September 23, 2019

Alfred Ozair on the Six-Day War: ‘We paid with blood’

You wouldn’t necessarily know it to look at him, seated behind the sliding window of his locksmith business in a strip mall in Tarzana, but Alfred Ozair has seen his fair share of history. During his 84 years, he followed a Jewish migration from Iraq to Israel and finally to Little Israel in the San Fernando Valley.

During a recent interview, Ozair sat in the lobby of the dog grooming business that provides the sole entrance to his workspace, and produced old documents and photographs, including one of him and his battalion in 1967. In the picture, Ozair and his fellow soldiers crowd the doorway of a Jordanian police station in Nablus, and Ozair holds up a fist in the air, flashing a wide grin.

Ozair was part of the auxiliary force that entered the West Bank immediately after it was captured, and he remained there until he was sent home about two weeks later. His service was brief and rather uneventful, he said, but it left an impression. Even 50 years later, he recalls seeing the bodies of fallen soldiers in Nablus, covered in flies, because there hadn’t been any time to remove them.

The experience was sobering for him, even as he basked in the glory of Israel’s swift victory. So why did he look quite so happy in the picture?

He gestured at the photo. “When I am here, nobody killed me — I am happy.”

But to hear him tell it, there was more to the look of pride and victory he wore that day: The story of his Jewish generation goes from oppression and fear to strength and triumph in 1967.

Ozair was born in Baghdad in 1934 at a time when Jews in Arab lands were considered second-class citizens, living in fear of persecution by anti-Semitic government officials or angry mobs. In 1941, a pogrom swept the city, resulting in the death of some 180 Jews. Things didn’t get much better after that.

“The day of the declaration of the independence of Israel, in 1948, we were in the ghetto of Baghdad, hiding,” Ozair said. “We were afraid that they would come in a mob and kill us.”

Through all that, Jews were barred from carrying weapons. So when he and other young Jews arrived in Israel and found themselves armed in defense of their state, it was an entirely foreign feeling to them.

“The Jews in the Arab countries, especially the youth, they came to Israel, they have rifles, they have tanks,” he said, his voice breaking with delight. “This — this is something different. We felt the independence, we felt the liberty.”

In none of the three wars where Ozair was a participant did he see actual combat, but his work was nonetheless crucial: He was responsible for the upkeep and repair of the electrical systems that powered essential equipment, such as radios.

In 1956, his first wartime experience, this role put him on the cutting edge of Israel’s technology. At that time, he recalled, the army still employed pigeons to carry messages back and forth.

“Don’t be surprised,” he said. “This is the army of Israel as it was. We had nothing. From nothing, we do everything. Nu!”

He remembers his deployment to the West Bank in 1967 as a time of great fear. Israel’s cities became ghost towns as they emptied of adult men. People in Tel Aviv boarded up their windows in case the city was bombed. So many people were drafted that high schoolers were called on to deliver the mail because all the letter carriers had been deployed to the front.

Mothers sent their sons to the front knowing they might never come home, but they sent them with pride and stoicism, Ozair said. Each young man was a drop in the bucket of the war effort. “You collect water, drop by drop, and you have a quantity of water,” he said. “With this water, you can do something.”

Ozair is concerned that these days, Jewish youth doesn’t recognize the sacrifice of his generation, and that instead they feel Israel was simply handed to the Jewish people with minimal strife and struggle. “It’s not like that,” he said. “We built Israel, stone by stone. And we have to be proud.

“They have to know how much we paid. We paid not with money. We paid with blood.”

Nowadays, Ozair’s life is tranquil, as he likes it. In 1989, following his brother, he and his two children moved to Santa Monica, and he went into business as a locksmith. A few years later, he moved to the location in Tarzana, where he’s been ever since. He keeps 30 or 40 books, in Hebrew and Arabic, in his cramped storefront, squeezed between the dog groomer and an Israeli-run flower shop.

His business hasn’t made much money since the early 2000s, but he doesn’t really mind that. He pays $600 a month for the small space on a stretch of Ventura Boulevard where Hebrew is almost as common as English, and he spends his free time reading and watching the decades pass.

“I am not looking for money,” he said. “I’m looking to live a good life.”