Defense Minister Moshe Dayan arrived to place a note between the stones, as had been Jewish custom for centuries. He proclaimed: “We have reunited the city, the capital of Israel, never to part with it again.”
IDF Commander Yitzhak Rabin praised the soldiers whose sacrifices “have brought about redemption.” It was a triumphant moment of national unity and ecstasy that Israelis have not known since.
No less astonishing than the military victory was the religious resonance of the Six-Day War – named by the staunchly secular Rabin to echo the biblical days of creation. A true sabra, an unsentimental soldier who rarely showed emotion in public, Rabin could not conceal the spiritual meaning of the war for the soldiers who fought and survived to savor their victory.
Their “sense of standing at the very heart of Jewish history,” he acknowledged upon receiving an honorary degree at the newly restored Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus, had released “springs of feeling and spiritual discovery.” The paratroopers who conquered the Western Wall, he recalled, “leaned on its stones and wept.” Their sudden surge of emotion, “powerful enough to break through their habits of reticence, revealed as though by a flash of lightning truths that were deeply hidden.”
Rabin did not identify those truths, but many thousands of jubilant Israelis experienced them in the weeks following the war. Suddenly Jerusalem and the entire biblical homeland of the Jewish people in Judea and Samaria were accessible. As Dayan proclaimed: “We have returned to the [Temple] Mount, to the cradle of our nation’s history, to the land of our forefathers, to the land of the Judges, to the fortress of David’s dynasty.”
Israelis flocked to the Kotel and to Me’arat HaMachpelah, the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron, where Muslims had forbidden Jews from entering for seven centuries. They visited Rachel’s Tomb, outside Bethlehem, and Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus (biblical Shechem). Jericho was a popular destination. As one Israeli wrote disbelievingly to a friend: “All the things you read about in the Bible and in history become real right before your eyes.”
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The Six-Day War, the forty-fifth anniversary of which falls next week, remains the transformative event in the history of the state of Israel since independence. But it was not only a stunning military victory. No one captured its deep spiritual meaning better than Harold Fisch, professor of English at Bar-Ilan University. It was, he wrote in The Zionist Revolution, “a truly religious moment, the experience of miracle, of sudden illumination…. We were suddenly living in the fullness of our own covenant history.” Israelis “who had never known they were Jews suddenly awoke to their inheritance.”
In a fascinating collection of postwar conversations with soldiers from kibbutzim (published in English as The Seventh Day), the meaning of return – even to deeply secular Israelis – was revealed.
“When we heard of the conquest of Jerusalem,” a kibbutznik recounted, “there wasn’t a single one who didn’t weep, including me. Then, for the first time, I felt not the ‘Israelness’ but the Jewishness of the nation.”
Another soldier was deeply moved when he suddenly realized that “the whole of the Promised Land is ours.”
“Even though I’m not religious,” a kibbutznik recalled, “the Wall meant an awful lot to me…. It symbolizes everything.”
But not every Israeli was exhilarated. One of the interviewers, an aspiring young writer from Kibbutz Hulda named Amos Oz, would subsequently lament the triumph of “yeshiva students” over kibbutzniks. The “values, ideals, conscience, world view” he identified with secular Zionism were challenged by “victory and miracles, Redemption and the coming of the Messiah.”
Oz evoked “the elusive cunning of the biblical charm” of Judea and Samaria, but he rejected the biblical homeland of the Jewish people as “Arab, through and through.”
So it was that the most wondrous moment in the history of Israel since 1948 would become – and remain – the deepest source of division within the Jewish state. Once Rabbi Kook’s students returned to rebuild Gush Etzion south of Jerusalem, a cluster of kibbutzim that had been destroyed in 1948, and to Hebron, where no Jews had lived since the devastating pogrom in 1929, the religious Zionist challenge to secular Zionist hegemony began to transform Israel.