Today we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim. We honour 56 years of a reunified Jerusalem, the eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish People, and the united capital of the Jewish State. We mark the anniversary of that miraculous day of 28 Iyar 5727 (7 June 1967), when Israeli paratroopers liberated the Jordanian-occupied Old City of Jerusalem, reunited the City, and reconnected the Jewish capital with the holiest sites in all Judaism, namely the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. For almost 20 years prior to that moment, Jews were unable to live in the Old City or pray at the Western Wall. Under Jordan’s control, synagogues in the Old City were desecrated and destroyed, millenia of Jewish archeological treasures were ruined, and Jews were forbidden from setting foot at these sacred areas. That historical injustice was transformed into redemption with the miraculous words of Motta Gur, commander of the paratroopers brigade, who declared that day over the radio “Har Habayit b’yadenu”, (The Temple Mount is in our hands!).
For two thousand years prior, Jerusalem had become a spiritual-beacon in the soul of an exiled people, the Jewish Diaspora, and it fueled our collective desire to return to Zion in freedom and self-determination. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem”, recounts the famous Psalm 137, “let my right hand forget its own strength”. To this day, Jews praying anywhere in the Diaspora turn Eastward to face Jerusalem. Jews praying inside Jerusalem turn to face the Temple Mount. And on Friday, we will recognise 56 years of Jews not only being able to turn, but physically to be, at the very place towards which they pray.
The importance and ongoing centrality of a unified Jerusalem to the Jewish people should never be underestimated or forgotten, nor should we ever allow enemies of our faith to destroy that unbreakable connection. Jerusalem has never been the capital of any other nation besides the Jews, going back three-thousand years to when King David established the city as the united capital of Israel. Jewish scripture has over 72 names for Jerusalem in Hebrew, including Ir Ha’Elohim, Ir Ha’Emet, Kiriyah Aliza and Kiryah Ne’emanah. The Tanakh references Jerusalem, or its alternate Hebrew name ‘Zion’, over 800 times.
In comparison, while there are 16 Arabic names for Jerusalem, not one of these are mentioned in the Koran, even though some have said that a more recent 12th century passage refers to the city. Almost daily, archeological findings of Jewish artefacts in or around Jerusalem prove over and over again the many thousand year connection between Jewish people and our Holy City. At the end of the Pesach Seder, and at the end of the Ne’ila service on Yom Kippur, over millennia, we say “L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim”, (Next Year in Jerusalem). Even at the point of our highest joy, when we break the glass when getting married, we recall the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and remember the same Psalm as above to keep “Jerusalem in memory even at the happiest hour.”
Jewish South Africans have our executive capital in Pretoria, our judicial capital in Bloemfontein and legislative capital in Cape Town. However, our spiritual and religious capital is and always will be Yerushalayim. While we may be physically separate from her right now, she exists in our heart of hearts as the whole and undivided city that connects us every day to the core of our faith. And as people of the Jewish faith, we must continue to allow non-Jewish people the dignity that they have historically denied us: the ability to exist and to pray freely in our city and land.
I recall the words of Defense Minister Moshe Dayan who said shortly after recapturing the city, “To our Arab neighbours, Israel extends the hand of peace and to all peoples of all faiths, we guarantee full freedom of worship. We’ve not come to conquer the holy places of others but to live with others in harmony”.
With that, may Jerusalem remain forever indivisible, may we all find an opportunity to return to Zion spiritually or physically, never to part from her again. And may she be a city of peace, love and joy for all who live there.
Rowan Polovin is the National Chairman of the South African Zionist Federation