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“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…”

By Dr. Danny Lamm 

(A version of this piece originally appeared in The Australian Jewish News)

“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…”

I was born exactly one year after the establishment of the State of Israel, so I grew up in a time when that longing for Jerusalem achieved a practical significance that only heightened following the Six-Day-War.

In June 1967, I was halfway through my first year of University. In the lead-up to what would become known as the Six-Day-War, there was a tremendous amount of angst in our community, and in Jewish communities worldwide, as news filtered in that the Arab armies were poised to attack Israel from every border.

Only a week before, I recall that the IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren was visiting and he assured all those in the shule that Israel would emerge triumphant, but the threat of complete annihilation to the fledgling Jewish State was very real, and it appeared that there was no escape route for Israel. It was hard to imagine, at least at that stage, what victory might look like.

The war commenced on Monday 5 June 1967. That evening some 4,000 young Melbournian Jews assembled at the Stanmark Reception Centre in East St Kilda prepared to volunteer in whatever way they could. The atmosphere in the room was electric, as communal leaders and Rabbis addressed the crowds, and people formed lines to register. I remember it being the foggiest night ever in Melbourne and yet people still came.

Over the next few days of the war, community members flocked to Beth Weizmann which in those days was situated at 584 St Kilda Road for medical examinations in order to volunteer in Israel. At the same time, the UIA worked assiduously to raise much needed funds, and many of us spent entire days and nights helping out. University study fell by the wayside.

In the many years that have passed since those days and nights spent volunteering in East St Kilda, I have never seen the community come together quite like it did during the Six Day War.

This was a worldwide phenomenon where religious and ideological differences were discarded for the sake of preserving the nation.

The story of Israel’s victory, of its return to its undivided capital was like a coming of age story for the young country and elevated Israel’s status in the world through a deep respect and admiration. I personally will never forget the images of the Israeli flag being raised over Har Habayit (albeit briefly as Moshe Dayan ordered it removed) and the images of Jews flocking to the holy sites that had been blocked to them for so long.

Now fifty years have passed. Israel continues to be a light unto the nations despite dealing with complex security and political issues. And then over in Jerusalem there is another light, the golden light of beautiful city, the eternal capital of the Jewish people.

Sadly, there is still conflict. And bloodshed. This wondrous city has seen a lot of violence and sadness across the history. The golden light of the city does not blind us from the issues of poverty and social injustice, but the city is led by an administration that is committed to redress these issues and determined to improve the life of all its citizens.

It is a city of contradictions – of old and new, of past and present. Of religion and secularism. As it says in Psalm 122:3:

יְרוּשָׁלִַם הַבְּנוּיָה כְּעִיר שֶׁחֻבְּרָה לָּהּ יַחְדָּו

Jerusalem, rebuilt city that unites all within it 
It is the same feeling that brought all those members of the community together back in the early days of June 1967. And it most certainly shaped my own personal feelings towards the community itself and towards Israel.

And then, the war was over, and we were euphoric with the overriding feeling of relief and joy at this incredible, against-all-odds miraculous victory and our return to an undivided Jerusalem. It is often said that the victory of the war had the hand of God in it and since then, the confident and reassuring words of Rabbi Goren of a triumphant Israel continue to resonate and bring comfort. He knew then, as we know now, that Israel was capable and prepared to make a tremendous mark on the world.

אִם אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי

 “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning”,

We know what the world looked like before Jerusalem was reunified, and we will never let that happen again.