My friend Evelyn Gordon wrote a great piece about Israel’s different reactions to her victories in the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars (subscription required).
“The end result of both wars was identical – and 1973 was arguably a far more miraculous victory …
“In 1973, the enemy enjoyed the benefit of complete surprise, while Israel had a dysfunctional military leadership, a lousy battle plan … and a poorly trained and maintained army. … In this war, Israel faced a real threat of destruction. … Yet despite this dismal start, Israel proceeded to win a stunning victory. …
“In Israel’s collective memory, however, this victory is recalled as an unmitigated disaster. And that distorted memory has shaped Israeli policy ever since. … First, it became the emotional cornerstone of the land-for-peace paradigm … In reality, however, 1973 proved the vital importance of territory … Second, 1973 was a formative experience for most recent Israeli leaders.”
Gordon argues that Israel’s “traumatic reaction” led to an “existential terror.”
“Yet this fear has several pernicious consequences: it undermines Israel’s morale, creates pressure for dangerous territorial concessions, and sabotages the very two-state solution these leaders claim to want. After all, if Israel itself says the Palestinians can destroy it just by refusing to sign an agreement, why should they save it by signing? And indeed, they haven’t: after rejecting three Israeli offers of statehood (in 2000, 2001 and 2008), they now refuse to negotiate at all. “
Israelis reacted to the 1967 war with a false Messianism, a belief that they had achieved a new normal where they could stop being afraid about people trying to kill them. This set them up for a traumatic let down in 1973 when they discovered that history had not ended, and Jews still had to struggle to defend themselves from powerful armies sworn to destroy them.
Gordon points out that Israel will achieve neither peace nor security until it learns to embrace its 1973 victory as it does its 1967 victory.
Similarly, the Western world will achieve neither peace nor security until it learns to embrace Israel’s 1967 victory as it does its victory in World War II.
Consider the tale of those two wars.
Both wars involved armies that committed themselves to the eradication of the Jews. In both wars, those armies were thankfully defeated. Both wars were followed by a redrawing of borders to provide the attacked nations greater strategic depth. Both wars caused large refugee problems, though the world’s response to those refugee problems were quite different.
As Alan Dershowitz writes in Chutzpah,
“Approximately 15 million ethnic Germans were forcibly expelled from their homes … where their families had lived for centuries. Two million died during this forced expulsion … The United States, Great Britain, and the international community in general approved these expulsions, as necessary to secure a more lasting peace. The presence of “disloyal minorities” or so-called fifth-columns, helped to destabilize Europe on the eve of World War II.
“The ethnic German populations … also included significant numbers of simple farmers, factory workers, and apolitical people who just happened to speak German and live in German enclaves. But since ‘their people’ had started the war and then lost, it was deemed appropriate for the entire ethnic German communities to bear the burden of relocation in order to reduce the likelihood of future wars.”
The Western world is thankful that it defeated Germany in World War II but often seems to regret Israel’s victory in 1967. Few want to return Europe to 1938 but some otherwise moral and intelligent people want to return the Middle East to 1966.
There are many differences between World War II and the Six Day War. Many nations had many of their people killed during World War II, and many nations participated in defeating the Germans and their allies. In 1967, Israel largely stood alone. Jews were targeted for annihilation in both wars, but in 1967 Jews defended themselves. The victors refused to end World War II until the Germans and their allies agreed to unconditional surrender. In 1967 Israel stopped fighting without demanding surrender, and that war never really ended.
In World War II, two thirds of Europe’s Jews were killed. In 1967, Arab nations tried to finish the job. In 1973, they tried again.
Jews live in a world where many people want us dead, and it has always been so. It is strangely comforting to believe that this is a passing anomaly, blowback for something that we did wrong and can easily correct. The evidence indicates otherwise. Many people have always wanted us dead and there is no indication that this is changing.
To move forward towards peace and security we need to stop being ashamed of our defensive victories.