How should we remember the Six Day War?

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, a struggle is already developing over how this landmark historical event is commemorated and interpreted.

Defense minister Moshe Dayan and chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin (second right) in the Old City of Jerusalem, June 7, 1967 (photo credit: GPO)
Defense minister Moshe Dayan and chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin (second right) in the Old City of Jerusalem, June 7, 1967
(photo credit: GPO)
ON THE one hand, the Israeli government and its allies and supporters abroad would no doubt much prefer to focus solely on the war itself, recalling it as an attempt by the Arab world to destroy Israel and throw its Jewish population into the sea. In this telling of the story, Israel’s stunning military triumph emerges as an almost divinely inspired event, culminating in the extraordinary reunification of Jerusalem.
Some, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will no doubt argue that not much has actually changed in the last half century. The Arabs surrounding Israel refused to accept its existence then, they will say, and many still refuse to accept its existence as a Jewish state today.
And, of course, Israel also faces deadly threats to its existence from the likes of Iran, ISIS, Hezbollah and Hamas, which make no secret of their desire to wipe Israel off the map.
Of course, that ignores 40 years of peacemaking between Israel and the Arab world that have yielded the substantial achievements of peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. It also disregards the official recognition by the Palestinians of Israel as an independent state almost a quarter of a century ago.
Palestinians and their allies, in contrast, are already seeking to tell a vastly different story, seeing the war as ushering in 50 years of Israeli occupation and denial of their legitimate rights by a brutal military authority in the service of a racist ideology.
In this narrative, there is no place for recalling past Arab attempts to snuff out Israel’s existence, nor for the stream of Arab and Islamic thought that, even today, cannot accept Jewish national rights in their historic homeland. Nonetheless, this narrative is likely to dominate much of the discourse in the international arena.
For some Jewish communities in the United States, the subject is simply too hot to handle. One senior official of a Jewish federation in a major US city recently told me her institution will largely skip over the Six Day War and look to the upcoming 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence in 2018 as a more suitable hook around which to build educational programming about Israel.
I believe celebration of 1967 is appropriate because the war did deliver our people from a potential tragedy. I am old enough to remember the fear and trepidation that gripped my Zionist family in the weeks preceding the war. Though it’s hard to believe now, many believed the armed forces of a country not yet 20 years old would be no match for the combined might of several Arab states. There was a palpable sense of dread that we were on the brink of a new catastrophe barely a generation after the Holocaust.
I also remember the relief and euphoria that swept over us as it became clear that little Israel had scored a stunning victory. I recall, as a 13-year-old in London, riding the school bus with a new pride, boasting of the victory to my friends.
It will be lovely to go back to that time and relive those emotions.
But, clearly, there is much, much more we need to talk about.
The Six Day War was a watershed in Israel’s development. It heralded the emergence as a national force of a new form of Zionism fueled by a quasi-messianic religious and nationalist zeal. It gave birth to the settlement movement. And it marked the beginning of what has turned into one of the longest military occupations of one people by another in modern history.
We owe it to ourselves to look honestly at what the experience of controlling and suppressing millions of Palestinians has done both to them and to us. This should be a time for a collective heshbon nefesh – an examination of our conscience and of the state of our national soul.
In discussing an existential threat of the past to Israel, we also should acknowledge and discuss the biggest existential threat to its future, namely a continuation of the occupation without any end in sight. Absent a two-state solution, Israel will soon face a fateful choice between remaining a democracy or remaining a homeland for the Jewish people with a Jewish majority. It won’t be able to do both.
So, yes, I would like to remember and celebrate the victory of 1967. But, once we’ve done celebrating, let’s talk.
Alan Elsner is special adviser to the president of J Street.