I’ve always taken the oft-quoted tag that “Old soldiers never die; they only fade away” to signify that, almost to the elimination of other aspects of their lives, the trauma of war remains deeply incised into the hearts and minds of those who engaged in it. Whether they wish to talk about it or stay silent, at a fundamental level through to the end of their days, war veterans are unable to free themselves from the horror and from the glory of that experience. Journalists who have witnessed and reported on war talk of a similar effect on their own thought processes and internal mental makeup. If thankfully to a lesser extent, that etching effect may also apply to bystanders. Even long after the event, where other experiences tend to blur, there is an inimitable clarity in the recollection of a person’s involvement in war, however tenuous that might have been. And, even when the names of some of those one encountered in the moving scenario of war may have been dimmed from memory by the passage of time, the events themselves remain crystal clear.
Fifty years ago, at the start of June 1967, I was a tenacious twenty-two year old graduate student at the University of Leeds in the north of England wrestling with end-of-term examinations but with my attention no less focused on the parlous political situation in the Middle East at the start of what was to develop into the Six Day War. In the bewildering weeks prior to the conflict, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt had embargoed passage to Israel of shipping through the Straits of Tirana, cutting off some ninety per cent of the vital supply of oil to the Jewish state; fearing impending war, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, U Thant, had reacted by removing his international “Peacekeepers” from the region; to wide publicity, the first chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Ahmed Shukheiry, had incautiously trumpeted that this was the moment when the Arab world would finally reclaim for itself the Zionist entity by “throwing the Jews into the sea”; and President Charles De Gaulle of France had warned Israel of the consequences of firing the first shot. These and other headline moments, as much as the advance from all fronts of hostile troops up against the borders with Israel left it in no doubt to the world at large that war was imminent.
As we all now know, preemptive strikes by the Israeli air force and audacious ground offensives against the Egyptians in Gaza and the Sinai Desert, against powerful Jordanian forces in the West Bank, and against Syrians atop the strategic Golan Heights led to an early termination of the war. For Israel to triumph on so many fronts had entailed a massive call-up of soldiers and reservists from across the nation. For at least a month after the war, when Israel’s army of reservists was still securing the front lines, there was an acute absence of recruits to take over the everyday jobs that they had left behind.
To address the problem, the Sochnut (Jewish Agency for Israel) put out an urgent call for volunteers from overseas to come and help. On the nod, thousands of young people, mainly but not exclusively Jews, put their names forward to register as Mitnadvim (volunteers). Among volunteers of my own generation who, unlike our parents, had never been engaged in warfare, there was a palpable sense of excitement and an elemental frisson that accompanies risk taking. To allay (mainly) parental fears, the Sochnut put out a public announcement that young non-Israeli volunteers would only be accepted to fill civilian jobs. Particularly in kibbutzim which relied on agricultural produce for their everyday income, fields had been left untended and harvests unpicked with a potentially ruinous economic loss of crops. That was where there was most need for our help. However, getting to Israel was far from easy, with priority on inbound flights being given to its own citizens who were responding to the call-up from abroad.
My summer term exams almost complete, I arranged a meeting with one of my academic tutors to seek permission to leave college early in order to go to Israel. My professor, Douglas Grant, a Scot who had served in the British army during the Second World War and had published a sophisticated memoir of his military experience, was sympathetic to my request, prodding me with droll irony as I left his office to “Remember that History does not remember individuals!” At the door, he added, “Please do be careful. I expect you back on campus next term.” Traveling down to London, I immediately contacted the Israeli Embassy only to find that it had been deluged with applicants keen to volunteer. Because there were so many, I was told that there was little chance that my application could proceed, but if I wanted to make my own way to Israel they would still encourage me to try to do so.
The next two days were spent at our family home in west London convincing my parents that, in whatever small way, it was my bounden duty as a Jew to try to serve Israel in her hour of need. Both my parents were refugees from Nazi Germany, and, had the happy circumstance of marrying my mother not intervened, my father would have long ago emigrated to Palestine in compliance with his Zionist ideals. I think it took less persuasion on my part for my Dad to understand why I had to go, and, with some reluctance, my mother also gave me her blessing. In 1967, there were no such things as cellphones, and, to assuage parental worries, I undertook to write home weekly if only in the form of the briefest few lines on a postcard. It speaks well for the magnanimity of my parents that, despite fears for the safety of their only son (fears that I learned years later you cannot really comprehend until you become a parent!), they offered to fund my full air fare.
Multiple hours on the telephone calling El Al, the Israeli airline, were more often than not met with a busy signal but when I eventually connected to an agent, the terse advice was that “There are no available seats on flights to Tel Aviv, but keep trying!” I did yet to no avail until one of their agents told me that I would have more of a chance if I made my way to the airport. So, throwing some clothes into an old suitcase and other necessaries into a sturdy knapsack, I turned up at the El Al desk at Heathrow. Again, I was told in no uncertain terms by an irritated agent, who had been inundated all week with such requests, that every seat on departures to Israel had been taken. Yet, I’m sure to her total exasperation, I persisted with my demand that she find me a ticket! Perhaps to get me off her back, she offered me an unsecured ticket to Israel, initiated by a flight on a partner airline that was shortly taking off for Paris. “You may,” she said, “have more chance of going to Israel from there.”
Consulting my mental map, Paris was at least in the right direction, and two hours and a short hop later, I was at Le Bourget Airport naively tendering the same request. The French agent for El Al was even more practiced than his London counterpart in saying “Non!,” and “Ça veut dire Non!”, adding that such a journey was impossible without having such a necessary thing as an issued ticket. “But,” said I, “I already have a ticket, and I have used the first part of it to get as far as here!” That prompted him to look again at flights to Israel, and after several calls each one of which exacerbated my uncertainty, he revealed to me that a flight from Argentina was stopping to refuel at Le Bourget before proceeding directly to Israel. I demanded that his ground staff should radio through to the captain, and the response was that there was only one single seat still unoccupied on that flight. “That’s mine,” I cried out, and shortly after, I joined an animated plane full of South American volunteers whose raucous enthusiasm to get to Israel buoyed up my own. Our flying time was accelerated by our gathering excitement and by the singing of Israeli songs, including the Hatikvah, to which I tearfully and happily joined in.
Finally, we touched down at Tel Aviv in the afternoon of the middle of the second week after the fighting had ceased. Getting to Israel, I felt a mixture of frustration and relief that the war had not waited for me. Heroics apart, would my presence still prove useful? And, was it not perhaps preferable to be in a country that was now no longer threatened with annihilation? Before leaving London, when the war was still raging, I had asked the Jewish Agency to contact Kibbutz Zikim in the northern Negev, and had heard back that I would be welcome there as a volunteer. My choice was not a random one since I had already spent the summers of 1960 and 1963 working at Zikim, the first time with an organized group of Jewish teenagers from London, and later with a small cadre of student friends.
In the hectic days following the end of the war, many Israelis were on the move, particularly women soldiers who were among the first to be de-mobbed and sent home. I had no difficulty in joining them on the roadside, and, from the various designated pick-up stations, hitchhiking my way south. The drivers who pulled over hailed me for volunteering though to me that felt really premature as up till now I had done nothing beyond getting to Israel, achievement as I felt that was! En route, the only delay was when I left the main road, and, with the setting sun, awaited a ride to the kibbutz itself. After twenty minutes or longer, a small truck pulled up, its driver a member of the kibbutz whom I vaguely recognized, and who claimed that he remembered me. We passed through the gates of Zikim at dusk, and, realigning my bearings, I unloaded just in time to be fed and accommodated. I went to sleep that night full of choppy dreams of my travel and unfocused expectations of what lay ahead.
Zikim was founded in 1949 shortly after the creation of the State of Israel. Its pioneers were fledgling immigrants from Romania who were members of Hashomer Hatzair (literally “the young guard”), a politically left-wing Socialist-Zionist youth movement made up primarily of secular Jews. Its fundamental principle, particularly in the immediate post-Holocaust era, was that diaspora Jewry could reconstitute itself by going on Aliyah to Israel, where its members would create new and meaningful lives for themselves by settling in and developing a chain of kibbutzim. The Hebrew name Zikim reflects that aspiration, literally translating into English as “points of light.” The expansion of the kibbutz brought many immigrants (“Olim”) from South America, and also a smaller English-speaking contingent from South Africa. Geographically, Zikim’s location, some eight miles southwest of the biblical city of Ashkelon, places it at the edge of the Negev desert where its surroundings are made up of uncultivated sand dunes. Looking at it on the map, it is the furthest west point in Israel, being about a mile from the Mediterranean Sea and a mile north of the Gaza Strip.
That situation was a determining factor to the nature of its existence. When I was first there in 1960, there was an incident when marauding Fedayeen crossed over from Gaza and attempted to incinerate the kibbutz’s chicken coops. Although I didn’t witness the incident, I was told that shots were fired, and at least one of the invaders was killed. On another occasion, a column of Israeli armored vehicles was patrolling the frontier within a few miles of Zikim. Normally, such a unit would be led by a tank or other reinforced transport, but the two young officers in charge of the battalion were sufficiently gung-ho to head the column in an unarmored jeep. Unfortunately, they drove over a hidden landmine. Its explosion tore off the legs of one of the officers and left the other on the edge of death. Several kibbutzniks who went to their aid described this young man as more dead than alive, and sadly he did not survive. Many years later, following the evacuation of the Gaza Strip by Israel, the kibbutz itself found itself within the firing lines of qassam and other rockets from Hamas controlled Gaza. In 2006, a qassam purportedly fired by an Islamic Jihad group damaged a mattress factory at Zikim. In 2014, a terrorist group intending to storm the kibbutz was intercepted on the nearby beaches after they had landed by sea, and four Palestinian gunmen were killed.
Early on the morning after my arrival, I was interrupted from my sleep shortly after 4.00 a.m., having to rudely remind myself that I was not here on a vacation. My awakener, a kibbutz elder – a guy judging by his looks at least in his mid-fifties – announced to us that it was more than high time for us to wake up and get to work. Outside the simple quarters which I shared with two others, he had parked with engine running a tractor pulling a trailer to transport us to the cotton fields that were planted adjacent to the kibbutz. It was still nighttime, and the headlights of the tractor spearheaded us through the dark into fields beyond the kibbutz gates. Our early start coincided with the dawn, revealing our first view of a cotton crop that was ripening, its white fluffy bolls not yet ready for plucking. We were each handed hoes, and told that our job was to clear the immediate surrounding area of each bush which would otherwise choke with malicious weeds to the impairment of the crop. In the absence of so many chaverim (kibbutz members, lit. friends) who had been called up, no weeding had been accomplished during the previous month, and our job was to endeavor to save the yield. We were also strictly instructed to only work the first several rows of the field as the remainder had yet to be checked by an army unit to remove and make harmless any anti-personnel or plastic mines that had been left by the enemy. By the following day the whole field had been checked over and made safe. I never saw a single land mine. Far more troubling was that our field was also home to both poisonous snakes and deadly scorpions – lots of them — which we battled and killed with our hoes. We were grateful that the kibbutz had supplied each of us with workingmen’s boots and trousers that at least provided partial protection.
Around 8.00 a.m., we were tractored back to the kibbutz in time for a more than agreeable Israeli breakfast of fresh fruit and vegetables, hard boiled eggs, cereal, pita bread, leben (a deliciously flavorful beverage of fermented milk), and coffee. In the kibbutz dining room, we sat together both with chaverim and volunteers. During my first days in Zikim, there were only two other volunteers who had reached Israel, Steve, a college student from Manchester and Jeff, a South African, whose brother was a kibbutznik. The brother had been called up, and I only met him near to the end of my stay. In the following weeks, we were joined by five or six other volunteers, mainly from England. All but one was Jewish. The non-Jew kept largely to himself as a consequence of which we remained a little wary of his motives for being there. Many years later, when reading a newspaper tribute, I learned that, long before he had achieved fame, the actor Bob Hoskins had lived at Zikim as a volunteer for much of 1967. His obituary in 2014 remarks that before his highly successful career as a thespian, he had gone through a random series of temporary jobs as a merchant seaman in the Norwegian navy, a banana-picker on a kibbutz, a camel-herder in Syria and a porter at Covent Garden market. I still don’t know though rather doubt that he was the same aloof individual who aroused our apprehensions. The circumstances of the war had made us more suspicious of those who were not of our tribe than we probably needed to be.
Following breakfast, we volunteers were once again directed out to the cotton fields, where the oppressiveness of the mid-morning sun and our task of weeding left us drenched in perspiration, and feverishly mopping our brows. Our kova tembels (kibbutz hats) and shirts were sweat stained, and several of my co-laborers, unused to the intense heat, complained of feeling nauseous and on the edge of exhaustion. The single consolation was a nearby patch of water melons, which we were encouraged to pick and slice and enjoy, a salving nectar indeed! I think it was there that I first heard the Israeli definition of a water melon as an eat, a drink, and a wash. Less accessible but also thirst quenching were sabra or prickly pears, the grenade-shaped fruit of cacti growing wild at the perimeter of our field. They had to be picked and peeled with extreme caution because of the sharp prickles that could easily bloody your fingers. Before paring them, we learned to use our boots to roll them in the sand to remove the worst of the prickles. Although refreshing, sabra fruit was rarely our first choice. Come noon and with the sun beating down on us, the main part of our workday was over, and our tractor driver escorted us back to the kibbutz and a hearty lunch. Most of us would use the middle of the afternoon as a time for rest. Already on that first day we had established a routine that we would follow over the coming weeks.
As well as volunteers from abroad, we were joined in many of our activities, though usually with different work duties, by a Nachal group, Israeli youth who had chosen to combine military and civilian service by being deployed to border kibbutzim like ours. Their brigade had been set up in 1948 by David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, and their pioneering spirit was – and still is — held in high regard. During that summer of 1967, I became close with Rachel, a beautiful young woman, whose family had survived fascist atrocities in Romania, and subsequently emigrated to Israel, where they had settled in a housing project in the dormitory city of Rishon-Le-Zion, a little way south of Tel Aviv. We found a common language in my endeavoring to learn Hebrew and she English. For her, enlisting in the Nachal was a natural progression, a rite of passage, though I don’t know whether her future life proved to be on a kibbutz. She talked about visiting me in England. After my return home, we corresponded for a short while but eventually lost contact perhaps because we were unable to perfect that common language.
The pleasant warmth of evenings at Zikim were made that much more pleasurable by regular invitations from kibbutzniks to visit their homes, and, to sit out under the stars, enjoying coffee, home-made cakes, and lively conversation. My new friend, Rachel, was a little hesitant to join me in the yard of one particular English-speaking family – let’s call them Eli and Gitta — with whom I was a regular guest. Rachel was worried that being seen together might transmit the wrong signal (there were other boys who were interested in her!), but with a little persuasion she came too. Although you could sometimes hear similar conversations taking place outside neighboring homes, part of the appeal of sitting out on the family’s comfortable outdoor chairs was to enjoy the silence of the night and the shimmering of the stars. The children were asleep, and, as we drank our coffee and schmoozed, we were at our most relaxed. The evening could not have been more peaceful.
Yet one particular night, as we lounged there, we were startled by the sound of gunfire coming from not far off, a single staccato shot at a time. Our hosts were immediately on high alert, urging us to keep silent and to be prepared to take cover. Crack, Crack, Crack. The gunfire didn’t let up. After a few moments, Eli crept forward through the trees in the direction of the shots in order to reconnoiter, and for some minutes we were left in suspense. Just as suddenly, the gunfire ceased, and shortly after he came back, a huge smile on his face. “Well,” he said, “I found what it was. Our neighbor Rafi was beating a carpet!” You can imagine our total relief. We had all been convinced that what we had heard was the sound of small gunfire. The incident was a stark reminder that the tranquility of this border kibbutz could easily be disrupted, and that, although everyday life had to go on, one had to be constantly aware of the proximity of the frontier. No one that I met at Zikim was inured into thinking that the threat of terrorists was anything less than existential.
Some four weeks into my stay, the chaver in charge of the banana crop, whose name was Moshe, asked me to accompany him out of the kibbutz after dark in order to turn off the sprinkler system, which did not need to run all night. He warned me that there was an element of risk in going outside of the kibbutz during the night as Fedayeen were known to take advantage of the darkness and slip into Israel in order to create havoc. Knowing this and remembering my promises to my professor and to my parents, I hesitated before agreeing. However, I quickly rationalized that the risk was minimal and bowed to the element of adventure. We set off at about nine o’clock on a single tractor, its lights turned off. Leaving the kibbutz gates, we proceeded along the main road for more than a mile before Moshe veered the tractor sharp left and into the plantation of banana trees. The near full moon meant that we had not traveled into entire darkness, though, en route, we had seen no one, just banks of trees beyond the wayside.
We reached a small clearing where Moshe cut the engine. Dismounting, he pulled out his loaded pistol and – to my astonishment — handed it to me. His instruction was to stay by the tractor, not to move, and expect him back from behind where I was standing in about ten minutes, time enough for him to shut down the sprinklers. He then added that, should I see anyone else approaching, I should not hesitate but use my gun to shoot them as they would certainly be intruders. With that, he disappeared into the fields behind me. At school, I had spent a year in the cadets, and knew how to disassemble and clean a World War 1 era Webley-type single-action army rifle, but I had never held – let alone used – a loaded pistol.
Initially, all was quiet. But quite suddenly, silhouetted against the night sky I caught sight of an armed soldier with a host of equipment on his back stalking through the edge of the field in a direction parallel to the main road. I began to raise my gun, but before I could fire it, a second soldier followed behind him, and then another and another, probably about ten or fourteen men marching in line together. So soon after the ending of the Six Day War, the immediate thought that came into my head was that this was a counter-offensive by the Egyptians. I also realized at once that a man with a single pistol would be no match to a platoon of soldiers bristling with arms. I froze as I saw each one of these soldiers following one another, but – to my good fortune – failing to see either the tractor or me. Had I fired the pistol, I have no doubt that I would have been made into dead meat.
The platoon went its way. After a very long few minutes, Moshe reappeared, nonchalantly asking me whether all had been as quiet as he supposed. When I told him what had just happened, he was disbelieving, and I had to assure him that I had not made it up. We waited while he dragged at a cigarette – I think he was quite distraught – and, shortly after, set off back to the kibbutz which we reached without incident. Moshe’s first stop was with the security person at the gate, who was shocked by our story. He maintained that before he had allowed us to set off he had been in touch with the defense units in the area who had assured him that there were no Israeli army maneuvers planned in the vicinity of Zikim that night. A further call that he now made revealed that late on an Israeli infantry unit had been sent out on patrol, but somehow the army had forgotten to inform the kibbutz security of its imminent presence. Hearing this, I could only thank my lucky stars that I had not been felled by so-called friendly fire. Perhaps as a gesture of contrition, Moshe asked me to continue as his assistant working in the banana fields, which I did for the remainder of my stay.
By six weeks after the war was over, the fighting chaverim had returned to their families and loved ones, and it was soon evident that there was less of a need for the overseas volunteers who had done their good share (or so we felt!) in keeping things running. By good fortune, Zikim had not lost any of its menfolk in the war, but the kibbutz’s returning soldiers were often traumatized by their battle encounters. Among these was Sam, the older brother of Jeff, the South African volunteer who had reached Zikim a few days before I had. It was difficult to get Sam to talk about his experience as a tank driver crossing the parched Sinai desert. He did divulge how, traversing a wadi, they had come across a lone outpost where, waving and gesticulating, an Arab man had held up a bottle of Seven-Up. Without pausing to think, one of the Israeli soldiers in the tank jumped out and ran across the sand to take up the offer. Halfway there, he stepped on a booby-trapped landmine, and was blown to smithereens. Sam and his tank comrades were unable to free their minds from the horror of what they had just witnessed. Sam’s wife did all she could to comfort him, and to bring him back to the patterns of everyday life on the kibbutz. She repeated to me a truism that I heard several times during the summer that the young soldiers who had been called up had left their kibbutzim as boys and returned as men. So much of their youthful innocence had been lost in perpetuity through the experience of war.
Many projects that had been planned prior to the call-up had been put on hold. One of these, a full day of hard labor that involved all the volunteers and many others, was to lay the concrete base for the second floor of the kibbutz’s new communal hall. It involved carting by hand large hods of wet cement up a wooden ladder and pouring the contents over the floor where, using long screeding tools or compactors to reach out, they were smoothed into a single substance. The whole job had to be completed in a single day to prevent the concrete from cracking. With the sun beating down on us, this was exhausting work, but it also allowed us to bond with a wide section of the kibbutz community, including returnees from the war. There was general cheer as we celebrated the completion of our efforts at the end of the day. We were left with a strong sense of belonging, an attachment of the heart to a beloved community.
Toward the end of our stay, the kibbutz organized two tiyulim or trips into Sinai to visit the Suez Canal that had seen the limit of the Israeli advance during the war. I was assigned to the second of these tours, but between the two a series of incidents near to the frontier forced the curtailment of our plan. Instead, we made a shorter tour that took us into the edge of the Sinai desert at a point where, so few weeks before, the fighting had been at its most intense, turning the fortunes of war in Israel’s favor. What was extraordinary as we toured the area was to see scattered across the sand literally hundreds of military boots and blue id cards lettered in Arabic with individual photographs that the retreating Egyptian soldiers had hastily discarded. Apparently, in their panic to escape from the Israeli onslaught, these soldiers had found that they could move more quickly through the hot sand without their boots, and they had dropped their id cards in order to meld with the civilian population as a means to escape. There were also a large number of helmets and some uniforms that had been rapidly cast off for the same purpose.
Our day tour then took us across into the Gaza Strip where we stopped for a short hour in war ravaged Gaza City. Despite widespread destruction, the city’s street markets had been reopened, and the vendors were keen to flaunt their wares which they displayed along the road on make-shift wooden trestles. One widely available commodity that drew my attention was a simple set of yellow-coated “Friendship” lead pencils that had been imported from China. In 1967, five years prior to President Richard Nixon’s historic visit there, it was both surprising and (for Westerners) highly unusual to come across any form of Chinese manufactured exports. Fifty years later, it would be difficult, even impossible, to exclude Chinese manufactures from one’s present-day shopping experience! Among locally made Gazan artifacts, I was attracted by their knobby and thickly transparent hand blown glassware, and purchased a small jug. Several years later, I showed the object to Dan Barag, the Israeli authority on ancient Palestinian glass vessels. He enthused about the distinctiveness of my purchase, would have liked to have owned one too, though doubted that traditional ware of this kind was still being crafted any more. It begs the question whether such cultural links with the past can any more be recovered in the Gaza of today. Sadly, the political situation makes that particularly hard to answer.
During my time in Zikim, I had hardly found opportunity to reach out to relatives and friends living in Israel, many of whom had been caught up in the war and its aftermath. I had, however, reserved the final ten days of my stay for such a purpose, and thumbed my way to Jerusalem, where I was generously hosted by my cousins, Stephen and Mille Ro’i. Stephen had grown up in London, and, after graduating from Oxford, had made Aliyah (i.e. emigrated to Israel) following his 1960 marriage to Mille. As a child, Mille had been smuggled out of her native Denmark to Sweden in order to escape Nazi persecution. She later recounted her experience in A Different Story, a book for children which has been published and oft reprinted by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Museum. As an authority on the archeological excavation of ancient synagogues and an expert on the historical geography of the country, Stephen was deputed to lead groups of Israelis on tours of recently captured territory, where such remains were being found. He was a superbly knowledgeable guide.
My visit coincided with a prearranged bus tour, in which Stephen was to escort a dedicated group of army rabbis to Quneitra, a small town close to the crest of the Golan Heights, which had been used as a base by the Syrian army and was captured by Israel on the final day of the war. Although Israelis were allowed to visit the Golan region, Quneitra remained off limits to civilians, but somehow Stephen obtained permission for me to join the tour that he was to lead. Climbing aboard the bus, I found myself sitting straight across from Rabbi Shlomo Goren and his wife, both of whom seemed more than willing to accommodate my unusual participation in a tiyul that was otherwise reserved for orthodox rabbis. Goren was the army’s chief rabbi, and, in Israel, an acclaimed war hero. It was he who had been the first to carry a Torah scroll to Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall in Jerusalem after its capture on 7 June, from where he broadcast a prayer of thanksgiving that was heard across the nation. Since 1948, no Jew had been able to pray at the Temple Wall for the previous nineteen years. David Rubinger’s iconic photograph of Goren, aloft upon the shoulders of one of his men and blowing the shofar (ram’s horn) alongside the Wall, captures an episode that has been described as one of the defining moments of the war (http://www.gadcollection.com/19_david-rubinger/129_david-rubinger-rabbi-shlomo-goren-chief-rabbi-idf-at-the-western-wall-1061967.html). In a small country like Israel, it is really not uncommon to discover oneself rubbing shoulders with religious or political leaders. My awe in being in company with Rabbi Goren was tempered by the modesty with which he brushed aside his role in the war, he and his wife showing more interest in making me feel welcome.
Our journey from Jerusalem took us through the fertile and level agricultural lands around Lake Galilee, and then ascending nearly three thousand feet up a steep and uneven track, newly constructed by the army, to the very crest of the Golan Heights. The spectacular view from on high of the whole of the Galil, the green farmland iridescent in its beauty and the blue gray lake hazily reflecting the heavens, brought at once to mind the strategic significance of the capture of the Golan. The indiscriminate shelling and mortaring from above of Israeli kibbutzim by the Syrian artillery was no longer a daily threat, and the mainly Druze inhabitants, if not embracing the Israeli invaders, did little to oppose them. As we stood on the overlook, Rabbi Goren and his cadre of orthodox rabbis gathered together to utter collective prayers of thanksgiving. The taking of the Heights had been at considerable cost in Israeli lives lost, and the prayers of thanks were interspersed with the plaintive recitation of the mourner’s kaddish.
We drove on, halting for a cursory inspection by military guards from whom our rabbinical bus was beckoned into the section that had been cordoned off to civilian visitors. From there, we wound our way into the small town of Quneitra that was largely undamaged by the war. Descending from the bus, we were allowed to wander within a fairly contained area. We were informed that where we stood had been a marshaling ground for Syrian soldiers who had fled when confronted by the fierceness of the Israeli advance on what turned out to be the sixth and last day of the war shortly before a ceasefire was negotiated. From a Syrian perspective, Quneitra’s strategic position as a defense against putative Israeli aggression came home to me when I was told that, as the crow flies, Damascus was a mere forty miles to the north of here. The scene itself was like a modern-day re-figuration of the excavations at Pompeii. In the chaos of their hasty retreat, on the tables where they had been sitting just moments before, the Syrian soldiers had abandoned cups of turkish coffee with grounds still visible to us, ashtrays brimming with cigarette ends that remained half smoked, plates and other such paraphernalia that reflected their off-duty existence as defenders of the frontier. It was the most extraordinary palimpsest of an event that had taken place only weeks before. Once again, the rabbis congregated in prayer before we re-boarded our bus.
Looking forward in time as fifty years allow us to do, Quneitra was briefly retaken by the Syrians in the 1973 Yom Kippur War but quickly recaptured by Israeli forces. The following year, after a large-scale demolition, it was ceded back to Syria. Ironically, the Syrian government decided in its political wisdom not to rebuild the town but to leave it in its dereliction as an enduring symbol of Israeli aggression. During the present Syrian Civil War, Quneitra fell into the hands of opponents of the government, and remains to this day a desolate no-man’s land. Our visit in 1967 was probably the last time that one could still come away with a sense of what had once been the viable local capital of Syria’s southern province. On the ground but perhaps more so as we passed them in the bus, we did see quite a number of civilian families going about their daily business mainly as farmers. My one recollection here is that the Syrian children that we saw were remarkably good looking, often with fair skin and piercing gray eyes.
Returning to Jerusalem, I was able to make side trips to Hebron to visit the tombs of the patriarchs, which, because there was almost nothing to see was a disappointment, and to Bethlehem, which (from a Jewish perspective) had no spiritual meaning for me. Much of my time was spent strolling dreamily through an undivided Jerusalem as an erstwhile volunteer now relegated to a mere tourist. My thought processes took me back to my last visit to Israel four years earlier when one could only peer across at the old city, its Al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock gleaming enticingly in the sunlight. It was remarkable that within two months of the 1967 war Jerusalem no longer felt like a divided city, and, during those early days following reunification, there was little restriction on visiting the Temple Mount, even on entering the Dome itself to witness the site where it is believed that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice to God. On that site, the biblical Temples were built, of which the Western Wall of the Second Temple is now the only visible remnant. So much of my time was spent absorbing the city’s rich though also violent history. I conversed with one elderly Jewish resident, the ultra-religious father of a cousin by marriage, who had spent his whole life in Jerusalem. He declared to me with absolute conviction that he had no inclination to travel beyond the now united city as here he knew that he was at the very center of the earth. I thought of Delphi in Greece which is known as the omphalos, the navel of the world. In the same spirit, the old man accounted Jerusalem as the very heart of the world. Who, I felt, would wish to argue otherwise?
Nevertheless, as a tourist, I followed the buzz. So many young people that I encountered reiterated to me that the touristic thing to do in the newly undivided city was to rise up early to witness the sunrise from Mount Scopus, where the first campus of the Hebrew University had been established in 1925. Since 1948, though belonging to Israel in name, Mount Scopus had existed as a separate enclave that was guarded by troops from the United Nations. As a consequence, it had remained inaccessible until reunited with the rest of Israel following the Six Day War. Because it was deemed dangerous to walk on one’s own at night through parts of Jerusalem that had only recently been captured, I took a taxi to Mount Scopus in the company of a lovely young Israeli student, who, though she spoke very little English and was conspicuous in her silence, made it apparent that she too wished to see the sunrise. Looking east, we witnessed the gorgeousness of the dawn of light over the Moab Mountains, our eyes keening toward the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea that was four thousand feet below and not quite visible to us. Whether it was physical attraction or the impressiveness of what we had just beheld, my companion turned to me and we kissed as if we had always been lovers. It was an extraordinary moment of sensory impulsiveness, what the French might call un coup de foudre. Perhaps it was also her way of saying goodbye because immediately after, she indicated that, without any further delay, she needed to cab it back to the city. I never knew her name though she scribbled something for me in Hebrew script on a scrap of paper that I was unable to decipher.
I was a little discombobulated by the strange puerility of this incident. Rather than accompanying her in the cab, since it was now quite light, I decided that the right thing at that moment was to walk back on my own. The immediate dividend of this was yet another spectacular panorama, this time facing west and looking down at the Old City and New Jerusalem beyond. Descending a little warily because unsure of my route, I found myself in the grounds of the Jordanian-built Intercontinental (since renamed the Seven Arches) Hotel, where I was apprehended by a stern looking Arab security guard carrying in his hand a pistol. Fortunately, his English was good, and, after I had explained away my presence, he smiled and most courteously directed me down through the Mount of Olives. By then it must have been almost 5 o’clock in the morning.
Approaching the lower levels, I was most suddenly arrested by the incessant rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire, not just a single shot but a consistent machine-gun and artillery stream being fired in opposite directions across the length of the valley. After my experiences at Zikim, my immediate reaction was that war must have been restarted, and that I was once again placed at its verge. I didn’t know whether to take cover or to retreat back to the hotel which it occurred to me might now have reverted into enemy hands. As the firing was not in my direction, I gingerly took a parallel path that I hoped would lead me away from the battle below. It took me to an area that had been roped off, and to another guard – this time, to my relief, an Israeli police officer — who was standing nearby. When I accosted him to ask what the hell was going on, he told me that a film crew was taking advantage of the early hour of the morning when nobody was about to make some offshoots for a documentary about the Six Day War. I had stumbled into the edge of the film making, and the officer pointed me along a path that avoided confrontation. Half an hour later, I reached the Roi’s apartment, and took to my bed. It was much later in the day before I was able to share my unusual adventure with them. A few days after, I returned to England.
Fifty years later and with no peace in the offing, it is not so easy for us to recapture the optimism among Israelis, extending globally among Jews throughout the diaspora, which followed the Six Day War. At best, we can re-invoke that fantastic mood of sheer exhilaration by clicking into a technology that was not even dreamed of in 1967, the YouTube of Ofra Haza’s plaintive singing of Yerushalayim Shel Zahav — Jerusalem of Gold (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JH8gtdDA5x0), a song that is eternally linked to the Six Day War and has become a kind of alternative Israeli National Anthem. The sense of relief at victory accomplished with such swiftness and against the odds was coupled with an ardent belief that peace could now be negotiated through a process of land return. Israeli leaders made it clear that Jerusalem would remain undivided and, because of its strategic importance the Golan could not be returned, but everything else could be parlayed for peace. Today, instead of speaking with one voice, the world Jewish community is fractured between those who still hope for a two-state solution and others who argue for partial or complete annexation of the West Bank, or, as it is also called, Judaea and Samaria. It is a sorry stalemate that is a far cry from the optimism of fifty years ago.
I left Israel with a strong conviction that following completion of my doctorate I would make Aliyah. In Jerusalem, I had met with Professor Mendilow, the genial head of the English Department at the Hebrew University, who, while warning me of the paucity of new academic jobs in our field, thought that I would have every chance of an academic post at the soon to be established University of the Negev in Beer-Sheva. Instead, in 1968, I was appointed Assistant Professeur at the University of Geneva, and two years later moved on to what became a tenured position at my alma mater in England. For the first year or two following the Six Day War, the Jewish Agency kept in touch with its Mitnadvim in the belief that at least some of us would emigrate to Israel, but when I put forward my name in 1973 at the time of the Yom Kippur War, it was rudely made clear that volunteers were no longer to be made welcome. The Agency’s maladroit response diluted my aspiration to move to Israel. When at Zikim in 1967, I had met up twice with a British cousin of mine, David Jerichower, who had volunteered at Sa’ad, a nearby orthodox kibbutz. He went on to qualify as a medical practitioner, and, newly married, moved to Israel, becoming the doctor serving a large practice on the Golan, where he still lives and works today. In his quiet and unassuming way, David has shown a tenacity and pioneering disposition that, far better than is the case with his cousin, most laudably preserves that now so elusive and desirable spirit of 1967.
© Frank Felsenstein