Passover seders this year will be held as the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War approaches. The stunning, lightning-speed victory of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in June 1967 made history. But, a half-century later, the only thing remaining clear is the decisiveness of the victory.
I was 16, in high school, and I remember when I realized an extraordinary moment in Jewish history was approaching. I was outside an older friend’s house and was bewildered about why he was red-faced and crying. He told me Israel was on the verge of war against the armies of six Arab countries, and he feared Israel was badly out-soldiered and out-gunned. He talked defeat and the end of the eternal Jewish dream.
His outpouring of emotion alerted me to the importance of what was unfolding. For a sheltered, pampered baby boomer, it was an awakening to understand that Jewish blood was on the line again, and that, as a Jew, the war in Israel was my war, too. I didn’t learn that in Hebrew school. I literally learned it on the street experiencing my friend’s tears.
In the normal and anticipated twinning of David-and-Goliath syndrome journalism and public opinion, Israel was seen by some in 1967 as the heroic David, whose courage was to be lauded, against the amassing Arab armies. Israel was at first cheered in some parts of the world. Israel appeared to be the victim and citizens of the world, then and now, almost always feel an instinctive human obligation to support the victimized.
The western media of the day told the stories and showed the moving pictures of the IDF first defending and then marching on to take the Sinai, Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Full-page photos in Life Magazine showed Israeli soldiers praying at the Western Wall for the first time, and there were endless photos of Egyptian tanks abandoned in the Sinai. Globally, Jews took pride in a shellacking of monumental proportions.
The Six-Day War seems like it was a lifetime ago. Since then, there have been so many other Israeli wars, skirmishes and terrorist attacks that those heady days of the 1960s serve as a glaring reminder that the military victory only brought Israel so far – because peace cannot be imposed, peace cannot be bought, and, despite the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians have so far proven unable to negotiate a peace agreement.
We know that, 50 years later, the David and Goliath roles are dramatically reversed, and Jewish communities around the world have to live with the consequences of Israel being one of the most vilified countries in the world. It is so hard to say that, and so hard to hear that, but it is today’s reality. The visceral backlash against Israel now touches Jews everywhere in the world.
Fifty years after the Six-Day War, the principles of the moribund and discredited peace process remain hopelessly tangled in webs of historic ambiguity. Yasser Arafat talked peace, but, somehow, lost his tongue and conviction the moment he arrived home. Israeli governments supported a two-state solution, but, for decades, kept building settlements. Language, on both sides, was never clear and precise. Clear and precise language could always lead to true feelings and true intent.
Of interest and concern is how the 1967 war milestone in June will be marked in Israel and in the occupied territories. It will probably be just like 1967. The Israelis will celebrate a ‘great victory,’ while the Palestinians will wallow in the ongoing ‘disaster’ of defeat. For Jews outside Israel, it sadly means wondering how many more cemetery desecrations, or worse, might be triggered by an Israeli celebration.
I remember going to South Africa in the 1990s to report on a Commonwealth meeting just after Nelson Mandela became president. I was struck by black and white people sharing simple conversations. I looked at black and white policemen working together and recalled that not so long ago those white policemen were beating and killing those black guys.
I found myself hoping that, one day, Israelis and Palestinians, as a first step, would also put hate behind them.
Hope is all we have left.