The 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War is coming up in June. It will be a time for reflection on all that happened during those critical days in 1967 when the balance shifted measurably in the Middle East.
There’s no question that it was a watershed event.
From the perspective of Jerusalem, nothing was more significant in the war than the Israeli capture of the Old City.
That story will be told and retold in the months leading up to the anniversary. The familiar black and white images of emotional battle-weary soldiers looking at the Wailing Wall or Western Wall of the Temple enclosure or Haram, will be on display.
Two events that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the capture of the city illustrate the parallel and continuing attachment of Israelis and Palestinians to the Old City’s religious heart. They concern David Ben-Gurion and Yasir Arafat.
Ben-Gurion visited the Western Wall the day after its capture, accompanied by his protégé, Shimon Peres. He noticed a tile sign in front of the Wall, which read “Al-Burak Road” in English and Arabic but not in Hebrew. It was a reminder of the Prophet Muhammad’s legendary horse. According to the Qur’an, the angel Gabriel initiated Muhammad’s night journey to Jerusalem on the mystical winged horse al-Burak. On arrival, the horse was tethered in the southwest corner of the Haram or Temple enclosure.
Ben-Gurion looked at the sign with disapproval and asked if anyone had a hammer. A soldier tried to pry off the tile with a bayonet, but Ben-Gurion was concerned about damage to the stone. An axe was produced and the name on the tile carefully removed. The symbolism of expunging Arabic from the redeemed Jewish holy site was not lost on the surrounding crowd, or on Ben-Gurion. They cheered, and Ben-Gurion exclaimed, “This is the greatest moment of my life since I came to Israel.”
It’s curious remark for a man who had seen many “great moments” in his long career, one of which was his direct involvement in the founding of the State of Israel. Yet this was the greatest moment as he stood before the captured Western Wall. In his early life, he had stood at the Wall once before.
His biographer, Shabtai Teveth, tells of that visit. He says, “Before the end of February  he paid his first visit to Jerusalem, where the sight of the Western Wall brought on such extreme emotional agitation that he remained in the city for a week.” When I asked Teveth in 2002 what this meant, he wrote, “Think of it as a son meeting a father after a very long separation.” In other words, the Wall was a deep-seated aspect of Ben-Gurion’s identity, though he was not outwardly a religious man.
The second event immediately following the capture of the city meant something profound to the Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat. Within twenty-four hours, Palestinian houses adjacent to the Western Wall were torn down to create a vast open plaza for Jewish worshippers. This was accomplished on the orders of the Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan.
Among the demolished houses was a centuries old religious compound belonging to the Abu Sa‘ud family of Arafat’s mother. After her premature death and as young children, Yasir Arafat and his brother lived with these influential Jerusalemite relatives. They afforded him protection and solace in their home adjacent to the primary site of Islamic identity in the city, the Haram. They told and retold stories of their bravery and political fervor in the face of the Zionist threat to the city and particularly to the Western Wall.
Not surprisingly, Arafat participated as a child in the 1936 Arab Revolt in the city. One can only imagine that for Yasir Arafat this part of the city was as much a potent personal identity symbol as it was for Ben-Gurion. It may explain in part why his oft-repeated chant was “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jerusalem” and why he requested to be buried at the Haram.
Though these two leaders are gone, identity and ideology continue to be at the forefront of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the future of Jerusalem.