Hecht: A Middle Eastern melting pot

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.


  • kievman

    Thoughtful article, Shmully. The response to negative PR against Israel does not always need to be by battling the framed negative issues per se. Emphasizing positive aspects which one’s audience holds dear and valuable resonates more (especially when in stark contrast to the surrounding environment in the Middle East).
    Two points however:
    The correct name is UZI Narkis
    Heretofore, my understanding has always been that the primary reason for the ground battle at Ammunition Hill – as opposed to the air battle – was due to the lack of available air power as a result of those air forces being prioritized elsewhere. It was a judgement call for Uzi to either WAIT for reenforcement by air or to go it alone.

  • yale_senior

    This article literally said nothing. I kind of starts out talking about how Michael Oren taught at Yale and what a nice guy he is, then it says that he showed some Yalies a hill where the Israelis beat the Arabs in a war that was “unasked-for” (nevermind the fact that Israel struck first in that war), then it says that Arabs used the Western Wall as a garbage site, and finally it says that Israel is diverse, but doesn’t actually provide any evidence of that, and entirely misses that whole Palestinian occupation question. I guess this article is not only biased, but worse, it just really doesn’t have a point other than that Shmully really likes Israel and people who like Israel.

  • kiskaro

    For the real history of 1967 (actually 1950-2000) from a real historian, consult

    Avi Shalim’s The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World

  • Labanite

    Ellis Island? Gaza strip? Israel is no pinnacle of virtue. Neither is America.

  • yayasisterhood

    @Labanite, you’re no pinnacle of virtue. America looks pretty good in my book.