My Favorite Year In Jerusalem – 1967

Michael J. Cooper is the author of the just-released Wages of Empire. He is a native of California who emigrated to Israel after high school in 1966 and lived in Jerusalem during the last year the city was divided between Israel and Jordan. After a career as a paediatric cardiologist in California, he returns to Israel and the West Bank about twice a year to volunteer his services to Palestinian children who lack adequate access to care. Michael also writes historical fiction centered in the Middle East with action, unexpected twists, mystery, and always the promise of reconciliation and peace.

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“For nineteen years the city was divided.” So begins the poem, ‘Songs of Zion the Beautiful,’ by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. Yearning for the serenity of that smaller city, “the quiet one” that existed from 1948 to 1967, Amichai bemoans the return of “the noisy matron…to full, fat, and legal life.” He misses the quiet beauty of the smaller Jerusalem. So, do I.

The 1948 armistice lines that divided the Israeli and Jordanian halves of Jerusalem also created buffer zones; no man’s lands, or as Amichai called them, “placid bays.” In one of these zones was Government House, which had been the center of British Mandatory power in Palestine until 1948 when it was taken over by the United Nations. That buffer zone also included the Arab College, built in the 1930s and abandoned in 1948 when it was taken over by weeds and silence.

On a warm evening in March of 1967, I stood on a road in the Jerusalem district of Talpiot, bordered by coils of rusting barbed wire overlooking the apple orchards of Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. Beyond the orchards and partially concealed by pine trees was the abandoned Arab College. I was eighteen and midway through my first year of study at a Hebrew teacher’s academy in Jerusalem. With me was my best friend in the program, a young man from Boston, his head crowned with a cloud of curly brown hair. Our goal was to cross into no-man’s land, enter and explore the Arab College building, and claim the UN flag that fluttered from the roof.

Our plan worked to perfection—the experience electric, silence of the overgrown grounds in twilight, mute stillness of dim masonry-strewn halls and empty classrooms. These remain with me long years later, along with the blue UN flag.

Amichai referred to three categories of people who were drawn to the “placid bays” of no-man’s land: a) lovers, b) enemies, and c) crazy people. I fit into categories a) and c); crazy in love with Jerusalem, the quiet one.

Two months after that adventure came another. On May 19, 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled the UN Peacekeeper force from Gaza and Sinai. On May 22, he blockaded Israel’s port of Eilat by closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. And on May 26, Nasser declared, “our basic objective will be to destroy Israel.”

Each incremental step created mounting anxiety, and Israelis began to watch the clear blue skies for Egyptian MiG-21s. These “days of tension,” as they were called, led me to do something other than filling sandbags— to volunteer for the Israel Defense Force. 

Filled with excitement and Zionist fervor, I took a bus to the IDF draft facility in Jerusalem and asked to volunteer. Given a notebook with a dozen names already recorded. I added my name and the phone number of Pension Ramah in Talpiot, my home that year. The days passed as I waited for the call, my emotions swinging between hope and dread at the idea of actually being called. 

But the call never came. And when the war broke out on June 5 with Jordanian howitzers shelling West Jerusalem starting at 10:00 AM, I retired to a shelter along with other students in the program.

I could only listen to the sounds of artillery and small-arms fire as the Jordanian Legion attacked and occupied the United Nations headquarters at Government House, not half a mile away. My friend and I remembered our foray into this segment of no-man’s land, and breathed a sigh of relief when Israeli forces mounted a counterattack, driving the Legion from Government House.

The next few days passed in a fog. I was only dimly aware of how the war was proceeding on the two other fronts against Egypt and Syria. But by June 8, Egypt and Jordan had agreed to a ceasefire as did Syria on June 9.

With the ceasefire in place, my friends and I left the shelter, and walked toward where the border had been, mesmerized by the detritus of shrapnel, shell-casings, and live rounds scattered on the road. Blithely and idiotically, we decided to revisit Government House. While never having been allowed by UN guards to venture past the gate, now the guards were gone. We strolled into the empty compound, passing a burned-out Jordanian jeep as we collected souvenirs of war waste, along with UN stationary and my personal favorite, the abandoned blue barrette of a UN Peacekeeper. 

The year-program ended that summer and my friends left, returning to their studies at UCLA, Columbia, and Boston University. But I stayed. 

Having spent my childhood and adolescence learning Hebrew, active in synagogue life, and in Zionist youth group activities, I had no intention of leaving. 

For the rest of the summer, I picked fruit at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, bagged groceries at Super-Sol, and taught English at the YMCA. Once September rolled around, I enrolled at Hebrew University. During that year, I attended classes with young Palestinian men—from within Israel and from East Jerusalem. 

These were the first Palestinians I had ever met. I found them friendly, intelligent, and hard-working. Inevitably, our conversations strayed into the area of my right of return to Israel, and my privileged status as a Jew. They claimed to feel like second-class citizens. Pointing out that, for the Jewish People, Israel was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, I was ready to quote Hebrew scripture fresh from my year of study. My opening salvo was: “And the LORD said to Abraham…Lift up your eyes, and look from the place where you are to the north, south, east, and west: For all the land you see to you will I give it, and to your seed forever.”

To which one of them replied, “We’re also the seed of Abraham, and we were born here…”

Many thanks, Michael, for sharing such a poignant story from your past. Best wishes for your new novel, Wages of Empire.

Wages of Empire by Michael J. Cooper

In the summer of 1914, sixteen-year-old Evan Sinclair leaves home to join the Great War for Civilization. Little does he know that, despite the war raging in Europe, the true source of conflict will emerge in Ottoman Palestine, since it’s from Jerusalem where the German kaiser dreams to rule as Holy Roman Emperor. 

Filled with such historical figures as Gertrude Bell, T.E. Lawrence, Winston Churchill, Faisal bin Hussein and Chaim Weizmann, Wages of Empire follows Evan through the killing fields of the Western Front where he will help turn the tide of a war that is just beginning, and become part of a story that never ends.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY. Use the SUBSCRIBE function on the right hand side of the page.

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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