120 years ago, the First Zionist Conference under the leadership of Theodor Herzl was held in Basel, Switzerland. Before his untimely death, Herzl predicted that the modern State of Israel would emerge within 50 years. Herzl was wrong – it took 51 years until the State of Israel was proclaimed by David Ben-Gurion, with a lot of help from Chaim Weizmann, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and other outstanding Zionist leaders.
100 years ago, the Balfour Declaration advocating a Jewish home in Palestine was promulgated, leading to the British Mandate for Palestine. The initial purpose of the Mandate, according to the Balfour Declaration which was incorporated into it, was to establish a Jewish Home in Palestine, with dense settlement of Jews throughout the territory, which had already been reduced to all the land west of the Jordan River up to the Mediterranean Sea. Unfortunately, the British quickly ditched their commitment even to this truncated version of the Balfour Declaration. Eventually, a state for the Jews and one for the Arabs was proposed by the League of Nations, which the Jews (not the Arabs) accepted, two years after the end of WWII. Following Israel’s victorious War of Independence against five Arab armies in 1948-9, the State of Israel emerged and the local Arabs (not yet known as Palestinians) fell under the rule of Jordan in Judea and Samaria, or Egypt in the Gaza Strip.
50 years ago, that situation was overturned during the Six Day War, during which the Jordanians and the Egyptians were forced out of the Mandate parameter, “from the river to the sea.” Jerusalem’s division of 19 years was erased and Israel gained control over its heartland in Judea and Samaria for the first time in 2,000 years.
In that year, 1967, I made my first visit to Israel, just two months after the war. Staying only a week, an add-on to my college graduation trip, I visited Jerusalem, staying on Kibbutz Ramat Rahel, working in the orange groves and roaming the Old City (including the Western Wall) and the Israel Museum, founded only two years previously. I’d like to say that, right then, I was smitten by Israel and determined to live my life there, but I wasn’t. That didn’t happen until 1982, when my wife, Michal, and I toured Israel.
Between 1967 and now, 50 years later, the country has been radically transformed. The same could be said about some other places and institutions over the half-century period, but I believe that Israel’s ascension from a neglected backwater is absolutely one of the most dramatic and far-reaching political events of both the 20th and 21st centuries.
Before the Six Day War, Israel’s borders (described by the highly-polished diplomat, Abba Eban, as “Auschwitz borders”) made the poor and sparsely populated country vulnerable to an Arab onslaught from its many populous neighbors, whose armies greatly outnumbered Israel’s. But in a devastating preemptive strike Israel wiped out the Egyptian Air Force and defeated the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, as well as additional forces sent from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Algeria, and elsewhere. Ironically, Jordan’s King Hussein entered the war – and lost eastern Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria – after rejecting overtures from Israel to keep his sovereignty intact, if he would decline to join the Arab coalition about to invade Israel.
There’s no realistic way, today, to understand the euphoria which gripped Israelis when their great victory allowed them to step foot into the Old City, pray at the Western Wall – no longer the Wailing Wall – and ascend to the Temple Mount, which is Judaism’s most holy site. (It’s commonplace to hear the Western Wall, a remnant of the retaining wall of the Temple Mount, misidentified as our most holy site.) This, in addition to regaining access to the Jewish heartland in the mountains of Judea and Samaria, as well as the Jordan Valley, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights.
Not only that: Jewish shoppers streamed into the Arab cities of Judea and Samaria, greatly enhancing the Arab economies and opening up job opportunities in Israel which greatly benefitted the Arabs, who were yet to identify as “Palestinians.” In addition to a growing economy, the Arabs were soon able to build colleges and to massively improve their health care, neither of which had been possible under neglectful Jordanian and Egyptian rule.
Another overlooked result of the war was that cities such as Kfar Sava (15 minutes from my town of Alfe Menashe) flourished. No longer a “border town,” Kfar Sava and others adjacent to the1949 Armistice Line (Green Line) experienced tremendous construction and growth in population. What were small towns soon became flourishing cities.
It soon became obvious that the defeated Arab nations were not interested in trading “land for peace,” as Israeli leaders had expected. Israel was stuck with controlling the Arabs, who soon enough discovered that they were “Palestinians” and demanded a state of their own and a capital in Israel’s capital, Jerusalem. Today, the vast majority of Israelis, including the left wing, recognize that the Palestinian Arabs prefer to try to destroy Israel more than to build a State of Palestine. Hence the impasse in peacemaking, though the Western nations never seem to tire of trying to get the Israelis to give the Palestinian Arabs a state which they don’t want.
After the Six Day War, the Israelis’ ecstasy over the expanded horizons which the miraculous, swift victory had provided pervaded Diaspora Jewry, resulting in increased aliyah (immigration) from many countries including English speaking ones. These new immigrants were not the oppressed Mizrahi Jews of the 1950s, forced out of Arab states where they had lived for centuries; they were a new phenomenon: Jews who chose to live in Israel.
Perhaps the greatest impact of all was on “Russian” Jews from all over the Soviet Union. The Six Day War victory sparked an upsurge in interest and pride about Judaism that had mostly been lacking in the two generations which had grown up under atheistic Communist rule. Their desire to leave the USSR and make aliyah to Israel made martyrs of many Jews, such as “refuseniks” Natan Sharansky and the current Speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein.
American and British Jews, and others, rose to the occasion, aiding the Russian Jews to learn about their almost-forgotten faith, and persuading governments to support the right to emigrate from the Soviet Union. The dam was finally broken in 1975. The Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Reform Act was signed by President Ford, precipitating a mass exodus of Jews to Israel and the United States. By the early 1990s, when our family made aliyah to Israel, a million Russians came within several years to join hundreds of thousand who had arrived in previous decades, making Russian ancestry the single most common ancestry of Israelis.
That Russian “revolution” became the backbone of Israel as the Start-Up Nation, which has catapulted Israel into a miniature global powerhouse, economically, militarily, medically, agriculturally, and now even politically. All of the above is not likely to have happened without the stupendous victory of the Six Day War, 50 years ago.
While Israel’s future prospects are unknown, I’m betting that this nation will continue to prosper and grow even more influential among Western and Asian countries, due to Israel’s burgeoning population (highest fertility by far in the Western world), its military prowess, its outstanding brainpower, and the Jews’ status as the only ancient people to return triumphantly to its homeland, speaking its original language.