There were a few times in my life when current events scared me to my core. The first time was the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, and, of course, 9/11. However, there was no time that I was as worried about unfolding events as I was in May 1967.
Because of what happened in June, many of us don’t remember the events of May.
A little personal background: I became a news junkie during the Kennedy years. We got the Boston Globe at home, but I got the New York Times every school day, since the sixth grade. We watched Huntley-Brinkley every evening. I followed the Civil Rights Movement, Cold War, and, then, war in Vietnam. In those days Israel didn’t get the intense coverage as it did after those six days in June. That all changed in May 1967. Suddenly, Israel was front page news every day.
On May 14, the wildly popular President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser mobilized his troops in the Sinai.
On May 18, he demanded that the UN remove its 3,400 peace keepers who had acted as a buffer between Egypt and Israel since the Sinai Campaign of 1956. In those more innocent days, we trusted the UN. I was sure that Secretary General U Thant would never abrogate his responsibility to world peace and accede to the demands of a power crazed dictator, like Nasser. But I was wrong!
On that same day Radio Cairo made the following announcement, in the name of the government:
The existence of Israel has continued too long. We welcome the Israeli aggression. We welcome the battle we have long awaited. The peak hour has come. The battle has come in which we shall destroy Israel.
Nevertheless, on May 18, U Thant ordered the ‘peace’ keepers out of the Sinai. That day Radio Cairo made the following announcement:
As of today, there no longer exists an international emergency force to protect Israel…The sole method we shall apply against Israel is a total war which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence.
By this time, I was sure that a new Holocaust was unfolding before our eyes. The whole world knew, and didn’t care. The United Kingdom delivered the following message to U Thant:
It really makes a mockery of the peacekeeping work of the United Nations if, as soon as the tension rises, the United Nations force is told to leave. Indeed, the collapse of UN Emergency Force might well have repercussions on other United Nations peacekeeping forces, and the credibility of the United Nations in this field is thrown into question.
I couldn’t sleep. I would wake up in the middle of the night with television images of literally millions of Egyptians in the streets of Cairo screaming, ‘Death to the Jews!’ They carried signs, many in English, reading: Push them into the Sea!
On May 23, came the Causus Belli: Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran. the narrow waterway connecting the Gulf of Eilat to the Arabian Sea, to Israeli shipping. Israel no longer had trade routes to Asia, and all its oil came from Iran through those waters.
On May 26, Nasser spoke on Cairo Radio:
Taking over Sharm el Sheikh meant confrontation with Israel (and) also meant that we were ready to enter a general war with Israel. The battle will be a general one and our basic objective will be to destroy Israel.
On May 28, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol gave a radio address (Remember, there was no TV in Israel yet) and started to stutter and mumble (ESHKOL MEGAMGEM). This portrayed the PM as being in over his head. Sitting in America and reading reports of this highly anticipated national address just brought a further sense of depression and disaster.
On May 30, Jordan’s King Hussein signed a five-year mutual defense agreement with Egypt and its partner, Syria. Jordan’s forces were to be under Egyptian command. The encirclement was complete.
From May 31 until war broke out on June 5, there were daily threats from Arab nations. Here’s one from President Aref of Iraq:
The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear – to wipe Israel off the map.
The west was relatively quiet. In the UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson said that ‘time was not on the side of peace’. And no one was on the side of Israel.
But the worst day for those watching from afar (like me) was the first day of the war. Israel kept a total news black-out and the only news coming out was from Cairo, claiming victories and widespread bombing of civilian populations. The tension was horrendous.
I brought a transistor radio to school to follow the unfolding frightening events. Since it was June, school was winding down, and many teachers (some of whom were Jewish) let us listen to news reports. News radio was new, and we sat in silence absorbing the bad, but false news.
That was to change on the morrow, but that’s my next post.