An American in war-torn Jerusalem witnesses the battle for the Temple Mount
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First person'They can have all the rest back. Just not our holy city'

An American in war-torn Jerusalem witnesses the battle for the Temple Mount

Fifty years ago, in the days leading up to the Six Day War, a plucky young journalist from Long Island flew to Israel on his first self-imposed war assignment. Here’s what he saw

Abraham Rabinovich (center) on Temple Mount, 1967 (photo credit: author's photo)
Abraham Rabinovich (center) on Temple Mount, 1967 (photo credit: author's photo)

Abraham Rabinovich is an American journalist and author of several books on recent Israeli history. The following is a firsthand account of his experiences in the battle for Jerusalem during the Six Day War.

The background murmur of news from the Middle East had suddenly taken on a different pitch. It was mid-May 1967; Egypt was moving its army into the Sinai desert, expelling UN peacekeepers and closing the Tiran Straits to Israel-bound shipping. I had started work a few months before at a new daily on Long Island. On the last Sunday in May, I drove out of New York City and spent an hour walking up and down a country road to think it through. Should I? Could I? What would happen if?

The next morning, I told my editor that I had decided to fly to Israel to witness whatever was going to happen. If it were possible to consider my absence as two-week annual leave, I said, I would appreciate it. He agreed, even though I had not been there long enough to be entitled to leave time. “Two weeks,” he said. “War or no war.”

On May 31 I flew to Tel Aviv on a two-week ticket. Apart from yeshiva students returning to studies, one of the few passengers on the plane was Mandy Rice-Davies, who had been involved four years before in the Profumo sex scandal that rocked the British government. She was married now to a Tel Aviv nightclub owner. A yeshiva student pointed her out to me and she agreed to a brief interview. When I asked whether she realized that she was flying to a country that might soon be at war, she replied with British pluck. “Yes. That’s where I should be. I live there now.”

British actor Michael Caine is shown with Mandy Rice-Davies at the discotheque she ran in Tel Aviv, November 1968. (photo credit: AP Photo)
British actor Michael Caine is shown with Mandy Rice-Davies at the discotheque she ran in Tel Aviv, November 1968. (photo credit: AP Photo)

Five days later, I was in downtown Jerusalem when gunfire began to sputter along the line separating the Israeli and Jordanian halves of Jerusalem. Jordanian artillery soon joined in and I dashed through the only open door in the vicinity. A plaque on the wall read “Jerusalem Municipality.” I asked the guard if the mayor was in the building. He was.

“What’s his name?”

“Teddy Kollek.”

Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek addressing a Jerusalem Day memorial ceremony for soldiers who lost their lives on Ammunition Hill during the Six Day War. (Saar Yaacov/Government Press Office)
Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek addressing a 1974 Jerusalem Day memorial ceremony for soldiers who lost their lives on Ammunition Hill during the Six Day War. (Saar Yaacov/Government Press Office)

The mayor was waiting outside his office door when the elevator reached the top floor. I stood with him at his window watching shells seemingly blowing the city apart. “I’m going down,” he said. With two aides, he made his way to a tenement (no longer standing) behind City Hall, about 40 meters from the Old City wall. I followed. From time to time, Kollek ducked behind parked cars as the racket of gunfire echoed off surrounding buildings, making it impossible to know where the shooting was coming from. Inside the tenement, residents were sitting on the foyer floor, in the absence of a basement. Kollek’s appearance lifted spirits.

“What’s going to be, Teddy?” asked a woman.

“Our boys are fighting well in the south,” he said.

An IDF soldier aiming his rifle at an Arab Legion sniper position in Jerusalem during the Six Day War. (Government Press Office)
An IDF soldier aiming his rifle at an Arab Legion sniper position in Jerusalem during the Six Day War. (Government Press Office)

A sergeant led the mayor to the first floor where a soldier with a bazooka, standing on a bed, nudged aside a curtain to reveal a sandbagged Jordanian position on the crenelated wall of the Old City opposite. As we descended the steps, we heard the whump of the bazooka, and felt a rush of air from the weapon’s backblast.

That night, Kollek came up to The Jerusalem Post to dictate a message to the city’s residents for the morning edition. My sister, Malka, was an editor at the paper and it became my base. I used a typewriter there to write a story for my workplace on Long Island. To send it, I had to make my way through pitch dark streets to the censor’s office in the Russian Compound, touching the buildings as I walked, and using my toe to find the curb.

Israeli soldiers in the courtyard of the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem during the Six Day War. (Government Press Office)
Israeli soldiers in the courtyard of the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem during the Six Day War. (Government Press Office)

From the censor it was a short walk to the central post office where telex operators worked through the night. At one point, I flagged down a slow moving vehicle on Shivtei Yisrael Street with paratroopers inside. They had just brought wounded comrades to hospital in a Jordanian car and were trying to find the crossing point back to the other side. I identified myself and asked if I could come with them but they declined.

I spent much of the two days of the Jerusalem battle in the Musrara border area, seeing what I could of the Arab side of the city and talking with people in the shelters. Morale was high despite the furies outside. Israel Radio offered no hint of the progress of the war that first day, permitting Cairo’s claims of victory to go unchallenged.

Smoke rising from targets hit by Israeli artillery at the Suez Canal during the Six Day War. (Han Micha/Government Press Office)
Smoke rising from targets hit by Israeli artillery at the Suez Canal during the Six Day War. (Han Micha/Government Press Office)

Only after midnight did Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin come on air to announce that Israeli forces were deep in Sinai. He was followed by air force commander Motti Hod who, in a dry and weary voice, let drop the astonishing figure of 400 Arab planes destroyed, mostly on the ground. Israeli losses, he said, were 19 planes. When I emerged from a shelter at dawn, every car on the street rested on flat tires. The vehicles had been turned into sieves by shrapnel and the air was heavy with the smell from punctured gas balloons.

By the second night, the Jordanian shelling had stopped and I lay down to sleep in Independence Park. I was wakened in mid-morning by a piercing wail from an object that left a contrail behind it as it flew south, towards Bethlehem or Hebron. I made my way to The Jerusalem Post where I found Charlie Weiss, the chief copy editor, alone in the news room. There were reports, he said, that Israeli troops were already inside the Old City. I suggested that we see if we could get across.

An Israeli paratrooper unit advances through an alleyway in Jerusalem's Old City during the Six Day War. (Government Press Office)
An Israeli paratrooper unit advances through an alleyway in Jerusalem’s Old City during the Six Day War. (Government Press Office)

We walked to Mandelbaum Gate, about 15 minutes away, normally the crossing point for diplomats and clergy. It was empty. The soldiers who had taken over the building at the start of the war had left. The police and customs personnel who normally manned it had not yet returned. The Jordanian border post on the far side of the crossing appeared empty too. We crossed no-man’s-land and began walking through the empty streets of Jordanian Jerusalem in the presumed direction of the Old City’s Damascus Gate. At one point, we passed a Jordanian army tender that had been hit by a shell. The dead driver was still behind the wheel, one arm held high in rigor mortis. A block further on we encountered Israeli paratroopers. They said we should avoid the Damascus Gate and enter the Old City through the Lion’s Gate in the eastern city wall.

Charlie continued on to the Western Wall but I remained to witness the unfolding drama on the Temple Mount. At the rear of the compound, paratroopers were poking through a stack of weapons in Jordanian army storerooms when they came on a crate of soda. As they sat drinking, they readily responded when I asked about the political implications of the battle they had just fought.

Chief army chaplain Rabbi Shlomo Goren dons phylacteries and holds a Torah in front of the Western Wall in 1967. (Eli Landau/Government Press Office)
Chief army chaplain Rabbi Shlomo Goren dons phylacteries and holds a Torah in front of the Western Wall in 1967. (Eli Landau/Government Press Office)

“They can have all the rest back,” said one. “Just not our holy city.”

Others spoke of keeping all or some of the other territory captured on the West Bank and Sinai. (The attack on the Golan had not yet begun.) One soldier favored returning everything, including Jordanian Jerusalem, in exchange for true peace. Israel’s political agenda for the coming half-century — and counting — was fixed before the last shots were fired in the city.

When the war ended four days later, I sat at an outdoor cafe next to the supermarket on Agron Street to make my calculations. I had arrived five days before the war, the war lasted six days so I still had three days for sightseeing before my return flight. Watching the street’s asphalt shimmering in the June heat, however, it seemed to me that the waves rising from the roadway were not just an optical phenomenon. They represented the energy of the historical moment and of the place. I decided that I couldn’t abandon this to return to town board meetings and zoning disputes on Long Island. I sent a telex of apology to the editor, saying that I wouldn’t be returning. It was just too interesting to leave.

Israeli paratroopers putting up the national flag on the wall of the Temple Mount above the Western Wall in Jerusalem during the Six Day War. (Government Press Office)
Israeli paratroopers putting up the national flag on the wall of the Temple Mount above the Western Wall in Jerusalem during the Six Day War. (Government Press Office)

I had no intention of remaining in Israel any length of time. I just wanted to hang around and watch events take their course and to feel the electricity. After a few weeks, however, my sister’s friends began to ask what I intended to do. It became embarrassing. “Just hang around” didn’t sound good. “Write a book” sounded better. Maybe I would actually start to write one. What kind of book? About the war, obviously. But post-war Israel was swarming with the top journalistic names in the world. I was certain that several teams were already working on the 1967 version of “O Jerusalem.”

I thought of a soft niche that others were likely to ignore — a book on how the civilian population had experienced the war. Not very interesting, granted, but a legitimate cover for hanging around. I enrolled in an intensive Hebrew-language course and meanwhile started interviewing people who spoke English.

The reservists who fought in Jerusalem had by this time been demobilized; when I called on a family, the husband was usually there and talked about his experience in the war itself. I was soon focusing on them — “Where were you? What unit? Then what happened?” Within a month or so, I knew that this was the way I had to go. I no longer cared if someone else was writing the same book. I was hooked. I wanted to know how battles are fought, particularly this one, and I was ideally placed to do it — footloose, unemployed, and with a whole army ready to talk.

Sgt. Eliezer Sheffer shares water with Basima Shafiq before delivering her home to Jerusalem in June 1967. (Courtesy of Aharon Zukerman/JTA)
Sgt. Eliezer Sheffer shares water with Basima Shafiq before delivering her home to Jerusalem in June 1967. (Courtesy of Aharon Zukerman/JTA)

My parameters now included the men of the 55th Paratroop Brigade and the Harel tank brigade who had come to the aid of the Jerusalem Brigade, which had held the line. These reservists lived all around the country. Over the next two years, I interviewed men in 35 kibbutzim as well as villages and towns. Many were farmers and I would sometimes be led to my quarry by the sound of a tractor in the field. Wonderful people; salt of the earth. In all, there would be close to 300 interviews. Their stories comprised a massive jigsaw puzzle which could be fitted together into a narrative. It was a life experience.

Abraham Rabinovich’s bestselling book “The Battle for Jerusalem” was recently re-released on Amazon as an ebook and paperback, with additional political context and a close-up of the Arab command in the battle. The final chapter is an overview of Jerusalem in the half century since the war.

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