Jerusalem Day: The Reunification of Jerusalem

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | May 30, 2019

May 30, 2019
Add to History Board Share Print
Western Wall in 1967
The Western Wall Plaza a week after the site’s liberation in 1967. Image: Dan Hadani, from the Israel Press & Photo Agency Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Whether the news is as alarming now, as it was in 1939, is largely a matter of who is reading it. For those who live in Jerusalem, or proclaim once a year, liturgically, that next year they will, time seems eerily compressed. It is not just that the city itself is patrolled by soldiers. That, since the very hour three thousand years ago that David established his Kingdom of Israel and its capital city, is status quo. But in Europe and Ukraine, the United States and United Kingdom, on every continent and college campus, 1930s-style anti-Semitism has metastasized into anti-Zionism which means, simply, that Jews have no right to live in Jerusalem, a land of their own, or even, at all. As the American novelist Saul Bellow put it, “there is one fact of Jewish life unchanged by the creation of a Jewish state: you cannot take your right to live for granted… The Jews, because they are Jews, have never been able to take the right to live as a natural right.” He said that in his 1976 book, To Jerusalem and Back, a personal account of his 1975 visit to the holy city, and a meditation on what, exactly, it means to be a Jew there, here, or anywhere.

He had been to Jerusalem before, the last time, to cover the Six Day War. He went, he said, because he had to. He couldn’t, he said, live with himself if he didn’t. The whole world, he said, had conspired to ignore what had happened to the Jews before. Now, he saw, in June 1967, it was conspiring to ignore it again. Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia intended to destroy Israel. Saul Bellow, perhaps the most eminent living American novelist, rushed from his home in Chicago to Jerusalem to report on this latest attempt to murder his kinsmen. “For the second time in a quarter of a century,” he wrote, “Jews were having a gun pressed to their heads.”  The war Bellow covered began on June 5, 1967 and ended June 11, 1967. Once again, the Jewish people had survived the 20th century. And in Jerusalem, in those six days, they did something else. They reunited Jerusalem’s Old City and holy sites, and so returned to the Jewish nation, its capital and holy center.  Bellow’s trip, start to finish, had been deeply personal. He didn’t think this visit, made almost ten years later, would be. He was wrong.

Now, in the autumn of ’75, he went because of his wife. The fourth Mrs. Bellow, who was neither Jewish, literary, American, or within decades of his age, had been invited by Hebrew University to deliver a series of lectures on probability theory, and the enamored Bellow, not improbably, wanted to tag along.  He would, he imagined, take it easy. And maybe, even, write a little book, about Jerusalem.

Ensconced, then, by Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek in the guest house of the Mishkenot Sha’anaim – a landmark built on a slope facing Mt. Zion by Sir Moses Montefiore in 1860 – Bellow found his Jerusalem base, as denoted in Hebrew, a serene dwelling. It was from there, under the aegis of the charming and ubiquitous Kollek, that Bellow met, as he writes here, “interesting people.” These engaging men and women would show up in To Jerusalem and Back as important clerics, journalists, politicians, poets, writers, and too, as those least distinguished by fame: a barber, an engineer, a masseuse.  This letter catches Bellow reporting, essentially, about what he thought those Israelis thought was going on. In this, it was a precursor of the book he was just beginning to think of writing…

To his friend the New York lawyer and bibliophile Samuel Goldberg, Bellow begins this letter, not untypically, about books. But it was his own work, a nascent book perhaps, about the cost of survival, to which he felt himself drawn:

So I am concentrating on my journal. Not to be talked about. Perhaps it will never be printed. I’ll have to see what it all looks like. Kollek, who knows what I’m planning, takes me to see “interesting people.” Most recently, the Armenian Archbishop, who actually was wonderfully interesting.  Lives I want to convey the situation as much as possible from an American standpoint. I’m reading a great deal about the conduct of the U.S. since 1948 and before. I’ve found the [Elie] Kedourie books — they’re indispensable. But what I’d like you to dig up for me is a new book by a man named NUTTER. He was assistant Sec. of Defense under Laird – that’s all I know about him. No, that’s not  quite all. Milton Friedman (U of O) recommends him, says that he proves, or at least strongly argues, that Kissinger is a charlatan.

The “American standpoint” to which Bellow referred was, as it happened, the starting place of a particularly vehement discussion then current in Jerusalem. It had to do with a hotly-contested allegation, made by the American journalist Joseph Alsop, about Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The central charge – argued, analyzed, theorized about, and talked to death among Israelis – was this: did Henry Kissinger personally delay sending help to Israel during the Yom Kippur War in order to allow the Egyptians to salvage some self-respect? Did Defense Secretary James  R. Schlesinger then go to Nixon and press him to supply Israel immediately? Did Kissinger go behind the back of the Israeli cabinet to negotiate a cease-fire to the War, in order to make Israel’s victory less resounding? And how could Kissinger, a Jew, do this, anyway? Bellow’s response was to read whatever he could about the Mideast and about Kissinger – and hence asks his friend to get him a book so new, it would not even be in print until January 1975: Gilbert Warren Nutter’s Kissinger’s Grand Design.

From Kissinger’s alleged infamy and support for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, to Sadat’s infamy in having supported Hitler, is hardly a leap for Bellow. He continues:

This afternoon I’m sending to Sidney Grusan of the N.Y. Times the translation of an article in praise of Hitler written by Sadat in 1954. Certainly, the Times knows all about Sadat’s Nazi record but it will be interesting just the same. I dearly love to put people on the spot in this way. A few months ago I did it to Schlesinger (the Defense Sec.), asking him to intercede with the S. Korean gov’t on behalf of a poet sentenced to death for his poems – no other charges against him. The man hasn’t been shot yet, I’m glad to say. I put the thing to Schlesinger very sharply. No answer. I think Grunan will answer. But the Times probably has a state – dep’t of its own, with a Middle East desk and its own Sadat policy.

Saul Bellow in 1964. Photograph: Jeff Lowenthal/Lebrecht
Saul Bellow in 1964. Photograph: Jeff Lowenthal/Lebrecht.

The article to which Bellow referred was, seemingly, one published as a open letter to Hitler by then Colonel Anwar El-Sadat on September 18, 1953  in the Cairo weekly Al Musawwar.  Addressing “My Dear Hitler”, Sadat congratulated him “from the bottom of [his] heart” for having really won World War II.  “Even if you appear to have been defeated,” Sadat wrote, “your trust in your country and people will atone for those blunders. We will not be surprised if you appear again in Germany or if a new Hitler rises up in your wake.” Bellow’s poking the New York Times with Sadat’s letter didn’t, as he suspected, do a thing. The ex-foreign correspondent turned New York Times executive, Sydney Grusan, did not see fit to print Sadat’s praise of Hitler. And as for the Times having its own “Middle East desk and its own Sadat policy”? There, too, score one for Bellow, for the Times certainly had its own position on matters Jewish. Although a Jewish-owned newspaper, it was decidedly reticent about anything to do with Jews. (As of Bellow’s letter, the most blatant example of its infamous disengagement came between 1939-1945, during World War II, when out of its 24,000 front-page stories, the Holocaust figured in only 26 of them. The persecuted were “refugees”, the paper reported, and “persecuted minorities.” Only six times were Jews mentioned as the Holocaust’s primary victims.)  No wonder, then, that Bellow says here that he “loves dearly” to put such worthies “on the spot.”

Ultimately Saul Bellow may have well disdained the idea of being a “Jewish writer” – sometimes – but he had also worn tzitzit  [a traditional garment worn by devout Jews]  as a child. His trip to Jerusalem was permeated by his Jewishness which, in To Jerusalem and Back, he experienced, mostly, as a “gale of conversation” that inevitably returned to a stark reality: as a Jew, “you cannot take your right to live for granted.” Jerusalem, which has been fought over for millennia –  destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times – was for Bellow, then, a marvelously paradoxical city in which everything, at one point or another, came down, always, to fighting for its survival.

Of note here, is that Bellow’s To Jerusalem and Back is not a singular authorial account by an American writer. Herman Melville and Mark Twain, whom Bellow references, also visited in the mid-19th century – and though they, like Bellow, walked the same paths as Old Testament prophets, their experiences in what was essentially still a desert kingdom, were considerably different. Their work (Melville’s plaintive poem Clarel, and Twain’s lively and humorous The Innocents Abroad), although departing radically from other 19th century Holy Land travel accounts, spoke mostly to the rite of Christian pilgrimage. Bellow’s, of course, did not. His book about Jerusalem was published one year later – just ahead of being awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize for Literature.


SAUL BELLOW. 1915-1905. Canadian-American, and Jewish, writer. Much married, much celebrated, and much revered, he was one of the most influential American literary figures of the 20th century.

SAMUEL S. GOLDBERG. unknown – 1983. Yiddish-speaking American lawyer and bibliophile, he was a close friend of Bellow’s since the ’50s. A man who said he spent his life at New York’s Strand bookstore, he often bought books for Bellow on history, philosophy, social and political theory.

Autograph Letter Signed (“Saul”), 2 pages, quarto, Mishkenot Sha’anaim, 
Jerusalem, October 26, 1975. To Samuel [S. Goldberg] at 8 West 40th Street, New York, New York. With autograph envelope, missing recto quadrant.