Coming together, falling apart

Michael Oren, Yossi Klein-Halevi and Amotz Asa-El discuss the way the Six Day War unified the Jewish people while distancing the international community.

oren flag 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
oren flag 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Type "Six Day War" into Google, and you'll get over 61 million results. In contrast, type "Yom Kippur War" into the same search engine, and you'll come up with about 838,000 results. "War of Attrition" gets you a little under two million hits. In an effort to understand what it is about the 1967 war that has spawned hundreds of books, consistent controversy and religious debate, The Jerusalem Post turned to some of today's leading scholars. The Shalem Center's Michael Oren, Yossi Klein Halevi and Amotz Asa-El sat down to discuss the various far-reaching consequences of the war: political, diplomatic, religious, social and physical. Israel & the Arabs Michael Oren: The biggest outcome of the Six Day War was that the State of Israel wasn't destroyed. For the Arabs, the biggest outcome was the discrediting of the Arab nationalist idiom, the movement which had dominated the previous half century. It was discredited because the embodiment of that idea was Gamal Abdul Nasser, the president of Egypt, and he was humiliated. And once that ideology was discredited, it opened the door to the emergence of a more indigenous and long standing idiom, and that's the Islamic idiom. You can trace the resurgence of what we call Islamic extremism to the Six Day War. The other major impact was the reemergence of the Arab-Israeli conflict into much more of an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians, who had been very quiescent for the most part for the previous 19 years, and had looked to Nasser and other Arab leaders as their saviors in liberating Palestine, quickly concluded that neither Nasser nor any other Arab leader was going to be able to do it, and they could only rely on themselves. And it's not accidental that the year after the Six Day War, the PLO, which had been created in 1964 as an Egyptian sort of straw organization - a propaganda tool - is refashioned as a serious umbrella organization comprising most Palestinian organizations. And a year after that, Yasser Arafat brings in Al Fatah and he [Arafat] becomes the chairman of the PLO, which then proceeds to become the major force, if not the dominant force in regional politics, or certainly inter-Arab politics. The Six Day War also had a tremendous impact on the galvanizing of the Palestinian national identity. For the first time since the mandatory period, the majority of the Palestinian people, whether they were in the West Bank, Gaza or within the State of Israel, were reunited under one rule - and that is Israeli rule. They were reunited with one another - they had been separated, these three entities - and it greatly strengthened them. For Israel, there were two major results of the war. One is that the war helped forge an alliance between the United States and Israel. People forget that Israel fought the Six Day War not with American arms, but with French arms. The US had a warm relationship with Israel before this, but not a strategic relationship. Very quickly, American leaders wake up on June 5, 1967, and they realize that Israel is a regional superpower and is a very valued ally in the Cold War. And so it's right after the war, in '68, that we had the first major sale of Western, offensive American weaponry to Israel. The other major impact was the reuniting of the State of Israel with the Land of Israel. Israel, pre-'67, was centered mostly on the coastal areas; it was those old Philistine cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod, Haifa, Tel Aviv. The reuniting with Jerusalem and with the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people - with Shiloh, Bethlehem, Jericho, Hebron - made this much more of a Jewish state. It really confronted the state of Israel with its Jewishness. Everything that transpired after that - the settlement question of greater Israel - is a direct result of that. The Land of Israel Yossi Klein Halevi: In terms of the territories, the victory of the Six Day War presented Israel with an irresistible opportunity to return to the lands that the Jewish people had been praying for and longing for 2,000 years. When Jews in the Diaspora over the centuries conceived of returning to the land, it was to Judea and Samaria and the Old City of Jerusalem. In a way, one can look at the modern state of Israel that existed until 1967, both figuratively and even literally, as a kind of shell surrounding the heart of the land of Israel. So the settlement movement that began in September 1967, almost immediately after the war, with the return to Kfar Etzion, and then with the Pessah '68 return to Hebron - was in a certain sense irresistible and inevitable. And if you look at the two places where the settlement movement began, it's not a coincidence that it was to Kfar Etzion and Hebron. Because both of those places were not just ancient landmarks, which certainly Hebron was, but they were both very much related to failures within modern Zionist history. The fall of Kfar Etzion happened the day before Yom Ha'atzma'ut, the day before the establishment of the state. In fact, I just heard recently that the reason Yom Hazikaron comes a day before Yom Ha'atzma'ut is because it is in commemoration of the fall of Kfar Etzion, of Gush Etzion. And Hebron was the site of the worst pogrom in the land of Israel, in 1929. So you have these two open wounds from the recent Zionist past that have to be redressed. That combined with the cumulative power of centuries of waiting and anticipation for the return to those lands that made the return to Judea and Samaria inevitable. And the return opened up an impossible dilemma for the Jewish people. That dilemma was how do we remain faithful to the Jewish historical experience of return to the land, and at the same time, how do we remain faithful to the expectation of Jewish history that we do so in a just way? And that is an issue that we have not yet resolved. The Peace Process Oren: I talked about Arabs and I talked about Israel, and sort of bridging the two is the peace process. The Six Day War gives birth to the peace process. There was no peace process before '67. The notion of territory for peace - Amotz Asa-El: The peace formula emerges. Klein-Halevi: Yeah, because there isn't really a peace process after '67 either. Oren: But there is one initiative after the other, which collectively is known as the peace process. Klein-Halevi: But Amotz's point is right. First comes the formula, before there's the process. Asa-El: It's the birth of the land for peace formula. Oren: It starts with [Count Folke] Bernadotte in 1948, and then there is one program after another fostered by the British and the Americans on the basis of territory for peace. Israeli leaders, at least Ben Gurion, were pretty adamant in saying "we're not going to give up any part of pre-1949 Israel to anybody.:" With some exceptions. Israel is perceived by the international community, by the great powers, after 1967 as having received cards that it can trade off for peace. From that point on, it's one formula after the other, which if you look at them and take a step back, they're all pretty much the same. There's not much difference between the Rogers formula of 1968/9 and the Saudi plan… There's not much difference between that and Oslo. You can say that the '67 war was the beginning of a process in the Arab world where the question is no longer how we can best destroy Israel by conventional military arms, but how we can best make peace with Israel in such a way that many Arabs believe that they can still destroy Israel. Destroying Israel with peace, as opposed to with arms. Socio-economic changes Asa-El: The morning after the Six Day War, Moshe Dayan declared the bridges on the Jordan River open for Palestinian traffic in both directions, which was a major decision, very visionary. They physically tore down the barriers separating east and west Jerusalem, and fully allowed pedestrian and motorized traffic within Jerusalem, even before they allowed beyond it. In other words, the statement about Jerusalem being unified was not only a legality, Jerusalem was unified and annexed. There was a physical manifestation of all of this. Klein-Halevi: What did they look like? Were there walls? Asa-El: We used to take the bus from what today is Rachel Imeinu or Palmach. We would go…by the [Montefiore] windmill. So, first of all, the windmill was abandoned. Yemin Moshe was a slum. Under it was no-man's land. Totally disfigured and full of barbed wire and UN people occasionally roaming the fields. And you knew, as a kid, that the walls were not just inaccessible. They were alien. The Yom Ha'atzma'ut of '67, hours before the Egyptian mobilization, we stood there on Keren Hayesod where today we have the Liberty Bell garden, which of course wasn't there then, to watch the parade - which glaringly lacked heavy armor because of the armistice. We saw the Jordanian soldiers on the teeth of the Old City. Watching our parade. You knew there was an enemy out there. From the windmill you proceeded on the bus up to Shlomzion; it would take a sharp 90-degree turn into Yaffo Street. At that turn, where today there is Tzahal Square, there was a tall wooden wall that they built there in order to separate between Notre Dame and City Hall. Oren: And no one complained about the wall back then, did they now? Apartheid state. Asa-El: It was a wall, for all accounts and purposes. We've got photos in The Jerusalem Post of how it was torn down. It was momentous. It was like the fall of the Berlin Wall. That was Jerusalem. When they restitched the city, the inhabitants of western Jerusalem, like me, suddenly saw the Palestinians - that nobody called the Palestinians then. They were the Arabs. You saw them, and it was as if some conductor gave the sign for a social relationship to commence. It commenced immediately. But it wasn't a normal relationship. It was abnormal in that the traffic was, of course, horizontal, but the social structure that emerged was vertical. It was about them becoming our hewers of wood and drawers of water. Dayan was visionary in understanding immediately that we needed to provide these people with employment. Everybody was complete non-visionary in thinking that it would work with them becoming our proletariat. This only could last for the 20 years until 1987, when the first intifada broke out. THE OTHER thing was how Jerusalem was from there on developed physically. That was a momentous, monumental project led by Teddy Kollek. He took a hick town of barely 200,000 people, a political peninsula - this is what Jerusalem was until '67, surrounded on three sides by enemy territory that was inaccessible - and turned it, within a few years, into a real international landmark. The city of 200,000 people, within I think, 20 years, tripled. The physical size more than quadrupled. It became bustling. Under Kollek's inspiration, it also became cosmopolitan. You had luminaries coming and going; Saul Bellow was spending time here writing a book, Isaac Stern would come and go. Landmarks were being raised. The Jerusalem Theater was suddenly built, the Cinemateque, the Khan Theater. The feeling was that Jerusalem was being turned into something really impressively harmonious. A changing city Asa-El: Israelis in those years immediately after '67 lacked their current hostility towards religion, towards tradition. I'm generalizing. But if you take the average Tel Avivi who today would never come [to Jerusalem], they then had a great time coming here. They flocked here. When you went to the Old City, you really had a sense - maybe it was unfounded and subjective - but we all felt that the three faiths were harmonizing. You'd stand by the Wall praying with Jews, you'd hear the muezzin praying from above, you'd hear bells ringing from afar, and it all seemed to be harmonizing. People felt it was like Isaiah's prophecy being realized. It was like all the nations were flowing onto the mountain of the Lord. This is what Teddy Kollek tried to create. Even when elsewhere in the greater Israel of post-'67 there was mayhem and turbulence and violence and terror and skirmishes, Jerusalem kept above the fray. In the very rare situations when there was a terror incident in Jerusalem, he [Kollek] would immediately be out there proving to everyone that the terrorists did not come from Jerusalem, which was true. Until '87-'90. When we contrast all that with Jerusalem now, I feel that this quest for harmony and rising above the fray seems totally elusive. If Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel laureate, says that Istanbul exudes a sense of melancholy, I say today's Jerusalem exudes a sense of abandonment at best, and betrayal at worst. Choose according to your inclinations who it is that betrayed you, but everyone here feels betrayed by someone. Oren: I question whether that whole period was illusory. The Arabs didn't like Teddy. Moshe Dayan, by enabling the Wakf to remain in control of the Temple Mount, planted the seeds…. You can trace it back and say it assured the future division, or redivision, of Jerusalem. I understand exactly why he did it, he had to do it. I'm not saying it was a wrong decision…. There was a huge debate in the government about whether to take the Old City.… The Mafdalnikim were pretty against it, not adamantly against it. It's not as though they didn't want it on some level, but they were afraid that the Christian world would come down on our heads. They wouldn't let the Jews control the Old City because of the holy places. So basically, Israel made a decision to let every place to stay under its respective leadership…. The question is whether you could have separated the Temple Mount and say "okay we're not going to let the Wakf back in." Klein-Halevi: What you're saying is that the policy was to try to separate religious from national aspirations. With the Christians you can do that, but with the Palestinians you can't. Because the Dome of the Rock is a national symbol, as well as a religious symbol. Good news for the Jews Klein-Halevi: There were some extremely positive consequences for world Jewry resulting from the Six Day War in two areas: political empowerment and spiritual renewal. Political empowerment. The greatest success of the Diaspora in the post-Holocaust era: the saving of Soviet Jewry. That would not have happened without the Six Day War. The Six Day War empowered Soviet Jews to begin resisting the Soviet policy of forced assimilation. Until the Six Day War, you had sporadic incidents of Soviet Jewish resistance. Every Simhat Torah they would gather at the last remaining synagogue in Moscow. Tens of thousands of young people. And then they would melt away back into the Soviet nothingness. Beginning with the Six Day War, you had the unprecedented phenomenon of an ethnic group in the Soviet Union openly challenging Soviet policy and linking with forces abroad. It happened precisely because Soviet Jews drew strength and courage from Israel and the example of the Six Day War. Had there not been that model of Jewish heroism that the Six Day War presented, Soviet Jews would have eventually disappeared. The other trigger, which is related to the empowerment of Soviet Jewry, was the effect of the Six Day War on American Jewry. The Six Day War was the moment in which American Jewry realized that it was safe to stake an active role in the American political discourse as a cohesive Jewish community. There was a symbiotic relationship between the empowerment of American Jewry and Soviet Jewry. The more that young Soviet Jews risked their lives and their freedom to challenge Soviet policy, the more young American Jews were emboldened to become more politically Jewish in their behavior. There was this reciprocal relationship of empowerment. What we know today as the Jewish lobby largely owes its empowerment to the Six Day War. Spiritual empowerment. This is a little trickier, because we're getting into vaguer territory. But I think that the Six Day War created a spiritual transformation within the Jewish people. 1948 marked the resurrection of the Jewish body. 1967, I would argue, marked the resurrection of Judaism. It made it possible again for serious Jews to speak about faith in the God of Israel, in a way that 1948, the creation of the state, did not, because it was still too close to the Shoah. It was premature for Jews to start speaking again of a benevolent God of Israel acting in history. What happened to many Jews in the Six Day War - I know it happened to my father, who was a Holocaust survivor, and it happened to me and I saw it happening around us in the area where I grew up in Brooklyn - was that it suddenly became possible again, even for survivors themselves, to speak about faith in God. I think there's a very Jewish reason. If you could get angry at God for his silence, for not saving the Jews during the Shoah, then you had to forgive God once he seemed to have intervened and saved the Jews in Israel. That was very much part of Jewish consciousness on all levels of Jewish society. On the simplest level, there was the sense of "well, God is back in the picture." On more sophisticated levels, you had the emergence of a thoughtful Holocaust theology. Emil Fackenheim emerges after the Six Day War with the 11th commandment: Thou shalt outlive Hitler. It became possible for serious Jews to talk about faith in God, despite the Holocaust. We saw in some sense the resurrection of the biblical God of Israel who intervenes in history and creates miracles. Which is exactly what God did not do 25 years earlier in Europe. Messianism Klein-Halevi: The creation of the state did not trigger a Messianic reaction, even among religious Zionists. You had the prayer for the state of Israel that was said after the founding of the state, written by [S.Y.] Agnon, by the way. Oren: Reishit Tzmichat Geulateinu [The beginning of the sprouting of our redemption] Klein-Halevi: It was worded with deliberate ambiguity. "Reishit Tzmichat Geulateinu" does not mean that the Messiah is imminent. It could be a 500-year process. Within a religious context, if you're thinking in a religious mind, Messianism becomes a rational possibility. The imminent revelation of God's will on earth becomes possible, tangible as a result of '67. Gershom Shalom, a great scholar of Kabbala, saw this coming. My sense is that he felt that the Holocaust would eventually trigger some kind of a messianic stirring in the Jewish soul. When you combine the Holocaust with the creation of Israel, and then finally coming to the Six Day War, all in the span of 25 years, then there is no way that Judaism, or a part of Judaism, could not have responded messianically. In the weeks before the Six Day War, there was this tangible dread that the State of Israel was going to be destroyed… So we went through, in the span of three weeks, re-experiencing the possibility of apocalypse, and suddenly, experience the sense of rebirth, of salvation. Oren: God got it right this time. The question of legitimacy Klein-Halevi: We became a country with an unwanted population of over two million Palestinians, which has been a disaster for Israeli society. It's been a moral, demographic disaster. It's been a disaster for the cohesiveness of the Israeli Jewish population. Oren: It has given the not-so-few people in the world who deny our legitimacy as a state a means for denying our legitimacy as a state. See under: Jimmy Carter. That's it. Carter is profoundly discomforted by a Jewish state so he's got a wall to complain about. Klein-Halevi: And what's happened, for example, in Europe. The erosion of Israel's legitimacy began with an attack on the occupation of '67 and has gradually moved retroactively to seeing 1948 as a kind of colonialism as well. Asa-el: There is an inversion here. My father, who is also a Holocaust survivor, said sometime after Six Day War that the goyim were fine with giving us the state when they felt guilty after the Holocaust. They never intended for it to be a strong one. '67 suddenly connoted Jewishness with power. Klein-Halevi: Now we come to a crucial, crucial point, which is that while '67 made it possible for world Jewry to begin confronting the Holocaust, it made it possible for much of the rest of the world to start distancing itself from the Holocaust. Oren: For 2,000 years, Jewish powerlessness was conceived as a sin, a horrible thing, and the Nazis disdained us because we were powerless, and the Church disdained us because we were powerless. Suddenly in the 1960s, to be powerless became cool. And at the time when everyone was getting cool, we became the victimizers. Klein-Halevi: Israel, in becoming powerful, deprived Diaspora Jews of the identity of victim just at the time when America and Europe were embracing the victim as the ultimate positive identity. And what we are seeing now, a distancing among a large segment of liberal and left-wing Diaspora Jews, is a reaction to this outbreak of Israeli power in '67…. Today, we are divided between Jews who are more comfortable being victims and Jews who are more comfortable with power… '67 coarsened Israeli political discourse and made us politically simplistic, in that we divided into two rival camps, Left and Right, each of which appropriated a particular lesson of Jewish history. Until '67, most Jews, I would say, would have agreed that Jewish history, and especially modern Jewish history, imposed two demands on us. One was not to do unto others as others do to us, and the other was not to be na ve. Or to put it in a different way, "Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt" and "Remember what Amalek did to you." Be generous to the oppressed, and don't be na ve. After '67, the Left appropriated one part of that, which was "Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt," and the Right appropriated the other lesson, which was "Remember what Amalek did to you." And we've been pitting these two lessons of Jewish history against each other for 40 years, and that's a direct result of '67. What's begun to happen in Israeli society in the last six or seven years as a result of the collapse of the peace process, and the realization that the occupation is untenable, is we've begun to reintegrate these two lessons of Jewish history. So that this new centrist majority that all three of us belong to, which does not have a political party to represent it, is based on the realization that we need to reintegrate these two lessons of Jewish history instead of separating them into rival political camps… Remembering Shavuot 1967 Amotz Asa-El: I remember when I first went to the Kotel, that sense of epiphany…. The Kotel was only open to Jews. You're still surrounded by barbed wire and all kinds of warnings for land mines…. The plaza was very rudimentally prepared. The razing of the several houses had been done. The surface was just crude dirt. The Shabbat Teshuva just before that, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (fall 1966), my parents very uncharacteristically said, "You know, let's go to Mt. Zion.:" Mt. Zion until '67 was the popular substitute for the Kotel. It was the closest you came as a Jew in Jerusalem to a holy site. We went up there, we prayed, we got back and we said, "We had a great time, we should do this every year." The next Shabbat Teshuva we already had the Kotel itself. So this is Shavuot. We went the same way. We went across the Ben Hinom Valley, the way we had done just half a year earlier. And suddenly, it's vast, it's open. There were 200,000 people, jubilant. They came from all over the country, with "tembel" hats, singing, dancing. It was biblical, like a pilgrimage. On that Shavuot, people felt that Mashiach was in the air. You could not avoid that - it's not a connotation, it''s not an association, it's a tangible, rational suspicion. Yossi Klein-Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center and the New Republic correspondent in Israel. He is currently writing a book about the paratroopers who fought in Jerusalem in 1967. Michael B. Oren is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center. He is the author of the best-selling Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Amotz Asa-El is a senior Jerusalem Post columnist and a lecturer at the Shalem Center.