|My Word: A monumental battle|
“It was then the morning of the second day of the war in Jerusalem. The horizon paled in the east. We were at the climax of the battle on Ammunition Hill. We’d been fighting there for three hours. A fierce battle was under way... At a certain point in the fight there remained next to me only four soldiers. We went up there with a force of two platoons. I didn’t know where the others were because the connection with Dudik, the platoon commander, was cut off still at the beginning of the battle. At that moment I thought that everyone had been killed.”
– From the opening of the song “Ammunition Hill.”
It was a battle so fierce and so fateful that it has gone down in history, been written about in books and papers, remembered in song, and commemorated by a museum at the site. Ammunition Hill. Givat Hatahmoshet.
The lyrics by Yoram Taharlev might not have all the details right, but they portray the spirit of the battle and the heroism of the 37 soldiers who fell there. The music by Yair Rosenblum complements the words and conveys the urgency and desperation.
Thanks largely to the song by this iconic Israeli songwriting team, the story of Ammunition Hill is well known throughout the country – a country that does not, unfortunately, lack battle sites and fallen soldiers.
Last week, it looked like the song would be all that was left of the public memory. The families and comrades of the soldiers who died there have to cope with the memory every day. They can’t shut down.
The site, on the other hand, was under threat of closure last week, and not the psychological kind.
The fight for Ammunition Hill this time was, oh-so- 2012-style, about funding. And on February 20, just after paratroopers celebrated receiving their red berets in a ceremony there, the large blue-and-white flag was lowered, for the first time since June 1967.
The struggle to keep Ammunition Hill open as a museum, memorial and educational center was barely a blip on the radar when it came to news broadcasts – competing with the price of Pesek Zman chocolate bars; scandals and dismissals in the Prime Minister’s Office; the Iranian threat; and religious divisions.
A few hours after the flag came down, an emergency meeting was held with representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Defense Ministry and the Finance Ministry in which Cabinet Secretary Tzvi Hauser promised a budget of NIS 2 million for this year, the amount the museum and memorial’s director, Katri Maoz, said was needed to continue operating. (The Defense Ministry had budgeted less than half that amount.) But much like the battle itself, survival does not mean the fight is over. The psychological scars are sometimes harder to deal with than the physical wounds.
“It’s incredible, disgusting really, that they could even consider closing such a site,” said one war veteran.
Ammunition Hill’s last stand raises several questions about the role of mourning and commemoration in general.
An insightful article by Tiffany Jenkins in the Spectator in August 2010 noted what she calls “memorial mania” in the US.
“We’ve stopped putting great men on pedestals and started commemorating their victims,” she writes. “In the process we are are losing a sense that human history involved leadership and struggle and, yes, sacrifice. In focusing purely on victimhood we are in danger of turning history into a random series of tragic events, instead of something that was purposeful and directed. Something made rather than just experienced.”
Jenkins points out that as attitudes to wars and nationhood changed, so did the way the war dead were commemorated.
The culmination of this change, she notes, can be seen in the style of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, completed in 1982. In light of the controversial nature of that war, and its unclear conclusion, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial “moved its focus away from the conflict and towards the contribution of individuals. It separated the soldier from the war,” she writes.
Israel, too, has its “good” and “bad” wars. The First Lebanon War has often been described as “Israel’s Vietnam” and the world has increasingly blasted the way the country defends itself. The words “disproportionate response” are banded around with about as much regard for the consequences as the Palestinian missile launchers show for where their rockets land.
Perhaps we should create a museum to Kassam victims in the Negev, for Israel finds itself in very different circumstances from the rest of the Western world. Nearly everybody knows a victim of terror, if only by association (the child of a colleague, the sibling of a neighbor). We nearly all know, too, a soldier. Sadly, almost everyone can also match a face to the name of a fallen soldier. Almost every town has a military cemetery. The wars and terror have always hit very close to home.
LAST SUMMER, I took the bus from outside my apartment building to Ammunition Hill. The short ride underlined what the soldiers there had fought for. So did the explanations being given to groups of new recruits learning “moreshet krav” (literally battle heritage). They heard of the bitter hand-to-hand combat in the trenches, and were told, incidentally, of the bravery of the Arab soldiers who were positioned there.
Looking out from Ammunition Hill, you realize the role it had in reuniting Jerusalem, allowing Jews to pray at the Western Wall for the first time since the Jordanians conquered the site in the 1948 War of Independence.
But looking at the maps and topography, I understood more than that: Had Ammunition Hill remained in the control of the Arab forces, no Jewish neighborhood would have been spared.
The memorial at Ammunition Hill commemorates not only the 37 soldiers who died there, it records the names of 182 Israeli soldiers killed in the battle for Jerusalem.
There is also a wall commemorating Jews from the Diaspora who fell in the service of the state or Jewish people.
That life goes on can be seen not only in the children playing in the bunkers and trenches that symbolize the site, but in the view of the all the surrounding neighborhoods – Ramat Eshkol, French Hill, the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, and Ramot in the distance.
Ammunition Hill is about more than the past. It is about the future. Like many battles it symbolizes not only about what was being fought for, but primarily about what needed to be defended. The site’s history is painful, poignant and does not go down well in the politically correct world. But that doesn’t mean it should be forgotten.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.