The Jewish People lost Jerusalem three times.
The first was when the Babylonians conquered the city and destroyed the Holy Temple on the Temple Mount in 586 B.C.E. The Jews living there were enslaved or sent into exile to Babylon. Seventy years later, a segment—42,360—returned and started to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Local peoples who had moved in to replace the Jews tried to attack. The Bible recounts that those who built the walls “would do their work with one hand while the other hand held a weapon” (Nehemia 4:11).
Over the next decades, they succeeded in rebuilding the city and the Second Temple. By the first century C.E. Jerusalem was a thriving, wealthy, populous city—one of the jewels of the ancient world.
However, it squirmed under the oppression of its pagan masters, the brutal Roman empire.
In 66 C.E., the Jews launched the Great Revolt. Rome was forced to send four out of ten of their empire’s eastern battalions to route the troublesome Jews. The Jews lost, and the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. But Jerusalem was not yet Judenrein.
As the Talmud describes, Jews had access to the environs around the city.
Every year on Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the Temple’s destruction, Jews went to Mt. Scopus overlooking the Temple Mount and mourned.
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The attachment to Jerusalem was a burning ember in the Jewish heart, which burst into flame again some 60 years later with the Bar Kochba revolt.
The Jews fought valiantly, killing 40 000 Roman soldiers. This was an affront to the Emperor Hadrian, who determined to destroy not only the Jews, but every vestige of their identification with their land and their capitol city.
Hadrian killed more Jews proportionately than Hitler—80% of the Jews living in the land of Israel. As the Talmudic sages recount, “He plowed Jerusalem like a field,” and built on its ruins a Roman city he called Aelia Capitolina.
He outlawed the very name of the country, Judea, and decreed that instead it be renamed “Palestina,” reminiscent of the Jews’ Biblical enemy, the Philistines. Jews were forbidden on pain of death from even approaching Jerusalem.
The Jews who survived Hadrian’s genocide rebuilt their communities in the north of the country, throughout the Galilee and the Golan, and in a few communities in the south, such as Susya. Jerusalem, however, remained barred to Jews for five centuries, until the Arab conquest of the 7th century permitted Jews to return.
Scholar and philosopher Yisrael Eldad had a unique way of observing Tisha B’Av in the late 20th century. While myriads of Jews go to the Western Wall, the remnant of the Second Temple, to mourn its destruction, Prof. Eldad would go to the Israel Museum.
There he would stand in front of the 2nd century bronze statue of Emperor Hadrian and yell, “Where are you now? Where is your empire, its language, its religion, its civilization? You are gone! And the Jews whom you determined to wipe out still exist. We have returned to our city and our land!”
Centuries of prayer and longing
Throughout the centuries, Jews prayed three times a day for the “rebuilding of Jerusalem,” but they had a hard time re-establishing themselves there. When the Crusaders conquered the city in 1099, they killed all the Jews and Muslims, so that blood ran “knee-deep” through the streets. Even after Saladin’s Muslim forces reconquered the city in 1187, only a trickle of Jews came back.
The Muslim capital was Ramle, not Jerusalem, which remained a backwater city, ignored and impoverished.
When the great sage Nachmanides arrived in Jerusalem in 1267, he found less than ten Jewish men, not enough for a minyan [prayer quorum].
After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, a few hundred of them re-established themselves inside the walls of Jerusalem. Then, in the 18th century, significant Jewish immigration from Europe—disciples of the Baal Shem Tov and of the Vilna Gaon—began to populate the city.
By 1860, the Jewish population had grown so much that the walled city could not contain them, and Jewish neighborhoods started to pop up outside the walls. By 1920, the majority of Jerusalem’s population (including the Old City inside the walls and the new city outside the walls) was Jewish.
For four centuries, the country, including Jerusalem, was ruled by the Ottoman Turks. In 1917, during World War I, England vanquished the Turks and took over. Inside the walls of what had become known as “the Old City,” Jews lived in the eastern section near the Temple Mount and the Kotel. The British divided the Old City artificially in four “quarters.”
The “Muslim Quarter” in the northeast was actually half of the area and comprised a Jewish majority.
The “Jewish Quarter” in the southeast was actually one-eighth of the area. In the northwest was the “Christian Quarter” and in the southwest was the “Armenian Quarter.”
In 1929, the Arab residents of the Old City rioted and killed 133 of their Jewish neighbors. (The house where I live in the Jewish Quarter was targeted in the riots of 1929. No Jews were killed here, but the pharmacy of the Jewish Quarter, which was situated in what is now my living room, was destroyed, and the pharmacist abandoned the Old City for the greater safety of the new city.) In 1936, the Arabs rioted again and killed whatever Jews remained in “the Muslim Quarter.”
The Jews who survived retreated to the Jewish Quarter or the new city.
The final stand-off
When the state of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948, there were about 1750 Jews living in the Jewish Quarter, surrounded by ten times that many Arabs. With five Arab armies attacking the nascent state, the Jewish leadership had to decide where to concentrate its meager, poorly armed defenses.
The Jewish Quarter of the Old City had no strategic value, and was clearly indefensible.
About a hundred Jewish fighters, however, were determined not to again give up Jerusalem. While the new city had expanded and flourished, their Jewish hearts felt that the real Jerusalem was the Old City, were the Prophets had walked, where our ancestors had fought the Babylonians and Romans, where Jews had prayed and learned Torah throughout the centuries. How could we give up Jerusalem?
They bravely held out for ten days against the assault of the well-equipped Jordanian army. Most of the Jewish Quarter residents were women, children, and elderly. The defenders had one machine gun, and so few bullets that they could count them. With no radios to communicate with other positions, they depended on volunteer children to run messages.
Esther Cailingold was 21 years old when she left England and moved to the Land of Israel in 1946. Burning with zeal to save the Old City of Jerusalem, on May 7,1948, a week before the state was declared, she chose to join the small force in the Jewish Quarter. She was mortally wounded a few days later. From her deathbed, 23-year-old Esther wrote to her parents:
I am writing it to beg of you that, whatever might have happened to me, you will make the effort to take it in the spirit that I want and to understand that for myself I have no regrets. We have had a bitter fight, I have tasted of Hell - but it has been worthwhile because I am convinced that the end will see a Jewish State and the realisation of all our longings. I shall only be one of many who fell [in] sacrifice. … to remember that we were soldiers and had the greatest and noblest cause to fight for. God is with us, I know, in his own Holy City, and I am proud and ready to pay the price it may cost to reprieve (?) it.
Sixty-eight Jews were killed defending the Jewish Quarter. The youngest of them was a ten-year-old messenger boy named Nissim Ginni. When they completely ran out of ammunition, they surrendered.
The men were taken as prisoners of war; the women, children, and elderly were banished. Their homes were looted, then burned. The Old City’s 38 synagogues, including the Hurva, the largest and most magnificent synagogue in the Middle East, were destroyed. It was the third time that we lost Jerusalem.
In 1967, on the third day of the Six-Day War, the 66th Battalion of the Paratroopers Brigade, without resistance, entered the Old City of Jerusalem.
They ran straight to the Temple Mount, and then to the Western Wall. When the seasoned soldiers touched the Wall, they wept.
They were crying the tears of their grandparents and mine and yours, stretching back 2,000 years.