Fifty years ago, the summer of the Six-Day War, probably counts as pre-history to more than half of the world’s population. Yet I remember certain moments with crystal clarity.
“Doug! The war has started!” I was startled out of my sleep by my father shouting up to my bedroom in Levittown. I jumped out of bed and turned on the radio, confirming that the Israel air force had attacked airfields in Egypt and fighting had broken out in Sinai and around Jerusalem.
I know now that most Israelis weren’t at all surprised at the time. They weren’t asking “if” but “when.” But I was certainly surprised. All during May, as Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, kicked out the UN Emergency Force, reinforced Egyptian forces in Sinai, and threatened Israel with a war of annihilation, I was telling my friends and co-workers that it will all blow over. There was a kosher deli across from my office on 57th Street where I feasted on corned beef or pastrami sandwiches at least once a week. One of the owners was an Israeli who was visibly nervous with fear throughout that period.
“Nothing to worry about. No chance of a war,” I told him, revealing my unique talent for predicting significant world events, a savvy which continues until today.
Now there was a war, and it filled my days. We tracked the Israeli army’s progress on a big map where I worked — fortunately for me a weekly news digest, so we could discuss the war as part of our “normal” work activity. The other Jewish writers and editors were visibly jubilant as the Israeli lines moved across Sinai, the West Bank and the Golan Heights — even as they held their fierce opposition to America’s fighting in Vietnam.
I emerged from a subway station to see four young ultra-Orthodox Jews holding an outstretched Israeli flag, shouting, “Help Israel with food and medicine,” while passers-by threw heaps of money into the flag.
I also remember a great ad for El Al in the New York Times. You saw a jetliner with a Star of David taking off, and the headline went something like: “After 2,000 years, we’re not about to stop now!” It was immediately recognizable as a metaphor for the entire people, and it still brings a lump to my throat.
But more important is what I don’t remember, but what happened nevertheless. The Six-Day War energized American Jews [and, we learned later, Jews around the world, including the Soviet Union], affecting all the generations at once. This was thought to be an impossible task.
For me, it brought to a head feelings that began four years earlier at Georgetown and two years earlier during a summer spent in Israel. Like the inexorable pull of a passing heavenly body, the Six-Day War changed the trajectory of Jewish life in America. It sent my own path on a different direction, leading to where I am and who I am today.