I celebrated my bar mitzvah on April 22, 1967 on Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat just before Passover. It’s hard to believe that a half-century has passed since I became a 13-year-old Jewish man.
My bar mitzvah year was historic. Every community, every school and every organization, it seemed, was in the midst of some significant project to mark Canada’s centennial. Expo 67, the biggest centennial project of them all, began its six-month run just a few days after my bar mitzvah.
As a Jewish community, we were happy to celebrate Canada’s milestone, and to virtually see the world at Expo. But our eyes were also on Israel, then just 19 years past its War of Independence. Another war seemed increasingly inevitable as Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, expelled the United Nations peacekeeping forces from Sinai and Gaza, and massed its troops near the Israeli border.
About six weeks after my bar mitzvah, on June 5, 1967, the war broke out. We feared for the very survival of the tiny country, the world’s only Jewish state. But, what would soon come to be known as the Six-Day War was over on June 10.
Israel had defeated the military forces of the surrounding Arab countries while capturing the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank and east Jerusalem from Jordan. Israel had secured its greatest ever military victory in its shortest ever war.
Israel and the Jewish Diaspora rejoiced particularly in the reunification of Jerusalem. The capital city had been divided since 1948 when the War of Independence ended with Israel in control of western Jerusalem and Jordan in control of eastern Jerusalem.
Eastern Jerusalem includes the Old City where sites like the Western Wall – a place holy to Jews for millennia – are located; a place which became forbidden to Jews in 1948. The Western Wall, or Kotel, was in the same city as the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, but Jews were forbidden to go there for the first 19 years of modern statehood.
As mentioned, we rejoiced in Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War and, particularly, in the reunification of Jerusalem. If ever there was an underdog of a country, surely it was Israel – surrounded by hostile Arab countries with massively larger territories, populations and militaries. That Israel prevailed in the war seemed like a miracle.
By 1967, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, was four years into his retirement and widely regarded as the country’s elder statesman. Ben-Gurion, too, rejoiced in the reunification of Jerusalem, and felt Israel should retain the Golan Heights for strategic reasons. But, Ben-Gurion believed the rest of the captured territories should be given back. He understood there were would be unintended consequences to the military victory.
“If I could choose between peace and all the territories which we conquered last year, I would prefer peace,” Ben-Gurion said in a 1968 interview (footage from which is included in the documentary film, “Ben-Gurion: Epilogue,” which was screened this month in Ottawa during the Israeli Film Festival).
Israel eventually signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and returned the Sinai to Egypt. But, by the time of those treaties, Egypt had relinquished any claim to Gaza and Jordan had relinquished any claims to the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem – leaving those areas to be settled in negotiations with the Palestinians.
Fifty years after the Six-Day War, Israel and the Palestinians have yet to reach the agreement they need to end the conflict with a two-state solution that ensures Israel the Jewish and democratic future it needs, and ensures Palestinians will be able to meet their own national aspirations.
While hopes of peace with the Palestinians have been raised and have fallen many times, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman – who, as foreign minister when I met him a few years ago in Ottawa, was an uncompromising hardliner – recently said an agreement with the Palestinians is “far closer” than it has ever been before.
Asked why, Liberman credited the arrival of U.S. President Donald Trump on the scene and the realization by Arab countries “that their problem is not Israel. Israel can be a solution to the problem.”
Can Liberman be right?