In June 1967, fifty-five years ago, we were Zionists from South Africa living in a married student residence at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. My husband Lionel was a doctoral student in physics. I was working as a biochemist researching placental formation in the very early stages of pregnancy.
Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had been issuing threats for months. We knew a war was imminent. Our apartment overlooked a bus stop on the main Rehovot –Tel Aviv Road. Every day for nearly 3 weeks we watched as hundreds of soldiers boarded busses to take them to their units. One by one, our friends at the Weizmann Institute — most of whom were officers in Tzahal (the Israel Defense Forces) — disappeared from the labs and student residences. The residence was filled with wives, very anxious about their husbands, and foreign students who would not be called up for service.
Tanks rumbled by on their way south to the Sinai, chewing up the surface of the main road. We could hear shots being fired and were told that they were ranging artillery canon on the road to Beersheva.
Blood drives attracted hundreds of donors in the blistering sun. I happily donated blood. Bomb Shelters suitable for extended stays were prepared in most buildings. I attended lectures where we were told “if you experience a direct hit, there is nothing you can do. But if the hit is nearby, this is what you should do, and this is who you are to contact.” All parks in Israel were consecrated, so that they could be used as cemeteries if needed. I attended an emergency first aid course, bought emergency food supplies, and taped windows. In preparation for blackouts, we made sure that our apartment curtains covered the windows, covered our light bulbs with blue paper and bought flashlights, extra batteries and candles.
Our parents repeatedly wrote and called, asking us to take the first available plane to safety. We both felt that we could not leave Israel. This was where we needed to be. Several of our friends did leave.
We understood that the Weizmann Institute would be a prime target. It had international prestige, so any damage would be potentially demoralizing. Furthermore, many of the buildings had enormous glass windows, so a large blast would cause a great deal of damage.
In the science labs, there was a frantic effort to remove all radioactive materials. In my department, some of the expensive colonies of experimental mice were removed from their sterile environment and brought upstairs to a room with windows to ensure that the mice would survive if all electricity was cut, and generators failed. Doctoral students left detailed instructions for the continuation of their experiments while they served on the front lines.
Suddenly someone woke up to the fact that there were still chemicals containing cyanide in the labs, and we frantically scurried around to make sure that all cyanide was safely stored underground.
Lionel and I took to sleeping fully dressed, with flashlights readily available.
Early on the morning of June 5th, (for the first and only time in Rehovot), the air raid sirens went off, and we heard the sound of airplanes laden with bombs taking off from the airbase nearby. In the previous months we had learned to tell from the sound whether the planes flying overhead carried bombs or not. We grabbed our flashlights, turned on the radio, and went down to the shelter in the basement of the student residence.
Once the all-clear sounded, Lionel and I both went off to work. I was needed in my department to help feed the animals and support the ongoing scientific experiments of those serving on the front lines.
We kept the radio on at all times.
Sarah*, one of the young women in the department whose Holocaust survivor husband, Chaim*, was on the Egyptian front in the Sinai, kept on telling us that something was wrong with her husband. The letters she was receiving from him did not sound right. With two young daughters she was desperately worried.
Another woman, Chana* was also having a tough time. Both her husband and father were on the front lines.
That evening, in a full blackout, Lionel and I made sure that the curtains were tightly drawn and sat down to eat by candlelight. We listened in awe as Kol Yisrael radio described how the Israeli air force had caught the Egyptians off guard and had destroyed the entire Egyptian air force while their planes were still on the ground. The Egyptian runways were bombed to smithereens so that even if a plane was still operational, it would not be able to take off. When we listened to the BBC, the Egyptian and international news media correspondents (in English) were denying that this was true.
From the roof of our building, we could see and hear the flashes from the fighting at Latrun, and it was obvious that a fight for the approaches to Jerusalem was underway.
We later learned that earlier that day Jordanian forces (under the control of the Egyptian Army) had bombed areas in central Israel and shelled Israeli held parts of Jerusalem, causing much damage. Among other locations, they had targeted the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. However, by the evening of June 6th, the Jordanian air force had been destroyed as well.
I found myself having to follow and understand the Hebrew news as the BBC and American media continued to cast doubts that the Arab air forces had been destroyed.
On June 7th, I went off to work as usual. During the day, much to my amazement, one of the PhD students in my department suddenly appeared in uniform. He was a high-ranking officer and was on his way by helicopter from the Jerusalem front to Tel Aviv for a high-level military meeting. On the way, he had stopped off in Rehovot to check on his lab experiments! Only in Israel!
He described to the small group now maintaining my department how the Israeli forces were working their way down the ridge of mountains on the West Bank, through Nablus and Ramallah towards Jerusalem. He said that by evening, Jerusalem would be in Jewish hands. I called Lionel to share the news.
That evening, as we sat in our apartment in the student residence in the blackout, Lionel and I listened on the radio to the shofar being blown at the Kotel (the Western Wall), and to the words of Rabbi Goren; Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan; and General Uri Narkiss, commander of the Israeli forces taking Jerusalem. They told the world that “Yerushalayim b’ Yadeanu” (Jerusalem is in our hands).
The soldiers at the Kotel burst into song with Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold), a song written by Israeli songstress Nomi Shemer which had filled the airwaves in the months leading up to the war. Now the words would be changed a little to reflect a new reality — now it was possible for Jews to go down from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.
As we listened, the tears ran down our cheeks. Suddenly there was the sound of doors opening and closing throughout the building, and people came pouring out. We all came together with our cookies, wine and juice to celebrate together downstairs in the lobby of the building. Many of those present had no idea if their loved ones were alive or dead. This was truly an occasion to celebrate. All of Jerusalem was ours!
June 8th and 9th: An offer of peace was made to Egypt, Jordan and Syria, but was rejected. Israel had no choice but to continue fighting. The force that had taken Jerusalem continued down towards the Dead Sea to take Bethlehem, Hebron and Jericho. After intense tank battles, the Israeli forces took several strategic Egyptian positions in the Sinai. The decision was made to put an end to the Syrian shelling of the Galilee from the Golan Heights, and the famed fearless Golani Brigade scaled the Syrian cliffs overlooking the Kinneret, (the Sea of Galilee), and took the Syrian town of Kuneitra on the road to Damascus. (By the way, when we went to Kuneitra two months after the war, there was still food and dishes left on the tables in the lovely empty homes. The nearby Syrian bunkers with their cannon aimed at the Israeli towns and villages below, still reeked of death.
All the while we listened to the radio and read the newspapers. I learned more Hebrew in those three weeks than I had learned in six months of learning the language at a Ulpan.
On June 10th, a ceasefire was signed, and the war ended with Israeli forces in control of the Sinai up to the Suez Canal, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Jerusalem.
On June 12th, Sarah learned that her husband Chaim* had committed suicide. The fighting in the Sinai had caused flashbacks to his past in the Nazi concentration camps, and he had become suicidal. We attended the funeral.
On the 19th, Israel offered to return all of the Sinai and the Golan Heights for a peace settlement. The offer was rejected.
On the 21st, Charlotte Jacobson, the national president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, received the keys to Hadassah’s Hospital Mount Scopus from Israeli Defense Forces commander Menachem Scharfman. The Mount Scopus hospital, which was closed after the 1948 attack on a convoy of hospital personnel, had been a UN-protected Israeli exclave guarded by Israeli security forces. It had never been annexed by Jordan.
On June 27th, Israel formally annexed all of Jerusalem, reuniting the city that had been divided since 1948.
On June 30th, The Weizmann Institute arranged the first civilian tour of Jerusalem for the “foreign scientists” who had stayed to help during the war. We traveled by bus over a dirt road through Latrun, the first Jewish civilians to enter Latrun since it was lost to Jordan in 1948. The bus then drove up to Jerusalem and to Mount Scopus. The road to the top of Mount Scopus was a narrow path between white markers. This was the only area that had been cleared of land mines.
When we reached the Hadassah Hospital Mt. Scopus, once the most modern hospital in The Middle East, we found a bombed-out shell. Nearly every wall was pockmarked or had gaping holes. The only area intact was the Hadassah logo of Myrtle (Hadassah) leaves around a Magen David and the quote from Jeremiah 8:19-23 Arukhat Bat Ami (The healing of the daughter of my people) on the floor of at the entrance to the Hospital.
We then went on to the old amphitheater at the abandoned Hebrew University Campus on Mount Scopus and looked over the desert to the Dead Sea for the first time.
From there we were driven down to the Old City walls of Jerusalem and saw white flags flying out of many of the windows of the buildings we passed. We entered the Old City via the Lion’s Gate, the same way that the Israeli forces had entered three weeks before. We walked onto the Temple Mount, around the Dome of the Rock shining gold in the sun, and then down to the narrow alleyway next to the Kotel. The plaza that you are familiar with today was not created until several months later when buildings were removed, and the street level lowered by 30 feet. At the time we first saw it, the Kotel was just another high wall on one side of a typical Old City narrow street.
After shedding some tears and leaving our prayer notes in the Kotel wall, the bus drove us down to Bethlehem, where the Church of the Nativity was still surrounded by rolls of barbed wire. We entered like any other tourists and were welcomed by the local Christian priests.
After Bethlehem, Hebron was a shock. We could still hear sniper fire. The animosity of the people and the children begging for money was palpable. We went to see the caves where the patriarchs were buried, the Machpelah. I have never been so afraid. With great relief we board the buses and returned to Rehovot.
Shortly after this trip, the Weizmann Institute started installing wheelchair ramps for returning students and scientists who had been injured during the war.
Two months later, on September 1st, 1967, eight Arab heads of State met at an Arab League meeting in Khartoum, and passed the “Khartoum Resolutions,” also known as the “Three Nos: No peace with Israel. No recognition of Israel. No negotiations with Israel.”
On November 22nd, 1967 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 242, calling for “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict in exchange for Arab acceptance of Israel.”
Eventually, many years later, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan recognized Israel. The PLO under Yasser Arafat solidified its position in the West Bank and Gaza and continued to launch terrorist attacks against Israel.
Lionel and I have always felt that we were privileged to have lived through such a momentous time in Jewish History. Those few months made an indelible impact on us and made us who we are today.
*Names have been changed to protect their identity.