Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Beit El in History: The Maccabees Through the Six Day War

An armored patrol passes the Tomb of the Sheikh

My hands still clasp the top rung of the ladder. Cold wind whips by, hauling storm clouds towards Beit El from over the Mediterranean to the east. Under the approaching tempest I can almost see the coastal plateau.

Looking down from the tower, people still planting trees.

On a clear day, the shining waters of the Mediterranean can be seen, broken by the jagged spires of Tel Aviv, in the tribal territory of Dan. Closer, behind the approaching curtain of rain, is the Modi’in area, foothills of the tribal region of Binyamin (the area of the tribe of Benjamin,) where I stand. The region today is filled with bustling new cities, towns, farms and settlements. Tens of thousands of Jews have moved to the region since the rebirth of Jewish life began there after 1967 CE. But 2,143 years ago, in 3597 (136 BCE,) it was the site of an upheaval that would shake the world.
The northern kingdom of Israel, which had lapsed into idolatry, had been destroyed and exiled, the overwhelming majority of its ten tribes dispersed and lost forever, and shortly thereafter the southern kingdom of Judea was also exiled. But the southerners, who had remained faithful to the God of Israel, survived and returned to rebuild the second temple. Living under foreign occupation, after the conquest of Alexander the Great in 3534 (199 BCE,) the people had begun to follow the pagan and idolatrous practices of the surrounding peoples. One day, the governors of the ruling Seleucid Kingdom came to Modi’in, home of the high priest Mattityahu, and ordered the Jews to make sacrifices to the Greek gods, an act which every Jew is required to surrender his life rather than commit. Mattityahu, the Cohen Gadol (High Priest,) refused, but another, more assimilated Jew, moved to make a sacrifice. Mattityahu, enraged at the desecration of God’s name, immediately killed him, overpowered the soldiers, killed the Seleucid governors, and declared, “Let he who is zelaous for God, follow me!”
Taking the name Maccabi, an acronym for “Mi Camocha Be’elim Y’h” (Who is like you Hashem,) Mattityahu and the band of rebels ran for the hills. They came to the town of Gofna, hiding in the caves, here to plan and execute their rebellion, which successfully restored Jewish sovereignty to the holy land and repurified the temple. The festival on which Jews worldwide celebrate the victory is Chanukkah.

Map of the Hasmonean Kingdom

But where is Gofna? Well, the Cohanim, on the run from the Seleucids, wouldn’t be able to trust just anyone. Large swathes of the people had become assimilated and would be as likely to help their Seleucid overlords as their brother Jews. No, they would have to have sought shelter with someone they could trust. Blood relatives.

Turning now to the northwest, there is a modest Arab settlement built on a hill. Recent archaeological excavations indicate that the burial caves in the hill are predominantly Cohanim, high priests. Likewise, biblical passages refer to this village as a Cohanic village. Arabic tends to replace the “G” sound with a “J” sound (they call the ancient Jewish city of Ganim as Jenin.) The name of the Arab settlement is Jifna, which matches Gofna, and it seems quite reasonable to assume that these two towns are one and the same.

A shaft of light shines on Jifna, ancient Gofna

Now, fast forward 2,103 years, past the destruction of the second temple, past the pain and exile of Jewish life in Europe and Araby, through the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in 5708 (1948 CE) up to the year 5727 (1967.) The sixties.

The sixties are remembered by most Americans as a tempestuous time. Political upheavals, civil rights, women’s lib, Vietnam; a decade of strife and upheaval. Mention the sixties to most Israelis who were alive at the time, and their minds immediately shoot to six short days, from the 26th of the Jewish month of Iyar (the 5th of June) to the 3rd of the Jewish month of Sivan (the llth of June,) 1967 CE.

After months of life under siege, and preparation for war, it was time. The armies of twenty two Arab states had crossed thousands of miles of desert to encamp on Israel’s borders. Outnumbered more than three to one, already legally at war for months due to the Arab siege, with Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser screaming bombastic speeches promising the end of the Jewish state, and with dwindling supplies, it was time to strike before Israel had lost all strength to fight back.

But in Israel, on the morning of June 5th, nobody knew that the war had started. Military censors maintained strict control of all broadcasts to prevent the enemy from piecing together what was happening.

The Jordanians, who had a military base at Beit El and controlled nearby Ramallah, saw the first wave of Israeli fighter planes returning from bombing the Egyptian Air Force. Nasser assured Jordanian King Hussein that the blips on his radar screen were actually Egyptian bombers heading for Tel Aviv. Swept up in the excitement of the attack, Hussein ordered his artillery to begin firing into Israeli cities on all fronts. The shells came crashing through the roofs of hospitals, schools, and homes.

Radio Ramallah was ordered to begin patriotic broadcasts. Now, there is a tendancy in the Arab world to confuse speech with action, words with accomplishment. Americans experienced a similar surprise at the beginning of the Iraq war, when the split screens on the news showed, on the left side, Iraqi spokesman “Baghdad Bob” making wild pronouncements of mass American casualties and failures, while on the right side American tanks and air power cut through the feared Iraqi Republican Guard like a knife through warm butter. Similarly, the announcers at Radio Ramallah became carried away with their fantasies of pillage, rape, and genocide. “We are slaughtering their children! Blood is running in the streets! We have captured Lydda! We have captured Jaffa! We have captured Haifa!”

Foreground: Modern Beit El. Background: Ramallah

As the news embargo continued in Israel, the only available station was Radio Ramallah. Many Israelis, themselves refugees from centuries of horrifying violence in the surrounding Arab countries, heard the news and were reduced to tears. The dream of two mellinea was dying in front of their eyes!

The broadcasts continued for days, “Our officers are sitting in the Cafes of Tel Aviv! We have massacred thousands! We are…”
Suddenly the broadcast went dead. Silence. With a crackle, the radio came back to life.
“This is a sergant with the Israeli Defence Forces,” the broadcast resumed in Arabic, “we have captured Ramallah! We have captured Jenin! Hebron is ours! Our armies have surrounded Jericho! The Arab armies are destroyed in the field!”
And later would come the famous broadcast, replayed over the radio every Jerusalem day since, “Har Habayit Beyadeinu!” The temple mount is in our hands!

The mighty had been defeated, the evil vanquished. In six days Israel had quadrupled in size. Among the new areas captured was Beit El, then a Jordanian army base. After the smoke had cleared, Israel began moving men and material out to the base, making it an Israeli stronghold.

Army storage area

Firing ranges

Cease fire! Changing the targets


Ephraim said...

Thanks for the complement! Have you been to Beit El since then? It's a whole lot larger now.

Emunah said...

Hope you get this. Great blog! My family and I are planning to move to Beit El in a couple of months. We really believe this is an amazing move for us.