I first met Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, when Eliezer, the Jewish Society at Yale, hosted him to discuss his book about the 1967 Middle East conflict, “Six Days of War.” Oren later began to teach what became one of the most popular undergraduate courses at Yale: “America in the Middle East 1776–2006.” While on campus, Professor Oren resided at Eliezer, where I saw his tireless and generous interactions with students, individually and in the larger groups that gathered for Friday night Shabbat dinner and other events.
The year after he left campus and before he assumed his recent post, I called Oren, who had been tapped as a member of the society, while preparing our biannual members’ trip to Israel. I asked him to suggest places to visit in Israel that would be of particular meaning to our diverse group of students. He suggested a few places, and then with particular intensity he urged me to take the students to Giv’at HaTahmoshet, or Ammunition Hill. In fact, Oren ended up leading the tour, sweat pouring from his brow, pointing out detail after minute detail about the site which he found so historically important and enduringly relevant.
The bunker and trenches of Ammunition Hill were constructed in the 1930s by the British to enforce their rule during the Mandate period. The importance Oren wished to convey to the students, however, is its location as a battle during the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel not only defended itself from the joint attack of Egypt, Syria and Jordan with support troops from six other Arab nations, but drove back the armies on all sides, capturing the Sinai, Gaza, the Golan, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. For Jews, the unasked-for engagement resulted in the fulfillment of a 2,000-year-old dream of a unified Jerusalem. I learned later that Uri Narkis, the general who led the fight for Ammunition Hill, ordered a dangerous ground attack knowing that the much less risky alternative of an air attack might spare his own troops but would risk civilian deaths.
Indeed, 187 Israeli soldiers lost their lives on Ammunition Hill, and custodianship of Jerusalem by the Jewish State has meant following Narkis’s example of balancing Jewish ambitions with the lives and livelihoods of others, even those who have chosen to war against the Jewish State. In a nation led from Israel’s permanent capital of Jerusalem, people of all races, cultures and religions — whether they be Muslim, Christian, Jewish or Baha’i — are freer and have more and safer access to their places of worship than ever before. The Western Wall, which had been notoriously used under Jordanian rule as a privy and garbage dump, and to which access had been banned to non-Muslims, is now one of Israel’s most visited destinations by people of all faiths.
Upon our return to the States, I asked the students for their overall impression of the trips we made and the people we met. I was most struck by the response of one student, a non-Jewish member of our society, who remarked that in all her world travels, Israel was the place she where was most proud to tell people that she was an American.
Ambassador Oren’s choice resonated. Ammunition Hill represented the completion of Israel’s unity and ambition to create a country unified by its culture and beliefs that would yet strive for the inclusion of all its historic peoples and immigrants.
Very much like America.
Shmully Hecht is the co-founder and rabbinical adviser of Eliezer, the Jewish society at Yale.