How are we to understand the meaning of Jerusalem Day, when we commemorate the reunification of our historical capital? In 1997 I served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, and I asked for instruction from our foreign minister at the time, Ariel Sharon. He sent me back to the speech our first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, gave to the Knesset on Dec. 5, 1949.
Ben-Gurion was taking a historical decision at the end of the first Arab-Israeli War. He decided to move Israel’s capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion was told by Israel’s closest friends not to undertake this move. According to U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181, Jerusalem was supposed to be a “separate entity”—a corpus separatum, in the language of the United Nations.
But what occurred in the war was that Jerusalem was surrounded by a coalition of Arab armies and bombarded by their artillery. The Jewish Quarter of the Old City was ethnically cleansed. Its great synagogues, some dating back to the 13th century, were leveled. What the war had proven was that if Jerusalem were not under Israel’s sovereignty and protection, the consequences would be catastrophic. Ben-Gurion told the Knesset:
“But for our successful stand against aggressor’s activity in defiance of the United Nations, Jewish Jerusalem would have been annihilated and the State of Israel would never have arisen.”
Ben-Gurion had a message to the world about Jerusalem:
“The people which has faithfully honored for 2,500 years the oath sworn by the first exiles by the Rivers of Babylon, not to forget Jerusalem—this people will never reconcile itself with separation from Jerusalem.”
In the last decade, with religious sites under assault across the Middle East, another aspect of Israel’s control of Jerusalem has become clear. Only a free and democratic Israel will protect Jerusalem for all the great faiths. From 1948 to 1967, the Jewish people were denied access to their historical capital city. Yom Yerushalayim is a day in which that wrong was corrected and Jerusalem was made whole once more.
Dore Gold is the former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and the current president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.