In Washington: 39 years and counting

The '67 warriors were conquerors, or so the world viewed them, but they saw themselves as anything but.

six day war soldiers 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
six day war soldiers 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One of the effects of growing older is the compression of time. For instance, it just occurred to me that only six years separated the Six Day War from the Yom Kippur War. That is just a few months less than the length of time that separates today from the Camp David summit of 2000. And, yet, the six years between '67 and '73 felt like a lifetime, at least it did to me because in June 1967 I was 19. The six years between 19 and 25 feel like an eternity, as one grows from adolescence to adulthood. Those particular six years, for anyone involved with Israel, felt at the time like a long era of peace and security - and in retrospect like a long era of illusion and perhaps missed opportunity. My sudden realization that the two wars were so close together in time came the other day when I was trying to force a book onto a shelf. I squeezed the book in only to cause another one to fall to the floor. I picked it up, perhaps for the first time in decades. The book was The Seventh Day: Soldiers Talk about the Six-Day War. It consists of a series of interviews with soldiers, some still in their teens, about what the just-concluded war meant to them. "We felt the need to hear each other, to talk to each other, to explain to ourselves what had happened to us in those six short days that had lasted so long," one of the editors wrote. The fighters who speak in this volume are almost all children of the kibbutzim, a group which dominated elite military units in those days and which was viewed as the cream of that first generation of post-Independence sabras. The number of officers who were raised in kibbutzim was far beyond their proportion in the population as a whole, with a similar disproportionate number of dead and wounded. The book, published just after the war, remains a testament to the bravery and humanity of the generation that grew up in pre-'67 Israel but participated in a war of self-defense that expanded Israel's size by a factor of four. The '67 warriors were conquerors, or so the world viewed them, but they saw themselves as anything but. In fact, the kind of religious and nationalistic triumphalism that is a significant part of Israeli discourse today is almost completely absent in this volume. (Of course, these men were kibbutzniks, brought up on Zionist socialism and not, for the most part, on religion or extreme nationalism.) After one soldier says that the acquisition of territory - Jerusalem, in particular - justified the 776 Israeli dead, another, named Amos, responded he was happy he could now visit east Jerusalem and the Western Wall, but he would happily "visit as a tourist, just so long as there is peace." He talks about one of his friends, Micha. "He was killed in the attack on the police school [in Jerusalem]. About 24 or 25. I went to see his parents. A few of the kibbutz members were there and the mother was crying…. One of the kibbutz members said, 'Look, after all, we've liberated Jerusalem. He didn't die for nothing.' "'The mother burst into sobs and said, 'The whole Western Wall isn't worth Micha's little finger, as far as I'm concerned.'" The soldier went on: "If what you're telling me is that we fought for our existence, then I'd say it was worth Micha Hyman's little finger. But if you tell me that we fought for a wall, then it wasn't worth his little finger. I have feelings for those stones, but they are only stones. Micha was a person. A man. If dynamiting the Western Wall would bring Micha back to life, then I'd say, 'Blow it up!' That's how I feel about it." Even in those early days, a time before Israelis (or the world) used the term Palestinian, these soldiers were uncomfortable with the occupation. A soldier named Menachem says, "I felt uneasy being a victorious army…. If I had any clear awareness of World War II and the fate of European Jewry, it was when I was going up the Jericho road and the refugees were going down it. I identified directly with them. When I saw parents dragging their children along by the hand, I actually saw myself being dragged along by my own father." BUT A mere six years later Israel was fighting for its life in a war that resulted in three times as many dead as the Six Day War. Little Israel with the vulnerable pre-'67 borders defeated Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon in a week and lost 776 soldiers. In 1973, holding territory four times as large as the state, 2,688 lost their lives in a war that lasted three weeks. And, as we saw during this past miserable week, 39 years later, the war continues. That is not what the soldiers of the Six Day War anticipated, although they did fear the possibility. Ehud says that to avoid more war, there is "the need for a new outlook… in the sphere of security. We have to try unconventional methods of achieving peace. That is the top priority." But Zvi dismisses the thought. "You would have thought that the problems would change. And you find that they haven't. I don't believe it's going to change either…. As I see it, all this is a result of the government's attitude which is becoming more and more entrenched." Of course, neither Zvi or any of his comrades in arms could have imagined hundreds of thousands of settlers in the territories, two intifadas, suicide bombers and a growing segment of the Israeli population which urges soldiers not to follow orders which they believe contradict biblical precepts about not giving up territory. They certainly could not have imagined, not even in their worst dreams, that their army chief-of-staff, general Yitzhak Rabin, would become prime minister only to be murdered by a Jew for pursuing peace with the Palestinians. One wonders what these soldiers, those that survived the Yom Kippur and subsequent wars, think now when they look back at their experiences in 1967. Maybe they don't look back at all, not when they see their children and, in some cases, grandchildren again on the front lines - front lines which now extend into the heart of cities like Sderot. Thirty-nine years later, the Six Day War has yet to end. Who would have guessed that its most successful and promising days occurred that very first week? The writer is the director of Policy Analysis for Israel Policy Forum.