As we remember the Six-Day War fifty years ago this week, there has already been much conversation about how to view that war decades later.
Yossi Klein-Halevi made a significant contribution to that discussion when he identified what he called the “May” Israelis and the “June” Israelis. The “May” Israelis are those whose memories focus on the days leading up to the war when Jews worldwide worried, as Arab leaders threatened and Arab armies gathered, that another Jewish tragedy, only 22 years after the Holocaust, could be in the making. Those who focus on those fearful days of May focus as well on Israel’s continuing enemies and the overriding need for Israel to protect its security rather than taking chances for peace.
The “June” Israelis focus on the glorious victory in the war demonstrating Israeli military supremacy. They conclude that Israel is secure and needs to do far more to advance peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians and to end the occupation of the West Bank.
Those divergent emphases on the impact of the Six-Day War reflect divisions in Israeli society and the Jewish world. They aren’t about to go away any time soon.
Still, there are aspects of the impact of the war that should be easy to celebrate and recognize as an unmitigated blessing no matter where one sits on the political spectrum.
First, there is the international political dimension. Israel established a “never again” concept after the war: Never again would Israel accept being forced to return territory won in war without getting peace and recognition in exchange.
In the war of independence, Israel at one point briefly went deep into the Sinai but was immediately pressured by the U.S. to pull back lest they lose American support. In return Israel got nothing. Eight years later they found themselves at war with Egypt again.
In the 1956 war, Israel seized most of the Sinai. Once again it was pressured to withdraw, this time by the U.S. and Soviet Union. The guarantee Israel received was limited to the opening of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.
Eleven years later, Egyptian president Nasser closed the Straits after forcing out a U.N. force. This was the prelude to war.
After Israel’s victory, it made clear that any withdrawal this time depended on Arab peace efforts. So came into being the single most important U.N. security council statement on the conflict, Resolution 242, stating clearly for the first time that Israeli withdrawals depend on Arab recognition and peace. This was a historic breakthrough for Israel.
Second was the new access to the Western Wall and the Jewish quarter of the old city of Jerusalem. For 19 years, ever since the kingdom of Jordan seized control of the old city during the war, Israelis and Jews all over were blocked from visiting the Western Wall and, as Israel later discovered, Jewish sites such as old synagogues and cemeteries had been desecrated and vandalized.
Whatever ones perspective on Jerusalem’s ultimate dispensation, Jewish access to its holiest sites as a result of the Six-Day War was a permanent boon. Who knows how long it would have been for Jewish access without the war?
Third is the impact of the war on the Jews of the Soviet Union. An isolated community, barred largely from expressing their Jewishness for years and from contacts with Israelis since Golda Meir’s memorable visit in the late 1940’s, for Soviet Jews the Six-Day War was the catalyst for a transformation.
News of the miraculous Israeli victory filtered through despite the hostile Soviet press and intrigued many Soviet Jews. Years on many of the leading refusniks, those Soviet Jews who were under arrest for applying to emigrate to Israel, identified the Six-Day War as the beginning of their awakening to their Jewish identity. The propaganda they had been fed for years about the evils and corruption of Jewish life and the Jewish State paled in comparison to the heroic actions on the ground by the Israeli defense forces. The lives of Soviet Jews were never to be the same again.
Finally, the impact on American Jews. While the consequences of the Six-Day War for Soviet Jewry was more dramatic because of the circumstances, those on American Jews were significant and lasting as well. Support for Zionism and then the new State of Israel for decades had been uneven, strong in some quarters, for example, in the conservative religious movement, weaker in other sectors. While the American Council for Judaism, a group that opposed support for Israel on grounds that it undermined Jewish acceptance in America, was extreme, many American Jews weren’t sure about this new and besieged state.
The year 1967 changed much of that. In effect, the Six-Day War, as some have noted, made all American Jews supporters of Israel if not literally, then figuratively. Associating with this small state that had so soundly defeated much larger foes made it easy for American Jews to come out for Israel.
Fifty years later, we hear a lot about divisions and apathy toward Israel within the American Jewish community. However true, it is all seen in the backdrop of a community that after ’67 truly became a Zionist one, if not to move to Israel, at least to have the security of the Jewish State as a priority.
Itamar Rabinovich, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington, has referred to the Six-Day War as a “blessing, a mixed blessing, but a blessing nevertheless.” A blessing indeed.
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League