I was on my first trip to Israel in the summer of 1964 with the beloved Rabbi Eugene Weiner, ז”ל, when, towards the end of our stay, Gene arranged for David Ben Gurion to come to speak with our group of 50+ teenagers. He spoke for about 45 minutes, emphasizing over and over how young Jews must come to Eretz Yisrael and live the Zionist dream. Then, drawing to his close, he asked the following question: “Tell me,” he said, “if there were a war here and we needed your help, who of you would come to help us?” I was sitting in the back row. I raised my hand assuming that everyone would do so as well, after all this was Ben Gurion sitting in front of us!
But this group (mostly from Hamilton, Ontario) had promised their parents that if there were any trouble in Israel they would come right home. They were good kids. Very obedient. They kept their hands down. BG was furious, he slammed his hand down on the table, stood up and walked out. You can see in the picture below that even after Gene succeeded in getting him to come back for an historic photo, he was disappointed, unhappy with us. But on Sunday night, June 4, 1967, I kept my promise to him.
Sunday evening, June 4, 1967, was one of those lovely late spring nights in New York, as we boarded the El Al flight bound for Tel Aviv, with a refueling stop in Paris. We were responding to a crisis, perceived by many around the world as an impending second Holocaust.
That spring, as tensions grew along the Egyptian border, all young and middle-aged Israeli men were called for reserve duty. The country was still heavily agricultural 50 years ago, and volunteers were needed to pick the spring crops on the kibbutzim and moshavim around the country. An international call went out, requesting help. Funders appeared with loans or outright gifts of tickets and several of my friends and I signed up. We were assigned to what would become a unique flight.
The departure area was filled with young people (I was 21 at the time), all excited and adventuresome. We had brought Monopoly sets and footballs and baseball bats, and certainly had no expectation that our stay in Israel would be anything but fun. On the other hand, many of us (myself included) had been civil rights workers in 1964/5/6 and we knew something about violence. We were young, but not entirely naïve. Yet flying across the Atlantic that night was one big party. There were no tourists going to Israel at that point. The plane was filled wall to wall with volunteers, almost all under the age of 24.
We landed in Paris for our refueling stop at about 8 or 9 a.m. local time. As we entered transit lounge at Orly Airport we saw newspapers with huge headlines announcing the horrifying news that Tel Aviv was burning, Israel was under attack and in the midst of being destroyed. We took some seats on the floor and sat in utter disbelief and abject horror. We were all members of various youth movements or summer camps. We were the first generation to receive any type of Holocaust education and that knowledge had motivated us in our civil rights work, our anti-Vietnam War activities and now our plans to help out in Israel’s moment of crisis. Israel was a proud and important part of our identity, even though most of us had only spent a summer there over the previous few years. But I don’t think that any of us actually anticipated the possibility of war.
We sat for hours talking, napping, staying far away from the telephones, lest we be tempted to call our parents; we knew we would be told to turn around and come home. But here in Paris, we were “witness” to the destruction of the State of Israel. All we wanted to do was get back on that plane and join our dying brothers and sisters in Israel. We wrote (what can now be called melodramatic) letters to our parents saying goodbye…and we actually mailed them! This was it!
The plane was called in the late afternoon. We boarded, returned to our seats only to find dozens of new (and adult) passengers. As the plane took to the air, I approached one impressive looking man who introduced himself as Arnaud de Borchgrave and informed me that he was the senior editor at Newsweek Magazine. He proceeded to tell me what the Parisian newspapers did not know earlier that morning: that the news broadcasts from Cairo were false and that Israel had destroyed the entire Egyptian Air Force on the ground. It was clear to him that Israel was already on its way to an extraordinary military victory. He told me that my new adult fellow-passengers were doctors whom the Israelis assumed they would need desperately, members of the French Parliament who were coming to Israel as a show of solidarity, and Guy de Rothschild, who (de Borchgrave showed me) was sitting surrounded by white bags filled with gold, so that the Israelis would be able to pay for the arms they would need to replenish their munitions. I returned to my seat with a lot of mood-changing news for my friends and I to digest.
(You may wonder how a full plane from New York managed to have any seats for all of these important newcomers. It appears that some of our peers were “good kids.” They had promised their parents they would come home in the event of war. They apparently turned around in Paris and went back to New York.)
You can only imagine how this news was received. We had boarded with heads down and eyes dulled. We had thought that modern Jewish life was finished. This news was quite an unanticipated shock, to say the very least. But no sooner were we in the air than the pilot informed us that we could not land in Tel Aviv because Lod Airport (as Ben Gurion Airport was then known) was closed and we would be spending the night in Athens. This trip was becoming more and more of an adventure! As we deplaned, the airport police separated the Israeli passport holders from the rest of us and required that they stay in the airport overnight. I remember us immediately reacting to this seeming act of discrimination. (I later appreciated the fact it was a security measure for the Israelis among us, whatever the Greek government’s intent.) The rest of us were told very clearly that we could not remain in the airport and were being accommodated at a small hotel in the center of Athens. We were due back in the airport later Tuesday afternoon, June 6th.
We awoke in Athens. We were young, we were in the midst of a major international drama…but we had time on our hands and the Parthenon to see…so off we went. Little did we know that the men selling souvenirs at the foot of the Acropolis were Greek Jews and they had already heard the news. No sooner did they figure out who we were then they started singing and dancing in joy and celebration. (In many ways, that moment began a personal encounter for me with world Jewry that continues to this day.) The juxtaposition of the reborn Jewish state in all its military glory against the backdrop of the glory of ancient Greece was not lost on any of us, Greek or North American.
Our third boarding was uneventful, but as we got up in the sky, intentionally at sunset, we were told by the pilot that when we approached Israel we would be need to lower our window shades and lower the lights on the plane. As we cheated a bit and peaked out the window, we saw Israeli jet fighters on either side accompanying us in. The airport was open we were told, by lit only by flashlights. No landing lights on the ground to guide us. We landed, the dignitaries were whisked off, and we were taken to a local youth hostel for the night.
The next morning, we all boarded buses (probably down to 50 of us by now) taking us all the way to Metulla in the North and then, turning around and heading back in the direction of Tel Aviv, small groups of two to four of us were dropped at farms in the area to become summer volunteers in the fields and working with the animals.
A college classmate at Queens College, Michael “Moonie” Birenbaum and I chose to remain on the bus and return to Tel Aviv. We wanted to get to Jerusalem, where we knew there would be work to do and where we had friends at the end of various year-long programs. We hid in the back of the bus, only to emerge when the driver arrived back at the Tel Aviv central bus station. No sooner did we step off our bus then we saw that the first bus on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem route was returning to its normal service ( a service that would actually never again be what had been considered “normal”). We bought a few newspapers (which I still have) and got on the bus, the only riders.
All along that slow road up to the heights of Jerusalem were tanks being transported from the West Bank and Jerusalem areas en route to the Golan Heights where the final fighting of the famous Six Day War would take place. It was very slow, but by late that Tuesday night, we were in a different world. Jerusalem had been reunited. People who had expected to die were incredulous. Here you can see the Maariv newspaper from that Wednesday, June 7th: “דגל ציון על הר הבית” — The Flag of Zion flies over the Temple Mount.”
We volunteered collecting garbage (all the sanitation workers had been drafted). We volunteered with the civil defense authorities searching hills and valleys around the now Western part of the city for unexploded ordnance (we clearly had no idea of the danger involved).
June 7-10 — the country remained on a war footing. All windows had to be blacked out with dark paper or blankets so that nothing could be seen from the air. The streetlights were kept dark. Car headlights had to be blacked out with dark tape so that only a sliver of light came through, and everyone was told to stay off the roads and remain at home.
The next week, I attended a stirring concert in the Binyanei Hauma. Zubin Mehta, already a recognized master conductor had flown in to conduct the Israeli Philharmonic (he was their guest conductor) that had Jerusalemites crying in the aisles. People were stunned by the manifestation of love that Mehta’s dangerous trip into a war zone represented. A few days later, Thursday June 15, was Shavuot. At Mayor Teddy Kolleck’s urging, the Old City was opened to visitors and hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews came from across the country to stand at the “Wailing Wall,” to come in pilgrimage on this festival to the site closest to the ancient Beit HaMikdash (Temple) and celebrate as never before. There was no pavement, just dust and rocks and rubble. I was witness to what Heschel called “An Echo of Eternity.” It felt like a moment of promise. And when the streets of Jewish Jerusalem started filling up peacefully with Palestinian Arabs, there was optimism in the air. I felt like I was participating in an era of prophecy.
BUT, there was something wrong. On that weekend, before I left NY, a close friend came home from college to urge me not to go. He could not have known that Israel was about to become the Goliath of the Middle East. But somehow he intuited what would be coming after the buildup to war and whatever its aftermath. I didn’t listen to him…but he was right. I meet very few people, politics right or left, who think we are in a good situation these 50 years later. Most recognize the threat to Israel’s democracy on the one hand and to its Jewish character on the other, and subscribe to a two-state solution. We have spent more years wandering in our own “desert” than did the ancient Children of Israel in theirs. And we have still not found the way out. Leaderless, with no Moshe to set a moral compass, we find ourselves today in a very precarious place. Will we be the generation who stood by as the “miracle” of the reborn State of Israel disintegrates before our very eyes?
By the time I returned to my summer job as a division head at Camp Ramah in Glen Spey, NY, my understanding of what had happened had deepened. I became then, and have remained throughout these 50 years, a dedicated seeker of Israeli-Palestinian peace and compromise. Some may think that it was just the idealism of our youth that made most of my close friends and peers turn away from triumphalism and messianism. Our idealism was inspired by our elders and in my case by David Ben Gurion, who was responsible for my journey in the first place! In the May 1987 issue of the New York Review of Books, the pre-eminent historian of Zionism, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, shared the following:
Less than a month after the Six Day War, at the beginning of July 1967, I heard David Ben-Gurion speak at Beit Berl, the “think tank” of the Israeli Labor party. Ben-Gurion was, by then, no longer a member of the party which he had founded and he had even given up his seat in the Knesset, where he ended his political career, a faction of one. In June 1963, he had finally retired to Sde Boker, a rather primitive kibbutz on the edge of the desert in the Negev.
The Ben-Gurion who walked into the meeting had about him the air of a prophet who had walked out of his tent to die, but had paused on this last journey to tell us truths which the less farsighted could not see and which only a man possessed by the spirit would dare tell. He warned his listeners against the euphoria that had swept the Jewish world in the aftermath of the Six Day War. Ben-Gurion insisted that all of the territories that had been captured had to be given back, very quickly, for holding on to them would distort, and might ultimately destroy, the Jewish state. He made only one exception of consequence: the Israelis should not relinquish control of the whole of Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion’s most striking assertion that night was that he did not expect immediate peace with the Arabs; for its own inner health, he said, Israel needed only to give back the territories very soon in return for a workable set of armistice arrangements.
Finally it is important to remember the powerful talk given by IDF Chief of Staff, Yitzhak Rabin, ז”ל, at the Mt. Scopus ceremony of the Hebrew University awarding him an honorary doctorate which he chose to receive in the name of all of the soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces:
“…I know that the terrible price the enemy paid has also profoundly affected many of our men. Perhaps the education and the experience of the Jewish people has never brought it to feel the joy of the conqueror and the victor, and therefore the matter is accepted with mixed feelings.”
Peter A. Geffen is Founder and Executive Director of KIVUNIM, The Institute for World Jewish Studies and Founder of The Abraham Joshua Heschel School in NYC.