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Fifty Years After the Six Day War

June 10, 2017

When I was younger, fifty years earlier seemed like an eternity.  It felt distant, like ancient time, an antiquated past to which I could not relate.  The world fifty years earlier was very different from the one I inhabited.  When I was 14 years old, in June of 1967, just finishing 9th grade, fifty years earlier was 1917.  And the distance separating those two points in time was truly enormous.  1917 was the year World War I ended.  People from 1917 looked very different than the modern world of 1967.  The world was black and white then.  Ours was in color.

Fifty years ago in June of 1967, the revolutionary album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had just been released by the greatest band of all time, the Beatles.  Now that I am 64, fifty years after that summer when I, along with all my friends and my generation were marveling over the innovative work that took rock music to a new plateau, fifty years ago does not seem so long ago after all.  It feels like it was yesterday.  Not only has the passage of time become compressed, but geographic distance has also become radically reduced and shrunk over the last fifty years.

Half way around the world, fifty years ago, the winds of war were gathering as mass crowds in Cairo, Damascus and elsewhere in the Middle East were being worked up into a trance-like, almost hypnotic frenzy with the promise to rid the region of the State of Israel.  Led by Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, who saw this as a way to unify the Arab world and for him to become the leader of a pan-Arab movement, he promised the people a quick victory and that the region would once and for all be rid of the Jewish state.  He mesmerized the crowds and succeeded in taking their minds off of how miserable their conditions were with the promise that they would push the Jews into the sea.

Many forget or do not realize how precarious and tenuous Israel’s situation was in those scary days before the outbreak of the Six Day War in June of 1967.  Ever since its founding in 1948, and even in the decades before it became an independent nation, there were constant attacks on its people.  But this was different.    In May of 1967 Nasser imposed a blockade of the Straits of Tiran, Israel’s southern gateway and expelled the UN peace keeping force from the Sinai to allow quick and easy passage with no interference on his way to conquer Israel.  Israel braced itself and prepared for the greatest threat to its physical survival since its founding, only nineteen years earlier.

Hospital beds were readied, bomb shelters prepared, mass graves dug and tens of thousands of body bags were ordered as the nation, not yet 20 years old, braced for the worst.  The threat to its survival was not imagined.  It was real.  Israelis recalled that just a little more than 20 years earlier a dictator a continent away used similar language to rally the masses to his dream of a world that would be Judenrein, free of Jews.

The fiery rhetoric and threats emanating from Arab capitals were matched by a mobilization and buildup on Israel’s borders.  Encouraged by the Soviet Union,  troops from Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, along with contingents from Kuwait, Algeria, Sudan, Libya and Tunisia troops began to make maneuvers for an invasion on multiple fronts in a united effort to once and for all wipe Israel off the map. About 50,000 Syrian troops gathered in the Golan Heights, and a similar number from the Jordanian army took up their positions, while in the south nearly 100,000 Egyptian troops and 1,000 tanks gathered on Israel’s border with Egypt.

The outcome seemed inevitable.

But then, on the first day, within the first six hours of the war, the Israeli air force miraculously succeeded in grounding almost the entire Egyptian air force as well as of Syria, destroying over 400 Arab aircraft in a single day.

By the third day of the war, on June 7, 1967, the part of Jerusalem that had been seized by Jordan in 1948, as well as the part of the Old City, which Jews had not been allowed to visit since then, and where cemeteries and synagogues had been destroyed and desecrated, was captured by the forces led by Motta Gur, who announced “Har haBayit beyadeinu:  The Temple Mount is in our hands.”

Moshe Dayan proclaimed, “This morning, the Israel Defense Forces liberated Jerusalem. We have united Jerusalem, the divided capital of Israel. We have returned to the holiest of our holy places, never to part from it again.  To our Arab neighbors we extend our hand in peace.  To our Christian and Muslim fellow citizens, we solemnly promise full religious freedom and rights. We did not come to Jerusalem for the sake of other peoples’ holy places, nor to interfere with the adherents of other faiths, but in order to safeguard its entirety, and to live there together with others, in unity.”

As Elie Wiesel has written, “It is important to remember, had Jordan not joined in the war against Israel, the old city of Jerusalem would still be Arab.  Clearly, while Jews were ready to die for Jerusalem they would not kill for Jerusalem.”

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol declared, “Peace has now returned with our forces in control of all the city and its environs. You may rest assured that no harm whatsoever shall come to the places sacred to all religions. I have requested the Minister of Religious Affairs to get in touch with the religious leaders in the Old City in order to ensure regular contact between them and our forces, so as to make certain that the former may continue their spiritual activities unhindered.”

While Israel debated what to do with its newly acquired territory, and how to leverage it as a bargaining chip to wage peace with its neighbors, just three months after being vanquished and defeated, the Arab League meeting in Khartoum, the capitol of Sudan, replied to the hand extended by Moshe Dayan and Levi Eshkol.  The twenty two Arab nations formally adopted the policy of the “Three No’s:  No peace with Israel.  No recognition of Israel.  No Negotiations with Israel.”

What the unequivocal rejection by the Arab world of Israel’s overtures and calls for negotiations meant was they were letting Israel know that it does not matter if you win or lose when we attack and wage war against you.  If we win and you lose on the battlefield, we will destroy you and the Jewish state will be eliminated.  But if we lose and you win, you will still lose, because we will not accept you and will not give you any respite.  Regardless of what you are willing to concede, we will not accept your existence and will reject you and whatever you offer to end the conflict.  We will maintain a state of perpetual hostility and confrontation with you, which remains the position of Arab nations to this day.

This policy explains why the movie, “Wonder Woman” is banned in Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, and other Arab countries.  It will not be shown in these countries because an Israeli, Gal Gadot plays the leading role in the movie.  This is a reminder not just of how silly and petty the policy is, but also how comprehensive and enduring Arab rejection of Israel and how deep their antipathy and hostility towards Israelis is.  It is why at last year’s Olympics the Egyptian wrestler refused to shake hands with his Israeli counterpart, and a Saudi fencer forfeited a match so as not to have to compete against an Israeli and why the Lebanese team refused to allow Israel’s team to ride the bus with them in the Olympic Village.

The Washington Post in its recent series of articles about the Six Day War showed that the situation for the Arabs who live in the territories Israel acquired in the war it did not seek is not pleasant.  They pointed out that the checkpoints, fear of arrests in the middle of the night, id checks and long lines to get into Israel is a burden for them.

The articles were disturbing.  I do not doubt that much of what is described is true, but it did not tell the whole story.  It did not reveal that Israel was a reluctant participant in the war, and that Israel did not go into the war with the intention of acquiring additional territory, but to save itself from destruction.  It left out the many things Israel does on behalf of the Arab residents and that the standard of living is higher and better in many ways for those who live under Israeli rule than in Arab countries.  It did not inform its readers that the reason for the checkpoints and other inconveniences are because of the multiple instances when people have used ambulances, pregnant women and cancer patients on their way into Israel for treatment to blow themselves up.  It did not provide necessary context by reporting on the constant barrage of propaganda encouraging people to fight Israel and the elaborate apparatus and infrastructure built to perpetuate hatred and designed to implant within the youth visceral, almost subconscious hatred.  Nor did it discuss the impact of praise and naming of schools after those who murder Jews.  Nor did it adequately detail the generous payments for the families of those who carry out terrorist acts.  It did not tell of the gestures and generous concessions Israel has offered to resolve the conflict.  And finally it did not clarify that the West Bank was disputed territory seized by Jordan in 1948 and that an independent Palestinian state did not exist prior to 1967.

These important contextual facts that were omitted do not negate that the articles were not incorrect when they portrayed how miserable life is for those living under foreign rule.  It is not an ideal situation, and is unfortunate that this is how they live their lives.  We can and should feel sympathy for those who suffer and live in these conditions and recognize the genuine frustration felt by those living in the disputed lands and who are the victims of a quagmire difficult to resolve.  But neither should we gloss over the most important fact of all that was omitted — that the reason Palestinians live in these conditions is because of a leadership which has turned down every opportunity for peace and has preferred to maintain the status quo.

Israel’s victory fifty years ago had a profound impact on the Middle East and on the world.  At a time when “black is beautiful” was introduced into our culture, a new sense of Jewish pride was awakened.  The image of Jew as a vulnerable, helpless victim and easy prey was dramatically reversed.  Israel’s victory also sparked a new-found awareness and pride among Jews in the Soviet Union.  They realized the lies and propaganda they had been fed about Jews and Israel were unfounded.   This led to a quest to learn more about Judaism and to deepen their Jewish identity, which led to the movement to free Soviet Jews from their oppression, which ultimately led to the demise of communism and the Iron Curtain.

And one other thing was different in those days.  The period of relief and euphoria over the unexpected victory led to a time of Jewish unity.  In fact, in those days, even rabbis supported Israel and celebrated its achievements!

When the exiles first returned from Babylonia to Zion over 2500 years ago, Psalm 126 recorded how they felt, emotions that paralleled the joy of the aftermath of the Six Day War.  As the psalmist sang, “Shir Hamaalot – Beshuv Hashem et shivat tyion hayeenu keholmim:  A song of ascents.  When the Lord returned the captives of Zion, we were like dreamers, like people in a dream. Our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues with exultation: They said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ Indeed, the Lord has done great things for us, and so we rejoice!… Those that sow in tears shall reap in joy.”

Today we celebrated the upcoming marriage of a couple soon to be wed.  The sheva brachot, the seven blessings recited under the wedding canopy include the words of our age old hope:  “Od yishama beharei Yehudah uv’hutztot Yerushalayim:  May there be heard again in the hills of Judea and the streets of Jerusalem, the sound of singing and rejoicing, the sounds of the bride and groom.”  This is the eternal hope and prayer of our people.  We hoped after the war that the Arabs would reconcile themselves and accept the existence of the State of Israel.  Even though the dream of peace continues to be elusive, let us continue to hope and work for it.  Israel’s national anthem “HaTikvah: the Hope” is an affirmation of our aspirations.  May we continue to hope that one day the vision of the prophets, the vision of peace shall be fulfilled.

Also published on Medium.


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Stuart Weinblatt

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is the President of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America. From 2009 - 2014 he served as Director of Israel Policy and Advocacy for the Rabbinical Assembly.
Rabbi Weinblatt is the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, a vibrant Conservative synagogue of 650 families he founded in 1988, along with his wife and a handful of families.