Scholar shares the history of Jerusalem’s reunification
To Dr. Elan Ezrachi, the question of Jerusalem is as personal as it is political. In his Thursday lecture about the reunification of the city in 1967, he drew on both historical fact and his own memory.
A scholar in Jewish thought, Ezrachi doesn’t usually focus on Jerusalem, but he began his lecture by explaining that he wrote a book on the city for three reasons: to understand himself and his history, to understand “that reunification thing” beyond his own experience with it and to analyze how Jerusalem manages to exist today. He called it, “An entity that … has all the potential in the world to explode. … And at the same time [is] very wonderful.”
Ezrachi chose to discuss the reunification process because he believes it is a story that goes untold. The political consequences of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War are studied in depth, but Ezrachi believes the narrative of Jerusalem is lost within the larger conversation. He reassured listeners that even many Israelis don’t understand the complexities in Jerusalem’s history — they instead focus on the symbolism behind the breaking of the wall.
Ezrachi explained that his grandparents emigrated to Jerusalem from Russia in 1911, but that for most immigrants of their generation, Jerusalem wasn’t a main attraction: “It was conflicted, it was old, it was too religious.”
In 1949, Jerusalem was divided into West Jerusalem, which belonged to the newly established State of Israel, and East Jerusalem, which was owned by Jordan. Ezrachi grew up in that divided city and is concerned that many of its qualities have been forgotten. Living there, residents were acutely aware of the border and its presumed dangers. There was a feeling of loss, and that “this was not the way cities should operate.”
The “Western Wall” — a Jewish holy site because it had been part of the long destroyed Holy Temple — and the ancient “Old City” of Jerusalem were on the Jordanian side of the border. Ezrachi asked, “[Was] there a constant yearning for the Western Wall? … [Was] there anticipation for real change?” Yearning is an elusive concept, he added.
Ezrachi had felt that most Jewish residents of Jerusalem weren’t focused on what the city was missing, but a few audience members disagreed — they’d been raised longing for the Wall.
At the same time, there was a powerful sense of jubilation in Jerusalem. Ezrachi described most people as “[turning] their back towards the border.” Modern Jerusalem and the State of Israel were being developed; Ezrachi sees it as an exciting time in Israeli history.
Ezrachi explained that there wasn’t much political push to reunify Jerusalem. Before the 1967 war, citizens didn’t expect any immediate change, so any hope for the Western Wall was theoretical, not practical. Even once the war between Israel and Egypt began in 1967, Israeli authorities didn’t expect Jordan or Jerusalem to become involved, Ezrachi said.
When Jordan attacked Jerusalem on June 5, 1967, Israeli leaders were conflicted — Defense Minister Moshe Dayan asked, “Who needs all that headache?” — but Ezrachi said they ultimately saw it as their one chance.
Ezrachi believes Dayan’s June 7 announcement that the Israeli Defense Force had “liberated Jerusalem” shaped the Israeli narrative from that point on. The announcement asserted that “full religious rights will be preserved,” and to Ezrachi that betrays a lack of confidence: Israel reassured the world that they would play by the rules so they wouldn’t be attacked immediately.
Ezrachi said that after the war people wanted to go to the Western Wall, and the Israeli government bulldozed the Arab neighborhood there to allow access. Hundreds of thousands of Jews marched to the Wall on June 14 and danced there. At the time, Ezrachi said, “It was the site where Israelis came to say thank you.” Joy, not religion, was the operating force.
Ezrachi said that politically, the Wall was the easy part: “What do you do with Jerusalem now?” The newly united Jerusalem was composed of 200,000 Jewish citizens and 70,000 Palestinian “permanent residents.” Dayan mandated free travel, and on June 29 the government tore down the walls dividing the city.
Ezrachi said there was a drive for normalization in the weeks after the war. Animosity had become “proximity and friction,” and a new reality was born.
The following year, in what Ezrachi called an “act of aggression,” the Israel Defense Forces marched through East Jerusalem to celebrate the victory.
A whole cultural transformation was occurring; art and holidays celebrating Jerusalem were created, the tourist industry boomed and the government began building new neighborhoods in the conquered areas.
“The Palestinians [were] not part of this story,” Ezrachi said. They were allowed to stay, and there are 350,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem today, but “the city has inequity on many levels.”
Ezrachi is still optimistic, and his book, “Awakened Dream: 50 Years of Complex Unification of Jerusalem,” details his thoughts on Jerusalem’s future.
The talk was co-sponsored by the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and Brandeis Hillel.