Nearly sixty-five years ago Israel declared its independence and won the war that secured a Jewish state. But its narrow and permeable postwar armistice lines permitted incessant cross-border terrorist raids. For Egypt, Syria and Jordan, the mere existence of a Jewish state remained an unbearable intrusion into the Arab Middle East. As Egyptian President Nasser declared, “The danger of Israel lies in the very existence of Israel.”
So it was, in the spring of 1967,that the noose tightened around the Jewish state. In April Syria bombarded Galilee kibbutzim from the Golan Heights. In May Egypt ordered the removal of UN forces from Sinai and advanced its army to the border with Israel. Arab radio promised “the extermination of Zionist existence.” Syrian Defense Minister Hafez Assad announced: “The time has come to enter into a battle of annihilation.”
Then Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, halting the flow of oil from Iran and severing its supply route to Asia. In early June Iraq joined the coalition to destroy Israel. By then nearly 500,000 enemy soldiers surrounded the Jewish state; thousands of fighter planes were poised to attack.
Apprehension of imminent annihilation – another Holocaust – swept through Israel. The army was mobilized. Bomb shelters were hastily built. Mass graves were dug. The hesitant Israeli prime minister, Levi Eshkol, delivered a stumbling radio address that sent waves of panic through the nation. Under intense pressure to act from military advisers, he reluctantly authorized a preemptive strike.
One month earlier, on Independence Day, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook had met with a gathering of his former students at the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva in Jerusalem. Like his father, the revered chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, he embraced Zionism, a commitment that marginalized the yeshiva among haredi Jews while its Orthodoxy isolated it from the secular Zionist majority.
Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda recalled his anguish in 1948 when the boundaries of war had severed the fledgling state of Israel from the biblical homeland of the Jewish people. Conquering Jordanians drove Jews from their Old City homes; their revered Hurva synagogue was destroyed; they were denied access to the Western Wall; the ancient cemetery on the Mount of Olives was desecrated; and Jerusalem was divided.
As his voice rose to bewail the partition of Eretz Yisrael Rabbi Kook suddenly cried out: “They have divided my land. Where is our Hebron? Have we forgotten it? And where is our Shechem? And our Jericho?” No one in Israel, a student realized, spoke that way. Ever since 1948 Israelis believed that “the Land of Israel ended where the state of Israel ended.”
But for the unrelenting Arab determination to annihilate the Jewish state, those temporary armistice lines might have remained permanent borders.
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Early in the morning of June 5, Israel launched the attack that instantly turned the tide of battle by decimating the Egyptian air force. But the transformative – and, for many, miraculous – moment came two days later. After desperate fighting in northern Jerusalem on Ammunition Hill, which claimed the lives of thirty-six Israeli soldiers, the way to the Old City was clear.
Tanks blasted open the Lion’s Gate and Israeli paratroopers poured through, sweeping across the site of the ancient Temples. Commander Mordechai Gur radioed: “Har HaBayit beyadenu” – the Temple Mount is in our hands.”
An intelligence officer recalled: “Though I’m not religious, I don’t think there was a man who wasn’t overwhelmed with emotion.”
After exultant Israeli soldiers descended through the Mughrabi Gate to the Western Wall, IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren arrived with a Torah scroll. He recited the mourner’s Kaddish for fallen soldiers, followed by the Shehechiyanu prayer of thanksgiving. Then he joyously blew his shofar. Euphoric troops, suddenly experiencing the convergence of their Israeli and Jewish identities, spontaneously burst into song, prayer – and tears.
A soldier approached the Wall: “The touch of my lips opened the gates of my emotions and the tears burst forth. A Jewish soldier in the State of Israel is kissing history with his lips.”
An Orthodox paratrooper wrote: “I believe that the hand of God was in my participation in the battle for the liberation and reunion of Jerusalem…. I felt as if I had been granted the great privilege of acting as an agent of God, of Jewish history.” Even a kibbutznik from the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement expressed his feelings in biblical verse: “Let us go into the house of the Lord, Our feet shall stand within Thy Gates, O Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:1-2).
Defense Minister Moshe Dayan arrived to place a note between the stones, as had been Jewish custom for centuries. He proclaimed: “We have reunited the city, the capital of Israel, never to part with it again.”
IDF Commander Yitzhak Rabin praised the soldiers whose sacrifices “have brought about redemption.” It was a triumphant moment of national unity and ecstasy that Israelis have not known since.
No less astonishing than the military victory was the religious resonance of the Six-Day War – named by the staunchly secular Rabin to echo the biblical days of creation. A true sabra, an unsentimental soldier who rarely showed emotion in public, Rabin could not conceal the spiritual meaning of the war for the soldiers who fought and survived to savor their victory.
Their “sense of standing at the very heart of Jewish history,” he acknowledged upon receiving an honorary degree at the newly restored Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus, had released “springs of feeling and spiritual discovery.” The paratroopers who conquered the Western Wall, he recalled, “leaned on its stones and wept.” Their sudden surge of emotion, “powerful enough to break through their habits of reticence, revealed as though by a flash of lightning truths that were deeply hidden.”
Rabin did not identify those truths, but many thousands of jubilant Israelis experienced them in the weeks following the war. Suddenly Jerusalem and the entire biblical homeland of the Jewish people in Judea and Samaria were accessible. As Dayan proclaimed: “We have returned to the [Temple] Mount, to the cradle of our nation’s history, to the land of our forefathers, to the land of the Judges, to the fortress of David’s dynasty.”
Israelis flocked to the Kotel and to Me’arat HaMachpelah, the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron, where Muslims had forbidden Jews from entering for seven centuries. They visited Rachel’s Tomb, outside Bethlehem, and Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus (biblical Shechem). Jericho was a popular destination. As one Israeli wrote disbelievingly to a friend: “All the things you read about in the Bible and in history become real right before your eyes.”
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The Six-Day War, the forty-fifth anniversary of which falls next week, remains the transformative event in the history of the state of Israel since independence. But it was not only a stunning military victory. No one captured its deep spiritual meaning better than Harold Fisch, professor of English at Bar-Ilan University. It was, he wrote in The Zionist Revolution, “a truly religious moment, the experience of miracle, of sudden illumination…. We were suddenly living in the fullness of our own covenant history.” Israelis “who had never known they were Jews suddenly awoke to their inheritance.”
In a fascinating collection of postwar conversations with soldiers from kibbutzim (published in English as The Seventh Day), the meaning of return – even to deeply secular Israelis – was revealed.
“When we heard of the conquest of Jerusalem,” a kibbutznik recounted, “there wasn’t a single one who didn’t weep, including me. Then, for the first time, I felt not the ‘Israelness’ but the Jewishness of the nation.”
Another soldier was deeply moved when he suddenly realized that “the whole of the Promised Land is ours.”
“Even though I’m not religious,” a kibbutznik recalled, “the Wall meant an awful lot to me…. It symbolizes everything.”
But not every Israeli was exhilarated. One of the interviewers, an aspiring young writer from Kibbutz Hulda named Amos Oz, would subsequently lament the triumph of “yeshiva students” over kibbutzniks. The “values, ideals, conscience, world view” he identified with secular Zionism were challenged by “victory and miracles, Redemption and the coming of the Messiah.”
Oz evoked “the elusive cunning of the biblical charm” of Judea and Samaria, but he rejected the biblical homeland of the Jewish people as “Arab, through and through.”
So it was that the most wondrous moment in the history of Israel since 1948 would become – and remain – the deepest source of division within the Jewish state. Once Rabbi Kook’s students returned to rebuild Gush Etzion south of Jerusalem, a cluster of kibbutzim that had been destroyed in 1948, and to Hebron, where no Jews had lived since the devastating pogrom in 1929, the religious Zionist challenge to secular Zionist hegemony began to transform Israel.
After the war, for security purposes, the ruling Labor government scattered small agricultural settlements and military outposts on the Golan Heights and in the Jordan Valley. Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon proposed additional settlements to preserve Me’arat HaMachpelah and Rachel’s Tomb “within the boundaries of the state of Israel.” But the future of Judea and Samaria remained unresolved. That summer the Arab states declared at Khartoum: “No peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel.”
It took the devastating shock of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the election of Menachem Begin as prime minister four years later to galvanize the settlement movement. After thirty years in the political wilderness, Begin faced exultant supporters on election night wearing a yarmulke and reciting psalms. Asked to form a new government he went to pray at the Western Wall. For the first time Israel had a prime minister who framed his politics within the language and symbols of Judaism.
But Begin’s decision to dismantle Sinai settlements as part of the peace treaty with Egypt, and his assurance of autonomy for West Bank Palestinians, galvanized religious Zionist settlers who sensed that their opportunity might be slipping away. “No government,” declared Rabbi Moshe Levinger, the founding father of the restored Hebron community, “has the authority or right to say that a Jew cannot live in all of the parts of the Land of Israel.”
Led by Gush Emunim, the “bloc of the faithful,” and supported by Minister of Agriculture Ariel Sharon, settlements began to sprout in Judea and Samaria. A generation of religious Zionists, inspired by the opportunity presented by the Six-Day War to return to the ancient homeland, became the impassioned – and widely despised – settlers who would transform the geography and politics of Israel.
* * * * *
Within a decade the surge of religious enthusiasm following the Six-Day War led to the emergence of a new Israel in which right-wing politicians and national religious groups ascended to political power and, for the first time, achieved a measure of Zionist legitimacy. The “bourgeois and hedonistic metropolis” of Tel Aviv, lamented literary scholar Dan Miron, had yielded to “the stronghold of nationalism and ultra-Orthodoxy” in Jerusalem.
To Israelis on the political left, an enlightened secular nation had been overwhelmed by religious zealotry, Khomeinism, and irrationality. From the rule of law under Supreme Court justices and Labor politicians Israel became a nation ruled by the “Messianic religious fanaticism” of rabbis and settlers who gave the Jewish state a bad name in Western cultural and political precincts. By 1984 (an appropriate literary year for such dire conclusions), there were warnings on the left of Israel being overtaken by “Dark Medieval Fascism.”
By now more than 300,000 Israelis live in Judea and Samaria. Most, however, are not the fierce religious Zionists who are endlessly castigated for illegally occupying “Palestinian” land. Many residents simply wanted new homes at affordable prices within an easy commute to Tel Aviv. The two largest settlements, abutting Jerusalem, are haredi enclaves whose residents sought escape for their families from inner-city congestion.
But they are all linked together as the despised “Jewish settlers” whom the world, joined by Israeli media, academic and literary luminaries, love to hate – for nothing more than their determination to build homes in the biblical Land of Israel.
Little attention is paid, in Israel or elsewhere, to the settlement rights guaranteed to Jews by international agreements spreading across forty-five years. The League of Nations Mandate of 1922 guaranteed to Jews “close settlement” west of the Jordan River. This was affirmed in Article 80 of the United Nations Charter, drafted in 1945 by Jewish representatives (and known as the “Palestine clause”). It protected the rights of “any peoples” and “the terms of existing international instruments” – an implicit reference to the Mandate guarantees.
UN Resolution 242, enacted after the Six-Day War, called only for the return of “territories,” not “the territories” or “all the territories” that Israel gained from Arab aggression – and then only upon “the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”
Testifying before the British Peel Commission in 1937, David Ben-Gurion had been asked to identify the source of the Jewish claim to Palestine. He responded succinctly: “The Bible is our mandate.”
Thirty years later, following the Six-Day War, he declared: “There is no redemption without extensive Jewish settlement.”
But the words of the Founding Father have been ignored by Israeli prime ministers, on the left and right, who realize that weakening the settlement movement would permanently eliminate the religious Zionist challenge to their shared vision of a secular, post-Zionist Israel.
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Ironically, the miraculous victory of 1967 that momentarily bridged the secular-religious chasm reaches its forty-fifth anniversary with Israelis more deeply polarized than ever. Whether the state of Israel will ultimately include the Land of Israel is the question that frames the wrenching struggle over Israel’s Jewish identity that remains the unresolved legacy of the Six-Day War.
Did the stunning military victory in an unwanted defensive war culminate in the “occupation” of someone else’s land – or the liberation of the ancient Jewish homeland?
The euphoric national cohesion prompted by a miraculous victory forty-five years ago has dissipated.
Sadly, the legacy of the Six-Day War is persistent acrimonious conflict over the meaning of Zionism and the Jewish identity of the state of Israel.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author, most recently, of “Against the Grain: A Historian’s Journey,” published by Quid Pro Books.
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