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The Six Day War- 49 Years Later (June 2016)

{By request I am providing my remarks given at Shabbat services on June 4, which was only a few days before the 49thanniversary of the Six Day War.  It was Rose Hollander’s Bat Mitzvah, and I was in part reacting to a few points she made in her d’var Torah to the congregation.  In preparing these comments I was inspired by a piece entitled “Why History Matters” by David Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee.} 

Rose, you spoke about how the Jewish People recovered from catastrophe by creating the State of Israel, and you asked whether God was responsible or whether we did it on our own.  You mentioned the holiday of Chanukah, in which God is given credit for giving the Maccabees strength for their victory, and the holiday of Purim, in which God is not even mentioned.    Both are considered  “nissim,” or miracles, in Jewish tradition.  I guess it depends on your definition of “miracle” as either divine intervention or, as one of my teachers defined it, “the right thing happening at the right place at the right time.”

Today is June 4, which means that two days from now is a significant anniversary in the modern Jewish calendar.  For on June 6, 1967, the Six Day War broke out in the Middle East.  Forty-nine years ago. It was a miraculous victory for the outnumbered and surrounded Jewish State, and there are those who see God’s hand in the victory and those who do not.

I remember those days very vividly.  I was in 10th grade at the time, and I remember the night of my Hebrew high school graduation.  It was a few days before June 6, maybe even on June 4.  While I was not aware of all of the events that had led up to that point, I remember the sense of urgency, concern and even fear in the sanctuary.  People were deeply worried about the safety and security of the young Jewish State, which was only about 19-years-old at the time.  The apprehension and anxiety in the room were palpable.

It is critical to remember and understand the events that led up to the war, as many people today are unaware, or choose to ignore them.  History matters, and while I understand that history may not be the most popular subject among young students, we need to understand history.  History provides context, and without context, some critically important things may not make sense, or may become distorted.  Furthermore, there is a famous quote attributed to George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Politicians, diplomats, and journalists continue to grapple with the consequences of the Six Day War, yet many are oblivious to its history and context.  This is wrong, and it is dangerous. A brief overview of that context is in order.

First, in June 1967, there was no state of Palestine. It didn’t exist and never had. The United Nations proposed a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state in 1947, some 20 years before the Six Day War, in what became known as the Partition Resolution.  The Arab world rejected that proposal and chose to invade the newly declared Jewish state in May 1948.

The armistice line created at the end of what we call the War of Independence left the West Bank and east Jerusalem in Jordanian hands, the Gaza Strip under Egyptian control, and the Golan Heights to the north under the Syrians.

Sadly, war creates refugees.  Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became refugees as a result of the war in 1948-1949.  They were settled in refugee camps in the countries surrounding Israel and in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.  It is most often forgotten, however, that hundreds of thousands of Jews also became refugees as a result of the war, Jews from Arab countries who were no longer welcome in the lands in which their families had lived for generations.  Many of those Jewish refugees went to Israel, where they were not kept in refugee camps, but welcomed as citizens under the new Jewish State’s Law of Return, which stipulated that any Jew could immigrate to Israel and become a citizen.  We refer to these people as the “forgotten refugees,” because once they arrived in Israel they were no longer refugees.

The Arab world could have created a Palestinian state in the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem, or the Gaza Strip. They chose not to. There wasn’t even discussion about it, among themselves or in the international arena.

And now to return to events leading up to June 6, 1967.  In the weeks leading up to the Six-Day War, Egyptian and Syrian leaders repeatedly declared that war was coming and their objective was to wipe Israel off the map. There was no ambiguity. Twenty-two years after the Holocaust, another enemy spoke about the extermination of Jews. The record is well-documented.

The record is equally clear that Israel, in the days leading up to the war, passed word to King Hussein of Jordan, via the UN and United States, urging Jordan to stay out of any conflict that might erupt. Hussein ignored the Israeli plea and tied his fate to Egypt and Syria. His forces were defeated by Israel, and he lost control of the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. He later acknowledged that he had made a terrible error in entering the war. 

To the south, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser demanded that UN peacekeeping forces in the area, in place for the previous decade to prevent conflict, be removed. Without even the courtesy of consulting Israel, the UN complied. That left no buffer between Arab armies being mobilized and deployed and Israeli forces in a country one-fiftieth, or two percent, the size of Egypt — and just nine miles wide at its narrowest point. 

Egypt then blocked Israeli shipping lanes in the Red Sea, Israel’s only maritime access to trading routes with Asia and Africa. This is an act of war by international standards. The United States spoke about joining with other countries to break the blockade, but, in the end did not act. 

Then France, which had been Israel’s principal arms supplier, announced a ban on the sale of weapons on the eve of the June war. That left Israel in potentially grave danger if a war were to drag on and require the resupply of arms. It was not until the next year that the U.S. stepped into the breach and sold vital weapons systems to Israel.

With all that having occurred over a period of several tense and frightening weeks, and with its back up against the wall, Israel decided to launch a preemptive strike on June 6.  They took their enemies, as well as the entire world, completely by surprise, gaining an insurmountable advantage, and were able to end the war in six days, hence its name, The Six Day War.  Rose, you asked the question:  did the Jewish People do this on their own, or did God give them the strength?  It depends on your perspective and your belief system.  Whatever your beliefs, it was certainly a miracle, with or without divine intervention! 

And finally, after winning this war of self-defense, Israel hoped that its newly-acquired territories, seized from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, would be the basis for a land-for-peace accord. Feelers were sent out. The formal response came on September 1, 1967, when the Arab Summit Conference famously declared in Khartoum: “No peace, no recognition, no negotiations” with Israel.

So Israel was left holding all of these territories—the West Bank, East Jerusalem, The Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights.  Depending on your perspective Israel either liberated those territories, or occupied them. And their Arab populations.  Since that time, Israel gave back the Sinai Peninsula as part of their peace treaty with Egypt, and years later withdrew from the Gaza Strip.  They remain in control of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, because of a war they did not ask for, and for the lack of a negotiating partner to relinquish them in return for a lasting and sustainable peace.

Yet today, there are those who wish to rewrite history. They want the world to believe that the Six Day War was an aggressive act by Israel. On the contrary, as I have argued, and as is extremely well-documented, it was an act of self-defense in the face of blood-curdling threats to vanquish the Jewish state, not to mention the maritime blockade of the Straits of Tiran, the abrupt withdrawal of UN peacekeeping forces, and the redeployment of Egyptian and Syrian troops. This was not only a defensive war, but a war of survival, an existential war—a war for Israel’s very existence.

Rose, you spoke of overcoming challenges.  The Jewish State still confronts challenges.  May all of us appreciate those challenges in the light of its young history, because history does matter.  Historical context does matter.  Two days from this important anniversary in Israel’s history, may Israel find the wisdom and fortitude to overcome the significant challenges it continues to face.  With or without God’s help.

Sun, November 17 2019 19 Cheshvan 5780