On Saturday, June 10, 1967, the fifth day of the Six-Day War, Yosef Schwartz, a contractor, entered the bomb shelter in the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood in western Jerusalem and found his daughter and grandchildren. “It was quite normal to see us and bring bread and milk,” says his daughter Zehava Fuchs. “But this time he was very tense, he hugged me and the children and he looked different than usual.”
Schwartz, who was wearing the uniform of the old Haganah police force, left without saying where he was going. “I went up to the apartment to call my mother, she told me he didn’t want to say where he was going,” said Fuchs.
“The next day he came back crying. My brother was a pilot then and I was very worried something had happened, but then he told me that he had been in the Old City and touched the Kotel. He told how at night they demolished all the Mughrabi neighborhood. He was completely secular, but he said that when they worked there was a mystical feeling, they felt they were on a mission,” she added.
Schwartz was one of 15 older contractors from the Jeruslaem contractors association who were called on by then Mayor Teddy Kollek that night to come to the Western Wall, which had just been captured. The task was to demolish the houses in the Mughrabi (Moroccan) Quarter that was built right next to the Kotel and create the Western Wall Plaza.
Sasson Levy, one of the two contractors who is still alive, remembers the excitement very well: “I was sky-high, it was a pleasure.”
Kollek enlisted the contractors for the work, but to this day it is still not clear who made the decision about the demolition. It is clear Kollek was involved, as well as Shlomo Lahat, who was the new military governor of East Jerusalem (and later mayor of Tel Aviv), and the head of the IDF’s Central Command, Maj. Gen. Uzi Narkiss. It is clear they intentionally made the decision without asking for – or receiving permission. No written documents remain concerning the decision, except for a hand-drawn map on a piece of paper that marked the boundaries of the area to be demolished.
The contractors association was the most readily available source of manpower, but that was not the only reason that Kollek turned to them. The fear of an international protest made it necessary to use an unofficial civilian body to take on the job. The demolition work was given to the Jerusalem contractors and builders organization to distance any involvement of official bodies in the demolition as much as possible, wrote Uzi Benziman in Haaretz Magazine last week (in Hebrew).
Kollek explained the urgency of clearing the plaza stemmed from the Shavuot holiday in a few days, when tens of thousands of Israelis were expected to flock to the Kotel. Leaving the old buildings standing could be dangerous, said Kollek. But the contractors, who were not called up to the reserves because of their age, saw it as much more than just another engineering project: That night remained engraved in their memories as a historic moment. So much so that after the war they established the “Order of the Kotel,” a sort of imitation of an order of knights for those who “purified the Kotel plaza for the people of Israel,” as they wrote about themselves.
A coincidence led researchers from Yad Ben Zvi, the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem named after former President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, to study the Order of the Kotel story. Next week an exhibition will go on display at the Institute about the Order and the creation of the Western Wall Plaza.
The work began about 11 P.M. The first job was to demolish a toilet that was built up against the Western Wall. A day earlier, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion visited the Kotel and reprimanded Yaakov Yannai, the head of the National Parks Authority, about the bathroom. “You come to place like this and you see a stench in the wall, we were surprised by it,” Levy remembers. “It made us angry in all the joy. At first we worked with hoes, pickaxes, cultivators and hammers. After that Zalman [Broshi, one of the largest builders in Jerusalem] brought in the tractor.”
Two bulldozers worked to demolish the houses. They ran into difficulties when the rooms underground collapsed suddenly under the bulldozers, but the collapse also provided them with space to bury the rubble and flatten the ground. 135 houses were demolished, and in the end the demolition exceeded the area drawn on the map.
Levy does not remember the residents of the houses or whether anyone was evacuated from them. Fuchs says that when she asked her father about them, “he said they went with a megaphone and asked the people to gather, and they went out through the Zion Gate, because through this gat they took out the refugees of the Jewish Quarter [in 1948].”
Bruria Shiloni, the daughter of Yosef Zaban, and who was there that night, does not remember the residents. “I didn’t have the impression that people lived there, that there was life,” says Shiloni. “Later I heard that they smuggled them out of there. The feeling was that they were demolishing empty and piled up huts, I didn’t see movement of people.”
Benziman tells how in one case the residents refused to leave the house and left only after the bulldozer rammed the wall. In one house, an elderly woman named Haja Ali Taba’aki was found dead in her bed. In one of the pictures a bulldozer can be seen demolishing a house with furniture, curtains and a vase with flowers inside.
Zaban was the father of Yair Tsaban, who became a member of Knesset for the left-wing Mapam party. Shiloni went to the Kotel with her father and remembers the trip and Kollek standing on a crate or step, speaking to those present. During the demolition she was not there, after two officers accompanied her to find her husband, a platoon commander who had been wounded in the fighting.
The Order of the Western Wall was founded that same night and the members continued to meet regularly until the 1990s, when most of them passed away. In 1967 they enlisted in another task from Kollek and built the structure near the windmill in the Yemin Moshe neighborhood of the capital that housed the original carriage used by Moses Montefiore in his travels. In 1983 they published album with almost prophetic predictions by Itamar Ben-Avi, a journalist and son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, about the creation of the Kotel Plaza. Ben-Avi died in 1943. In 1987 the members of the Oder attended a ceremony in their honor in the Knesset, and received the “Defender of the Kotel” decoration.
The founder of the order was Baruch Barkai, who became the secretary of the group and a rather unusual figure. Barkai was born in Latvia, studied law, was a journalist, art collector and a member of the Lehi pre-state underground, also known as the Stern Gang. He was even arrested on suspicions of being involved in the murder of Chaim Arlosoroff. Barkai later wrote a number of books, two of which are etiquette guides, and founded the most polite Knesset member competition.
“It was a difficult day for him,” says Barkai’s son Itamar, who was named after Ben-Avi, who his father admired. The 1983 album says the Order was founded on Sunday, the third day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, June 11, 1967 at 3 A.M. in the Kotel Plaza, with the 15 members who had answered the call of the engineering officer, Capt. Eitan Ben Moshe, to purify the Kotel Plaza. “In doing so they fulfilled the vision of Itamar Ben-Avi: ‘The Kotel with space on the right and space on the left too, the Kotel with a broad courtyard in front of it.”
The Yad Ben- Zvi researchers discovered the story by accident, through a person who participated in the demolition, but not a member of the Order.
Ze’ev Ben Gal was born to a Samaritan family, fled his parent’s home, enlisted in the Palmah and lived on Kibbuts Rosh Hanikra. During the Six-Day War he served as a bulldozer driver in the reserves and was called to the Mughrabi neighborhood. During his work he noticed a large iron lock, it seems the lock on the gate to the neighborhood, and kept it. After he died last year, the lock made its way to the kibbutz archive, where they decided to give it, and the story behind it, to Yad Ben-Zvi.
Fuchs was photographed for the movie that was part of the “50 Faces, 50 years” project created by the Tower of David Museum in the Old City. She said about her father, Schwartz, that he was so proud of every house he built, and suddenly he was proud of demolishing houses, “but he felt that he was carrying out a great mission for the Jewish people.”
Anyone who knew the Kotel before the demolition was amazed by the plaza that was born overnight. “I read in the newspaper that they demolished the houses and straightened the plaza in front of the Kotel, but I didn’t imagine they made a stadium,” an “elderly Yemenite” Jew was quoted in the Davar newspaper. The quote appears in an article that appeared recently by Shmuel Bahat in the journal Et-mol, published by Yad Ben Zvi. Kollek too is quoted justifying the demolitions: “It ws the greatest thing we could do and it is good we did it immediately.”