James R. Russell
James R. Russell

June 7, 1967: Independence Day!

Then as now there was the silence. Nasser, the Egyptian dictator, promised his army would drive the Jews into the sea. He closed the straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping in the spring of 1967 and moved his Soviet-made tanks to our Negev border. Jordan, with its British-supplied army, soon joined forces with him. So did Syria. The rest of the Arab states, from Iraq in the east to Morocco in the west, vowed to support the final jihad against Israel. The final solution.

At the time, the “West Bank” (Yehuda and Shomron) was occupied by Jordan, as was the Old City of Jerusalem. The Jordanians had leveled the Jewish Quarter of the latter: it was a field of rubble. No Jew was allowed access to the Western Wall. Jewish tombstones on the Mount of Olives were used by the Jordanian army to pave latrines. Gaza belonged to Egypt: then as now, it was used as a forward base for terrorist attacks. The Golan was held by Syria, which used it to shell our farms in the Galil indiscriminately. There were no “occupied territories” to parse, disingenuously, as “Palestine”.

Nobody said a word. As the noose tightened, the Americans counseled patience. Let diplomacy work at the UN, said President Johnson. France, Israel’s main arms supplier in those days, had general De Gaulle at the helm. He called us a stiff-necked people (okay, that part’s at least Biblical), elite and domineering. Elite and domineering, twenty-two years after the Holocaust. Really.

I was in 8th grade. My gentile teachers at the Walden school on West 88th Street smirked. Nobody cared. Back then, survivors with numbers on their forearms were still young parents with fresh memories. I was petrified.

On Sunday, June 4th, my parents drove my little brother Josh and me to Monroe, NY, where Hilda and Hans owned a little country cottage.

Hilda cleaned house, cooked, and took care of me and Josh while our parents worked. She was from a little town called Meschernich, near Cologne. Her father, a Reform Jew, was the village butcher. They thought they were Germans; but after Kristallnacht, Hilda escaped to England. Both her parents were murdered in gas chambers and burnt to ash in crematoria by their gentile countrymen.

Her husband Hans was half-Jewish, from Chemnitz in eastern Germany. His initial crime was being a Socialist and after a spell in Mauthausen he fled to England, too. Hilda, Hans, and many others were interned on the Isle of Man when the war broke out; but later Hans Fechenbach changed his name to Harry Fitzroy and took the King’s shilling.

After the war he was demobbed, they married, and went to America. Hans imported beer; Hilda cooked us Roladen and Königsberger Klopse and scolded us in German. They lived just up the block from us. Washington Heights in upper Manhattan was heavily German Jewish then. We used to joke about the Yekkes, as other Ashkenazim called them, and sometimes referred to our neighborhood as the Fourth Reich. “Bei uns in Deutschland,” the Yekkes would mutter when comparing their civilized ways to those of us American jungle savages with our bad manners, bad posture, and noisy music.

It was a hot, lazy Sunday in Monroe, Hilda had baked her flat cake with serried ranks of sliced plums on top, and a fellow German Jewish refugee couple sipped Hilda’s excellent coffee and said, “It’s happening all over again.”

Had the IDF followed the Americans’ advice and done nothing, It (as you know what It was, what It is) could indeed have repeated Itself. Would anybody have even mourned the final destruction, the extinction of our tiny survivor country, barely nineteen years old? It’s purely a rhetorical question, chevra. If you pretended you didn’t know the answer, in the wake of this recent war you can’t fool yourself anymore so don’t even try. Anti-Semitism is as ubiquitous and as virulent today as it was in the Hitler era. NSDAP, KKK, SS, BDS, BLM — the letters change but the message is the same.

But It didn’t happen. The next day, June 5th, was the beginning of finals at Walden. As the news came in of the Israeli pre-emptive strike that took out the Arabs’ planes on the ground, the teachers at Walden looked unhappy and queasy. Israel had asked Jordan to stay out of the war but it didn’t. King Hussein’s English-made artillery started shelling Hadassah hospital and other targets in West Jerusalem. The IDF decided to take on the East Side (as it were).

June 7th. Exams had ended by around lunchtime and I took the subway back uptown. As I walked down the block towards my parents’ apartment above the river, every car door was open so you could hear the radio reporting that Israel had liberated Jerusalem. For the first time in nearly two millennia, the Har ha-Bayit— the Temple Mount — was free. Hebron was free. Shiloh was free.

The line of open car doors gently curving down Cabrini Blvd. on that sunny noon changed things. Up till then, Jewish kids were subject to abuse by Irish and Italian Catholic kids. Most of that stopped. And other people this degenerate world dehumanized and terrorized decided to resist: two years later, on a hot summer night at the other end of Manhattan, gay people began our fight for freedom at Stonewall. Christianity since the foul hate-sermons of John Chrysostom had demonized Jews and gays together, while vampirizing our holy books and using sacerdotal celibacy as a cover for the sexual abuse of children, including gay children. For me, Stonewall was the second half of the ’67 war. Jerusalem was free. Now so was I.

Israel to me means being at home to be myself, being with people I can look in the face and call family, living my real culture, seeing the letters of my own language. Viscerally, it means having air to breathe. My relatives lived in Ein Kerem and on many long stays I’ve lived in nine different places in the village, including a cave. I used to walk up the mountain to Yad Vashem, move slowly through the exhibits and look for traces of the lost people from the places we came from: Krakow, Brody, Gliniany, Warsaw, Salonica. Forget no one.

But then I would walk down that long, airy corridor at the end of the museum, to the great opening of the wall, looking out over the green and smiling valley going about its everyday life, sounds of traffic, voices, birdsong. That is our answer to the world: the State of Israel. Our answer to the banal indifference and smug hatred of the world. And it wasn’t just any random Israeli landscape. That was Ein Kerem one was looking at.

The synagogue I attended in Cambridge, MA has been vandalized twice in the last fortnight, according to a letter on anti-Semitism distributed by Harvard’s president, the son of Holocaust survivors. This stuff is happening from sea to shining sea: A BLM leader, a thug, trespassed onto the property of my synagogue here, 3000 miles from Boston, a few days ago, pounded on the door so hard the windows shook, and yelled, “You know who we are and we know where you live!”

The next Shabbat I put on my tallis, took my Siddur, and sat down on a chair in the shul’s driveway. If there’s any danger, I told the Rebbetzin, I’ll blow this whistle three times. Call 911 and tell the Minyan to disperse. I hadn’t planned this or told anyone I was going to do it. But, one by one, the guys came up every twenty minutes or so for a changing of the guard.

The silence of most gentiles one thought friends and colleagues has been deafening. I’m not alone in that experience — others have remarked on it in recent days. I am a little less surprised than others, though, by the naked anti-Semitism of the media and the universities, even the physical assaults, here in America.

Some years ago, you see, an institution of higher learning where I worked was offered a substantial sum of petrodollars by an Arab “prince”. New York City’s Mayor had turned it down since said “prince” in his flowing white robes had made it clear there were strings attached: acceptance was contingent on the tacit admission that Israel was to blame for 9/11. But the college took the check gladly. Non olet, after all, as the Latin saying goes. Money doesn’t smell. I was not happy and said as much, and a dean wrote to me that, had I been a “real American”, I would have understood that Israel is, indeed, the cause of ALL our problems.

Now, I was born in NYC and my Dad served in the US Navy in World War II. Both my parents were born in Brooklyn. But then, the families of Hilda and Hans had been in Germany for centuries. They thought they were real Germans, too. Many sported Iron Crosses from World War I. It took only a few decades for all that to vanish in smoke. Literally in smoke.

These days I sometimes think that when Hilda’s friends said on June 4, 1967, that it’s all happening all over again, they didn’t mean just the Middle East. Maybe they meant this diaspora community, too, this place we thought, as any reasonable human being might, was home. Germany wasn’t home. America isn’t home.

So June 7, 1967, was my independence day. It wasn’t just the liberation of Jerusalem, though dayyenu — that would have been enough. Independence is also freedom from illusion. The illusion that anti-Semitism can be ended. The illusion that the diaspora can be viable. The illusion that somebody else is going to defend you.

I think the final chapter in the history of the Jews in America has begun. When the book is written it will be rich, but sad. Aaron Copeland’s symphonies, Bob Dylan’s songs, Philip Roth’s novels, Allen Ginsberg’s poems, even the verses on the Statue of Liberty. I do not see a sudden end in death camps, but a slow attrition, as we see in Britain and France. More a whimper than a bang. It is anybody’s guess how Israel will manage without this big brother; but this world is all about shifts in power, empires rising and falling, inexorable change. America may be a very different place, a much uglier place, when most of us are gone. Maybe it will be a bit like the British future dystopis of Howard Jacobson’s novel, “J”. Read it.

There is one thing, though, that is different from before. Jews have shown that we do not have to be passive and impotent. We do not have to recite the lines of somebody else’s play. We aren’t Shylock or Fagin or Judas. We have a country. We can take the initiative. We should not care about the “decent opinion of mankind”, since there ain’t no such animal. The 1967 war reminded us that we’re the children of King David and can bring down Goliath.

Jews, don’t despair or be afraid! Jews, be yourselves! Come out of the closet! Put on tefillin, wear a kippa! Jews, arm yourselves! Jews, fight back! It’s the right thing to do, and like the murdered American Jewish statesman Harvey Milk said, you’ll feel so much better. Remember the liberation of Jerusalem ba-yamim ha-hem ba-zman ha-zeh, in those days at this time, and let’s make it our own independence day!

About the Author
James R. Russell is Emeritus Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University, and has served as Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian at Columbia, and part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He is at present Adjunct Professor of Iranian Religions at the Daneshgah-e Adyan va Mazaheb, Qom. 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. His recent books include "Poets, Heroes, and Their Dragons", 2 vols., UC Irvine Iranian Series, 2020, and "The Complete Poems of Misak Medzarents", CSU Fresno Armenian Series, 2021.
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