Remembering May 1967
Only once during my childhood did a television ever violate the sanctum of our family dining room. For the two weeks leading up to the Six Day War, a small TV stood on the buffet, and we all sat riveted during dinner listening to the U.N. debates. (Abba Eban’s speeches at the U.N. no doubt contributed to my lifelong fascination with the power of the well-spoken word.) The presence of a TV in that place from which it had heretofore been barred alerted my brothers and me to the tension in the air, like that of the Cuban Missile crisis six years earlier.
When my mother came into awaken us on the morning of June 5, she was crying. ” Israel is at war, and I’m taking all the money out of your bank accounts to buy Israel bonds,” she informed us. Our paltry savings were not likely to turn the tide, but the lesson was clear: All were expected to contribute to Israel’s survival.
That day in high school, I could not think about anything other than getting home to listen to the news. I debated asking my driving education instructor whether he would mind turning on the car radio. And I marveled that my fellow students seemed to be getting through the day pretty much as usual.
Thinking back, I find it strange how much more vivid are my memories of the tension during the two weeks leading up to the War than of the War itself. Certainly I don’t remember any of the euphoria described in Israeli accounts of the post-War period.
It would be another year and a half before our family visited Israel to survey the results of the war. Our first night in Jerusalem, we went to the Kotel, but nothing about that visit is etched in my memory. I remember far more clearly looking out of a window in the King David Hotel seven years earlier and my aunt describing how the Jordanian soldiers used to urinate on the Wall.
Visiting Hebron there was no sense of having regained our Biblical patrimony. My father commented that he had never experienced such an intense hatred as he felt coming from the Arabs in the city, and vowed never to return. He never did.
I WAS MADE CONSCIOUS of contrast between the intensity of my memories of the tense pre-War period and the vagueness of those of the War and its aftermath by something that Yossi Klein Halevi said this week at a panel on the Six Day War and sponsored by the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center. The world, he said, remembers only the Israeli victory of 1967; Jews remember May 1967 as well.
The waiting period leading up to the War resurrected Jewish fears of a second Holocaust within the space of a quarter century. News clips of howling Arab mobs in Cairo and Damascus vowing to make the streets of Israel run red with blood filled our TV screens, and were reinforced by Nasser’s explicitly genocidal rhetoric..
May 1967 made American Jews fully aware of how much they cared about Israel, and of the degree to which their ability to sleep at night depended on Israel’s security, says Halevi. Anti-Zionism as a pillar of one branch of American Reform was buried, at least temporarily, in May 1967.
Israelis were spared the images of Arab mobs baying for their blood, since Israel did not yet have TV, but the tension was unbearable. The papers reported that 10,000 graves were being dug in Tel Aviv to receive the war dead. The reserves were fully mobilized for two weeks before the war, at a cost of $20,000,000 daily to an economy already in a severe recession. IDF Chief of Staff Yitzchak Rabin had a temporary breakdown brought about by a combination of sleeplessness and the emotional strain of preparing and waiting for war.
Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was accused of placing the entire future of the Jewish people in danger by his refusal to order a pre-emptive strike against the Egyptians. When he stumbled and stuttered, while reading from a poorly prepared text, a few days before the outbreak of fighting, troops listening by radio were reported to break down crying.
Jews in Israel and around the world are again feeling jittery today. Ahmadinejad’s genocidal rhetoric reminds us of Nasser’s. The European boycotts and endless U.N. condemnations once again arouse the primordial Jewish fear of being totally isolated, with the whole world against us, just as DeGaulle’s announcement to Abba Eban that France was switching its allegiance to the Arabs, and his subsequent sneering about “domineering” Jews, left Israelis feeling cast off by their closest friend in the international arena.
Last summer’s war in Lebanon and the rain of missiles on the South, with no obvious response, have left us all feeling vulnerable, and the threat of a nuclear Iran has returned Holocaust metaphors to the national debate.
But the world acknowledges nothing of Jewish fears and grant them no legitimacy. June 1967 allowed Europeans, guilt-ridden by their complicity in the Holocaust, to deny any ongoing responsibility for ensuring Israel’s survival – a role in which it never felt comfortable. With 1967, the Palestinians were recast in European eyes as the new Jews, the Other, and the Jews as the new Nazis.
That inversion, Alain Finkielkraut constantly reminds us, has hardened into a theory so powerfully held that it remains impervious to any empirical evidence. The Other is always innocent, always blameless for his plight. It is pointless, in his view, for Jews to talk about the Arab attempts to wipe out Israel long before 1967, or of their failure to build a life for themselves today. No point either in pointing to the care received by Arabs in Israeli hospitals, or the rapid Palestinian population growth under “genocidal” Israeli rule. Where theory has entered, fact dare not tread.
So while Jews continue to remember May 1967, the rest of the world sees only the results of June 1967.
Appeared in today’s Jerusalem Post.