(story as quoted in Yehuda Avner A”H ‘The Prime Ministers’ purchase here)
The story really began on the Yom Kippur of 1928, when a mechitza, an improvised, collapsible screen to separate male and female worshippers, was set up in front of the Western Wall for prayers. This, to the Arabs, was an act of provocation, and they went wild. “Jihad! Jihad!” flashed through the bazaars. “The Jews are trying to rebuild their Temple and destroy our al-Aksa Mosque.”
Eyewitness accounts told of a white-bearded Chasid in a black caftan running for his life, chased by a mob through an alleyway leading to the Western Wall. The pursuers brandished clubs, sabers, and daggers, and howled: “Save our holy places from the Jews!” and, “Death to the Jewish dogs!” and, “Allahu Akhbar! God is great!” The fleeing Chasid, his bony face chalk white, stumbling through the narrow tunnel passages, was losing ground. He fell, sprang up again, and then inexplicably turned and, head-first, drove straight into the phalanx of the chasing mob, hollering hysterically, “Shema Yisrael,” as they cut him down.
As the riots escalated the British set up an inquiry commission and, stirred by Muslim sensitivities, decreed that the Arabs were the sole owners of the Western Wall and that, henceforth, Jews would be forbidden to even blow the shofar in its precinct. Members of the Jewish community sat up and gasped. What are we, a myth? Do you claim that there never was a holy Temple on the Temple Mount? Our sacred texts are legends? Is it all a fairytale? Some bravehearts defied the ban.
Each year, as Yom Kippur approached its climax with the Ne’ilah service, a member of Betar, the youth movement of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionists, would surreptitiously sound the shofar; whereupon the British police would move in and hit out in all directions.
Menachem Begin was witness to one such Ne’ilah service, on the Yom Kippur of 1943. What he saw was a battalion of British policemen, armed with rifles and batons, trying to pick out who might turn out to be the shofar blower. And when the sun went down and the shadows lengthened, they squeezed in among the pious, elbowing their way towards the Wall, weapons angled and primed. And then they heard it, and it drove them into a frenzy. A ruddy-faced sergeant, livid at the insolence, dashed toward a short figure clutching a shofar to his lips and, slapping the lad hard across the face, bellowed, “Stop blowing that thing.” Other policemen set upon worshippers trying to defend him, clobbering them with their batons. The young blower kicked the sergeant away and burrowed through the crush, spurting his way up the stairs, trying to reach the murky warrens adjacent to the Wall. “Kill him, Stop him! Kill him! Stop him,” cried the Arabs. “Keep going! Run! Run! Run!” cried the Jews. The boy dodged and leaped through the alleyways, until an officer felled him and pinned him to the ground. Seeing the outrage for himself, Menachem Begin decided that the Irgun had to respond, to confound the low tricks of his people’s enemies, who defiled this most sacred of sites. Thus it was that on the following Rosh Hashanah, in 1944 –ten days before Yom Kippur –he instructed his Irgun pamphleteers and poster-stickers to let it be known that any British policeman disturbing the service at the Western Wall “will be regarded as a criminal and be punished accordingly.” As the Day of Atonement drew nearer his warnings grew increasingly more strident, generating ever more grisly rumors as to what punishment Begin’s Irgun men would mete out to the British policemen.
“Criminal lunacy!” cried the left-wing Hebrew press, fearful of innocent casualties at the Wall. “The blowing of the ram’s horn at the close of the fast is a mere custom, not an obligatory act,” declared a tremulous rabbinate. And British Intelligence speculated as to what casualties their police at the Wall might sustain if fired upon from unseen directions. Came the culmination of Yom Kippur and the end of the Ne’ilah service, and in the deepening twilight the white-clad cantor, facing the gigantic shadowy blocks of ancient stones, chanted in a voice that swelled and soared, “Shema Yisrael…Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” And the whole congregation affirmed this declaration with single-minded intensity. And then, thrice, he trilled: “Baruch shem kavod…Blessed be the name of His Glorious Majesty for ever and ever,” and thrice the assembly responded in passionate confirmation. Seven times, the cantor intoned with trembling fervor, “The Lord is God. The Lord is God” and seven times the congregants avowed this invocation. And as the cantor concluded the service with the final words of the Kaddish –“Oseh shalom bimromav…He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen,” –the British policemen looked on, tense, edgy, crouched in confrontation, waiting for the order to pounce at the sound of the shofar. And the shofar sounded. Rising on tiptoe, arms stiffened, eyes closed, hands trembling in excitement, the boy who had blown the shofar blew again; a sustained, robust, soaring, exalted, single blast, reaching the heights of pure perfection –and not a policeman stirred. “Fall out,” barked the ruddy-faced sergeant to his men. “Return to barracks. At the double –one, two, one, two, one two…” “L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim habenuyah,” hollered the crowd. “Next year in rebuilt Jerusalem!” And they danced their way triumphantly to their homes in the Jewish Quarter.