Forty years ago, Israel launched a preemptive attack against belligerent Arab nations and emerged victorious, bringing under its control East Jerusalem, the West Bank,the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. It is called the Six-Day War because it was over in six days.
The war is not over. The truth is, not even the battlefields are silent.
In 1967, Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Dayan resisted attacking the Gaza Strip — he didn’t want the burden of more than a quarter-million Palestinian refugees and house-to-house combat. But as Michael Oren relates in his definitive history, “Six Days of War” (Oxford, 2002), Palestinian positions within Gaza opened fire on Israeli settlements nearby, and Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin overruled Dayan.
Now the Hamas leaders continue to order Qassam rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza, which Israel returned to the Palestinians two years ago. In Gaza, the war continues.
On the eve of battle in ’67, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol penned a letter to Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin that explained the next day’s preemptive strike against Egypt: “Surrounded on all sides by hostile forces, we are engaged in a life and death struggle … to prevent [Egyptian President Gamal] Nasser from fulfilling his goal of repeating the crimes perpetrated by Hitler against the Jewish people.”
Now Israel has a peace treaty with Egypt, but how hard is it to imagine the current Israeli leader, or the next one, writing the same letter, substituting for Nasser the name of the president of Iran? The war continues.
When Israel conquered the Jordanian-controlled West Bank, it had no plans for dealing with its unexpected, unplanned responsibility. The Israeli Cabinet stayed up through the night debating what should be done with the 1.2 million Palestinians now under Israeli rule. A long occupation, two intifadas and several peace processes later, that war is far from over.
The war continues, too, in the heart and soul of American Jewry. You can’t underestimate the impact of those six days in June on Jews outside of Israel. In a fell swoop, the war challenged if not obliterated the archetype of Jew-as-nebbish — something not even Larry David can resurrect.
Gen-X Jews felt free to twist and challenge and reshape their Jewish identity, because they were suckled on this great story of Jewish invincibility. What couldn’t be wiped out by seven Arab armies will certainly, they reckoned, survive the magazine Heeb.
And a generation of Jewish intellectuals, the neo-conservatives, imbibed how swiftly military could reshape the entire Middle East — and foolishly came to believe that America could do the same in Iraq.
Not even Israel’s near-extermination in the Yom Kippur War, its recklessness in the first Lebanon War and its failures during last year’s second Lebanon War have shaken American Jewry’s belief that Israel, as vulnerable and reviled and besieged as it is, will somehow triumph in the end. Our collective chest is still puffed out, our collective gut sucked in.
American Jews, who didn’t actually fight the war, have in some sense been compensating ever since. Israel’s victory inspired, in historian David Biale’s words, “unprecedented cohesion and purpose to Jewish political activity.” The assertion of American Jewish input at the highest levels of statecraft and the rise of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee all followed 1967.
Awed and humbled by Israeli corage and sacrifice, American Jews tended to suspend their own good sense and quiet their own reasoned voices as Israel embarked on a disastrous, self-defeating policy of settlement and occupation.
So, the war that began 40 years ago goes on. “I think you’re going to have a major Middle East war,” said U.N. Gen. Indar Jit Rikhye on the eve of battle, “and I think we will still be sorting it out 50 years from now.”
But what about 50 years from now?
As we are busy celebrating what happened in Israel 40 years ago this week, let’s try to imagine Israel in another 40 years.
There are only three alternatives.
Israel could hold onto the territory it captured in the war and become a fortress state, gradually bereft of international support, including that of the United States, besieged by endless war and terror and committed to inhumane policies in the name of security.
Or it could hold onto that territory and become a state of chaos — the chaos erupting the moment Palestinians decide to forgo a two-state solution and opt for one democratic state on all the land Israel controls.
“An inversion of the Palestinian position,” Gidi Grinstein of the Re’ut Institute told me, “is the single-most dramatic threat to Israel’s national security. And it may not be that far away.”
Or it could be a state with smaller boundaries, with a democratic Jewish majority and productive relations with its Arab neighbors.
Those are the choices left to Israel by the Six-Day War, and the choice it makes will be the last fateful battle of that war.
And it will be fought among Jews.