communities


“Donald Trump is the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall. To a Jew, that is remarkable. … His timing to visit the Middle East at this time was impeccable. He couldn’t have picked a better time. It’s true that the Saudis proposed a peace proposal years ago, but now it’s a different Saudi Arabia. Oil is down. Saudi Arabia has a huge problem with Iran. Saudi Arabia realizes that there’s only one strong country in the Middle East that can benefit it, and it’s Israel. … [The Gulf States] are waiting for the time when it will be acceptable to have that great alliance and one of the great players will be the State of Israel, because who else can stand up to Iran other than Israel or the United States? His timing was excellent. This he could not have handled better.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles


“At a time when UNESCO and others continue to deny Jewish history, identity and rights in Jerusalem and Israel in general, the president’s visit to the Western Wall serves as a critical reminder to the world that Israel is the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people. We are grateful that the administration recognizes the threat Iran’s regime poses to the world and to Israel in particular. We are also excited about the new possibilities of increased cooperation and even peace between Israel and the Arab world. Time will tell if these regional efforts and peace negotiations with the Palestinians will be successful, but we remain hopeful.”

Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO StandWithUs, an Israel education organization

President Donald Trump leaves a note at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on May 22. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

In Israel, Trump reinforces the Wall


Let the record show: On May 23, 2017, the president of the United States updated his Twitter header to display a photograph of himself standing at the Western Wall. Not saluting an American flag, not kissing a Latino baby or speaking at a Midwest rally or shaking a veteran’s hand, but communing with Judaism’s holiest site.

I have nothing cynical to say about it. For a man whose self-worth is in direct proportion to the size of his Twitter following (30.2 million), and who likely checks his feed more often than his briefing papers (OK, that was a little cynical), this means something.

The most powerful person in the world is demonstrating the power of that place. President Donald Trump is linking the sovereignty of the Western Wall to the State of Israel, despite the demurrals and hedging of his advisers and representatives. Tel Aviv may be one of the most dynamic, creative and delicious cities on earth, but only a fool, or the former head of a large oil company, would say, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did, that it is the “home of Judaism.”

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which must be solved sooner rather than later in a just way for both sides, is not going to be solved by ignoring or minimizing the narratives each side claims as its own.

In their justified desire for a homeland, Palestinians have sought to deny the primacy of Jerusalem in the Jewish narrative. This week, one prominent Palestinian activist wrote that the holiness of the Western Wall is a post-1967 development, not an age-old tradition. When I read that I laughed and looked up at my study wall, at a photo taken in the late 1800s of Jewish men and women packed up against the ancient stones, in prayer.

In defense of their rights to Jerusalem, many Jews have negated the Muslim claim on the city. There seems to be an online cottage industry in this, in fact. Don’t fall for it. Do your own research. Jerusalem is a holy place in Islam — that big gold-domed atop the Temple Mount might be your first clue.

Jerusalem has been wracked by a long history of dumping on other people’s history. And I mean this literally. To assert their own primacy over the holy city, the Byzantine rulers turned the Jew’s Temple Mount into the city dump. In the “Encyclopedia of Religion,” professor Reuven Firestone relates the legend that it was the Muslim caliph Umar who, after vanquishing the Christians, ascended to the desecrated area, rolled up the sleeves of his robe and began cleaning up the soiled Muslim and Jewish holy place himself.

The caliph then built the Dome of the Rock, not as a mosque, Firestone writes, “but rather as a monument celebrating the presence and success of a new faith.”

We are just about a week away from the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, when the Israelis ascended to the Dome, captured East Jerusalem and united the city.

That moment when Israeli soldiers gathered where Trump stood this week, and wept and prayed that the Wall was back in Jewish hands, remains the iconic image of the war, the Jewish Iwo Jima. The emotion, the sacrifice, the sense of historical and religious destiny has affixed in Jewish minds the idea that from that moment on, all of Jerusalem belongs to Israel.

Har HaBayit b’yadenu,” Lt. Gen. Motta Gur proclaimed as his troops captured the Old City, the most famous single sentence of that war. “The Temple Mount is in our hands.”

But the irony of Trump’s visit is that if the president gets his way, the grip will have to be loosened. For years, Jews and the groups that pander to them have proclaimed intractable sovereignty over every square inch of the city. “Jerusalem will never be divided,” has been the go-to applause line for every Jewish or Israeli speaker — despite the reality that the city even now is pretty much divided.

The truth is every serious final status solution ever put forth by an Israeli prime minister, and any agreement that would ever be agreed to by the Palestinians, would include some shared sovereignty over Jerusalem. What’s the alternative — constant fighting? You can’t pray for the peace of Jerusalem and want to see it, like Aleppo or Damascus, reduced to pieces.

I don’t know how serious Trump is about making what he calls “the ultimate deal.” He has a short attention span, a disdain for details and a lot of ’splaining to do back in Washington. But this week, he leveraged Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to crack open negotiations, demonstrated the kind of support for the Israelis they need to feel secure, and showed the proper respect to the Palestinians.

A dear friend and die hard Israeli leftist  I know e-mailed me as Trump departed for the Vatican.

“The bastard gave a fantastic speech that was even given compliments by Barak Ravid from Ha’aretz,” he wrote, citing the left-leaning columnist. “He’s going about this whole Middle East thing in a completely opposite manner than Obama, and it may be that he is hitting the spot. Oy vey….”

If Trump continues on this path, and doesn’t shy away from confronting each side with the truths the other holds dear, the president might just have a prayer.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.

President Donald Trump touches the Western Wall on May 22. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Hopeful rhetoric, vague vision for peace after Trump’s Middle East visit


President Donald Trump has come and gone from his trip to the Middle East, his first foreign excursion since taking office earlier this year. He arrived — first in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, then Jerusalem and Bethlehem in Israel — with strong words about Iran as the neighborhood bully and, like so many American presidents before him, buoyant words for the Israeli and Palestinian people.

Optimistic words. Hopeful words. They all conveyed a vision and new possibility for peace in the region, a prospect “I’ve heard,” he said, that is “one of the toughest deals of all. But I have a feeling we will get there eventually, I hope.”

Good for Trump. A new American president. A new chance for a solution. A new team to get it done.

But where were the new ideas Israeli leaders are so certain he has? What is the new approach? How does he propose to untangle the thorny issues on the ground — boundaries, settlers, Jerusalem, etc. — that have left so many presidents before him bloody with failure?

Peace between Israelis and Palestinians was a topic of much discussion when Trump visited Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It was front and center, but not necessarily the first item on the agenda. In his speech to the Arab world in Riyadh days before, in his unscripted photo-op with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his later remarks in the prime minister’s house, Trump was more focused on Iran as the source of menace in the region. He and Netanyahu suggested that there are new opportunities in the region. Countries must unite against a common threat — Iran. That’s an opening that can be explored.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chat as White House senior advisor Jared Kushner is seen in between them. Photo by Kobi Gideon/Courtesy of Government Press Office

Michael Oren, historian, former Israeli ambassador to the United States and currently Israel’s deputy minister for diplomacy, said he believes that this new reality is a conduit of a “tremendous” shift. If once it was assumed that a peace with the Palestinians could lead to reconciliation of Israel with the rest of the Arab world — the situations is now reversed: A peace with the Arab world could lead to a deal with the Palestinians. If the Saudis come on board, if other Gulf states come on board, if the Arab world realizes that fighting against Israel makes no sense in this era of radicalism, the Palestinians might realize that the train of peace is leaving the station and that they’d better hurry so they don’t miss it.

Maybe this is what Israeli leaders mean when they constantly talk about “new ideas.” Trump is a devotee of “new” ideas, “bold” ideas, “different” ideas. For Israel, to resist his push for a deal would be a mistake. But it might be able to convince him that his predecessors failed because of their conventional thinking — and that he, a man bold enough, ought to reformulate the meaning of the ultimate deal. The “two-state solution” is old, tired — and it is so Clinton and Obama. Trump could make his mark by thinking outside of the box, that is, by dropping old ideas and replacing them with new ideas.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin sang the praises of new ideas after his meeting with Trump: “Our destiny — Palestinians and Jews — is to live together in this land,” he said. “In order to achieve this, we need new ideas, new energy that will help us move forward, together.”

But move where? Rivlin has his new ideas; he supports one state, or a confederation of Israelis and Palestinians. Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home Party and the leader most forthright in attempting to directly tell Trump what needs to be done (“We expect you to be the first president to recognize a united Jerusalem,” he said, to which Trump responded, “That’s an idea!”), has different new ideas. He supports an autonomy for Palestinians and annexation of the rest. Other leaders also have new ideas, including the oldest “new” idea of sticking to an improved status quo.

Does Trump have new ideas? If he does, we were still waiting to hear what they are as he departed for Europe. It was worth noting that Trump refrained from using the term “two-state solution” during his visit. It is possible that he is more open than his predecessors to considering alternative ideas, assuming he has them. In Saudi Arabia, in Jerusalem and in Bethlehem, he kept hinting that his deal is partially built on the goodwill of the conservative Arab regimes of Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Former President Bill Clinton failed to get them on board at Camp David. He was disappointed by their refusal to help him push the late Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, toward accepting the deal that was offered to him. Trump and some of his top advisers believe circumstances have changed in a way that could make such a push more realistic today.

His brief trip was barely a beginning of a long process of exploration of these assumptions and ideas. Although it sent a symbolic message of involvement and new energy, it did little to advance a detailed vision of a peace process. And of course, involvement is crucial, as both Arab and Israeli leaders made clear in their remarks, taking a swipe at the Barack Obama administration.

“We are happy to see that America is back,” said Rivlin, usually not the type to bash the former president. Netanyahu, not surprisingly, was more direct: “I want to tell you also how much we appreciate the reassertion of American leadership in the Middle East.”

President Donald Trump with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on May 22. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The new American president ought to know that there is no correlation between the number of visits to the Middle East and the level of success in handling Middle East affairs. Yes, Trump made “history” — a word used much too often to describe routine events — in going to Israel and Saudi Arabia earlier in his term than any other president. He made “history” again by being the first sitting American president to visit the Western Wall. So what? Nixon made history by being the first president to travel to Israel. Shortly afterward, he was forced out of office. Clinton made history by coming to Israel more than all other presidents, four times. It did not guarantee his success.

The only presidential visit that really made a change was Jimmy Carter’s in 1979. That was a dramatic visit, with ups, downs and crises. It was a make-or-break visit: Carter traveled to Egypt, then to Israel, and forced the hand of the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to accept the peace deal that was proposed to him. A few years ago, Israel’s state archives released documents from that visit, including a cable that was sent from Zvi Rafiah, Israel’s then-liaison to the U.S. Congress. Carter briefed congressional leaders when he was back in Washington, D.C., and Rafiah reported to his superiors in Jerusalem that during this meeting, Carter described his meeting with the Israeli cabinet as “terrible.”

“Terrible” and “horrible” are two of Trump’s favorite words. So maybe he will also describe parts of his visit as terrible. Maybe he did not appreciate the food, or the heat, or the forced selfie with Knesset Member Oren Hazan. But as far as we know, by the end of his visit on May 23, nothing truly “terrible” happened. Everybody was nice to him. Everybody agreed with him. Everybody encouraged him to keep doing what he is doing, whatever that is.

A time for confrontation might still come, when a more detailed plan emerges, and a real price is demanded of the parties. Already, Israel and the Palestinians got a taste of the future. Israel watched reluctantly, yet silently, as the Saudis bought weapons in quantities that might put Israel’s military edge at risk. The Palestinians witnessed an American president visiting the Kotel. They heard an American president, not for the first time, raise the issue of terrorism as an obstacle they need to overcome to achieve their objectives. They heard him say “peace” but not “a Palestinian state.”

And so. There was a visit and it went smoothly. For Trump, that is certainly an achievement. Everybody was trying to convince everybody that the visit was successful and that Trump is exactly what they expected him to be.

But there was reason for caution. On the evening of May 22, about an hour before Trump and Netanyahu made their joint statement in Jerusalem, I was sitting in a radio studio in the city of Modi’in. The interviewee on the line was Member of Knesset Ahmad Tibi, an Arab legislator, an articulate critic of Israel’s policies, and a frequent visitor at the offices of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.

He was cautious. Very cautious. Wisely cautious. Tibi has hopes, but he isn’t letting them get too high. He knows Trump changes his mind, he said. He knows it is not yet clear what Trump wants, beyond the generalities of having a “deal” and brokering “peace.” He knows Trump won’t always have the patience necessary to see a bumpy peace process through. And so Tibi’s message was simple: I’ll believe him about his Israeli-Palestinian peace effort when I see it.

When I asked Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s communications minister, about Trump reportedly walking back on his campaign promise to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, Hanegbi didn’t even blink before explaining that a visit to the Western Wall is much more important than moving the embassy. And when Tibi was asked if he was annoyed by Trump’s visit to the Kotel, Tibi didn’t even blink before explaining that it was an insignificant event that reinforced the fact that the U.S. does not recognize the site as Israeli.

Despite what did and didn’t happen, give Trump credit for this: He was polite, almost gaffe free and vague enough to keep the valuable posture of a Rorschach test: for now, all interpretation of his actions and intentions are still in the eye of the beholder.

President Donald Trump leaves a note at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on May 22. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Democrats and Republicans flip on Western Wall


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson refused to answer whether Jerusalem’s Western Wall or Kotel is part of Israel when asked by Pool reporters on Monday morning before arriving in Tel Aviv for his first ever visit. The top US diplomat followed the same approach to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster who also declined to clarify if he believes that the holy Jewish site is under legal Israeli sovereignty when pressed by White House reporters. On Capitol Hill, Members of Congress switched their traditional roles on this sensitive issue when responding to the Trump administration’s policies as the city of Jerusalem continued to play a key role during President Donald Trump visit to Israel.

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

“I think they’re being sensitive. Much like, what I would be sensitive. They are in the midst of some very interesting times and are being wise with what they want to weigh in and how they want to handle things,” Representative Tom Emmer (R-MN) told Jewish Insider on Monday evening. “I wouldn’t begin to second guess what they are doing because I don’t know the pressures that they are under.”

However,  Democrats critiqued the administration for this policy decision. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) emphasized that she “very much” believed that the Kotel is part of Israel. “It’s a lack of understanding of the holiness of the site i.e. understanding the faith and the history that’s attached to it.” On a similar note, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY) said, “I recognize that the Western Wall is part of Israel. I think most members of the House do.”

While Republicans were frequently quick to condemn the Obama administration for criticism of the Netanyahu government, Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA) refused to criticize senior Trump administration officials: Tillerson and McMaster regarding the Western Wall.  “I don’t know their reasons for not being able to answer, so I can’t comment on that,” Carter noted.

Assessing Trump’s first overseas visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel, Carter lavished praise upon the President. “I think he’s done a great job. It’s certainly a better situation for America. Instead of our chief elected official, going over and apologizing for everything we’ve done, we finally have someone who is going over there and asserting themselves and American interests. I’m proud of that.”

But, Crowley offered a more restrained assessment. “So far, the world hasn’t fallen apart so I give him credit for that. I would have liked him to say something about the inequities and the human rights violations that take place in Saudi Arabia.”

At the same time, Rep. Mark Pocan focused on the President’s potential impact on the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen when visiting Riyadh on Sunday. “I’m more concerned about what he’s (Trump) doing in Saudi Arabia with whatever deals he made regarding the arms sales in Yemen because if the major port in Yemen is bombed, we are told a half a million people will go in famine. We are trying to keep laser focused on the Yemen issue. It’s a big armed sales with no preconditions whatsoever,” he explained.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on May 22. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Trump tells Netanyahu he ‘never mentioned Israel’ in meeting with Russians


President Donald Trump told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he “never mentioned Israel” in a meeting with Russian government officials in which he was alleged to have revealed highly classified information.

“Just so you understand, I never mentioned the word or the name Israel,” Trump said Monday at a photo op with Netanyahu at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel on the second leg of his first overseas trip as president. “Never mentioned it during the conversation, they’re all saying I did, so you had another story wrong. Never mentioned the word Israel.”

By saying “you,” the president seemed to be addressing the media, collectively.

No one had alleged that Trump mentioned Israel in the meeting two weeks ago with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in the Oval Office.

Reports last week said that Trump revealed details of intelligence on Islamic State that could compromise an ally that had shared the intelligence with the United States. The ally was later reported to have been Israel.

There was no reporting that Trump had revealed the source of the intelligence with the Russians. Instead, the concern was that the level of detail in Trump’s account could be used to deduce sources and methods.

It was not clear from what during the photo op prompted Trump’s statement. Just before he brought up the information, Netanyahu said — apparently responding to a reporter — “The intelligence cooperation is terrific.”

There were concerns after last week’s revelations that Israel could limit its intelligence cooperation with the United States because of Trump’s alleged carelessness.

President Donald Trump touches the Western Wall on May 22. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Rex Tillerson says Western Wall is ‘part of Jerusalem,’ avoids mention of Israeli sovereignty


U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would not say that the Western Wall is part of Israel when asked about by a reporter during the presidential flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel.

Tillerson met with reporters in the back of Air Force One on Monday morning during the flight to the second stop on President Donald Trump’s first international trip since taking office.

Asked if he agrees with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who last week asserted during an interview that “We’ve always thought the Western Wall was part of Israel,” Tillerson responded: “The wall is part of Jerusalem.” He did not expand on the statement.

The Western Wall is located in Jerusalem’s Old City and was captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. This week, Israel is marking 50 years since the reunification of the city.

Tillerson said the second leg of the journey was to “Tel Aviv, home of Judaism,” though Trump is not scheduled to visit Tel Aviv, confining his 28-hour visit to Jerusalem. Ben Gurion International Airport, where Trump landed, is sometimes called Tel Aviv, though it is about 15 miles away from the city.

The secretary of state told reporters that the time is right to resurrect the Middle East peace process because of the common threat of the rise of the Islamic State, other terror groups and extremism.

“There’s a unifying element in and of itself, and I think it does allow countries that have had deep differences to look at the situation and realize that in many respects our threats are common to all of us,” Tillerson said. “Providing a certain perspective that’s not been there in the past, a perspective that is between us. That there’s something larger going on that’s affecting all of us. We need to try and come together to address that. I think that creates a different dynamic.”

Asked if he would pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on settlements, Tillerson responded that “settlements are part of the overall peace discussion. It’s just there are a number of elements that have presented challenges to the peace process in the past; settlements is clearly one of those.”

Tillerson said that arranging a three-way visit among Trump, Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who Trump will meet on Tuesday morning, would be too ambitious for such a short trip.

“I think there will certainly be opportunities for that in the future,” he said.

Asked if Trump would apologize to Israeli officials for sharing Israeli intelligence with Russian officials earlier this month, Tillerson responded, “I don’t know that there’s anything to apologize for.”

President Donald Trump in New London, Conn., on May 17. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The pro-Israel right is starting to feel unease with Trump


The Zionist Organization of America launched two broadsides against a Trump administration it has ardently defended, signaling a growing unease on the pro-Israel right with the president’s Israel policies.

The ZOA, the flagship for the conservative pro-Israel community, slammed President Donald Trump for retreating from a campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It also attacked the appointment of Kris Bauman, a veteran Obama administration negotiator, as the Israel adviser on the National Security Council.

Criticism of Trump from the Jewish right, while growing, is almost always accompanied by a caveat that his Israel policies are better than those of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and praise for some of his appointments.

The ZOA statements came Wednesday, the same day an array of Jewish groups held a celebration in the Capitol of the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.

During the celebration Republican lawmakers – without naming the Trump administration – decried the failure to move the embassy to Jerusalem. One of those present, New York Rep. Lee Zeldin, one of two Republican Jews in Congress, later released a statement explicitly criticizing Trump and urging the move.

Trump the candidate had vowed to move the embassy as one of his first acts upon assuming the presidency, but since elected has retreated from the pledge. This week, an unnamed top U.S. official told Bloomberg News that the relocation from Tel Aviv was off the table for now.

The story prompted expressions of concern of varying intensity from the Jewish right.

Morton Klein, the ZOA president, said in a statement that the slowness to move the embassy “sends a message of weakness” and called it “painful.”

Zeldin, one Trump’s most prominent Jewish supporters during the presidential campaign, said in his statement that the Bloomberg report was “an ill-timed mistake on the part of the administration to make this decision and announcement.”

Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, the umbrella group with a constituency that according to polls was lopsided in its support for Trump last year, said in an interview that those voters were likely “disappointed” with the delay.

Klein in an interview Thursday offered up the caveat that he was still grateful that Trump had won the election.

“This guy in his heart and soul is very pro-Israel in a serious way,” he said, naming among other appointments Nikki Haley, the outspoken U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “So many of us had high expectations it would be 100 percent on Israel; that might have been too high an expectation. He’s so much better than Obama or than Clinton would have been,” referring to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee.

Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition director, said Trump’s Jewish critics should keep the bigger picture in mind: His first tour overseas, next week, will include Israel and a visit to the Western Wall.

“It should be comforting, and those who are critical should note the symbolism of the president doing it at this time,” he said, noting the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem. “It sends a symbolic message and one that should resonate throughout the Jewish community and the international community.”

Much of the pro-Israel right remains a strong area of Trump support on foreign policy. Breitbart News, with several alumni occupying key posts in the administration, has not advanced tough criticisms of the president’s Israel policy, although it has been critical of Trump on some domestic issues.

Conservative groups that reviled the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, chief among them the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, are pleased with Trump’s policies. While Trump has not scrapped the deal, he has ramped up his rhetoric targeting the regime and added sanctions targeting Iran’s missile testing.

Conservative pro-Israel voices — among them Klein — have been outspoken as well in defending top Trump advisers who hail from the “alt-right,” a loose assemblage of anti-establishment conservatives that includes anti-Semites but also strident defenders of Israel.

Still, there are signs that unease with Trump’s Israel-related choices is deepening on the right. The tendency in Trump’s first months in office was to blame any decision that the pro-Israel right found unappealing on officials Trump did not appoint – civil service professionals whose tenure dated back to the Obama or George W. Bush administrations, or even further back.

But now, some of the fire is being directed at Trump appointees. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, has earned opprobrium from the pro-Israel right wing for his bid to sideline Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a young NSC staffer who is known for his hard-line Iran views. Trump nixed McMaster’s decision to move Cohen-Watnick to another agency.

Now fire is being directed at Bauman, whom McMaster named recently as his chief adviser on Israeli-Palestinian issues. Klein in a separate statement called Bauman, who served on the U.S. team during the 2013-14 failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, “pro-Hamas.”

Klein based his assessment on a screed against Bauman published last week in FrontPageMag, which unearthed a 2009 academic work by Bauman citing views that recommend accommodating Hamas as a necessary evil in any negotiations toward a final status outcome. Bauman also is unstinting in describing Hamas’ brutality and terrorism in the paper.

Daniel Shapiro, until January the U.S. ambassador to Israel, on Wednesday called Klein’s attacks the “lowest of low blows,” noting that Bauman’s brief was to improve security for Israel in the West Bank ahead of a final status agreement.

Also troubling for the pro-Israel right has been Trump’s warmth toward the Palestinian Authority leadership, particularly P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, whom Trump welcomed at the White House earlier this month and with whom he will meet in Bethlehem next week.

“I’m disappointed he brought a guy who rewards terrorists who murder Jews to the White House,” Klein said, referring to P.A. subsidies for families of jailed and killed terrorists.

The White House said in its readout of the Trump-Abbas meeting that Trump raised the issue of the payments and urged Abbas to stop them.

President Donald Trump at the White House on May 17. Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Trump won’t move U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem for now, senior official says


The Trump administration reportedly will not be moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv for now.

An unnamed senior administration official on Wednesday told Bloomberg News that it would be “unwise to do it at this time” as President Donald Trump is getting ready to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks to move the embassy.

“We’ve been very clear what our position is and what we would like to see done,” the official said, “but we’re not looking to provoke anyone when everyone’s playing really nice.”

Congress recognized Jerusalem as Israeli in 1995, but successive presidents have waived a provision in that law that requires the United States to move the embassy there from Tel Aviv.

Trump campaigned on a pledge to move the embassy, but has retreated from it since assuming office. Next week he will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Western Wall in the Old City, but his team rejected a request from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accompany him.

Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, demurred this week when asked to say whether the administration regarded the Western Wall as part of Israel. However, the ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said the same day that she sees it as Israeli.

The Orthodox Union, which had complained earlier in the week about McMaster’s comments, was “disappointed” in the news that Trump would not be moving the embassy now, said Nathan Diament, its Washington director.

However, Diament said in an interview, his group was still watching to see whether Trump would exercise the six-month waiver of the 1995 law, which every president has done since the law was passed, and which he must do by June 1.

“If he were to announce next week or the week after that he’s not signing the national security waiver and if the process of evaluating how the move would take place were to begin, that would be a step in the right direction,” he said.

Meanwhile, a celebration at the Capitol marking the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification drew top Congress members from both parties. Among those on hand were Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the House minority whip.

A number of Republican congressmen at the event alluded to McMaster’s refusal to name the Western Wall as Israeli territory and called for moving the embassy to Jerusalem.

Event sponsors included the Religious Zionists of America and another 24 pro-Israel and Jewish groups. The celebration coincided with the annual congressional lobbying day for one of the groups, NORPAC, among the preeminent pro-Israel political action committees.

Reps. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y., and Francis Rooney, R-Fla., marked the celebration by introducing a nonbinding resolution celebrating Israel’s capture of the eastern portions of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War in 1967.

Joe Lieberman. Screenshot from NBC News

Interview: Joe Lieberman on Iran deal, Jerusalem embassy


Former Senator Joe Lieberman discussed the Iranian elections and the implications of the outcome in a phone interview with Jewish Insider on Wednesday.

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

“Unfortunately I would say that there is no preferable outcome for the United States,” Lieberman said about the May 19 Iranian presidential election. “In other words, Rouhani was described as the moderate has been the leader of the government during the time when they have done so much damage in their own countries with a number of executions of political opponents is up. They’ve also presented thousands of IRGC soldiers into Syria. They’ve greatly strengthened Hezbollah which strengthened Syria, but also threatening Israel. And they’re involved in aggression in Yemen. So he may call himself a moderate, but he’s not. Ebrahim Raisi, the main opponent to Rouhani, seems to be more theologically conservative and enjoys, it appears, the backing of the Supreme Leader. But in the end, the Supreme Leader is the power and he’s not changing. In fact, very little has changed about the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran since 1979 when it seized power. And, therefore, they remain, as they say themselves, our determined and intransigent enemies.”

Lieberman on its impact over the nuclear deal: “I would guess that whoever wins the election in Iran will stick to the nuclear agreement to the same extent, because it benefits Iran so much. But they need constant monitoring and inspection to guarantee that they’re keeping their part of the bargain. The problem obviously is that they’ve already received as a result of sending the agreement, billions of dollars that they’re using to strengthen themselves militarily and politically. And again, not by my estimate, but by the words of the Supreme Leader, the nuclear agreement was separate. It has nothing to do with their hatred of the United States or Israel and in fact of their Sunni Arab neighbors. So I don’t expect much to change.”

“I think the change that’s occurred, if I may, on the nuclear agreement, the more significant change is the election of President Trump in the US. And I speak as a supporter of Hillary Clinton, but I think the change, let’s put it this way, from President Obama to President Trump, with regard to the nuclear agreement, is very significant. Unlike President Obama, President Trump is not committed to sort of protecting this agreement and in some sense bending over backward or closing our eyes to what the Iranians are doing in order to sustain the agreement. President Trump as you know has been a critic of the agreement from the beginning. And I think we can count on his administration to demand full compliance, not only with the agreement, but as he’s recently said when he said the Iranians were not keeping the spirit of the agreement and Secretary Tillerson has said, across a wide array of activities: support of terrorism, aggression in the region, particularly in Syria and in Yemen, and a repression of the human rights of people in Iran.”

On how to address the Iran deal going forward: “I think the first and most important thing that could be done by Congress and the President is to impose new sanctions on Iran for their bad behavior in so many other areas: the firing of ballistic missiles, the aggression in Syria and Yemen, and the human rights violation in their own country. And for the administration to both accept and sign those new sanctions, but also to enforce them. And I think that then the pressure is on Iran to either accept that new series of economic sanctions or itself to break out of the agreement. And they may just break out of the agreement since they’ve gotten so much up front from us. But I think in other words the important point is essentially to react to what respond directly or what the Supreme Leader, Khamenei, has said, which is, ‘This is an agreement that is separate from everything else we do.’ Obviously if we see them really beginning to break out and build a nuclear weapon, then we have the tough decision to make, which is whether to take military action to stop them, but we’re not there yet.”

Lieberman on whether he thinks his friend Ambassador David Friedman will work from Jerusalem when he formally assumes his position in Israel: “I don’t know. I’m going to leave that one to President Trump. I mean, clearly I hope that the President when the next waiver date comes up, which is June 1st, he announces that one, the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which it self-evidently is, and two, that we’re beginning the process of moving our embassy there. I was a lead co-sponsor on the Democratic side in the 1990s of the legislation that mandated that the embassy move to Jerusalem. And so it’s very important to me from an American point of view because this is still, I believe, the only country in the world where we don’t have our embassy in a city that the host country designates as its capital. And when you think that this is Israel, one of America’s closest allies in the world, it is a sign of American weakness that we don’t go ahead and put our actions where our principles are and our policies are and that means moving our embassy to Jerusalem.”

“So I hope before long David Friedman will be Ambassador Friedman he will be working out of Jerusalem and before long moving there as well. And it’s important to say something you know, the embassy’s going to be located on land which has been Israeli since ’48. So this move will not at all affect negotiations regarding land with the Palestinians. And it’s just a falsehood to argue that it will unless one believes that Israel has no right to any of Jerusalem, which obviously is something that is a position America would never accept.”

A 3-D model of Jerusalem was made possible by Larry and Sunny Russ. Photos courtesy of Jewish National Fund

A victory in fight to preserve Ammunition Hill


One of the most sacred military sites in Israel’s history, left crumbling for years, is a now a gleaming attraction that helps tell the dramatic story of what happened there during Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, thanks in part to the family of Larry Russ, a Los Angeles philanthropist with deep ties to Israel and its past.

Ammunition Hill’s significance goes back to June 6, 1967, when, in the dead of night, roughly 350 Israeli soldiers accomplished something many thought was impossible — they captured the heavily fortified military base in Jordanian-occupied East Jerusalem.

The Jordanians, who had seized control of the British-built bunkers and trenches on the hill during the 1948 war — cutting off Mount Scopus and the Hadassah Medical Center — were fierce fighters, but the Israelis, who were literally fighting for their country’s survival, prevailed within several hours. 

Thirty-six Israeli soldiers and 71 Jordanians were killed in the battle, one of the fiercest of the Six-Day War. Ammunition Hill became a national memorial site in 1987.

Over the years, the number of visitors to the site did not increase, reaching a point in 2005 where the Israeli government decided to shutter it for a day because of a lack of funds. The Ammunition Hill-National Heritage & Memorial Site organization urgently reached out to the Jewish National Fund (JNF) for help.

That’s when Rami Ganor, JNF’s former Ammunition Hill liaison, approached Russ, a lawyer, L.A.-based JNF board member and philanthropist, to support this process.

“JNF knew it had to act,” said Yoel Rosby, the current liaison. “Ammunition Hill is a pearl in Jerusalem’s history. Closing it would be like closing Gettysburg.”

Russ was intrigued.

“Rami knew I was a child of Holocaust survivors and had a big family in Israel,” he said in an interview. “There are more Russes in Israel than the U.S.” 

Further impetus came from Shimon “Katcha” Cahaner, who was the deputy battalion commander in one of the two brigades that captured Ammunition Hill. After his commander was wounded, Cahaner brought his troops into the Old City. Cahaner joined up with the JNF to save the site.

“Katcha came to Los Angeles to raise funds to improve Ammunition Hill,” Russ recalled. “He said he wanted to build a geographic table that showed the dividing line between what was then Israel and Jordan. That sounded doable, and I made a commitment. Then he said, ‘Maybe there should be a cover over it because it gets hot in the summer.’ ”

At the request of Cahaner and JNF, Russ and his wife, Sunny, visited Jerusalem, where they met with historians, an architect and soldiers who had fought at Ammunition Hill and their families.

“We were crying, it was so emotional,” Russ recalled. “We said, ‘How can we not do this?’ ”

Today Ammunition Hill is a sprawling complex with a state-of-the art visitors center, a museum as well as the original bunkers. It is especially popular with school children, who can climb on a tank or explore the trenches.

The Russes supported the creation of a theater and a sophisticated 3-D map “City Line” table that shows how Jerusalem was divided, East from West, and lights up at different points to indicate landmarks and battle sites. They also sponsored the creation of a film that includes rare footage obtained from the Israeli air force of the battle for Ammunition Hill as well as Israeli troops hanging a flag from a section of the Temple Mount after they captured it. Soldiers who fought in the battle retrace their steps along with their children and grandchildren.

Russ noted that the site already offered a film but that it was a half-hour long — too long for most visiting schoolchildren to sit through, and less than ideal when more than one group was visiting the site.

An original armored vehicle and tank used in the 1967 battle for Ammunition Hill are on display.

An original armored vehicle and tank used in the 1967 battle for Ammunition Hill are on display.

More recently, the JNF asked the couple if they would finance renovations of the bunkers and crumbling trenches as well as new lighting.

At Ammunition Hill, Rosby noted that the site’s 40 bunkers and nearly 1,000 feet of trenches, were built a century ago to protect the munitions cache of the British Mandate.

“They were falling apart and had to be strengthened from the bottom up, to be able to remain standing for another 100 years to ensure that millions of visitors can experience and learn from the heroic battle for Ammunition Hill.”

Now that pathway lighting has been installed, visitors can visit the site at night and get a feel for the challenges Israel’s soldiers faced in the near pitch darkness in 1967.

Also thanks to the Russes, the sprawling field has what Rosby calls “field classrooms” — places for group members to sit and listen during a tour.

Rosby, Russ and Phillip Yankofsky, another Jewish community leader from L.A. and a Six-Day War veteran, appeared as panelists in March at JNF’s inaugural San Fernando Valley Breakfast for Israel, which focused on the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.

Russ, who is recognized as a member of JNF’s World Chairman’s Council — meaning that he’s made a lifetime contribution of $1 million or more — said the American branch of the family feels a sense of duty to contribute to Ammunition Hill.

“My family in Israel fought in every war. I wanted to create something that would last and be something our children and grandchildren look at and realize we are a part of,” he said. “I also wanted to recognize the people of Israel and the families who have sacrificed so much. And finally, I wanted to honor our family who perished in the Holocaust.”

Mission accomplished: In 2005, the number of visitors to Ammunition Hill had fallen to 74,000. Last year, there were 354,000.

Russ said it has given his family “joy” to learn of the huge uptick in visitors, especially schoolchildren and soldiers, who visit Ammunition Hill on a daily basis, making it now a must-see venue on any trip to Israel.

An undated portrait of Asher Arom, taken in Lizhensk, Poland. Photo courtesy of Sima Braude Marberg

My ancestor vanished in the Holocaust; 80 years later, I went looking for him


“I need to speak with you.”

Meylakh Sheykhet was a vision from the past. I had no idea who he was when he tapped me on the shoulder in the lobby of the Hotel Dnister in Lviv, Ukraine.

Tall and bearded, with sunken eyes, he cut a jarring figure in his ultra-Orthodox garb. Around us, a conference on Jewish life was in full swing. Meylakh had overheard me saying I was an intern with The Jerusalem Post. He wanted to tell me about the deteriorating state of Jewish sites in the city — and his fight to preserve them.

Meylakh’s work is motivated by an enduring respect, a fascination even, with the dead; they are never far from his mind. Meylakh fights long odds to save Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, to uncover and preserve the burial sites of sages and to stave off destruction when developers encroach on houses of prayer or their ruins. He sleeps little and makes plenty of enemies. We sat down together in the hotel lobby, and he began to talk, quickly and frantically.

To this day, I don’t know whether to thank Meylakh or to curse him. His tap on the shoulder launched an investigation into my roots that spanned two years, three continents and five generations.

As it turned out, my trip to Lviv had brought me within 100 miles of where many of my ancestors had lived and died, just across the border in Poland. Soon after, I found myself awake at odd hours, clicking frantically from link to link as I fell deeper and deeper down digital rabbit holes on websites dedicated to Jewish genealogy.

Names and dates began to harbor an outsized significance. I found myself assaulted by a confounding rush of details, illuminating and otherwise. One figure kept emerging out of that chaos, over and over again, capturing my imagination and curiosity. It was my great-grandfather, a holy man from a rabbinical lineage who made Torah his day and night’s labor. Before long, he was the centerpiece of my frenetic journey of discovery.

I knew then I had to take my search offline. I reached out to relatives whose identities I’d learned on the internet. I pestered my dad with questions. I devoured books on life in the shtetl and on the great Chasidic dynasties of Europe.

Months into my search, I came across my first authentic relic: the calligraphic handwriting of my great-grandfather, poetic Hebrew sentences intertwined with Torah verses in letters he’d written to family in Palestine. My eyes widened. The letters were an unbearably human fragment of a vanished and tragic past. He signed with the same Hebrew spelling as my father, Asher Arom, only adding a shin, vuv, bet afterward for shochet u’bodek, ritual slaughterer. Looking at those letters, I knew I had to go back to Eastern Europe.

As Jews, we’re told that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God writes and seals the fate of each living soul. So it stands to reason that in September 1939, He was busy plotting against my forebears in Europe.

At the dawn of the Jewish year 5700, one small town in Poland became the crime scene where the Creator carried out His conspiracy against my great-grandfather’s family, with the Nazis as instruments. I suppose you could say I went there to collect evidence to put Him on trial.

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Asher Arom in Lizhensk, Poland, in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Sima Braude Marberg

My trip came less then two years after I first visited Eastern Europe. After two weeks of traveling with my father in Israel, I took a flight from Ben Gurion Airport to Lviv. From there, a bus took me through a foggy February morning and across the Polish border. Every once in a while, the bus swerved into an improbable clearing in the dark woods to pick up someone. My fellow passengers looked to be straight from central casting. The fat matron in the checkered frock, the cadaverous woman with suspicious eyes, the tall man reeking of cigarettes, with a pockmarked face and a jagged scar from the corner of his lip to his ear — these people all looked like they belonged here. The 22-year-old Jewish boy from Beverly Hills did not.

The bus dropped me off in Przemysl (pronounced PSHEH-meh-sheel), an old Polish city of about 65,000 on the San River, where unimaginative Soviet-era buildings fill spaces left by long-gone synagogues and study halls. The bus pulled up just outside the perimeter of the former ghetto where Asher likely was murdered.

When my guide, Maciej, met me in front of my hotel, he admitted he had been expecting a man twice my age. And indeed, the people I’ve met since who tend to take these forays into pre-Holocaust nostalgia are a generation or two my senior. But to see the degradation and neglect of Jewish heritage in Eastern Europe is to understand that time is of the essence.

My great-grandfather’s legacy is no exception to the corrosive effect of the years. He was born in Przemysl, across the river from the Jewish quarter in a neighborhood called Zasanie, where his father, Gedalia, had been the head of a yeshiva.

Today, the synagogue in Zasanie stands abandoned and deteriorating behind barbed wire. The inn where Gedalia raised a large flock of children was long ago replaced by a blocky apartment complex, painted in primary colors. The Jewish cemetery, just down the highway from the city, has been covered for eight decades with fallen leaves and broken branches, leaving an overgrown warren of blank monuments, the inscriptions worn away by time. The only trace of my ancestors here is some cursive script in a yellowing Austrian record book in the florescent-lit reading room of the Przemysl National Archive.

Shortly after Maciej and I met, we drove 76 kilometers north through heath and woods to Lizhensk, the shtetl where my great-grandfather lived most of his life, now a drab industrial town of 15,000. A relative of mine had marked Asher’s home in red pen on a hand-drawn map of the pre-war town. We parked nearby, in an open-air lot the map indicated had once been the heart of the Jewish quarter.

A drizzle was falling as we plodded down a muddy slope toward the spot indicated on the map. There, on an unpaved path beneath a slate-gray sky was the low shack Asher had built, abandoned and ill-treated by time, its wood planks bent by years, wintery vines bursting through the eaves.

Lizhensk is best known within Poland for the brewery that took its name. To Chasidic Jews, though, Lizhensk is synonymous with Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, a founding father of Chasidism and the town’s most famous resident, Jewish or otherwise.

Chasidim maintain an active relationship with the dead. At midnight on the death anniversary of a great rabbi — and few are greater than Elimelech — it’s said that the souls of the departed descend to their gravesites and carry the prayers of the living up to heaven. Before World War II, Elimelech’s yarzheit drew crowds from across Europe to worship in the cave-like mausoleum where his remains lie.

The Nazis redrew the geography of Lizhensk’s onetime Jewish quarter, erasing the Street of Synagogues from the map. Now, a large, open-air parking lot stands in its place, ringed by a dreary neighborhood with a proliferation of seedy casinos and 24-hour bars. The cemetery is equally unrecognizable. Bulldozed by the Germans, the monuments dragged away as paving stones, it sat empty and ignored for decades. When Jews began to return in the 1980s — survivors and their families as well as Chasidic pilgrims — they dragged what tombstones they could find back to the graveyard, lining them up in arbitrary rows. Year after year, the crowds worshiping at the sage’s gravesite grew.

These days, in late February or early March, according to the fluctuations of the Jewish calendar, the streets fill with Jews in black hats and headscarves, from Brooklyn, Israel and beyond, in anticipation of the 21st of Adar. By the time I learned about the yarzheit, my picture of Eastern European Jewry was colored by its disappearance: magnificent synagogues reduced to rubble and cemeteries knocked over and built upon. Eastern Europe, to me, meant dead Jews. Somehow, I thought seeing some live ones there would be a comfort.

For these Jews, death was a part of life, the sadness married to their joy. It was something less than final.

When I arrived, on the last day of February 2016, the city was awash with pilgrims, their tour buses parked up the street from the cemetery. A series of white pavilions had been set up at the cemetery to accommodate thousands, from those hauling cauldrons for kosher stews to opportunistic salesmen hawking Jewish books from folding tables. A public address system had been set up in one of the tents to blast klezmer music. A pair of Chasidim with a microphone manned the PA system through the night, calling passersby to come “have a l’chaim!” with a swallow of schnapps or whiskey. Gaggles of local reporters had come to observe the oddity; one of the more savvy taxi drivers had posted the word monit, Hebrew for taxi, on his driver’s side windows.

On the site where Rabbi Elimelech is presumed to rest in the rebuilt cemetery, a white concrete structure, a mausoleum, of sorts. was built to accommodate prayers. Inside, a monument enclosed in a metal trellis was piled high with scribbled notes of supplication. Even some non-Jews see the site as holy: While I watched the room fill with Chasidim swaying in prayer, a Polish man with graying hair and far-off eyes entered and bared his head — an odd custom under the circumstances — then fell to his knees, clasping his hands together in silent benediction.

Over time, the town has developed an infrastructure to accommodate the annual influx. The building that had housed the mikveh, or ritual bath, somehow withstood World War II; afterward, a group of Chasidim acquired it and added a second story to form the Hachnasat Orachim of Lizhensk, a guesthouse for pilgrims. Worshipers now could find accommodations and a prayer hall — even a functioning mikveh. Soon, the pilgrimage outgrew that long, low barrack of a building, and just up the hill, a planned extension, a massive A-frame structure covered in Hebrew banners, was nearly complete. Between the two buildings was Asher’s home.

As I walked up, rabid barking erupted behind me. I wheeled around to face the largest German shepherd I’ve ever seen, howling at me murderously from behind a chain-link fence. I resisted a momentary urge to run: German shepherds always have conjured images of Nazi attack dogs for me. Instead, I scowled at the beast and turned back to the house, trying to ignore its bloodthirsty snarls.

In pictures I’d seen of the house, it was far from luxurious, but it was the type of place where you’d expect a penurious rabbi in a Polish backwater to live. At least, it looked habitable. On Google Maps street view, in a picture taken in 2012, a sedan is parked expectantly in the driveway. Seeing the place as it now was came as a gut punch.

The blemish on the doorpost where the mezuzah had once been was the only sign of its onetime inhabitants. The windows had been spray-painted white from the inside — for what reason, I can’t fathom, other than to rob descendants of the satisfaction of peering in. The place looked as if a strong gust of wind might take it down.

Eitan Arom at the abandoned shack built by his great-grandfather. Photo by Eitan Arom

Eitan Arom at the abandoned shack built by his great-grandfather. Photo by Eitan Arom

I wanted to see inside but quickly ruled out the idea of climbing through the loft window, which was missing its frame and panes. Instead, I took to the square below to see if I could learn who had the key. One by one, I sidled up to strangers who were milling about in the drizzle. My reluctant informants didn’t seem to know what to make of me. With a camera around my neck and a yarmulke pinned uneasily to my head as a form of self-identification, I fit in with neither the Chasidim nor the Poles. I managed to win some goodwill by pointing to the tumbledown shack up the hill and saying it once belonged to my great-grandfather. Soon enough, I learned the shack was now owned by the same Chasidim who operated the guesthouse. A less welcome revelation: Before long, they planned to tear it down to build more lodgings for travelers. Pilgrim after pilgrim told me to look for someone named Simha.

Simha Krakovski is a wiry man with a scraggly white beard who directs the guesthouse. I cornered him outside an upstairs prayer hall. As we spoke, sweaty yeshiva students with sparse beards and red faces crowded around to see why Krakovski — clearly a busy man at this time of year — was talking to the only non-Chasidic person in the building. As we spoke, some scholar of great importance swept by with a crowd of hangers-on, pressing us against a wall.

To see the degradation and neglect of Jewish heritage in Eastern Europe is to understand that time is of the essence.

Krakovski indulged me briefly with the story of his early days in Lizhensk, some 25 years ago. “I first came to pray, and when I wanted to use the bathroom, there was no bathroom,” he told me in Hebrew. “I had to pay a gentile woman a dollar to use hers, and it stank.”

I told him who I was and about my ancestor. He told me, yes, they’d acquired the house and were planning to knock it down to expand the accommodations — a dining room, lodgings, he couldn’t be sure, exactly. I asked if the new complex had a name, and why not name it after this pious man, this ghost of mine? He made it clear naming rights could be had — for a price. Come find him tomorrow, he said, and we could talk.

After he left, the young men closed ranks around me, questioning me in English and Hebrew. Did I have money? What did my father do? Is he rich? Suddenly, I felt the flush that was reddening their faces. I was too hot in my wool coat. I stepped outside and back into the drizzle.

Somehow, I’d thought being among these Chasidim would make me feel better about the state of affairs, the vanishing traces of Jewish Europe, the decay and neglect. It didn’t. It made me feel more alone, more abandoned, orphaned by history.

Chasidim pray at the gravesite of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, in 2016. Photo by Eitan Arom

Chasidim pray at the gravesite of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, in 2016. Photo by Eitan Arom

I never found Simha Krakovski again. But the next day, I was back inside the guest house, in the office of Krakovski’s colleague, Menashe Lifshitz, a Chasid from B’nai Brak, in Israel. He told me how they’d bought the shack some years back from a Polish woman who lived there, paying her what he assured me was three times the fair price.

When the guesthouse was established, he said, many of the surrounding houses still bore outlines on the doorposts where their onetime inhabitants had fixed mezuzahs. As people got the money to fix up their homes, most were painted over. The blemish where Asher had nailed his mezuzah into the threshold was the last one that remained.

Somehow, I’d thought being among these Chasidim would make me feel better about the state of affairs, the vanishing traces of Jewish Europe, the decay and neglect. It didn’t.

Lifshitz worked out of a small, cluttered office with a twin bed and a small desk on the second story of the former mikveh building. The entirety of the window in the office faces the southeastern wall of my great-grandfather’s home. Before the second story was added, Asher would have had an unobstructed view of the cemetery. He would have been able to watch as the candles burned in Rabbi Elimelech’s tomb through the night.

I asked if I could see the inside of the house. Any other time of year, Lifshitz assured me, it could be arranged. With the pilgrimage in full swing, it would be difficult. He couldn’t be too sure where the key was.

The mikveh building where Menashe Lifshitz kept his office plays a significant part in the story I’ve learned about my great-grandfather.

As it goes, when the Cossacks came during World War I, most of Asher’s family fled. Asher stayed behind so nobody with a chicken or livestock would go hungry for lack of a slaughterer to prepare it. One day, as he was walking outside, a group of Cossacks spotted him and followed. He led them to the mikveh and jumped into the depths, hiding beneath the sacred waters, where he was spared.

But his luck would run out before long. When murderers again came to his town, their fury would be greater and more destructive than the town had ever seen.

The Nazis entered Lizhensk during Rosh Hashanah 1939. On Sukkot, they rounded up the Jews in the market square. A persistent downpour soaked the crowd. The frightened townsfolk were uncertain what fate awaited them — death or deportation, bullets or banishment. Panic ruled.

And Asher was missing.

My understanding of these events is informed entirely by the adolescent memories of his granddaughter, Leah Braude. Leah’s, father, Chaskel Nissenbaum, was a slaughterer and Asher’s student. Later, when Nissenbaum traveled to Germany to ply his trade, returning only for holidays, Asher became something of a father figure to his young granddaughter.

After the war, Leah set down some of her memories from that time in what became the Lizhensk Yizkor Book, a collection of remembrances published in Israel and dedicated to the town’s martyrs. In one of the passages, she described her grandfather, who had “a smile that imparted pleasantness whenever I desired a smile.” This is the last living account of my great-grandfather — but the rest of the Yizkor Book provides a colorful recollection of a vanished world.

The last time Shabbat candles glowed in the windows of Asher’s home, it was earlier in 1939 and the forests surrounding the town were alive with the spirits of the Chasidic imagination.

The cave of Elimelech was just beyond where the town met the woods. The sage’s tomb commanded a view of the Jewish quarter, a slope of wooden homes leading up to Ulica Boznica, the Street of Synagogues.

Lizhensk was a town of a typical European mold: Sledding and ice skating in winter, and sweltering summers. Leading off the market square, where Jewish tradesmen and businessmen mixed with their Polish and Ukrainian counterparts, the synagogue street formed the heart of the Jewish quarter.

Here, Jewish homes abutted schoolrooms and yeshivas, synagogues and study halls. On Shabbat eve, the sexton would knock with his wooden hammer and call, “Jews, Jews, to the synagogue!” as the smell of fried onions and kugels filled the air.

Before the war, Jews and gentiles mixed for good and ill. The Lizhensker Jews were not spared their share of anti-Semitism; Jewish schoolchildren were regularly beaten to cries of “dirty Jew!” Sometimes, one of the nastier teachers would even join in. In spite of all that, here and there friendships grew. Gentiles dropped in on Jewish households for the lighting of Shabbat candles.

What made Lizhensk different from other shtetls, though, was the great rabbi who took its name, and who, more than a century after his death, drew mourners from across the continent to his grave. The custodians of his earthly remains, the Jews of Lizhensk, tended to be an industrious and religious lot, if poor; Asher Arom no doubt fit that mold.

Leah, barely a teenager when war separated her from her beloved Chasid, with his snowy sidecurls and white beard down to his chest, recalled in the Yizkor Book his deep devotion and fervent prayer: “My grandfather made his nights like his days, and studied Torah. His tune in the nights is woven in the depths of my dreams and adds to their sweetness.”

Shortly before death came to the rest of Lizhensk, it visited the home of the ritual slaughterer.

“May the One who consoles Zion and builds Jerusalem offer us a double portion of consolation,” Asher wrote to his son Shmuel in Palestine on the Tuesday after the reading of Parashat Bamidbar in May 1938  — he made a practice of marking the date by the Torah reading. His letters are nearly eight decades years old, but the grief they convey seems fresh, even raw.

Leah’s account had led me to her daughter, Sima Braude Marberg, a kindly woman and a distant cousin of mine who teaches tai chi in the courtyard of her apartment building on a tree-lined street in of Haifa. When I visited, she produced a binder full of old letters in plastic protectors, some of them written in Asher’s practiced, looping script.

The tales from the deathbeds of great Chasidic sages often recount a transformation as their souls hover between this world and the next. These were the terms in which Asher described the death of his wife, born Chaia Rachel Brand, my great-grandmother: “On the seventh day of the month of Iyar” — April 26, 1939 — “early in the morning at 2 a.m., her soul began slipping away from her body until she passed away at 9:30 in the morning,” he wrote to his son in Palestine. “The house was full of men and women.”

The death left her husband disconsolate.

“Rachel, the mainstay of the house, how were you taken to be buried in the ground — where finally your bones could find a resting place — but leave us to our moaning and sorrow?” he wrote. “Who will mend our broken hearts that have been torn asunder and broken into pieces?”

He delivered a eulogy. “By dint of her wisdom she was the principal force, the one who always could advise the proper path, for me and for all those who turned to her for direction,” he told those assembled. “I continued, as is my wont, to expound midrashim and Biblical verses in my eulogy, and the entire congregation broke out in tears, sobbing.”

The author’s great-grandmother Chaia Rachel Arom, with her grandchildren (from left) Simcha, Sarah and Leah Nissenbaum, and her son Mordechai. Photo courtesy of Sima Braude Marberg

The author’s great-grandmother Chaia Rachel Arom, with her grandchildren (from left) Simcha, Sarah and Leah Nissenbaum, and her son Mordechai. Photo courtesy of Sima Braude Marberg

The community took Chaia Rachel to be buried, and then Asher led evening prayers. Afterward, he wrote, “I was overcome by a terrible burning sensation. The doctor was called, and I was carried to my bed, where I lay without feeling.”

It must have seemed the world was ending. Two of his sons had earlier abandoned Poland for Mandatory Palestine. Now their mother was gone. Bedridden, Asher was found to have a high fever. Death must have seemed near for him, too. But a week later, after the shiva had ended, he recovered, physically if not emotionally: “I now feel well and have returned to work,” he wrote.

“I ask of you to recite Kaddish throughout the entire year, every day without fail,” he bid his son. “And if there is someone with you in your kibbutz who can study mishnayot [talmudic tractates] with you — even just a few mishnayot — then you can say Kaddish afterward in memory of, and for the benefit of the soul of the righteous woman, Chaia Rachel bas Luria Simcha, of blessed memory. And in this merit you and your offspring be successful. May you find material success and enjoy long lives, and raise your son to every good end. Your father, signing with tears.”

The end for the Lizhensk Jews came quickly, before the townsfolk knew it.

In the martyrs’ book and in video interviews with the USC Shoah Foundation, survivors recount with bitter embarrassment a period of obliviousness, of false security, as the forces of destruction massed just beyond the town’s border. Few had radios in their homes, so a doctor who lived in the market square would place his receiver by a window and raise the volume so people could listen in the street below. One survivor, then a girl of 10, remembered standing in the square and hearing Edward Rydz-Smigły, the marshal of Poland’s armed forces, declaring, “We won’t give away even a button — nothing!” Soon, he had given away everything.

The invasion of Poland began on Sept. 1, 1939. By Sept. 3, German bombs had destroyed the railroad tracks in Lizhensk, the only link between the town and the outside world. When crews came to repair their tracks, aerial machine gun fire chased them off.

Jews left the city in droves, only to return hours or days later after finding the surrounding country in a similar state of pandemonium. Those who returned on Rosh Hashanah eve found German troops in town. The Nazis turned the holiday into a carnival of mockery, cutting beards off of men and forcing them to march in circles around a tree.

The Germans were in the mood for arson when they came to Asher Arom’s house on the second night of Rosh Hashanah. Earlier that night, soldiers had barged into the synagogues, demanding volunteers for work. In a surprising act of mercy, they allowed the congregants to evacuate the synagogues, but their intentions were clear. They brought kerosene and kindling. Then they set the buildings ablaze.

The main concern for many of these Jews, it turned out, was not preserving their property or protecting their families, but finding a place to finish praying. With the ashes of the holy places still choking the air, “it was told to them that grandfather had made his house open for the needs of prayer,” Leah recalled in the Yizkor Book.

Some two dozen Jews gathered at the ritual slaughterer’s home. The Nazis quickly learned what was going on. They chased away the prayer quorum but locked my great-grandfather inside. Soon, they returned with bundles of straw and rags soaked in kerosene. Leah’s sister Sarah, then a girl of 16, begged for her grandfather’s life, weeping. The Germans ignored her, intent on burning the 72-year-old alive. Only when a gentile woman who lived next door joined in Sarah’s protest did the Nazis relent.

“She was afraid her home would catch fire, as well,” Leah wrote. “The Germans returned the key to my sister and removed the flammable material from around the house, and grandfather was again saved from certain death.”

On Yom Kippur, we are taught, the ink is still wet in the Book of Life. Even the hosts of heaven shrink in terror as the Creator ponders fates: “The Angels of heaven are dismayed and seized by fear,” the prayer goes. “The great shofar is sounded, and a still, small voice is heard.” Was anyone fool enough, or fervent enough, to blow the shofar in Lizhensk that year? Did anybody hear the still, small voice?

By the Day of Atonement in 1939, the Jews of Lizhensk were afraid to walk in the streets for the harassment it undoubtedly would bring. Those still inclined to pray mostly stayed home and found a quiet corner to do so.

For the Chasidim of Lizhensk, the world to come must have seemed nearer than ever. Yet they were not ill-prepared to meet their end. For these Jews, death was a part of life, the sadness married to their joy. It was something less than final. When sickness or disasters struck, the Lizhenskers would climb the hill of the cemetery to ask the dead to intercede on their behalf. Orphaned brides and grooms would go there to invite their deceased parents to celebrate their wedding. The place abounded with legend.

It was to those old stones that Asher Arom would retire when he could wrest a moment from the demands of work, family and study.

“He would spend hour after hour there cleaning the gravestones and making the inscriptions clearer,” his granddaughter Leah wrote. “When the Messiah comes, each minute will be precious and holy, and it would be a shame if time would be wasted on clarifying the blurred inscriptions.”

Sometimes, he brought Leah to weed the grass around the graves. Once, he explained to her why he did it: “Death is nothing but the natural continuation of life,” he said. “And if we love a life of cleanliness and being cared for, we must give this also to the dead. We must look after the gravestones, just as we look after our home.”

The bitter irony is that his body most likely went up in smoke or was tossed in a mass, unmarked grave.

The circumstances of 1939 gave new meaning to the Yamin Noraim, the Days of Awe — more literally, the days of terror between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “We sat with closed doors and shut windows,” survivor Shaul Spatz recalled in the Yizkor Book. “The silence outside was only interrupted by the occasional thumps of the boots of the German soldiers.”

Soon it was time to erect their sukkot, but the familiar sounds of hammers hitting nails were absent. “That year, all Jewish homes remained exposed without sukkot attached to their walls,” he wrote. “In the Jewish street, fear walks. Apprehension replaced the joy of the holiday.”

You can’t read the vanished inscription on a rain-beaten tombstone. No number of seasons and no amount of research will bring it back.

Then, the rumors of a roundup came true: The next morning, the Jews were to report to the market square.

“I don’t remember which one of our neighbors told us that we had to leave the house,” Spatz wrote. “We fearfully gathered a few of our belongings.”

Hundreds of Jews already had assembled when Spatz arrived. “It was raining,” he recalled. “Our bundles were wet and their weight increased by the moment.”

Death was the punishment for absence, and yet there was no trace of Asher.

Leah had arrived at the square with her parents and sister. Her mother, Gittel, must have been frantic: Simcha, Gittel’s only son, was away at yeshiva in Lublin. Later, Leah’s daughter Sima told me, Gittel had risked a summary execution and snuck back across the San River to see if her boy had come home to find his family, but there was no trace of him, either.

Tension mounted. Anxiety and anguish boiled like puddles in a hard rain. And still Asher was missing.

“We were unable to search for him without being shot,” his granddaughter wrote. “At the last moment, as we organized into rows for the gloomy march, he appeared next to us, calm and filled with family warmth. He was wearing his clean Sabbath clothing, and had his tallis and tefillin bag with him.”

His family scolded him, but, “He smiled and mocked us: What is all the confusion? For it is impossible to believe these murderers. However, perhaps they indeed intend to kill us. Therefore, I went to the mikveh to purify myself, and now I am ready and prepared if it is the will of our Creator, the Creator of the world who determines the fate of man.”

The march began, 2 1/2 miles to the banks of the San River. “The Jews traveled with their heads down, their eyes toward the ground, as if they were guilty of some terrible deed,” another survivor wrote in the Yizkor Book.

When they got there, the Germans unrolled a sheet and commanded the Jews to drop any valuables onto it, on penalty of death. To show they were serious, they shot one of the Jews on the spot. But when the Jews then were ordered across a makeshift bridge, suddenly they were alone; the opposite bank was Soviet territory. Two years before the Wannsee Conference and the decision to implement the Final Solution, the Nazis seemed content with banishment. “So ceased to be one Jewish community in the first days of the war,” Spatz wrote.

Leah and her family headed east, surviving deportation to Siberia and eventually making their way to Israel. But Asher seemed to resign himself to his doom.

The conclusion of his granddaughter’s recollection is as terse as the rest of it is reverent: “When we crossed the San, we continued to wander in the direction of Przemysl. Grandfather was a native of Przemysl, and he decided to remain there until the storm would pass. After we took leave of him, we never met again. He succumbed to the murderous Nazis.”

Was he murdered when the Germans rounded up and killed the entire Jewish population of Zasanie in June 1942? Was he sent to Belzec some two months later along with 12,500 Jewish residents of Przemysl? Or would he have lived to the very end and been one of the 1,000 murdered behind the Judenrat building, during the final liquidation of Przemysl’s Jews, when the shooting went on for six hours?

What became of Asher Arom remains an intractable and deeply frustrating mystery to me. The only evidence of his death is a small, yellowing scrap of paper on which his son Shmuel, my grandfather, scribbled a contradictory series of Hebrew and Gregorian dates, recorded, probably, from phone calls from family and former neighbors after the war.

But how he died doesn’t interest me quite so much as how he lived. I’m still waiting to stumble on the single detail that will bring events from Lizhensk back to life for me, even just momentarily, in a brilliant flash of transplanted memory. I didn’t find it in Poland. Most of my time in Lizhensk was spent ambling from spot to spot, possessed by a sense of detachment, the drizzle dampening my mood. Even the beards and shawls and the prayerful wailing through the night failed to conjure anything profound.

There’s a disconnect I can’t get past. The removal is too great, the violence too jarring, the years too many. Sitting in the main square in Lizhensk, brooding over a notebook and trying to figure out how to feel, it didn’t really land that this was the same square where the Jews had gathered on Sukkot, where Leah had fretted over her grandfather. Would that it had, I might have decided to hike from Lizhensk to the river, following in the path of my ancestor, letting March showers stand in for fall rain. I didn’t. I’m not sure what I would have gained from it.

My ghosts have become better defined since I went looking for them, but they remain no less puzzling, no less tiresome and my relationship with them no less one-sided. They remain ghosts, dead things, dust and forgotten secrets. You can’t read the vanished inscription on a rain-beaten tombstone. No number of seasons and no amount of research will bring it back.

To those planning a foray into their family history  by buying a plane ticket to Poland, my advice is: You might want to reconsider. You will find no answers there. Seeing will bring you no more comfort than knowing. Only emptiness and grief remain for the likes of me, and faint traces of a bitter past. Soon, those too will be gone.