What a difference 50 years can make

The world in the spring of 1967 was very different than the world as it is today.

Israeli troops near Rafah during the Six Day War (photo credit: DAVID RUBINGER,GPO)
Israeli troops near Rafah during the Six Day War
(photo credit: DAVID RUBINGER,GPO)
One of the most important things to say about the spring of 1967 is just how different the world was then. The memory of the Holocaust was a wound still fresh. Israel was a mere 19 years old – a fledgling experiment in Jewish nationalism. There was no start-up nation, no Birthright, no Gal Gadot. AIPAC was a hint of what it is today. All that which we take for granted today regarding Israel’s security, Israel’s place on the world stage, the political muscle of American Jewry – none of that was the case in 1967.
Today we see a Middle East in disarray and at odds with itself. In 1967 the Arab states were united in their shared hope to drive the Jews into the Mediterranean. As for the movement for Palestinian liberation, if the West Bank was occupied, then it was not by Israel but by the Jordanians, who never once sought to establish a sovereign Palestinian state. Jerusalem was divided, Jewish holy sites off limits – a vulnerable and isolated Jewish state in the very inhospitable neighborhood called the Middle East.
Were it thus to have just been the case that, in the shadow of the Shoah, Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser made repeated genocidal calls for Israel’s destruction – dayenu.
That would have been enough to provoke Israel to act in self-defense. Egypt’s expulsion of the UN peacekeeping force from the Sinai and the closing of the Straits of Tiran would escalate the situation into a full-blown crisis. Israeli leadership looked unsuccessfully to their allies for support.
Reserves were called up, gas masks hoarded and graves dug in anticipation of the coming onslaught.
My parents, then living in London, can clearly recall the desperate feeling of a Jewish People on the precipice of another Holocaust. The chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Immanuel Jakobovitz, called for an emergency solidarity rally to be held at the Royal Albert Hall. All those in attendance were called on to do one of three things. First: if one could go to Israel and defend the Jewish state – then one must do so. Second: if one could not go – then one must make it one’s obligation to ensure that the interests and affairs of those who were going would be tended to in their absence. Third, if one was not able to perform the first or the second task – then one must give of one’s resources to support those efforts aimed at defending Israel in its hour of need.
My father, a surgeon in attendance at the London rally, got on a plane to Israel. As the flight began its descent into Tel Aviv, two Israeli fighter jets escorted the plane to the airport. Abba Eban, it turned out, was on that same flight returning to Israel (though my father continues to believe the escort was for him). Throughout the war and in the weeks to follow my father worked at Tel Hashomer (now Sheba) Hospital performing skin grafts, reconstructions and other trauma-related surgeries – meeting both David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin as they visited the wounded soldiers. My mother soon followed; my parents just one of many stories of Diaspora Jews who stepped up in Israel’s dark hour.
In the days following the war a dear friend and colleague of my late grandfather Rabbi I.K. Cosgrove, Rabbi Louis Rabinovitz, invited my father to Jerusalem for Shavuot.
On the morning of June 15, 1967, Rabbi Rabinowitz took my father into the Old City, toward the newly liberated Western Wall, for the festival. With the rising of the sun, some 200,000 Jews, secular, religious, old and young, were able to do that which Jews had aspired to do for millennia.
To visit our most sacred site – to dance, pray and sing with the Torah and each other in our sovereign and undivided capital. The dawn, literally and figuratively, of a new day – a tikkun in the historical, geopolitical and theological drama of our people.
The world in the spring of 1967 was very different than the world as it is today. It is because it is so very different that we must recall our history, personally, proudly and unapologetically. We must do so, first and foremost, because in our Etch-A-Sketch era where the retrieval of history is as fleeting as a Facebook feed, where Israel is labeled “Goliath” and not “David,” our children must understand that the aggressions of the Middle East did not begin with Israel, but with a hostile Middle East that has repeatedly denied the right of the Jewish state to exist.
For the enemies of Israel, the rewriting of history is never a mere parlor game, but an ideologically driven effort to undercut our right to a Jewish national home. To recall the Six Day War as a bellicose act by Israel in order to deny the Palestinians statehood is a telling both untrue and representative of a nefarious agenda to delegitimize Israel. The occasion of 50 years since the Six Day War serves as a wake up call for us all to commit to learning our history, for in that learning we will find not only the truth, but find ourselves to be better advocates on behalf of the Jewish state.
Second, we must know our history because we must know how very different the world is today than it was 50 years ago. Israel today is not the Israel of 1967 and that is exactly the point. The question of Israel’s policies toward the settlements, toward nurturing a two-state solution, are questions whose answers lie in large part but not entirely in Israel’s hands. Israel must be cautious lest, Samson-like, it cause the edifice to tumble down upon itself. To insist on framing our present moment as akin to 1967 is to do ourselves an intellectual and moral disservice in that it provides Israel a free pass on the manifold challenges presently on its docket. If we truly want our children to see an Israel at peace with her neighbors, then both Israel and the pro-Israel community must stop viewing the world through the prism of 1967, 1938, Masada and otherwise.
Most of all, as Jews we must know and tell our history because it is in the repeated engagement of our narrative that our story is transformed into memory. This is the secret sauce of Jewish identity. That moment when our history, joyous or somber, redemptive or calamitous, becomes collective memory, for it is at that moment that we ourselves are written into the story of our people. On this momentous anniversary, it is incumbent upon us to remember history, to make that history memory and to weave ourselves into the eternal tapestry of Jewish identity. Last Wednesday morning at about 3:30 a.m., my daughter and her friends walked to Jerusalem’s Old City in order to celebrate Shavuot. As they neared the Jewish Quarter, the crowds swelled and with the first rays of sunlight, they arrived en masse at the Western Wall.
At the egalitarian section my daughter chanted Torah, read from the book of Ruth and, in the midst of a mixed multitude of secular and religious Jews, felt joy and appreciation for the gift of being able to do that which Jews had longed to do for thousands of years – what her grandfather had done 50 years ago to the very day.
Today I think of the golden sunrises my father and daughter witnessed standing at the Western Wall and I wonder. I wonder if the thought ever crossed my father’s mind in 1967 that one day a granddaughter of his would stand in that very place 50 years henceforth. I wonder if my daughter could imagine what it must have been like for her grandfather to have stood at there on that historic Shavuot of liberation 50 years prior. I wonder if their ancestors, exiled for thousands of years, could have ever imagined that their descendants would one day would rejoice in this “solitary city in whose heart lies a wall.”
And then I begin to dream, not about the past – but about the future. I dream of a day 50 years from now when one of my grandchildren will stand at the Western Wall in a Jerusalem undisturbed, in a Jewish state living at peace with her neighbors. It is a day for which I dream, a day for which I pray, a day for which we must all commit to working toward. No different than generations before, as Diaspora Jews we must always be ready to step up for Israel. That day, that golden sunrise signaling a new era is not yet here. Like the Jerusalem of Gold, its outline sits on the horizon just beyond our reach. And yet, in the darkness of the night its distant light beckons us to draw near, as we ever so slowly approach to greet the dawn.
The author is a rabbi at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.