Writing about the Six Day War, even 50 years later, I still feel the intense excitement that enveloped us all when it was actually happening.
It’s strange. You might think 50 years would be enough time to gain some historical perspective, for feelings to turn into rational thoughts and reflections. But it doesn’t work that way. The Six Day War was a formative event that suddenly and dramatically transformed the lives of everyone here in Israel – as well as those of our fellow Jews overseas – for generations to come. That’s what I write about today.
Only 19 years separate the 1948 War of Independence from the 1967 Six Day War. Those were relatively quiet years, with only one war in-between in 1956 – plus a few sporadic terrorist attacks along the border. It was, nonetheless, still a time of building, absorbing new immigrants and civil service, which helped Israel gradually grow stronger. The Six Day War woke us from this dream and proved to us that Israel was not yet secure, that our country could be destroyed by a military conflict with any of our neighbors.
An article in The New York Times
this week even claimed Israel considered dropping a nuclear bomb in order to deter Egypt from attacking. Fear that took hold of Israel and along with communities worldwide, we learned our Jewish homeland was far from secure and that it could not guarantee the survival of the entire Jewish people.
Within just one week, however, in June of 1967, our feelings of distress living under siege were replaced with a wonderful feeling of freedom and power. During the days and weeks leading up to the war, Diaspora Jews bonded steadfastly with Israelis Jews, forming a deep bond that shaped the relationship between the communities that would last for decades. The Jewish world rushed to defend Israel, raise funds, mobilize its forces, demonstrate and demand from governments around the world that they help prevent the destruction of the Jewish homeland. Jewish volunteers showed up in Israel willing to do whatever was necessary, and the number of Jews who made aliya from Western countries skyrocketed to 40,000 a year immediately following the war.
News of Israel’s victory broke through the iron curtain of the Soviet Union, and the Jewish community there woke and began demanding the authorities and international community open the gates and let Soviet Jews emigrate to settle in Israel. Between 1968 and 1973, close to 100,000 Soviet Jews became new immigrants in Israel. This was just the first wave, though, and soon after, a wave of antisemitism in Poland spurred nearly 250,000 Jews to leave Poland and come to Israel over the next few years. The affinity between the Diaspora and Israeli Jewish communities deepened and it was fully understood that the only constants in the Middle East were that nothing was secure and that political and military upheavals could – and likely would – occur quite suddenly.
After 1967, Israel underwent many dramatic changes: in addition to all the new territory, our social-economic thinking also became more social-democratic – or to be more exact – Israeli socialists took on more capitalistic values that befitted a prospering, growing society. This trend has strengthened since then. It has helped Israel develop a stronger relationship with the American Jewish community, which rejected socialist and communist views and wanted to see Israel become a liberal economic state with a free and democratic political culture.
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Since then, the American Jewish community has been the State of Israel’s most important strategic guarantor in the world, both directly and through the efforts it’s made to advance Israel-US relations. After France betrayed Israel in 1967 by imposing an arms embargo at our most crucial moment of need, the US stepped in. With the encouragement of its Jewish community, it filled the void and became Israel’s most loyal ally. This commitment translated into economic and military aid, which lifted us up and gave us a qualitative superiority over our neighbors, our enemies.
Israel’s brilliant military victory in 1967 gave us hold over a vast amount of land. Some areas were returned to Egypt as part of a peace treaty and others remained under Israeli control – Judea and Samaria, which were to become someday an independent Palestinian state, in one form or another.
The absurdity of it all is that this victory – the source of pride that united Israel with the Jewish world, especially with the US Jewish community – is today the source of criticism and distance between Israel and American Jews. What once unified us now separates us. The younger generations of Jews born in the US who didn’t experience the dramas of 1948, 1967 and 1973 firsthand, view them so differently from the way their parents do.
For young people, Israel’s existence is an indisputable fact. They aren’t concerned about Israel’s safety or independence. Instead, they worry about the fact that “their” Israel has been occupying another people for 50 years. They can’t accept this and wonder why a solution to the conflict has not been found yet. They are concerned about the ramifications of continuing rule over the Palestinians, how it is going to affect Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, as well as its reputation in the international arena and in the US. Jewish students in universities in the US now find themselves increasingly on the front-line, without answers, trying to defend Israel on and off campus against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and other attacks against Israel’s legitimacy. Unfortunately, these kids aren’t always equipped with the right answers.
Now, 50 since the war, Jewish communities worldwide – including in North America – are shrinking. Assimilation and inter-marriage are the silent enemy that threatens the future of the Jewish people. The only place where the Jewish community is growing is in Israel – and at rates that are higher than average in Western countries. The mutual commitment that was demonstrated during the Six-Day War has not weakened, but the direction of help has switched. Now, it is Israel that feels responsible for bolstering America’s weakening Jewish community, to keep this ancient commitment to the Jewish people.
This does not lessen the extremely important need, in my opinion, to bring Israel back to the center of the consensus. Jerusalem, however, was always in the consensus – there has never been any true dispute over that.
We cannot afford to have significant parts of the Jewish world become distant from Israel because of our relationship with the Palestinians. It is a luxury we cannot afford.
First we need to find a solution for ourselves, then we must reach out to our broader circle and settle the disputes with our Jewish brethren in the Diaspora. This the perfect time to announce that Israel will now, exactly at this moment, become a unifying factor for the entire Jewish world.Dr. Nachman Shai is a MK from the Zionist Union, a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and Chairman of the Lobby for Strengthening the Jewish People and US-Israeli relations.
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