Yesterday Israelis celebrated Jerusalem Day, Yom Yerushalayim, a day commemorating the reunification of the Old City under Israeli control control. Thousands of Jews marched through ancient streets and alleyways carrying Israeli flags and singing loud boisterous patriotic songs. It’s a national holiday.
Forty-nine years ago on June 5, 1967, a war broke out that changed the face of the Middle East. Israel conquered the West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai and the Golan Heights. The Six Day War was fought on the battlefield, in the hearts and minds of men, and at the United Nations where Israeli envoy, Foreign Minister Abba Eban, skillfully argued Israel’s case to the world. Claiming an existential threat Israel preemptively attacked and wiped out the Egyptian Air Force. The name of the war evokes Genesis; God created the world in six days. But in reality, after destroying the Egyptian Air Force, Israel’s most formidable foe, the war was won. Ready to fight for their precious nineteen year old country, worldwide Jewry boarded planes bound for Tel Aviv.
And Israel kept the fact of their recent nuclear capabilities a secret.
I too mark this day on my calendar but in a different way. When the Israelis were euphorically celebrating their victory I was experiencing the fear of war and the humiliation of defeat. I may have been the only Jewish person who was living with a Palestinian family during that war.
I had been enjoying the life of an American expat wannabe writer when I met a South African Jew heading to an Israeli kibbutz. Months later I decided to meet him there. Since time was more available than money I hitchhiked from Paris and followed the Mediterranean coast through France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria and Jordan. I conveniently ignored the fact that Jerusalem had been a divided city since 1948, until Jordanian officials informed me it would take three days to get a visa allowing me to pass through a United Nations checkpoint known as No-Man’s Land. From the youth hostel on the border I could see the lights twinkling in Israel — which I did not enter until after the abyss of war.
The Damascus Gate opened my way into the Old City. Giddy with discovery, I had no expectations except for echoes of a familiar prayer––next year in Jerusalem.
On my first day I met a family who offered to guide me around the Old City. They introduced themselves as Palestinians, the first time I’d ever heard that word. It was a good thing I had no idea they were suppose to be my enemy, or I might have refused their gracious hospitality. They knew I was Jewish, which was why the family insisted on taking me to the Wailing Wall, embedded in the ancient Moroccan Quarter. There was no giant open-air synagogue. “You’re Jewish,” they said. “All Jews love this wall.” Upon their insistence, I pressed my forehead to the sacred wall, although in truth, every wall in Jerusalem looked ancient and felt sacred and filled with the secrets of thousands of histories. The family offered trips to Jericho, the Dead Sea, to Abraham’s tomb in Hebron, and daily walks through the Old City, and so I delayed crossing into Israel.
I was living with them in Jerusalem when war erupted and changed their lives forever. We were hiding in Ramallah when the Israeli army conquered the Old City and immediately headed to the Wailing Wall to blow the shofar announcing their miraculous victory. But in my experience, an army was not needed to liberate the Wailing Wall. I witnessed the initial merging of east and west Jerusalem after nineteen years, which was a short honeymoon. With access to their old homes and villages in Israel proper, the Palestinians felt as if they were home, and if they’d only been integrated into Israeli society and treated equally before the law, I don’t believe the road would be paved with so many broken families.
Fear is contagious. On that day so many years ago, I was as afraid of the Israeli soldiers as the Palestinians. Neither my complexion or hair color set me apart. Only my thick thick New York accent and passport could set me apart, as an American. But before I could access either I worried the soldiers might harm me, perhaps kill me, and claim collateral damage. We all know innocents die in war. And in truth, all twelve Palestinians I hid with were innocents. They were simply going about their lives when war broke out and changed their lives forever. If I’d known Hebrew I might have told the soldiers these people were friends. My silence on that day has come to haunt me. Instead of celebrating forty-nine years of peace in the democratic state of Israel we are slouching towards the fiftieth year of a brutal military occupation. Every year June 5th is marked on my calendar. It’s the day I learned that my so-called enemies were friends.