Teaching by Example

He was born in Jerusalem and lived in the city all his life. As a teenager he fought in the independence war the city’s life and death struggle with the Jordanian Legion. The legion dealt the Jewish defenders of the city their greatest defeat they lost the Jewish quarter of the old city and the Wailing Wall. For nineteen years the city lay on history’s operating table, the scalpel of no-man’s-land through its heart. For nineteen years they trained and prepared its undoing. Their hour came on Wednesday morning, June 7th 1967.

By that time he was the operations officer of the 163rd infantry battalion of the Jerusalem Regiment, a regiment of reservists thirty to forty years of age, married with children. They had been called up in mid May. As the men gathered there were the usual greetings and back-slapping between the men who had grown close to each other over many years of routine training and mutual tours of duty. Friendships fused together by the specter of the inevitable battle that would some day come, knowing that would depend on each other when it did. The sense of camaraderie eased personal worries each man carried with him; a sick child left at home with a wife who had other kids and a job to attend, financial debt, work stacked up, medical appointments canceled, contracts which needed signatures all these would have to wait until each man returned if he returned. Together they found the strength to bear of the gnawing fear of soldiers assembling for battle.

He felt confident that the battalion was ready. They rehearsed the battle plans over and over again. The weapons were ready, the ammunition distributed, they could spring into action on a five minute notice. This time the legion would be routed, of that he was sure, at what price – no one could tell. But for now they waited. They waited and thought of the city, their families, and their homes, less than a mile away as the crow flies. No matter what the cost, there was a terrible resolve t o protect one’s own kin from the guns surrounding the city. If only it would start so they could get it over with. Such was the mood as they waited for three weeks.

The Jordanian guns opened fire at 11:00 o’clock on Monday June 5th. The tension was more than one could bear. Sitting with weapons at the ready, each man cradling his Uzi, jeeps with recoilless rifles loaded, mortar platoons with shells stacked by the barrels waiting for an order that still did not come. As they waited the city was pounded by thousands of enemy shells. Like everyone else, he heard the explosions and the sirens of the ambulances and emergency vehicles rushing to places they all felt they knew but could not see. He could not help thinking whether or not his children made it back from school before the shelling started. He smiled to himself recalling of an independence war memory, of his youngest brother going out to sell newspapers in the midst of a mortar attack. His brother survived the attack only to wi s h that he hadn’t when their father found out about the suicidal exploits of his eight year old entrepreneurial son.

His battalion crossed the minefield of Abu-Tor late that night using the cover of darkness to shield their movements from Jordanian snipers. The fighting raged door to door. They moved through the streets, their muscles aching from the physical strain of an infantry man who survives by moving faster than the enemy can aim, the skin of their fingers torn from pulling pins of hand grenades, palms, knees and elbows scraped raw from countless dives for shelter disregarding the impact with the rough pavements, crawling, returning fire, rushing forward again, kicking down doors, clearing rooms with grenades and bursts of automatic fire, pressing ever forward, searching for the guns that fired on their city. In thirty-six hours the Jordanian forces threatening western Jerusalem had been routed. The southern route to the old city was open.

Relieved the guns that pounded the city were si l enced, anxious because they did not know how their loved ones faired, the men did their best to regroup; evacuating wounded, redistributing ammunitions and food, officers reviewing the plans for the coming day. Fatigue helped men fall asleep. As the men slept he sat in a makeshift command post, worried. Rather than exalting over the glorious victory that the next day was sure to bring, he was troubled by thoughts of destruction and pillage; acts which would violate the moral code that bound them as Jewish fighters. How then, was he to set the moral high ground in the troops’ minds as they went into battle the next day? As he sat viewing the silhouette of Mount Zion overlooking the walls of the old city he thought of the conquests of David and Solomon, the temples they had built later to be demolished by the Assyrians, rebuilt by Ezra given the blessing by the Babylonians, embellished by Herod to be destroyed forever by the Romans. As the centuries and the Bible he knew by heart raced throu gh his min d h e dismissed messages of conquest he searched for a message of compassion, a message that fighting was a necessary evil after it was done life would have to continue for Jews and Arabs alike. How do you bind Judaism with humanism, religion with nationality, faith with moral values? He thought back to Abraham the patriarch of both peoples. How do you fuse the moralities which burned as coals for three thousand years into a glittering diamond in the few minutes that would preceed the battle?

In the morning he distributed an order of the day to the battalion beginning with Biblical verses: And the king of Sodom said to Abram [Abraham], “Give me the folk, and the substance take for yourself”. And Abram said to the king of Sodom “I raise my hand in oath to the lord THAT I WILL TAKE NOT A SINGLE THREAD OR A SANDAL STRAP OF ALL THAT IS YOURS nothing for me but what the lads have consumed. (Genesis 14:20-23)

On June 7th 1967 units of the 163rd batta lion of the Jer us alem Regiment entered the old city through the Zion and Dung Gates. The 55th Paratroopers’ Regiment, which entered through the Lion’s Gate, reaped the glory, being the first to reach the Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall. Fewer people remember that it was units from the Jerusalem Regiment that liberated the Jewish Quarter and broke through the Muslim quarter to the Jaffa Gate. For the first time in nineteen years they viewed western Jerusalem from the East. The next day the soldiers watched as thousands of civilians from western Jerusalem flocked to the old city. They climbed the slopes of no-man’s land from the Sultan’s Pool to Mount Zion, continued past the church of St. Peter of Gallicantu, through the Zion Gate, down to the Wailing Wall. There had been a lot of rain that spring and the slopes were still covered with grass and wild flowers – Tulips, Anemones, and Cyclamen. Arab shop owner s their bus iness es intact opened up for business. Jews and Arab alike hadn’t seen each other since 1948; there was a sense of reunion. The city was united and alive it was the battalion’s greatest victory.

My father came home the next day. He did not say a word to me about the battle or the days leading to it. A few weeks after the war we celebrated my tenth birthday. I asked him why he did not bring any ‘souvenirs’ with him, perhaps an abandoned rifle or a bayonet or just a helmet. He answered by quoting Biblical verses about sandal straps that I did not understand.