Creating new boundaries

In Tom Segev's '1967,' the great myths are stripped away and the war is seen as a pivotal moment for Israeli society.

1967 book 88 298 (photo credit: )
1967 book 88 298
(photo credit: )
1967 Tom Segev Metropolitan Books $30 645 pages This is a book about borders, both in their literal political meaning of boundaries between countries and in the word's additional meaning in Hebrew, "gvulot" as limits, the constraints restricting a society and its members. Tom Segev's Israel in 1967 is a nation chafing at the bit. Nineteen years after its seemingly miraculous foundation, the novelty of Jewish independence is rapidly fading, and Israelis are having trouble coming to terms with the mundane details of statehood. The hard-earned victories on the battlefield, the great waves of aliya, hundreds of new towns and villages being built, the feeling that for the first time in a hundred generations Jews were doing it for themselves, all this had made the hardships bearable. They were proud to be the first Israelis. But by the mid-1960s, the excitement had already worn out, making way for disillusionment and a cramped, boxed-in feeling. The economic growth of the first years had also petered out and Israelis yearned for a higher quality of living, not content any longer with merely ideological sustenance. A new generation was replacing the idealistic founders, but it wasn't interested in tilling the fields of new kibbutzim, it was yearning for wider spaces. Those were the years when the Spartan mobilized society broke away from its European origins and began looking to the US for cultural inspiration, and the deep social fissures that had been papered over during the first pioneering years surfaced. The secular Ashkenazi class that had been at the forefront of the struggle for statehood was forced to face the fact that it was no longer the majority and acknowledge the "second Israel." The disparate communities of religious and traditional immigrants from North African and Arab countries, mostly sent to live in out of the way development towns and rundown housing projects, were demanding their place in the Zionist enterprise. At the same time issues of state and religion were confronting the "Israelis" with the "Jews." The political and security establishment were at odds over how to treat Israeli Arabs, while from across the border, a new wave of terror attacks spread death and havoc. And for the first time, it turned out that more Israelis were leaving the country than Jews arriving. Thousands felt that they had no real future in this disconnected semi-westernized statelet. If all this sounds depressingly familiar in 2007, in 1967 it was a new disappointment that made Israelis wonder whether the Jewish homeland was just another country, not a beacon to the goyim but a minor league entity stuck out of context in the Levant. Was this the state they had worked so hard to build? And if all that wasn't bad enough, it turned out that two wars hadn't secured Israel's existence and the Arab states were still intent on obliterating it. Young Israelis went from worrying what the future held for them to asking whether they had a future at all. THIS ATMOSPHERE of national despondency is the backdrop to Segev's history of the Six Day War. Rather than describing Israel as a small heroic nation fighting off its enemies, this is the way he describes the country a week before the outbreak of war: "All at once, it had become clear how vulnerable and desperate Israelis were. It was not [Egyptian president Gamal Abdel] Nasser's threats that had brought this about - or, at least, not only his threats - but the quicksand of depression that had pulled so many people down for so many months. It was the disappointment and the feeling that the Israeli dream had run its course. It was the loss of David Ben-Gurion's leadership, the father of the nation, coupled with the lack of faith in [prime minister Levi] Eshkol and the general mistrust of politics. It was the recession and the unemployment, the decline in immigration and the mass emigration. It was the deprivation of the Mizrahim, as well as the fear of them - the fear that they would erode Israel's European society and culture, that they threatened the Ashkenazi elite. It was the difficulty communicating with the younger generation. It was the boredom. It was the terrorism, the sense that there could be no peace. All these feelings welled up in the week before the war, sweeping the state away in a tide of insanity. The people had not felt this wretched and isolated since the Holocaust." The war, when it came, was much more than a military victory; it was a national catharsis. Israelis could breathe again. It wasn't just a matter of the vast spaces captured in Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and east Jerusalem, it was the feeling of renewed purpose. They had recaptured the magic of those early years, once again admired by Jews and non-Jews throughout the world. The breathtaking speed in which they vanquished the Arab armies proved the Zionist dream could overcome any obstacle. All their other problems would be solved with the same ease. But the euphoria in Segev's book is short-lived. The old tensions swiftly resurface - and with renewed urgency. The young heroes might have proven as hardy in battle as their fathers, but they still looked to the West, loving their new-found popularity in America. The "Second Israel" clamored more than before for recognition - this had been also its war - and the seeds of discontent that were to lead a decade later to the downfall of Mapai and the victory of the outsiders' party, the Likud, were sown. The political divide was further exacerbated by the question of the future of the newly captured/liberated territories. The religious community, whose representatives in government had firmly opposed the war, now appeared at the forefront of the new settlers' movement, setting the scene for decades of bitter internal argument. The Israeli-Arab problem had grown even more serious and now it was coupled with the need to control a much larger Palestinian population. Terrorism returned, fiercer than ever, and the victorious IDF was soon to be bogged down in the murderous War of Attrition on the banks of the Suez Canal. The trauma of the Yom Kippur War was only a few years off. THIS IS A history of the most momentous year in Israel's history through the eyes of a realistic and slightly cynical 21st-century journalist. The six days of war merit only 75 pages of the book's 600. The great myths are stripped away and the war is seen in its wider context, as a pivotal moment for Israeli society, seen more from the viewpoint of the civilians back home than through the eyes of the conquering fighters. Segev's main protagonist on the battlefield is Pvt. Yehoshua Bar-Dayan, a 30-something reservist, driving his pickup truck in the wake of the tanks sweeping through Sinai. His letters and diary detailing the fears and misgivings and finally the simple gratitude for living through it all and returning home to his wife and son in one piece. The generals and politicians were more concerned with securing a share of the credit and their places in history. Those who had their photographs taken at the Western Wall, hours after its liberation, took the jackpot. Moshe Dayan, the charismatic adventurer who rode a wave of public adulation and was appointed defense minister five days before the war in what was the closest thing to a coup d'etat to ever happen in Israel, made sure to be in the center of the frame. The hesitant and unpopular Eshkol was cheated out of his moment of glory. The title of the final part of the book on the months after the war is "They Thought They Had Won," though Segev allows the reader to reach his or her own conclusion on whether it was a Pyrrhic victory. His tone throughout gives the impression that in his opinion it was, but he offers ample ammunition to both sides of what has become over the last four decades, the most fundamental question of much more than just Israeli history: Was the Six Day War and its results a divine blessing or a poisoned chalice? The war might have created insurmountable problems that have continued to haunt Israel, but his description of the preceding months makes it quite clear that most Israelis believed their nation was doomed if it did not take decisive action against its enemies. Segev has been accused of belonging to the Post-Zionist school of historians, an accusation he disputes. Certainly he treats his subjects with a great deal of understanding, reserving his sympathies mainly for the ordinary citizens, while revealing the foibles and ulterior motives of the leaders. In 2001 he published a small book called The New Zionists in which he tried to reframe the old definitions of Zionism and anti-Zionism and describe how the ideology had evolved in a radically different environment. In many ways, this much larger book, the fruit of five years of research, is essential to gain a clearer understanding of how far Zionism had traveled from its origins until the watershed year of 1967 and where we've gone since. Segev's easy style and extensive use of contemporary and original material, including hundreds of letters written by Israelis to their relatives abroad, make it a compelling read, whatever one's views of the events. The English translation is of high-quality, but since the personal narratives are such an essential part of the book, readers for whom Hebrew is a second or even third language would do better if they make the effort to read it in the original. This is not a definitive history of the Six Day War. Those looking for detailed account of the military and diplomatic events would probably do better to read Michael Oren's Six Days of War. This is a story of how the Israelis went to war to break down the borders limiting them both as a country and a society and how in victory they created for themselves a new set of boundaries.