Ruins of Old City synagogue destroyed in War
Ruins of Old City synagogue destroyed in WarIsrael news photo: Flash 90

Sixty-five years after the fall of Jerusalem in the War of Independence, the publication of a diary written by now-renowned Rabbi Shar Yishuv Hacohen sheds new light on life in the city in the midst of battle.

Rabbi Hacohen gave his diary to the Neve Shaanan College, which is putting together a biography on him.

His diary reveals the joy that prevailed in the Old City of Jerusalem when David Ben-Gurion declared a state, the bitter disappointment when Israeli soldiers failed to come to Jerusalem’s aid, and Rabbi Hacohen’s own internal debate over the question of Torah study versus military service.

“Yesterday I came home for a brief break,” he wrote. “I left my friends on the front lines, at their posts, and in my room a certificate of release from duty was waiting for me… I was released from enlistment because I am a yeshiva student.”

“A storm of emotions burst out within me, and I was choked by tears. A battle began within me between my primary obligation to save lives in the city of Jerusalem, the city I love, and Torah,” he continued.

He later wrote, “I said in my heart, ‘How can I lift my head before the mothers of my fallen friends? How will I go on if I ignore my own conscience?’… I did not believe that peaceful Torah study is possible amidst a sea of mortar shells… I did not believe in ‘Jerusalem above’ without Jerusalem below.”

In a later entry, Rabbi Hacohen described Israel’s declaration of independence as heard in the embattled Old City.

“At around four in the afternoon I was with a small unit tasked with firing primitive mortar shells… Suddenly from the communications station we heard the familiar, thundering voice of David Ben-Gurion, who was reading the declaration of the establishment of the state of Israel in a live broadcast.”

“There was complete quiet. All that could be heard were the bullets and mortars fired by the Arabs, mixed with Ben-Gurion’s thundering voice… When he got to the words, ‘by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, [we] hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel,’ we burst into joyous tears.

“There was joy in every part of the Jewish Quarter. Everyone, men, women, and children, rejoiced. There was something very special about that joy, that included everyone, hareidi-religious, religious and secular, from every part of the spectrum, left-wingers and right-wingers, the Hagana, the Etzel and the Lechi, which in the Old City worked together, and Ashkenazim and Sephardim.”

The announcement also brought fear, he said, “Could we stand against the enemy in this, the nation’s great hour?” Jerusalem was woefully outmatched, he said. “Against thirty thousand armed Arabs, among them several thousand experienced and organized soldiers, stood about two hundred Jewish fighters with poor weaponry.”

“But our will was strong and our decision was firm: to stand to the end, to save Jerusalem!”

The Jewish residents of the Old City were overjoyed when a unit of Israeli fighters from the Palmach entered the old city. But the joy soon turned to disappointment. “We suffered great disappointment and terrible despair when it became clear that the Palmach was leaving at dawn. They said that after four days of heavy fighting, they had no strength left for battle. They had to return to their base,” the young Rabbi Hacohen wrote.

“We asked the Jerusalem command to send other companies to replace the Palmach… We asked, in tears, that they hold the posts around the Zion Gate until we could get the wounded and the civilians out. We were not answered.

“We cried a bitter cry for help. We were not answered. In our hearts gnawed the fear that we were doomed to disappointment and defeat.”

The few Jewish fighters were ultimately overpowered, and the Old City fell to Jordan. It was reclaimed 19 years later during the Six Day War.