My Word: War and peace; war and peace

This June, 30 years after My War, I continue to pray for peace – like all those girls-turned-mothers before me.

Signposts atop the Golan Heights 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Signposts atop the Golan Heights 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
You were probably too young to remember much of the Six Day War, a colleague said to me the other week. And she was right. I don’t remember much. I was six years old in June 1967 and living in London. I have, in fact, only one memory of it: My parents told me and my two siblings that we might need to bring an Israeli child into our family. I don’t recall whether the words “orphan” or “homeless” were ever stated, but they nonetheless hovered in the air. To my lasting shame, my reaction was one word: “No!” Actually, it was that one word petulantly spat out three times: “No! No! No!”
Had it been suggested that we take in an evacuated pet – an unfortunate dog, cat or (my dream) a horse – my response would undoubtedly have been different, but I was only six; I can proudly say that since then I have at least made up for my childhood lack of sympathy with the fate of the Jewish state.
The memories were raised as I looked for photographs to illustrate a story on the Six Day War. The images that come to mind are the usual iconic David Rubinger photograph of the three paratroopers looking up at the Western Wall or then-defense minister Moshe Dayan with a smile seeming to stretch up to his eye patch entering Jerusalem’s reunited Old City. But these were not the photos I was handling. The pictures on my desk showed children and yeshiva students digging trenches outside tenement blocks; sandbags being placed around hospitals; and ground being readied to cope with mass burials.
In June 1967, the country was praying for a miracle but preparing for disaster – destruction, even. There were jokes about the last person leaving turning the lights off at the airport. I don’t know how real the plans to evacuate children out of the country were, but I have since met many, many people my age who spent that period in shelters and bunkers, listening to transistor radios and waiting for the worst.
By the Yom Kippur War in 1973, I was already a Zionist and not only would I have leapt at the chance to help Israeli children in need, I flirted with the idea of running away and joining in the war effort. (At 12, I didn’t realize that the last thing the country needed in an emergency would be an extra, emotional preteen who had run away from home.)
When the next war came round, in June 1982, I was on a post-army service trip back in London. It didn’t take me long to change my plans and return home. At a time when phones were rare, my brother, who was serving in a combat unit, at some point managed to call and reeled off a long list of fallen comrades. Not long after that, I received a letter from a friend telling me of the death of someone we had both been close to on kibbutz. I flew back on an El Al flight with almost no tourists; nearly all the passengers were returning for reserve duty or to help somehow in a time of national emergency.
I was already very familiar with the effects of the constant Katyusha shelling and terror attacks on Galilee stemming from Lebanon.
That was, and remains, “My War.” The phrase itself is chilling. Even worse is the way that it is generally known as The First Lebanon War. It is never a good thing when you have to number wars or terror attacks.
My parents’ generation talks of The War and means the horrors of the Holocaust (although all these years later, some of that generation still cannot describe the hell they survived as children). My own parents were obviously scarred by the Blitz – a fact which became apparent when my mother unfailingly heard air-raid sirens ahead of me in the 1991 Gulf War.
Some of my older friends are still traumatized by the fighting and heavy losses of the Yom Kippur War.
It is depressing to list wars by year, decade after decade.
At the beginning of 2009, during Operation Cast Lead – a war against the missile barrage from Gaza, by any other name – my neighbor noted how sad it was that our children were packing parcels for soldiers on the frontlines just as she had done as a kid. Our children were wrapping up cookies, chocolates and Bamba (no war, in Israeli collective opinion, should be fought without the help of the peanut-flavored snack which first found favor in the Six Day War).
THE COUNTRY has changed a great deal since it faced the likelihood of annihilation in June 1967. Anyone who considers “the settlements” the source of all evil needs to explain why the surrounding Arab countries tried again and again to wipe Israel off the map before they existed. I often think of Ephraim Kishon’s satire So Sorry We Won, written about the Six Day War.
Today, the legitimacy of the country is often called into question, but it does not face the same existential threat it did in those days. American parents occasionally contact me about the safety of their offspring here in the face of Iranian nuclearization, but most Israeli parents aren’t even vaguely considering evacuating children to “safer shores.”
For all we complain, life in Israel is good – another miracle. And there are no safer shores. This June, we’re not trembling in the face of the Syrian threat – it is the citizens of our northern neighbor who are showing the world the true face of the Assad regime.
Another note: Not only do I not apologize for Israel winning the Six Day War (against the odds), I can say I feel much safer with Israelis developing agriculture, viniculture and tourism on the Golan Heights than with the possibility that Bashar Assad or any other Syrian dictator would be cultivating his killing fields in an area overlooking the Galilee.
The years of war and peace have taught me several lessons I couldn’t have understood as a six-year-old but can’t ignore today. One lesson is that the existence of the Jewish state is what ensures the safety of the Jewish people wherever they might be. And the same enemies who are threatening the Jewish state are also threatening the rest of the world: Islamist terrorists and Iran and its allies and proxies including Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah (and even North Korea).
Another conclusion is that restraint is an admirable quality, one we should continue to teach six-year-olds. At a national level, however, restraint and deterrence don’t go hand-in-hand. Even the average sixyear- old facing a neighborhood bully realizes that ignoring the threats and attacks does not always make them go away. Sometimes you have to hit back, even if you’re going to be scolded for it.
I have learned, too, that withdrawing from territory for emotional or political reasons without ensuring adequate alternative security arrangements does not solve the conflict. And relying on UN forces does not count as adequate – ask the survivors of the massacres in Syria carried out as monitors helplessly look on.
This June, 30 years after My War, I continue to pray for peace – like all those girls-turned-mothers before me. And I have another prayer: Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz have been missing since the Battle of Sultan Yakoub in the first week of the war; IAF navigator Ron Arad has been missing since 1986. The Lebanon War will not be over until the fates of these soldiers is known and their families granted closure. Nor will any peace process be complete without this.

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post. [email protected]