Jerusalem Day journal, June ‘67: Witness to history
As I write these words, jet fighters are battling above us, bombs are exploding around us, and the nation of Israel is at war.
I arrived in Israel late last night as part of a group of American volunteers. Our objective: to show solidarity with Israel and to offer whatever help we were capable of, at this terribly frightening time. We left our jobs, schools, families and friends, and our mothers crying at the airport. Everyone understood, war was imminent.
Gamal Abdel Nasser, ruler of Egypt had just closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. He ordered the United Nations peacekeeping force to leave the Sinai immediately. He replaced them with 10 highly mechanized Egyptian military divisions, approximately 120,000 men, with tanks, trucks, artillery, and all stationed adjacent to Israel’s southern border. His 500 plane Soviet supplied air force was there to support his army. He proudly proclaimed for all to hear that his soldiers were ready to throw every last Jew into the sea.
Egypt then formed a military alliance with Syria, while Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon all expressed their readiness to support his attack on Israel. They too publicly proclaimed their intention to destroy Israel and kill every Jew there. Some 20 plus years after the Holocaust, just 19 years in the life of Israel, the world again stood quietly by as Jews were threatened, and watched.
Our flight from New York went without incident, however we shared fully half the cabin with large boxes containing gas masks and marked Ft. Bennings Georgia. We later learned that the Egyptians has stored massive quantities of poison gas in the Sinai ready for use against Israel.
As we approached Israeli airspace and could almost make out the Tel Aviv shoreline in the distance, somebody called out “look at the wings.” We could barely believe our eyes, two Mirage fighter jets, one on each wing tip, were there to escort us in. Our spirits now soared and as the plane touched down, a spontaneous chorus of Hevenu Shalom Aleichem broke out, emotions were high, we felt as if we had finally come home.
To our amazement, Lod airport was effectively closed. It was dark, almost nobody there, and not a single plane on the tarmac. We were greeted by a representative of the Jewish Agency, then by a representative of Americans and Canadians for a Safe Israel, given some useful gifts, and thanked for our dedication to Israel. We were then dispatched immediately to our assigned destinations. Our group of 8 volunteers arrived at Kibbutz Lavi at 11:30 pm Israel time.
We were met by a member of the kibbutz assigned to us, given rooms and bedding. He apologized for no official welcome, as he said the situation did not allow it. We were told that morning prayers begin at 5:30 am and breakfast at 6:00, so that in order to get a good start we should be there by on time.
At 7:00 am our orientation began, which consisted of a thank you on the part of the state Israel and of the Kibbutz, a statement of what is expected of us, and a short tour of the Kibbutz.
Kibbutz Lavi is an Orthodox farming settlement, founded by a group from England in 1949. Located in the in the hills of the southern Galilee at an elevation of 600 feet above sea level, the views are magnificent. The holy city of Safed and Mt. Meron are to the north, Lake Kinneret and the mountains of Syria to the east, and Mt. Tabor to the south.
While the kibbutz is primarily agricultural, it contains several thousand chickens, about 200 cows, a shop that produces furniture for synagogues, and a guest house, this being its largest source of income. The dining hall is the fulcrum of the community and is surrounded by beautiful lawns, gardens, living quarters, and one of the most beautiful synagogues in Israel.
As our rather hurried tour concluded we were again reminded to be that time was short and there is much work to be done. Our first job was to dig ditches to be used as shrapnel shelters around the dining hall, schools, and the various buildings that children occupied.
Just shortly after we began, a Kibbutz member came running over to our instructor and informed him that “the Egyptians had started, they invaded in the Negev.” Within a few minutes the Kibbutz was in an uproar. We were at war and I was in disbelief. Here I was, not even a day in Israel and all hell was breaking loose. We were instructed to start digging immediately. ”Dig fast and deep, you might be needing these ditches yourself.”
Immediately after lunch an emergency meeting was called during which we were instructed by the Military Commander of the Kibbutz of the necessary precautions. Dinner was to be served before dark and there was to be a total blackout. No one, for any reason was to leave the residential area, and excessive walking about was prohibited. An army truck had brought a supply of rifles and sub-machine guns, and the night patrol was to be tripled. The telephones were to be attended at all times.
At the conclusion of the instructions, the military commander informed us that he had received word from the central Military Command that Israel was in the process of repelling the Egyptian attack, and that over 130 planes at the Cairo airport had been completely destroyed. That news certainly brought a momentary sigh of relief, but we were now at war.
Things started happening at a fantastic pace. Fighter jets and bombers were flying directly above us towards Syria, and bombs were heard exploding on every side. The number of downed Egyptian planes had risen to 149, but had not yet been officially confirmed. Every radio on the Kibbutz was at full volume and at every new broadcast work stopped as groups gathered to listen.
In the interim, Radio Cairo broadcasted that the Egyptian army had split Israeli forces in the Negev into two, thereby dividing them completely. They reported that Tel Aviv and Natanya were heavily bombed.
As the day progressed several other Kibbutz members joined the ditch digging crew. By now it was mutually agreed that there would be no room for any of us because the woman and children would be the first ones in.
All sorts of rumors were floating around, most positive but some negative. The radio reported progress in Syria but said nothing about the war in the Negev against Egypt. That led to a fear that the Radio Cairo’s boasts might be true.
At about 2:20 in the afternoon we were all startled by a tremendous noise in the sky. Above us, slightly to the North, there were 3 planes which seemed to be in an air battle. They were flying, turning and diving in all sorts of ways. Then suddenly we saw a parachute open carrying a man earthward, while his plane burst into a ball of fire, and crashed into a mountain. A helicopter then approached and picked up the man. The plane continued to smoke for 4 hours afterward.
At first we heard the downed plane was an Israeli Mirage. That was followed up by a report that the downed plane was a Russian Illusion of the Syrian air force. As night approached, there was an official confirmation of 130 Egyptian and 12 Syrian jets destroyed. This brought a certain feeling of relief to us.
By now It was completely dark, except for the fires in the distance. All of us expected to be hit at any minute as we were only 5 miles from the Syrian border. Nevertheless, many people had gathered in the dining hall to hear the news together. At about 10:30 pm, due
to extreme fatigue from 10 hours of work, I went to bed. I thought of my mother and how she must be worrying, if only some way I could get a message to her.
Tuesday, June 6th. We awoke this morning after a night of very little sleep. Bombs continued to be exploding around us, and the steady drone of air raid sirens from Tiberias were clearly audible. The war was now in full swing. At about 3:00 am a huge convoy of tanks and trucks passed on the road below, and during the two and a half hours it took to pass, no one got any sleep. Between the rumble of the tanks, and the deadly explosions in the distance, a sort-of extra closeness began developing between our group and the Kibbutz members.
During the news broadcast at breakfast we learned that Tiberias, the Hula valley, and the Kibbutzim on the Syrian border were being heavily shelled. Those were the massive fires that we had seen in the distance. We also were informed that Israel had now taken the battle to Jordan.
The morning was again spent digging ditches, and the afternoon in the vineyards pruning grape vines.The work hours were from 7:00 am to noon, and then from 12:30 until 4:30pm. A total of 9 hours. However with breaks every hour for news, and with more brakes every time jets fly or fight overhead, not too much gets accomplished. The news for the most part, was very positive.
As evening approached the war was reported as being one sided. Israel had downed no less that 400 Arab planes, a truly unbelievable amount… Not only that, but Israel had lost only 16 planes and 7 pilots upon doing so. Israel was bombing Syria but still no word from the Negev. All sorts of theories were put forth explaining why no news. The prevailing opinion was that we did not want the world to know how far we had advanced, for fear it would stop us in mid-battle.
That evening there was a gathering of all the volunteers workers, the regular work-study groups, and some of the Kibbutz members. It turned out to be a beautiful little party during which Hebrew songs were sung and Israeli dancing took place. All by the light of 2 little candles.
As soon as darkness came, the roads and fields were again filled with troop and artillery movements. It soon became apparent that this night time movement was a main tactic of the Israeli army. Imagine the surprise of an Arab attack force when it expects a position thought to have a certain number of soldiers, and suddenly finds itself attacked by ten times that many. Aside from the night movements, troops moved by day through the fields and not by roads, so that their positions and concentrations were kept secret. It’s plain to see that in order to do this, an excellent knowledge of the terrain is required. And I think no one knows their country better than Israelis.
And so, off to sleep. The bombing continues and the fires burn across the country side. Our Kibbutz is still blacked out, and again we prayed we would not be hit.
Wednesday June 7, 1967. Jerusalem is Ours. Israel is ecstatic.
Today was certainly the most eventful day of the war. Certainly the most interesting day in my life, and certainly a day which will be remembered forever in Jewish history. People are hugging each other, both dancing and crying in the streets.
The day started once again by the sounds of the air raid sirens in Tiberias, and by exploding shells on the Syrian border. We turned on the news broadcast the moment we awoke and heard that Israel had completely repelled the Egyptian attack, and that Israel had captured Gaza. Each broadcast brought something new and more interesting than the previous one.
At 10:00 am the broadcast reported that Israel had entered deeply into the Sinai. This brought great relief to the many border settlements in the area, especially Nachal Oz, which had been under attack for 72 hours and had been greatly damaged. The radio reported that the children of that Kibbutz had come up from the shelters for the first time in four days to breath fresh air. There was also to be a wedding in which five couples were to be married.
The big news however was on the Jordanian front. Jenin, the Arab stronghold from which settlements in the Bet Shean valley were being bombed was captured. Kalkilia, the site from which Tel Aviv and Netanya were shelled, along with Tulkarem, were near surrender.
In early morning, Jerusalem was still being heavily shelled. It was reported that the Jordanians had thrown the UN out of their strategic positions between the old and new city. The UN asked then Jordanians to leave, but they did not. Israeli soldiers then attacked and took those positions. Secretary General of the UN, U-Thant then asked the Israelis to return the positions to the UN. Israel’s reply we were told, was not fit to print.
Fighting continued on the road to Mt. Scopus, sites of the old Hebrew University and Hadassah Medical Center. Both were lost in the War of Independence in 1948 and were soon to be liberated. Fighting too continued in the Hula Valley and the upper Galilee. Syria was still bombing the border settlements and Israel could make no headway there, as Syria still controlled the surrounding mountains.
The 2:00 pm news was astounding. Israel was now deep into the Sinai, approaching the Suez Canal, and El Arish was taken. The Egyptian air force was annihilated, and its army was in retreat… The Straits of Tehran were cleared and Sharem El Shekh was about to surrender!
On the Jordanian front, following the surrender of Kilkilya, battles for Jericho, Bethlehem, Shechem, and Ramallah would cause them all to surrender later that day… The road to Mt. Scopis was now opened and Latrun too was taken by Israel. This news was particularly good for Israel’s moral as these places were of tremendous emotional significance since 1948.
On the Syrian front more and more settlements were being shelled and burning. There were air battles between Israeli and Syrian and Iraqi planes, however Israel had shown significant air superiority against both countries. Lebanon had made her entry into the war by sending over one plane which was immediately shot down. There were no further incidents with Lebanon.
Work ended at about 4:00 and dinner again was early so that there would be no difficulty in having a full black-out. The early evening news confirmed that in excess of 500 Arab planes had been destroyed and Egypt was begging for a ceasefire. But the same dreary news was reported from the Syrian front, much burning and destruction.
At 8:00 that evening the report mesmerized all of Israel. Everybody sensed that it was imminent but no one had really expected or believed it could happen. Everyone in every corner of the kibbutz, indeed in all of Israel was glued to the radio. The announcer, in a clear and steady voice said that after two days of intense fighting, the battle for Jerusalem is now over. “Ha’ir Ha-atika Shelanu, the Old City is ours!”
From early morning, something inside of me said watch the children today. Their eyes and their faces were aglow. It appeared as if they sensed they were experienced something remarkable, something that comes only once in thousands of years. A mystical aire had fallen over everyone.
The adults tried to hold their tears, but to no avail. I could never describe the emotion in that room that night, but it was a something I know, I will never ever feel or see again. For the first time in 2,000 years, a Jewish army had conquered Jerusalem. The Western Wall, the Temple Mount, the City of King David, the holiest places in all of Judaism are now returned to the Jewish people.
The radio then switched to a recording of the proceedings at the Western Wall. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Chief Rabbi of all Israeli forces, with machine gun in hand, and canon fire in the background, led the Mincha services. He then recited Kaddish, his voice trembling with overwhelming emotion, picked up his Shofar and had a soldier blow several long- lasting, piercing “Tekias.” He then recited the twice annual Jewish prayer of 2000 years, but with one word changed. “LeShana HaZot B’Yerushalayim. ”THIS year in Yerushalayim.”
Soldiers in their late teens and in their twenty’s, many who lived all their lives in the shadow of the Old City but were never allowed to enter, older officers, and an entire army contingent, stood as tears flowed. Religious and nonreligious alike participated. The significance of this liberation of Jerusalem is beyond belief. The heart has returned to the body. Israel is now a whole country.
The news was coming fast and furious. Essentially Israel was now in full control of all of the West Bank of the Jordan River. Numerous historical sites, really Jewish biblical sites, were now liberated. Bethlehem with the resting place of Rachel, wife of Jacob; Hebron, the resting place of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Shechem, Jericho, and an untold number of others were now all in Israel’s hands. What an outstanding victory.
In another context, another amazing victory took place on this day. The Etzion Gever block, home of both religious and non-religious settlements, lost virtually the day before the war ended in 1948 with horrific casualties, was now also in Israeli hands. The survivors of these settlements had extra reason to celebrate, and perhaps even to return to their original settlements some day…
As I get ready to sleep, I find myself, as tired as I am, unable to sleep. The events of the day, what an amazing day, go round and round in my head. I feel as if this was a day directly out of the T’nach. A day today transposed from 2000 years ago. A day which will go down forever in Jewish history.
Thursday, June 8th. Once again I awoke to the sounds of rumbling tanks and bombing in the north. The midday report put a few issues to rest. Egypt had accepted a cease fire and Egyptian planes and 600 Egyptian tanks were captured or destroyed. Countless numbers of trucks, Jeeps, artillery, and numerous other military items were taken by Israel.
Essentially, in both the West Bank and the Sinai, just the mopping up remained. Interestingly, much of the booty, the planes, the tanks, the Jeeps, etc. were American made. My hard-earned taxes, at last, had gone for a worthy cause, admittedly in a rather round about way. The Israeli government announced that they were extending civilian services to the captured cities in Jordan. This we saw as an indication that Israel had planned to keep these captured cities. We all hoped so.
And now the focus was on Syria. The terrain in the Hula Valley is not to Israel’s advantage. From the Kinneret north to Kibbutz Dan, Israel is deep in a valley. The heights occupied by the Syrians are extremely steep and rocky. They further protected their positions with barbed wire and mines. Their artillery is so deeply entrenched underground that an air attack does no good at all. From these high positions, the Syrians damaged Tiberias and and had almost completely destroyed several border settlements. Something had to be done to stop the shelling.
Much of the day passed without further significant news. Israel will, however, face a new future and certainly many new problems. I finally got to bed at about 11:00 pm.
Friday, June 9, 1967. The shelling continued as did the blackout, however, now Israel’s full concentration was against Syria. All day and all night convoys were passing on the road below us, as the road was closed to all but military traffic.
At about 3:00 pm it was announced that Israel captured Kunitra, a city about 40 kilometers into Syria. Several other smaller cities were overtaken, but still the Syrian gun positions on the heights, even though surrounded, were impregnable. The Syrians, realizing their eventual defeat, concentrated on the particular settlements closest to them. They did not leave a single building standing.
Syria, then, to everyone’s surprise, announced that it had accepted a UN Security Council’s ceasefire, which they said Israel would go along with.
The Kibbutz’s Sabbath preparations were also affected. Kibbutz members were to have dinner at home instead of the dining hall. The various working groups and volunteers would eat in the dining hall. Sabbath prayers were also on a divided basis. Nevertheless, the prayers were wonderful and spirited. Somehow it added a little bit to the service, as many of those partaking in the service carried rifles and dressed combat ready.
As night fell we again saw fires across the entire countryside. One particular fire, at Kibbutz Almagor engulfed about 11 fields and the flames were said to be 30 feet high.
Many of these fields were just about ready to be harvested. What a shame.
Once again I went to sleep to the sounds of bombs and shells, but the feeling was that it would soon be over. As soon as those Syrian gun positions would be taken, Israel would respect the cease fire now in place. It was a matter of common knowledge in the Kibbutz that Israel had disregarded the ceasefire in order to knock out those positions.
As elated as I was, with the tension of the war easing, it was sad night for me. Being so far from the people I love, I wondered what Elayne, my wife to be was thinking at that time, and if my parents were still worried about me.
Shabbat, June 10, 1967. Never does a dull day go by in Israel, but this day was more than just interesting. The Shul davening was quite beautiful and Lunch was the best I have ever had on a kibbutz as it included roast beef and chulent. The former is rarely seen in this country.
Jets continued overhead and after lunch I climbed the water tower. The tower is about 100 ft. high, and is the central look-out point for low flying planes in this area. The two soldiers stationed up there had binoculars, and were connected by phone to the central military command. They had exact information about every plane in the area.
I borrowed a set of their very powerful binoculars and was able to see the fighting in Syria. While the tanks and planes were barely visible, it was interesting to see a group of planes circle an area and then watch a pillar of black smoke rising from it. From the tower, it was plain to see that the Syrian gun positions were no longer firing, and that parts of Syria were in flames.
At last, some relative peace and quiet, After lunch almost everybody retired for a much needed Shabbat afternoon nap.
The roads were still filled with convoys, but by this time they were flying captured Jordanian and Egyptian flags. Every sort of vehicle, hundreds of them just captured, were passing by, filled with troops. It was an amazing sight to behold, the Israeli Army in all its glory. Victorious in Jordan, victorious in the Sinai, victorious in Jerusalem, they were on their way to capture the Syrian Heights. It made me feel so proud. That evening our small group again celebrated, singing to commemorate the end of the war.
Sunday, June 11, 1967. Last night, for the first time since I came to Israel, sleep was peaceful and quiet. It was a fantastic victory. Within three hours almost the entire combined Arab Air Forces were demolished, and within days their armies utterly defeated.
Israel now controlled all of the Sinai, the entire West Bank, and was fifty miles deep into Syria, truly a miracle in our time. We wondered, with Israel now the recognized military power in the Middle East, how would all these new territories be integrated into Israel?
As I laid down to sleep that night, a new passion had overcome me. It was time to leave the Kibbutz and join my cousins, who had also volunteered, on a new adventure. There was a whole new Israel now, over 3 times its original size, and we wanted to get out there and see it all.