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June 5th, 1967

52 years ago, the Egyptians blockaded the Straits of Tiran, Israel went to war, and US Jewry held its collective breath
A group of soldiers surrounds then-IDF chief rabbi Shlomo Goren as he blows a shofar at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on June 7, 1967. (Bamahane Magazine/Defense Ministry's IDF Archive)
A group of soldiers surrounds then-IDF chief rabbi Shlomo Goren as he blows a shofar at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on June 7, 1967. (Bamahane Magazine/Defense Ministry's IDF Archive)

Greetings from Fresno, California!

On May 23rd 1967 I was in the yard playing with my classmates behind the Walden School on West 88th Street, and looking up at the sooty brick backside and rusty fire escapes of the tall old apartment house next door. It’s just one of those New York details: imagine the camera slowly panning over a much more grimy Central Park West at the beginning of Roman Polanski’s film, “Rosemary’s Baby”. (That movie used to be scary, now it’s just nostalgic.)

The Egyptians had just blockaded the Straits of Tiran, choking off the Israeli port of Eilat. It was the first act of war and more were to come, but nobody was doing anything to stop it yet. Some of you remember the TV shots of the ecstatic crowds in Cairo calling for the Jews to be driven into the sea. The crowds are much the same now, and in more places. Nasser was egging on the mob: his career depended on it. In those days Israel was much smaller and weaker than it is now. It had a population of just 2.3 million, its economy was on the ropes, and Syrians regularly shelled the Galilee from the Golan and Jordanian snipers took pot shots whenever they pleased at little West Jerusalem.

Nasser assumed joint command of the armies of Syria and Jordan. The world watched. He ordered the UN to withdraw its peacekeeping forces from the Sinai and the Secretary General, U Thant, complied instantly. Some writers propose in retrospect that Nasser was doing political saber-rattling and was not expecting U Thant to obey him, and now his hand was forced. Maybe so, but back then it looked more like the abandonment of Czechoslovakia in 1938 to Hitler. The Arabs in 1967 were armed to the teeth with Soviet weapons; and Czechoslovakia was about to be abandoned for a second time, this time to the tanks of the Warsaw Pact, by the democracies a year later, 1968.

Arab demonstrators in front of the UN chanted “No-more-Is-ra-el!” and on news shows neatly attired establishment talking heads blandly and disingenuously wondered why two peoples so similar disliked each other. There was a, what, smug feeling in the air.

June 4th, 1967 was a Sunday, and my parents had taken my brother and me to Hilda’s weekend bungalow not far from the city. Hilda was a German Jew who left as a teenager after Kristallnacht; both her parents stayed and were gassed by the Nazis. She was in England through the war, holding down jobs in a defense factory and a hotel kitchen. She once cooked for Churchill and De Gaulle. Hilda cooked and cleaned for my parents, both of whom worked full time, and she raised Josh and me. And her cooking was something else: Roladen, Königsberger Klopse, a herring salad with beets on Passover… Hilda was married to a cheerful, gentle German beer salesman named Hans who had been imprisoned in Mauthausen because his father was a Socialist politician in Chemnitz. He’d escaped to Britain, changed his name, and joined the army. They met and moved to NYC after the war.

That afternoon Hilda had baked one of her wonderful cakes, and some other German Jews and my family were enjoying it. I didn’t yet drink coffee but I remember the delicious aroma. They were talking over this homey Kaffeeklatsch about “how it’s all happening again.” World War II was a living memory for people who were still young then. There were many survivors in our neighborhood, Washington Heights; one was very much aware of what they had been through and how it had happened in a civilized country before an indifferent world. I was terrified. I felt as though my limbs were moving in heavy slow motion, in air turned to jello. Israel, the fragile little miracle that had arisen out of the ashes of the Holocaust, was in mortal danger.

Apparently Lyndon Johnson had advised the Israelis to be patient and let diplomacy work. I don’t know why, but one reason might have been that he had his hands full with Vietnam. As we all know, Israel decided it could not afford to take this advice. It’s now about 10 AM in Israel as I write these lines; and by that hour of the morning on June 5th, 1967, Israeli jets had already destroyed most of the Arab air forces on the ground. We were saved.

On a day later that week I was walking from the subway station to our home, and car doors were open right down the block so everyone could hear the news on the radios inside. Israel had asked Jordan not to fight but King Hussein, to whom Nasser had made one of those offers that you can’t refuse, had attacked West Jerusalem, shelling Hadassah hospital and other civilian targets. We think of him as a nice guy now but his army (armed by Britain) had orders to massacre the Israeli Arab population of Abu Ghosh on the approaches to Jerusalem, and to level Motza nearby. Now Israel had counterattacked— and our boys had just liberated the Old City and Har ha-Bayit, the Temple Mount! The rest of the week became a luminous blur of relief, of pride and happiness. Yerushalayim shel zahav, ve-shel nechoshet ve-shel or: ha-lo le-khol shirayikh ani kinnor.

I did not rejoice then over the many Egyptian soldiers who died in the Sinai. Nobody in Israel did; and I never met an American Jew who has, either. I do not think of Arabs or Muslims as enemies, but as kin whose faith is very nearly identical to my own and whose culture is one I love, in which Jews have lived and created. This conflict will end someday, as all wars do.

Still, once a year I reread the chilling book by Chesnoff, Klein, and Littell, If Israel Lost The War: A Novel. It was published a year after the events, and is a way of reminding oneself how crucial the Six-Day War was to the very survival of the Jewish people; how we must be aware, and willing, and ready to fight when we have to; and how we cannot and must not rely on anyone but ourselves for our legitimate defense. Read it.

Well, there is One other we must trust in, too—but only One.

“When thou goest into battle against thine enemies and seest horses and chariots and a people more than thou, be not afraid; for the Lord thy God is with thee, O Israel. Let not your hearts be faint, fear not, and do not tremble.” (Deuteronomy 20:1)

About the Author
James R. Russell is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University (semi-retired), Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University, and a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. His PhD is in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London; and he taught Ancient Iranian languages and religions at Columbia University from 1982-1992.
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