The Independence Day that changed all others

The mood on Yom Ha'atzma'ut 1967 was subdued in the face of a looming war.

six day war 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
six day war 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Of all the Independence Days in the 59 years of the State of Israel, the 19th Yom Ha'atzma'ut is seen by many as one of the most significant, a day that carries with it the weight of history and represents the start of a period of change in the attitude and atmosphere of the country as a whole. The weeks and months leading up to the 1967 Six Day War, when the future of the country's existence hung by a thread, and the period that followed, had an enormous effect on the people living in what was then still a fledgling country. That year's Independence Day took place less than three weeks before war officially broke out, in the midst of growing tension and concern. But still, like every year before, on the fifth of Iyar the nation celebrated Israel's statehood. From the very first years of the state up until 1968, the main event of Yom Ha'atzma'ut was a military parade that marched through the streets, usually in Jerusalem, although in some years it was held in other cities. Despite the uneasy feeling in the country that the situation with Israel's neighbors was worsening, especially after Israel had shot down a number of Syrian planes a month earlier, a parade was still held and Israelis were in the mood for celebration. "It was a very happy atmosphere. I remember taking my kids and watching the band marching. It was a very colorful event," recalls Israel's former ambassador to the UK Yehuda Avner, who then lived in Jerusalem. Asher Cailingold, Avner's brother-in-law and a former director of the Jewish Agency's aliya department, had been living in Haifa with his wife and young family for eight years at the time, but traveled to Jerusalem to spend the holiday with Avner and his wife. It was during what turned out to be the penultimate annual military parade that word came that then-Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser had ordered his army to begin moving into the Sinai desert - a move that signaled an escalation of tension and rhetoric, which culminated in the Six Day War. "The tension began during the parade," recalls Cailingold, who now lives in the Jerusalem's Talbieh neighborhood. "We were watching it from a roof overlooking King George Boulevard and somebody came in and said they had heard on the radio that Nasser had begun moving troops into Sinai. "Each year there had been a live commentary on the parade broadcast on the radio, and it was interrupted when the news came in. The atmosphere changed immediately, although the parade continued. We all had a feeling of shock and horror at the 'hutzpa' of this man." Even though he was already 37 years old, by the next Friday Cailingold had already been called up to fight as Israel began its preparations for war. He served in a combat unit that suffered many casualties on the Syrian front. Dr. Chaim Goldwater, who had made aliya from London in 1957, lived with his family in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood throughout the 1960s. "It [Independence Day 1967] was quite tense, people were generally nervous at the time," he recalls. "Although I had hopes there might be some sort of diplomatic solution, our biggest fears were that there would be heavy fighting and even an invasion. We didn't expect that the war would start with a bombardment and the destruction of the Egyptian army on the ground. Although there was a parade in 1967, it was a little quieter, everything was downgraded." Then-prime minister Levi Eshkol and chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin were quickly briefed of Nasser's move. A week later, Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran, the waterway leading out of Israel from the South, blocking the flow of oil from Iran and the main shipping route from Eilat to Asia. By the end of May, Nasser and King Hussein of Jordan had signed a defense pact, and the Egyptian leader, alongside other Arab heads of state, turned up their anti-Israel rhetoric, threatening to wipe the Jewish state off the map. ON THE morning of June 5, Israel launched its preemptive air strike, wiping out the entire Egyptian and Jordanian air forces and half of the Syrian's by the end of the first day. Over the next five days Israel suffered many casualties, but emerged victorious, controlling more than twice the land it had held less than a week earlier - including the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as the entire city of Jerusalem. Nasser resigned following his humiliating defeat and Israel was defiant in its success. As the dust settled and Israelis took in the enormity of what had happened, it was clear that things would not be the same again. "In the years leading up to 1967, this country was a teenager," says Cailingold. "After '67, Israel began to mature, but it was not until 1973, after the 25th anniversary of the state and the Yom Kippur war, that it became an adult." On Yom Ha'atzma'ut 1968, less than 12 months after the Six Day War, the last annual military parade was held. "Although it has never been pronounced officially, in my view the parade was stopped as we felt we had shown the world and the Arabs we could do it. We didn't need to flex our muscles any more," Cailingold says. "Up until then, there was a feeling that we needed to show our enemies that we were not scared. It was still important to hold a parade in 1968; there was a belief that we owed it to our boys. There was a macho feeling that we were invincible." "There was a sense of enormous salvation," Avner adds. "On the eve of the [1967] war people spoke of the literal destruction of Israel, of another Holocaust. When it was over, we felt we had been saved." Goldwater recalls visiting the Old City like many Jerusalemites, just a few days after the Six Day War ended. "About a week after the Six Day War I took the car with a colleague from work who remembered what it was like before 1948, and we drove past Mount Scopus and visited the British military cemetery in east Jerusalem where there are a few graves of British Jewish servicemen. "Then we drove toward the Old City. It was interesting and a little bit like a dream. That was the first time I had ever visited the Old City. We had always thought about what it would be like, and there it was. It was something we had always looked on; we had a view of the Old City, but of course we had never been there." In the late 1960s and 1970s, the way Yom Ha'atzma'ut was celebrated slowly changed, as the state modernized and the nation's earlier generations gave way to a different, younger generation. "In those days [before the 1967 war], people were more tolerant and moderate than they are today," Goldwater says. "First, the Arab-Jewish relationship was better. Of course, in Jerusalem there was a divide and we had hardly any contact with the Arab population anyway. But I think there was less fanaticism in general, even within the haredim... they didn't celebrate Yom Ha'atzma'ut the same as they don't today, but in those days they kept quiet about it. Now they flaunt their opposition in a more strident way. "I think the modern Yom Ha'atzma'ut is more institutionalized, less spontaneous. It was a smaller population in those days so I think people did tend to celebrate more openly and in the streets." Avner and Cailingold agree. "The pre-67 Independence Day celebrations were before people became glued to television sets," Avner says. "In the early days, it was all about the novelty. There was lots of singing and dancing in the streets and stages set up on street corners all over the place." "Yom Ha'atzma'ut used to be more family-oriented and informal. In 1958 on Kibbutz Lavi it was a bit like a chag, a Jewish festival. We had a Shabbat-type meal and sang traditional Israeli songs," Cailingold reminisces. "In those early years the atmosphere was one of tremendous excitement and happiness. The celebrations were an enormous reaction to the horrors that came before - both the Holocaust and then the terrible post-war anti-Semitism in the UK in the late 40s where Enoch Powell's fascists were marching through the streets on a regular basis." After 1968, there was only one more military parade, in 1973, to celebrate the Jewish state's 25th anniversary. By then the innocence of the early years had slipped away, replaced by more commercial, modern and less military-focused Independence Day celebrations. "It's now totally different. I put it down to television," Avner concludes. "It's a new generation, pop culture. The excitement of the hour is somewhat mellowed."