You Never Know
You never know whom you might be walking next to in Jerusalem. A close friend of mine observed that just about everyone who lives here has a story, but it’s not every day that one finds oneself walking next to someone who took part in one of the most significant stories of our time.
Last Friday morning, my friend and I went on a walking tour given by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. (I’d supply the link but their site is temporarily off-line; it’s currently being upgraded.) The theme of the tour was sites that pertained to the battle for Jerusalem in 1948 and its reunification in 1967.
A robust-looking older man on the tour had fought in Jerusalem in 1948, and he gave us his account of the battles we now read about in history books (or on websites). He had seen them from close up, had participated in them. The four people who fell in one particular battle, whose names are memorialized on a plaque across from the main branch of the post office downtown, were his friends and acquaintances. “This woman,” he said, pointing to one name, “wasn’t with us for very long. She came from another group to fight with us, just like he did [pointing at another name on the plaque]. He came from his university studies in Tel Aviv to fight. Anyway, at first the commanders told her that she would have to stay behind, but she insisted on being allowed to participate in the battle. And she was killed. I only knew her for about two months.”
We walked along the line that had divided Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967. “The Jordanians were right there, on the roofs of those buildings,” our guide told us. “They shot at anything that moved. There were lots of shooting incidents, including one where a woman who had gone up to the roof to hang out her laundry was shot and killed.”
I thought of my parents, who visited Israel on their honeymoon. My mother told me about how she walked with my father in downtown Jerusalem and how she looked up to see the Jordanian soldiers, with their guns, looking down at her. I shivered, but not from the cold.
There was at least one story with a happy ending, though. One day when a nun who lived in a convent on the dividing line looked out of her window, her dentures fell to the ground, right into the no-man’s land between the two sides of the divided city. It took strong diplomatic effort and UN involvement, but eventually three officers were permitted to enter the area to recover the nun’s dentures.
We also heard how the sacred sites of all the religions in the Old City were open to the adherents of the respective faithsall, that is, except for the Jewish ones. From 1948 to 1967, Jews were not permitted to visit the Western Wall, our holiest accessible site.
Our walking tour ended at Ammunition Hill, where one of the bloodiest and most difficult battles of the Six Day War took place. Thirty-six soldiers died trying to open the corridor between Ammunition Hill and Mount Scopus, then a tiny Jewish enclave surrounded by Jordanian forces. Our guide played a recording of Yoram Teharlev’s famous song about the battle, interspersed with the accounts of some of the few soldiers who had survived it.
As any of my friends will attest, I enjoy hikes and tours, and I love to learn about Jerusalem’s history. Usually I leave tours with a smile on my face, but I left this one quiet and sobered.
I also left it with renewed appreciation for the older people who live in this city. You never know whom you may be walking next to on the street, standing in line with at the post office or sitting next to on the bus. That white-haired man or woman next to you may be one of the people who fought for the city whose streets you walk so freely today as you go about your business, shopping, paying bills, running errands.
It’s good to be reminded of that once in a while.