A Historic Missed Opportunity

In Israel, as in America, we learn more about historic events as they recede further into the past. Now that 50 years have passed since the Six Day War and the liberation of the Kosel Hamaarovi, we are learning more about our country’s actions at the time. We are now coming to understand how Israel’s leaders failed to take the situation seriously, how cowardly and fearful they were, and how much they felt that they needed to take everyone in the world into consideration, except Israel itself. Everything, every factor, was deemed important, except the Jewish people and the things that are sacred to them.

The end of the Six Day War presented us with a historic opportunity, the type of opportunity that occurs only once in history. It was clear that such an opportunity would never return again. At that time, no one would have uttered a peep if the State of Israel had chosen to expel all of the Arabs who lived in the Old City of Yerushalayim, including those in the Muslim Quarter. In fact, not only would the world not have protested, but the Arabs themselves would have understood it completely. According to their own rules, if a person takes a gamble and loses, then he loses everything. That was the reason that they abandoned all of their homes in the Jewish cities in the center of the country, including Ramle, Yaffo, and Lod. Most of the Arab residents of the Old City fled, and it wouldn’t have been difficult to expel the rest. But the State of Israel chose to make a humanitarian gesture – and one that was utterly foolhardy – by doing nothing of the sort.

I was a very small child during the Six Day War. But I recall that even several years later, in 1970 and the following years, when I visited the Kosel in the company of adults and we walked through the Arab market, we saw fear in the eyes of the merchants. I could have haggled them down to the lowest possible prices on their wares. They simply trembled in fear. And that was five or six years after the end of the war, when we had won and they had lost.

It was a golden opportunity for more than one reason. First, there was the outcome of the war: Israel was the clear winner, and the Arab states were the unmistakable losers. Jordan was warned repeatedly not to involve itself in a war that was none of its concern. King Hussein, who was considered a friend of Israel even at the time, was asked over and over, through direct and indirect channels, to refrain from interfering. If he let the Egyptians and the Syrians fight the war, he was told, he would suffer no losses, but if he intervened, he would be taking a risk. But Hussein did choose to intervene. The Jordanian Legionnaires did everything in their power to harm us. Many residents of Yerushalayim were killed by Jordanian snipers. They were the ones who guarded the Old City while it was under Jordanian rule, and they fought against us during the war.

But it was a special opportunity for another reason as well, one that had to do with Israeli society itself. The miraculous, historic victory affected the entire country. It is no secret that after the Six Day War, there was a tremendous spiritual reawakening throughout the country. The teshuvah movement had existed before the war as well, but it received an enormous boost in the aftermath of the war. At the time, Rav Shlomo Wolbe authored a number of articles and called on the chareidi world to take advantage of the opportunity for kiruv. That awakening continued for several years and received yet another boost, albeit for precisely the opposite reason, during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. This time, it was the painful outcome of the war that drove the people to seek a path to teshuvah. We were on the verge of complete destruction; the leadership of the state had despaired altogether. And so the Yom Kippur War was also a great catalyst for the teshuvah movement. Several years later, Rav Shlomo Wolbe published a sefer titled Bein Sheishes L’Asor, a reference to the period between the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, which began on the tenth of Tishrei.

In any event, because of this spiritual awakening, the Israeli public was also ready for a complete takeover of the Old City of Yerushalayim. The people of Israel were prepared to expel all the Arabs and to turn the city into a completely Jewish enclave. No one would have protested if this had taken place – but it was not done.

Eban Fears the American Reaction

When the short war came to an end after six days, all the Arab armies had been crushed. But this surprising victory, which no one had believed would happen, brought new dilemmas in its wake: What should Israel do with the conquered territories? What should be done with the Arab refugees who lived there? In retrospect, it is clear that mistakes were made on every front, especially with regard to the Old City.

But that is where diplomatic concerns came into play, and decisions were motivated by fear of what the world would say. All of a sudden, the country’s leaders decided to become extreme humanitarians. Moshe Dayan, along with other political figures, decided to let the Arabs stay in the Old City, and to allow them to retain some important properties. These unnecessary, obsequious concessions, which affected both Yerushalayim and the Me’oras Hamachpeilah, left a legacy of shame in their wake. Dayan was prepared even to make a major concession on the Kosel Hamaarovi, but he was deterred by the opposition of the gedolim of Yerushalayim. From the transcripts of the cabinet session following the war, we now know that the government discussed much more sweeping actions than it eventually took.

Foreign Minister Abba Eban began. “Public opinion in America is beginning to turn against us,” he said. “There is emerging criticism of our desire to hold on to territory that does not belong to us. We are being advised to refrain from announcing any intent to annex land, and to appear less triumphant and more constructive. The government of the United States wants to know our position on territorial issues, on the refugee problem, and on the status of Yerushalayim, so that it can determine its own policy. I believe that our government will soon have to formulate a position as to how it wishes to build the new Middle East.”

Menachem Begin, a minister at the time, responded, “Chas vecholilah! Let us not be drawn into the pursuit of a moderate position that we have no territorial claims. In the place where we are sitting today, we were also sitting four thousand years ago. We need to ‘electrify’ the Jews of America and have them stage mass protests, not only of Jews but of Christians as well.”

The first subject discussed by the ministers was the future of Yerushalayim. They agreed that the two parts of the city should be unified and that the Jewish Quarter of the Old City should be restored, particularly its shuls. At that time, though, the Jewish Quarter was home to many Arab residents, and the members of the cabinet were divided on the subject of how to deal with them.

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol said, “There was a thought that perhaps we should demolish the houses in the Jewish Quarter and transfer the Arab populace somewhere else. There are 2,000 Arab families living there. There was a thought that perhaps we should begin with the restoration of the shuls, which also means displacing dozens of families and demolishing their houses with bulldozers. Perhaps if they see that they have no hope of remaining there, they will leave on their own.”

Minister Moshe Kol, a representative of the Liberal party, responded, “I am opposed to expelling the Arabs from the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, since it would create bad spirits before the discussion in the UN General Assembly.”

Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Alon disagreed. “I am in favor of emptying the Jewish Quarter of Arabs,” he said. “If we don’t do it during the next two days, it will never be done. In addition, the Old City should be crowned with beautiful Jewish neighborhoods.”

“We must decide whether we will do it,” Defense Minister Moshe Dayan added, “and if we are going to do it, then it must be done now. Within the next two or three days, we must transfer the Arabs to empty homes in the vicinity of Yerushalayim. We can’t simply throw them out into the street. The houses that are standing empty today will not be empty in another week. Bais Lechem was almost completely abandoned, but now they have started coming back. If we don’t do it now, there will be no houses left where they can be relocated.”

“If we transfer these families to other houses, then I will not be opposed to it,” Prime Minister Eshkol said. “If the owners of those houses come, then we will simply move them to a different neighborhood, anywhere but in the Old City. It is possible that we could even find an empty lot in the Muslim Quarter and settle Jews there, but our first priority must be to settle Jews in the Jewish Quarter.”

Despite all their talk, though, they did very little. As is typical of the State of Israel, the government’s bluster was not reflected in its actions. The government barely introduced any Jewish settlement into the Old City. Most of the Jewish settlement took place in later years, and mostly against the will of the government. Instead, it was the work of right-wing organizations, which purchased homes in the Old City and populated the area with Jews. The government did not help them, and they allowed the majority of the Arab residents to remain in place. The elected officials of the government knew very well how to talk, but they failed to translate that talk into action. And that is a shame.

Dayan’s Shoes-Off Proposal

At that time, Moshe Dayan, the Minister of Defense, was authorized by the government to make all the relevant decisions. He was responsible for the Arab refugees in all the territories that were conquered, but we will focus on two specific sites: the Har Habayis and the Me’oras Hamachpeilah. With respect to both sites, Dayan demonstrated such spinelessness that he effectively gave up the possibility of ending the discrimination against Jewish visitors and mispallelim. Of course, there is a halachic prohibition for a Jew to enter the Har Habayis, but Dayan’s weakness affected the simple question of who would have sovereignty over the area, the Muslim Waqf or the government of Israel.

Dayan himself wrote, “The question we must resolve now is how to overturn the restrictions that the Muslim institutions and the Mandate government placed on Jews at their holy sites, while refraining, as much as possible, from offending the sensitivities of the Muslims. We must ensure that this sensitive subject does not become the basis of a dispute that could lead to an increase in tensions, clashes, protests, and international condemnations, especially among the Islamic countries.” To put it simply, even though the Arabs had cruelly barred us from these sites despite their sanctity to us, we would be humanitarian to them. That was Dayan’s approach and it continues to affect us today, since the arrangements that he put in place are still in effect today.

Dayan went on to describe his first visit to the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Har Habayis, on June 17, 1967, the first Shabbos after the war. (One wonders why he chose to visit the mosque on Shabbos.) His purpose was to inform the Muslim dignitaries that he was interested in settling on a compromise. But when he said that, they couldn’t believe their ears. “I told them that the war had ended and we had to return to a normal way of life,” Dayan related, adding that he formulated a status quo based on the recognition of the site as a mosque. “They knew that on the day of the conquest, I gave orders for the Israeli flag to be taken down from the Mosque of Omar. We have not come to take control of their sacred sites or to interfere with their religious life. The only policy that we want to implement here is for Jews to have free access to the courtyard, without limitations and without being required to pay. We call this place Har Habayis. This is where the Bais Hamikdosh stood when we lived in our land. Now that Yerushalayim is under our control, it is untenable that Jews should not be able to visit the Har Habayis freely.”

As I said, I find fault with Dayan’s actions only from a political perspective. From a halachic standpoint, it is clear that any effort to allow Jews to visit the Har Habayis should be unacceptable. That is why it is a good thing, from our perspective, that Dayan prevented Rabbi Goren from holding tefillos on the Har Habayis at the time, although Dayan himself meant it as a gesture of goodwill to the Arabs.

He took the same approach with respect to the Me’oras Hamachpeilah: “During the periods of Ottoman and British rule, the Muslims permitted the Jews to ascend only seven steps on the road leading to the building. They were barred completely from entering the building itself. The entire building is a mosque, and the graves of the avos are part of it. I searched for a way to give the Jews the ability to visit the site and to daven at the graves of the avos, without interfering with the prayers of the Muslims in the very same building.”

Dayan went on to relate what happened at the time: “I didn’t want a shul to be established at the Me’oras Hamachpeilah, but after it had been done – even though it was without my knowledge or agreement – I couldn’t have it removed. Therefore, I had to take into account not only the time needed for ordinary visits, but the times for tefillos as well. As we tried to come up with an agreement that would prevent conflict and violence, the idea arose to set up a designated facility for the shul and to connect its entrance to the lower level of the mosque, which is where tradition maintains that the graves themselves are located.” Thus, Moshe Dayan is responsible for the arrangement between Israel and the Arabs regarding the Me’oras Hamachpeilah, which left them in a position of strength rather than banishing them from the site, as they had done to us in the past.

I will let you in on a secret: Moshe Dayan intended to include a clause in the agreement that would require Jews to remove their shoes upon entering the Me’oras Hamachpeilah. The reason was simple: The Muslims considered the site to be a mosque. The government rejected this idea because it would have indicated that the site was a more of a mosque than a shul. That should give you some idea of the confusion that accompanied the euphoria after the Israeli victory in the Six Day War.

Finding the Kosel

Today, there is a large plaza at the Kosel Hamaarovi. At the time, though, the Kosel was practically hidden. The Jordanians and the Arab residents of the Old City intentionally made an effort to conceal it. Houses were built to extend almost to the Kosel itself, garbage was spilled next to it, and a restroom was even attached to it. There was an open space that ran along the entire length of the Kosel, but it was very narrow, and various structures were built within it. In fact, the Kosel was so well-hidden that the IDF soldiers who conquered the Old City couldn’t find it. Motta Gur, the commander of the paratroopers who liberated the Old City, describes in his book, Har Habayit B’yadeinu, how the Kosel was found. Today, his account sounds extraordinary.

“The Kosel Hamaarovi,” he begins. “We all wanted to hurry up and get to it. Several of the men raced toward the eastern stairs. They all wanted to see the Kosel… While they were running to the Kosel, a large group gathered around Moshele, the deputy battalion commander. The troops ran along with him to the wide steps descending toward the plaza. In front of them, a large wall extended to the right and the left. The wall contained arches and large, locked doors… Moshele looked to the left. Where was the entrance to the Kosel? How could they get to it? No one knew. Moshele looked to the right. An Arab came out to the street. He was well dressed and wore a red band on his arm. ‘Where is the Kosel Hamaarovi?’ the soldiers asked him. Without any emotion, the man replied in fluent Hebrew, ‘Come with me and I will show you.’ The group followed him, happy but impatient with the slow pace. The Arab pointed to a small gate. ‘From here,’ he said, ‘you go down to the Kosel Hamaarovi.’”

That small gate was the Mughrabi Gate. Gur continues, “The group reverently went through the gate. It was a narrow passageway. On the left was the wall of a house, and on the right was a metal railing. There were steep, narrow steps leading down… Suddenly, we heard a cry. ‘Here is the Kosel! Here is the Kosel!’ We stopped. To the right was a massive wall made of large, gray stones. It was the Kosel Hamaarovi, the Wailing Wall. We felt as if we were in a dream. The Kosel plaza was below. It was long and narrow, and the wall was tall and smooth.” This is Motta Gur’s description of the Kosel as it appeared when the Jews reentered the Old City.

At that time, we had endured twenty years of forced separation from the Kosel Hamaarovi. The last communal tefillah at the Kosel had taken place on the 16th of Kislev, 5708. That midnight, the Jews of Yerushalayim still performed tikkun chatzos. After that, the British blocked the path to the Kosel. The Arabs placed the Jewish Quarter under siege for six months, until it fell into the hands of the Jordanian Legionnaires in mid-1948. When the Jews of the Old City surrendered to the Arabs, the agreement stipulated that citizens of the State of Israel would be granted access to the Kosel. However, after the city was conquered by the Jordanians in 1948, Israelis were never permitted to visit the Kosel until it was liberated during the Six Day War. On Shavuos of 5727, the first Shavuos after the Six Day War, over 200,000 people came to daven at the Kosel Hamaarovi. That should not be surprising, as the people had spent 20 years longing for such an opportunity. To this day, tens of thousands of people still visit the Kosel every Shavuos.

Despite the government’s hesitancy after the liberation of the Old City, there was one good thing that was done, something that took place quickly and clandestinely. On Motzoei Shabbos of June 10, 1967, several contractors arrived at the Kosel Hamaarovi, bringing tools, workers, and even a tractor along with them. Over the course of the night, the entire Arab neighborhood that stood before the Kosel was demolished. The work was performed by 15 contractors, all but two of whom have since left this world.

One of the contractors, Yosef Schwartz, recently spoke about his experience. “We were chilonim,” he related, “but we felt that we had been given a mission from G-d.” Schwartz revealed that the entire group had received a personal summons from Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Yerushalayim. Sasson Levy, the only other contractor who is still alive today, related that the goal was to ensure that there would be no houses left standing adjacent to the Kosel. “In effect, we created the Kosel plaza as it is known today,” he claimed. In truth, much about the plaza has been changed since that night, and it has been refurbished significantly. But he was referring simply to the geographic area of the plaza, and in that respect, he is correct.

The Residents Were Asked to Leave Their Homes

Although it was Teddy Kollek who recruited the contractors to perform the demolitions, it is most likely that the decision was made by senior officers in the army. In all likelihood, though, those officers never received authorization from the government for their decision. To this day, no official documents regarding the decision have been found. An Israeli researcher who studied the demolition of the Mughrabi neighborhood recently wrote that the demolition work was given to the contractors’ association of Yerushalayim in order to minimize the evidence of government involvement in the operation. Teddy Kollek later claimed that he had ordered the demolitions because he feared that Jews would be injured when large crowds came to the Kosel on Shavuos. On another occasion, he declared that he was proud of the decision.

I will conclude with the testimony of Sasson Levy, one of the two contractors from 1967 who are still alive in Yerushalayim today. “The work began at around 11:00 at night,” he said. “Our first goal was to demolish a lavatory that was resting against the Kosel. One day earlier, former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had visited the site and rebuked Yaakov Yannai, the director of the National Parks Authority, for the presence of the lavatory. ‘You come to a place like this and find such a stench at the wall!’ he exclaimed. It angered us in the midst of all our joy. At first we worked with hoes, pickaxes, and jackhammers. Then Zalman [Barashi, the director of the contractors’ association] brought in the tractor.”

On that night, 135 houses were demolished. The residents were ordered to leave their homes and to go anywhere they chose. Almost none of them resisted; only one Arab waited to emerge from his home until the bulldozer struck its wall. They understood that this was the new reality in Yerushalayim.

And so it was that a new, spacious plaza was born overnight. At least the government had the courage to do that. A Jew who visited the Kosel on Shavuos was heard commenting, “I heard that the army expanded the Kosel plaza, but I hadn’t dreamed how large they would make it.”