Sunday was Yom Yerushalayim, or Jerusalem Day, which celebrates the liberation of the Old City and other parts of the Jewish capital from Jordanian occupation during the Six-Day War. Reflecting on the city’s significance to Judaism and the Jewish people, and recent controversies concerning the Jewish presence at the city’s holy places, Meir Soloveichik looks back to disputes that occurred during World War II:
In 1942, Menachem Begin arrived in British Mandate Palestine. At that time, only a narrow alley in front of the Western Wall was available for Jewish prayer, but even then certain rituals were banned. And at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, the British would arrest—and club—Jews who sought to sound the shofar or sing “Hatikvah.” To Begin this was intolerable.
Begin’s group, the Irgun, regularly smuggled shofars into the site, resulting in their arrest. There were those, however, who argued that the concession to British demands was necessary for interfaith amity. Thus Begin described how “among the Jews themselves there were unexpected allies who, in snobbish pretense of ‘progress,’ argued that a few pedigree cows were worth more than all these stones.” But that “progressive” political posture, he noted, only makes sense if the stones are devoid of holiness, a possibility belied by the stones themselves.
“But the ancient stones,” [Begin declared], “themselves refute the nonsense of these pathetic ‘progressives’ who try to impress foreigners with their ‘freedom from old fashioned prejudice.’ These stones are not silent. They do not cry out. They whisper.”
Begin’s point is at once simple and profound. . . . Are the stones silent or are they not? Is there still a profound Jewish connection to this site or not? If these stones are not silent, if they still whisper, “sending out their light across the generations,” how could a Jew possibly visit the sacred without being moved to prayer? And if the stones of the Temple Mount are indeed dead, silent, no longer linked to a living Judaism—if reverence for them is mere “old-fashioned prejudice”—then it makes sense to allow Jewish visitors as mere tourists, uttering nary a word, their silence paralleling those of the stones themselves. But then, why is the Western Wall itself a site of Jewish longing, and why should Jerusalem itself be of importance to Jews?