-Written by Eli Yaron
I witnessed the reunification of Jerusalem firsthand. I was a nine-year-old boy when this modern-day miracle unfolded during the Six-Day War in 1967.
Three weeks before the war, I was enjoying the Yom Hatzmaut (Independence Day) celebrations, which included the IDF parade during the day, and the yearly Israeli song festival in the evening. The parade took place in Jerusalem that year. However, because the occupying Jordanians had restricted the access of Jews within the walls of the ancient part of the city, the parade had to be held in the newer part. Due to the cease-fire agreements with Jordan, the parade was limited to marching troops and jeeps. Although the air force flyby and the columns of tanks were not allowed, the parade was still a show of force.
The song festival included 12 songs that competed for first prize. I recall my family sitting around the radio listening to the songs. Then, it was announced that the mayor, Teddy Koleck, had asked for a special song, that was not part of the contest, to be written about Jerusalem. A young singer whom none of us had ever heard before, Shuli Nathan, started singing “Avir Harim Tzalul K’Yaytin” (Mountain Air That Is Pure as Wine), written by Naomi Shemer. We were mesmerized. My mother came in from the kitchen, and when the refrain of “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (Jerusalem of Gold) was sung for the first time, I saw her wiping a tear. On the radio, we could hear the crowd singing the refrain, followed by a brief silence and then applause that seemed to last forever. My father simply said, “Hayinu Kecholmim (as if we are dreaming).”
Most Israelis do not recall which song won the 1967 song festival contest. But all those who listened to the broadcast recall vividly that at the end of the evening, Shuli Nathan came on stage again to sing “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” with the audience joining her and choking back tears.
The next morning, the 7 a.m. news started with Nasser, the president of Egypt, demanding the removal of the UN peace-keeping forces between Israel and Egypt. The UN forces vacated their position on the border, and the Egyptian army took their place. In response, Israel mobilized those in military reserve units. Within a few days, our neighborhood changed — only children, young women, and the elderly were left. School continued as usual, and the only difference in my life was that my parents were working long hours. My father was working around the clock at ZIM, the Israeli shipping line. He came home every third or fourth day for a quick shower and meal, before going right back. My mother was working full-time at a friend’s hardware store, as he was called to reserve duty as well.
A few days later, two major events took place. On the foreign affairs front, Nasser announced he was closing the Tiran Straits to Israeli ships. And on the home front, our cleaning lady, a widow who lived in downtown Haifa in a mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood, came crying to my mother. Our cleaning lady said that her Arab neighbor told her, “Wait until we win. We are going to kill your children first, and then we will kill you!” My mother told her not to worry about a thing, because that would never happen. Tuning in to the Arab radio stations that broadcasted in Hebrew, we repeatedly heard the same message: “We will slaughter you and throw your bodies into the Mediterranean Sea, as none of you will remain alive at the end of the war.”
In school, we did not discuss the situation. The teacher simply said that in case of an air raid alarm, we should all walk — not run — to the bomb shelter. I do not recall even a single practice air raid drill.
On Monday, June 5, 1967, we went to school like any other day. The bell rang at 8 a.m. as usual, but ten minutes later, an air raid siren sounded. We all went to the bomb shelter and listened. Nobody was scared. Nobody cried or screamed. We just sat there and tried to listen to what was going on outside. We heard nothing. After 20 minutes or so, the principal turned on the radio. We all heard Motti Hod, the commander of the Israeli air force, announcing that both Egyptian and Syrian air forces had been destroyed. The all-clear sounded soon thereafter, and we returned to our class. Before continuing with the lesson, the teacher asked us all to sing “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.” We sang with loud voices and then continued our lesson. I do not recall a single parent coming to pick up a child early; we went home at the usual time.
At home, we turned on the radio to the best stand-up comedy show of the day: it was the Egyptian radio station broadcasting in Hebrew and bragging about the results of the war. The broadcaster claimed that the Jewish part of Jerusalem was under Jordanian control, and that Tel Aviv and Haifa were burning to the ground, as a result of constant air attacks and naval bombardment. The highlight of this comedy show was when the proud Arab announcer confused the Hebrew word for “battle fronts,” Chazitot, with the Hebrew word for “brassieres,” Chaziot! He kept saying, “Our brave forces are fighting in all the bras and killing the Jews everywhere!”
On the second day of the war, our cleaning lady was in a better mood. Her Arab neighbor told her the night before that she would help her and her children hide when the Arabs came. I will never forget my mother’s answer to her, “Tell your Arab neighbor that there is no need for her to hide in your house, nobody will hurt her.”
On the third day of the war, the whole school was called to an assembly. The radio was broadcasting from Jerusalem. We heard the reporter saying “Ani Roe Et Hakotel Ha’Maaravi (I see the Western Wall).” Soon thereafter, we heard Chief Army Chaplin Shlomo Goren at the Wall, blowing a shofar, reciting “Shehecheyanu,” and with the paratroopers, reciting Kadish over the fallen IDF soldiers who had paid the ultimate price for the liberation of Jerusalem. After the Kadish, the triumphant paratroopers sang “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” at the top of their lungs, as they were choking back tears.
The Old City of Jerusalem had witnessed the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, followed by the building of the Second Temple, its defilement by the Greeks, and its ultimate destruction by the Romans. But the city had never seen tough, hardened Israeli paratroopers singing the victory song, while trying to choke back their tears. My father said, “Hayiny K’cholmim (I never would have dreamed such a thing).”
The next evening, Naomi Shemer traveled to Sinai to meet with another paratrooper unit that was fighting along the coastal route to the Suez Canal, and she added another verse to her song:
We returned to the water wells, the market place and city square. The sound of a shofar is heard on the Temple Mount in the Old City. Within the caverns in the mountains, a thousand suns will glow; we’ll take the Dead Sea road together, that runs through Jericho.
Several days after the war, our family took a trip to Jerusalem. The first stop was the Wall. I will never forget how quickly my father got there once we entered the Jaffa Gate. We arrived as if we were on eagles’ wings. The Wall was packed with people, praying, crying and putting notes in the crevices. Then we took an Arab cab to the Mount of Olives, Har Hazeitim. My great-grandfather was buried there in 1940. My father tried to locate the grave, but could not find it because the Intercontinental Hotel was built on the section where he had been buried. In my father’s words, “Grandpa checked in to the Intercontinental Hotel!”
From there, we went to the old Hebrew University amphitheater on top of Mount Scopas. The amphitheater overlooked the Judean Desert, with a clear view all the way to the Dead Sea. Turning in the other direction, we faced the old and the new cities of Jerusalem, all united and in peace. Hayinu Kcholmim — and we were not dreaming!