Thoughts on the Western Wall, Fifty Years Later

Younger Israeli scholars, deeply immersed in their Judaism and keen students of political philosophy, are trying to articulate a Jewish theological rationale for human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and so forth.

The Western Wall in Jerusalem (Golasso/Wikipedia)

Photographs can capture exceptional moments in an iconic way, making the original experience “present” emotionally as well as pictorially.

The photo of U.S. Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima’s Mt. Suribachi “means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years,” Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal said in 1945. The image of John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s boyish salute as his father’s casket left Washington’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral in 1963 helped cement the “Camelot” myth into its seemingly impregnable place in American public life. The “Earthscape” pictures shot by Apollo 8 astronauts at Christmas 1968 continue to play a not-insignificant role in today’s environmental movement.

And then there is David Rubinger’s iconic photo of young Israeli paratroopers at the Western Wall of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem on June 7, 1967. The faces of those young soldiers, their expressions conveying surprise, awe, and wonder, tell a tale of national regeneration that stirred my heart when I was a teenager – a story that continues to inspire today. Yet the reunification of Jerusalem fifty years ago almost never happened.  

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan had controlled East Jerusalem since 1948. The Jordanian king, Hussein, was a serious man with little reason to esteem the volatile Egyptian strongman, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was busily trying to undermine Hussein’s rule. And despite the depredations Jordanians had committed in the parts of post-1948 Jerusalem under their rule – including turning Jewish gravestones into latrine pavements – relations between Israel and Jordan were far more rational than between Israel and Egypt. Yet when the crunch came in late May 1967, Hussein, under enormous pressure, signed an alliance with Egypt and joined the Arab assault on Israel – a mistake that cost him the West Bank and the eastern sectors of Jerusalem.

As a result, Israeli paratroopers stood at the Western Wall. And a Jewish polity was in charge of the most sacred of Jewish sites for the first time since Titus destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D.

I’ve been to Jerusalem four times, most recently in November 2015, and on each occasion I’ve visited the Western Wall and prayed there: for the “peace of Jerusalem” of which Psalm 122 speaks; for Jewish friends throughout the world; for my own family and friends, especially those in particular need. My 2015 visit to the Holy City was especially encouraging, though, because it suggested that something resembling a real religion-and-society debate is finally emerging in Israel.

On previous visits, beginning in 1988, I lectured at Hebrew University and spoke on programs organized by scholarly and civic organizations, the discussion always being about religion-and-society. Except it was a non-discussion, or at least a non-starter, for until recently, the religion-and-society debate in Israel meant ultra-orthodox Jews vs. thoroughly secularized Jews, which didn’t leave a whole lot of room for serious conversation.

November 2015 was different. While leading a week-long seminar on deep secularization and its effects in Europe (and on the democratic project throughout the world), I met younger Israeli scholars, deeply immersed in their Judaism and  keen students of political philosophy, who were trying to articulate a Jewish theological rationale for human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and so forth. They were, in the main, Modern Orthodox and I thoroughly enjoyed our exchanges, one of which can be kibitzed on YouTube. Their work represents the possibility of creating something missing from Israeli society and culture for too long: a religiously-informed public philosophy for shaping the typically-raucous Israeli debate over the country’s present and future. Developing that body of thought is not going to be easy. But it wasn’t going to happen at all when the only actors on the stage were the ultra-Orthodox and the hard-core secularists, so now there is a chance.

On this fiftieth anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, thanks are also due to the Israeli authorities for the care they have taken to make genuine pilgrimage possible throughout the Holy City, which is far more open to people of all faiths today than it was when the city was divided between 1948 and 1967. Israel’s admirable stewardship of Jerusalem is too infrequently acknowledged; it’s both a duty and a pleasure to acknowledge it here.

 To return to the psalmist, “For the peace of Jerusalem, pray.…May peace reign in your walls/in your palaces, peace!”

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About George Weigel 478 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. When I returned from visiting the Wall walking thru a thick crowd of the Arab section I felt a gentle nudge of something hard in my ribs. It was the butt of an automatic rifle. An Israeli patrol of six 4 men two woman IDF on patrol who needed right of way. I always felt safer when they were around. At the Wall, a mysterious momentous historical place I prayed for peace and conversion of Judaism. The Apostle a Jew Of Jews always first visited the local synagogue in his spreading the faith mainly among gentile Greeks and Romans. The Apostle prophesied his people would turn to Christ in End Days. The wall was prayerful and mercantile. I was approached several times by Hasidic Jews not knowing what they were saying but mostly asking for donations. I didn’t give but gave them a blessing. This Wall marks the line of demarcation between Old and New. Salvation and dogged retention of the past. Personally I feel it would be a political mistake especially since Trump’s newfound US rapport with Islamic nations to move our embassy to Jerusalem although I believe the Israelis have right. The Muslim Dome of the Rock is Mohammed’s heretical fantasy preventing the Israelis rebuilding the temple. If Israel rebuilds the Temple a plethora of possibilities will occur. St Cyril of Jerusalem believed the Antichrist would appear in a rebuilt Jerusalem Temple. St Hildegard of Bingen prophesied the Antichrist would emerge from the very bowels of the Church. St Francis of Assisi prophesied similarly. The Apostle in 2 Ephesians said he would appear in God’s sanctuary. Who knows but Our Lord. The Wall and Jerusalem are part of that mystery at a time when many have a sense of a Church without clear direction.

  2. Glad to learn the Israelis do something worthwhile with the several billions of unrestricted dollars the United States taxpayers send them annually.

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