Rabbi Mel Gottlieb: Who won the Six-Day War?

Forty-eight years ago, on June 5, 1967, I sat in a malben, a home for the elderly, on the border of Jerusalem, at 106 Chevron street in Talpiot.
June 4, 2015

Forty-eight years ago, on June 5, 1967, I sat in a malben, a home for the elderly, on the border of Jerusalem, at 106 Chevron St. in Talpiot. How did I get there? After graduating college, I went to Israel to study in a yeshiva before entering rabbinical school. We studied Talmud day and night for more than 10 hours each day and lost weight on a diet of eggs, tomatoes, potatoes and Israeli salads with lots of oil. We shivered at night, crouching close to the gas heaters, and rarely had hot water for showers. But we were committed to mastering the ethical teachings of the Talmud; the theme was the Laws of Damages (Nezikin). Not only did we learn the intricacies and severities of damaging another person, but also that another person’s property was precious in the eyes of the owner and thus needed to be honored and protected. Bottom line, it was sinful to harm another person, even if one had to sacrifice one’s own comfort and suffer loss through honoring the rights of others. 

After I’d been in Israel for 10 months, in May 1967, war drums sounded in the streets of Jerusalem. Arab armies on all sides of Israel were threatening to drive the new state into the sea. The rabbis instructed us to ignore the shots intermittently heard in the streets and devote ourselves to our Talmud study.

On the morning of June 5, the punctual, dedicated rabbis did not arrive at the yeshiva, but instead phoned us and instructed us to call two taxis and come to different rabbis’ homes. War had broken out. As we entered the taxis, there was heavy gunfire in the neighborhood, and the Haga police ordered the taxis to halt, so we were forced to go instead to the senior home across the street from the yeshiva. We entered the Jerusalem stone building, its darkened hallways without electricity, and found elderly men and women frightened and worried. Many were Holocaust survivors, and the sounds of the planes overhead and large Jordanian howitzer guns hitting buildings along the street created panic in their voices. We helped the elderly gather together their belongings and spent the six days of the war in the building’s basement area, rationing food and praying for a miracle.

When radio information was restored, we learned a miracle had occurred and that Israel had experienced a tremendous victory, even managing to enter the Old City of Jerusalem, which had been divided since 1948. The feeling of elation was electric, and we opened the doors of the home squinting into the sun for the first time in days. We hoped and dreamed that this might be the ushering in of the new era of peace between neighbors that the Prophets predicted.

The Jewish holiday of Shavuot had arrived, and we all marched together, singing and dancing toward our cherished destination, the Western Wall. Walking through the narrow, cobblestone streets of the Old City, there were Arab merchants huddled against their shops — nervous and worried, and little children attempting to sell trinkets and memorabilia to the Jewish marchers. Two young children, shy with large brown eyes, approached me and said, “We don’t hate you; we only hate the Americans who provide weapons to the Israelis.” I kept my American identity to myself and nodded a reassuring smile at them as I continued excitedly to the wall. When we reached the plaza that had been rapidly opened up, there were thousands of people celebrating in dance and song in a rapturous rhythm, and we all felt blessed by this miraculous turn of events in our lifetime.

But my dream of two peoples living together side by side was soon shattered. The Arab nations, having experienced a heavy defeat, met and decided immediately that no peace accord could be reached at this time. The balance of power had been reversed, and the victorious Israelis could not reap the fruit of their victory until clear conditions promoting empowerment and equal partnership could be created. Perhaps the hope of a reversal of this defeat was prominent in the minds and hearts of the Arabs, but it was clear that my fantasy of a quick rapprochement between enemies would not be realized. 

Ironically, that whole year I was immersed in studying the Laws of Damages and how careful we had to be in the treatment of others, even enemies. And here before me was the possibility of actually interacting with my “enemy” in a loving manner. Could my simple, small act have a helpful impact on a wound in the other that was so deep and raw? The complexity of this task was overwhelming, especially when extremists on both sides, both suffering wounds and mirroring the way they saw each other through lenses of fear, anger and hatred, acted out in cycles of violence. Was I still obligated to try to enact the sensitive laws of damages in the face of others who now hated me? A small voice within me answered, “Yes.” For as Mishna Avot (2:21) says, “It is not up to me to complete the work, to find the ‘right’ solution, but neither am I free to desist from beginning it.” We are each called to do the godly act in the moment, not to worry about the result. 

Two weeks after the war, when we had returned to the yeshiva housed in an old, large Jerusalem stone two-story home, a large Arab family, two parents and their eight children, knocked on the door of the yeshiva with a large key in their hands. They claimed that this had been their home until 1948, when they left during the war. It was hard for me to comprehend that reality. I had never encountered the possibility before. But we welcomed them with some tea, and communicated human to human, without language but with an understanding heart. They left humbly, having been heard, and I never saw them again.

Two weeks before, we had marched to the Western Wall in joy and hope. Now, 48 years later, the marches through the walls of the Old City are not as hopeful. These marches are still filled with joy, but also with anger and a few hostile signs deprecating the Palestinians — encouraging them to leave the city. My hope is that we keep the the Laws of Damages at the forefront of our human souls, and that we will each do our part to heal wounds through human interaction — listening and hearing the distinct narrative of the “stranger,” and understand that each of us must painfully sacrifice our optimal dreams for the sake of peace and justice. 

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, Ph. D.  is president emeritus at the Academy for Jewish Religion California.

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