Photo Credit: Jewish Press

{Editor’s Note: This column was authored by Mr. Fendel without his usual writing partner, Chaim Silberstein, whom Mr. Fendel quotes in the piece.}

The 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s liberation and reunification is precisely the day this issue of The Jewish Press hits the newsstands – the 28th of Iyar. It follows on the heels of the death three weeks ago of one of Jerusalem’s most loyal, active, and successful political supporters: former tourism minister and yeshiva dean Rabbi Benny Elon. This is therefore a fine opportunity to review some of Rav Benny’s many achievements and activities on behalf of united Jerusalem.

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To this end, we spoke with some of the movers and shakers in recent Jerusalem history – KeepJerusalem President Chaim Silberstein, political veteran Uri Bank of the Moledet and Jewish Home parties, Israel Allies Foundation President Josh Reinstein, and David Be’eri of the City of David – and asked for their recollections of working with Rav Benny.

For background’s sake, keep in mind that Rabbi Elon was co-founder and dean of Yeshivat Beit Orot on Mt. Scopus, served as a Knesset member for 13 years as well as minister of tourism, and headed the Moledet Party.

Uri Bank, Elon’s longtime parliamentary aide and assistant who literally rent his garments in mourning when his “mentor, teacher, and rabbi” passed away, didn’t hesitate when asked about Rabbi Elon’s activities on behalf of Jerusalem. “The most significant event in which I took part,” he said, “was when we liberated the Shimon HaTzaddik Synagogue, under his leadership, in 1998. It was not only that we regained holy Jewish property; this was part of his all-encompassing vision to break up the Arab contiguity on the ground in Jerusalem.”

“In those days,” Bank related, “we were able to visit Shimon HaTzaddik’s Tomb, but the synagogue there belonged to a Sephardic trust, run at the time by a former Labor Party MK. He was someone who didn’t want to make waves and wished to keep the status quo, even though it meant no Jewish access to the holy site. Finally, when one of the local Arabs began to build right up to the synagogue, Rav Benny persuaded him that, ‘if we don’t take action now, it will be too late forever.’ … I remember when we finally gained access to the synagogue we prayed Minchah there that day, with the Arabs outside protesting, and it was the first time prayers were held there in 50 years. Rav Benny realized, however, that it wasn’t enough to prove it was Jewish-owned; we actually had to cement facts on the ground by actually remaining there – and that’s precisely what we did, for the next two weeks straight.”

The synagogue currently houses a small yeshiva in which some 15 older students study daily, with many Jewish families living in properties around the site. As Bank concluded, “Rav Benny was always aware of the big picture – ensuring facts on the ground that would facilitate Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem.”

Rabbi Elon with Vice President Mike Pence.
Rabbi Elon with Vice President Mike Pence.

Chaim Silberstein was Tourism Minister Elon’s senior adviser. “The first thing that stands out,” Chaim says when asked to reminisce, “is that Rav Benny was always simply a mensch to those he met with, whether they were VIPs or not… He also had a standing order that whichever city or country he was officially visiting, he and his staff would not stay in fancy hotels.”

“As tourism minister, his policy was to invest much more in holy and historical/biblical sites, especially in Jerusalem, as opposed to typical touristy sites such as the promenade in Tel Aviv. I remember he initiated a major project to improve the lighting on the Old City wall ramparts, which succeeded in boosting their attraction to traditional and religious Jews as well as Christians.

“During the Second Intifada,” Chaim recalls, “there were times when very few tourists arrived. At one point, before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, tourists would receive gas masks upon arrival, and the ministry made a list of all the recipients. He came to a hotel to meet a group of religious Jews who had come in solidarity with Israel, and joked that he was the only tourism minister who knew the names of all his tourists personally.

“He would often meet with Christian leaders visiting Jerusalem. He brought the love of Jerusalem to these influential groups, who then went back and influenced their communities…. He situated his office in eastern Jerusalem, opposite the old U.S. consulate. Though it was inconvenient, he made the statement that united Jerusalem means Jews all over Jerusalem…. He was also very close with the Moskowitz family, introducing them to many projects in Jerusalem to which they later donated and invested in – and continue to do today.”

Josh Reinstein, president of the Israel Allies Foundation founded by Rabbi Elon, succeeded Rav Benny this year in this position. The organization works with the U.S. Congress and three dozen parliaments around the world to mobilize political support for Israel and united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty. Reinstein said the foundation was another part of Rabbi Elon’s all-encompassing vision for the future of Yerushalayim.

“It is very telling that there is much talk now of the U.S. embassy being moved to Jerusalem,” said Reinstein, a member of KeepJerusalem’s Advisory Board, “for that would be the pinnacle of his life-work. This was his goal: international recognition of our Holy City as Israel’s undivided capital, and to this end he worked tirelessly to arouse support among over 1,000 members of legislature in some 35 parliaments around the world.”

(In fact, shortly after our interview, Reinstein traveled to Romania for the formation of a parliamentary caucus there – number 36.)

Quite notably, the second legislative leader to sign on with Rav Benny was the current vice president of the United States, Mike Pence, who was then the co-chairman of the Congressional Israel Caucus.

David Be’eri, known as the father of the City of David – a Jewish presence, visitors’ center, and archaeological site in the historic city of King David, just below and east of the Temple Mount/Western Wall – says that Rabbi Elon was instrumental in making not only the City of David happen but also many other projects as well in his capacity as minister of tourism. These include the Mt. of Olives, the National Park expansion, the Eastern Jerusalem Forum, and more.

A word on the National Park project, known as the Slopes of Mt. Scopus: It is a series of green areas mostly north and east of the Old City designed to create miles of bike and walking paths around the Old City, encourage tourism, safeguard the area from vandalism, preserve the last open areas in eastern Jerusalem – and fortify Jewish contiguity between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim while preventing illegal Arab construction from creating facts on the ground.

The National Park, then, is another example of Benny Elon’s vision of united and Jewish Jerusalem – not just on paper but very much on the ground as well. As his wife, author Emunah Elon, eulogized him at his funeral, “He never had a career other than working for the Jewish people. When he first met my father at age 19, right after we got engaged, my father asked him what he planned to do in life. Benny smiled and said, ‘Whatever Klal Yisrael needs, that’s what I’ll do.’ ”

And he did.

For information on KeepJerusalem’s tours and events, contact info@keepjerusalem.org.

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