Sitting in a Pikesville conference room this morning, June 16, the three gregarious men in their 70s looked like they could’ve been a trio of grandfathers schmoozing in a delicatessen. While speaking rapid-fire Hebrew and taking swigs from water bottles, they laughed among themselves and swapped stories in a way only old friends can.
But these were no ordinary septuagenarians. They were Zion “Ziggy” Karasenti, Haim Oshri and Dr. Yitzhak Yifat, the Israeli paratroopers immortalized in David Rubinger’s photo at the Western Wall in the aftermath of the battle for Jerusalem on June 7, 1967.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem, the three men spoke on June 15 at an Owings Mills residence for a private reception sponsored by Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (Mid-Atlantic Region). Their appearance here was part of a 11-day tour of eight American cities in June on behalf of the nonprofit, which raises funds for IDF soldiers, wounded Israeli veterans and families of the fallen.
While appearing a bit weary at the end of their tour, the three men sat in FIDF’s office the morning after the fundraiser and spoke – through a translator — about the warmth and gratitude they received from the more than 100 local Jews in attendance.
“This was not the first time we’ve enjoyed such an evening, but the support we received here was amazing,” said Yifat. “The love these people showed for Israel and us and the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem was incredible. We knew it would be a special evening, but we felt that love all night long.
“Everywhere we went – Chicago, San Francisco, Cleveland – we got strong reactions from everyone and we really appreciate it,” he said. “Big hugs all around.”
Karasenti also said the reactions from audiences across the country were inspiring. “We’re so happy that there is such support for Israel in the Diaspora and people are invested in us all over the world,” he said. “This was the closing of a circle for us.”
The three men, who have kept in touch over the years despite living in different cities across Israel, said they were proud of the role they played in Jewish history.
“We feel like every Jew — proud to be part of a history of 2,000 years of exile and praying [to return to Israel],” said Yifat. “We had the privilege to be part of one of the most important moments in Jewish history.”
The men said they did not even know Rubinger captured that emotional moment of them at the Western Wall – Judaism’s holiest site – until after the fact. But they felt it was a matter of destiny and, perhaps, providence.
“When I go today to the Kotel [Western Wall], I always remember the heavy price that was paid there,” said Karasenti. “One-hundred-and-seventy men gave their lives to liberate the Kotel. They were the best of the best, the salt of the earth.
“But I also see all of the Jewish people when I go there,” he said. “I see Am Yisrael Chai [the nation of Israel lives]. In 2017, you can see our people living in our own land and being happy at the Kotel.”
Oshri said he feels the Rubinger photo resonates with Jews and others around the world because it represents the culmination of the Jewish experience.
“It’s not our eyes you’re seeing there,” he said, “but you see the angels, the kohanim [priests], the Maccabis, the Bar Kokhba revolt, the Haganah and the Palmach, the IDF. You see in our eyes everything that we went through during the Six Day War for the entire nation. You see the pride, joy, sorrow, bravery and sacrifices in that photo.
“The reason it means so much to our people is because you can see our souls ascending – all of the Jewish people. We freed Jerusalem 50 years ago, and Jerusalem is forever.”
Jokingly, Yifat said he attributes the photo’s iconic status to the fact that “we were the best-looking ones there.”
Karasenti chuckled but said, “By the grace of God, that photo was taken when it was. At that moment of liberation, I remember seeing the flag of Israel placed at the top of the wall. I saw Rabbi [Shlomo] Goren [Israel’s chief rabbi] with many other rabbis going forward to the stones of the Kotel and singing and praying. He came and hugged me and blew the shofar. That, for me, was the most important and holy moment of my life.
“Now, Jerusalem will always be united and in the hands of the Jewish people.”
Karasenti, Oshri and Yifat refused to discuss anything of a political nature during their U.S. tour. But they all said they were hopeful Israel will someday live in peace with its neighbors.
“If the other side wants peace, then we will all have peace,” said Karasenti.
A moment later, Yifat spoke in Hebrew to his friends and laughed. “If the three of us can get along,” he said with a grin, “then there’s no reason that we can’t all get along and have peace.”
Top photo of (left to right) Zion Karasenti, Yitzhak Yifat and Haim Oshri by Scott David
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