A West Point general reportedly once noted that, although the wars Israel fought in 1956 and 1973 are part of the cadets’ military academy curriculum, Israel’s victory in the Six Day War is not studied.
The reason, explained Shimon Mercer-Wood, one of three speakers at a commemorative program sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh on June 5, is because West Point is interested in understanding strategy and tactics, and the Six Day War “doesn’t make any sense at all.”
The Jewish Community Center’s Levinson Hall was packed as the community gathered to hear from experts about the days leading up to the war, the war itself and its lingering effects on American Jewry on its 50th anniversary.
The Six Day War — in which the Jewish state simultaneously fought the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan — was a “pivotal event” in the history of the Jewish people, “filling them with pride and confidence in the Jewish state,” said Jeff Markel, the chair of the event in his introductory remarks. While the war is frequently referenced in current media reports, he noted, the historical context of that war is often omitted.
The evening began with a firsthand account, via video, by Avraham Haleva, a resident of Karmiel, Israel, Pittsburgh’s Partnership-2Gether sister city and a veteran of the Six Day War. Haleva fought in the battle of Ammunition Hill, a fortified Jordanian military post in Jordan-occupied East Jerusalem. Haleva was hit by Jordanian snipers and lost part of his foot as a result. He spoke of his pride in helping to liberate Jerusalem.
Laurie Eisenberg, a historian of the modern Middle East at Carnegie Mellon University, set the stage for the days leading up to the war, explaining that as much of the world watched anxiously, certain that the Middle East was on the brink of war, Israeli leaders wished nothing more than to forestall it.
Eisenberg used a bit of “micro history” to illustrate the point: an internal Israeli struggle over a four-stanza poem, “At the Opening of Day,” which Natan Alterman had written in 1956 on the occasion of Israel’s 8th Independence Day.
That poem was slated to be read and broadcast on Israel’s Independence Day in 1967, which would turn out to be just three weeks before the war commenced. Tensions were high, Eisenberg said, with Egypt funding attacks against Israel and Israel retaliating.
With its “rich and terrible visions of war,” the poem, which resonated in 1956 during the Suez Crisis, was similarly fitting for the current circumstances.
The message of the poem to Israel’s Arab neighbors was, “we did this in 1948; how did that work out for you?” Eisenberg said. “‘If you choose war we will fight you with all our strength, but if you choose peace we will fight mightily to bring that to fruition. It’s your choice.’”
After receiving many calls from Israeli citizens concerned about the tone of the poem, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and other government officials wanted to tweak its words to soften it, Eisenberg said. The IDF generals, however, wanted to keep the strong wording of the poem intact. The two sides engaged in extensive heated debate.
What is notable, Eisenberg said, “was that both sides in the ‘do we soften the tone debate’ had the same goal: to thwart a war.”
The final decision was to swap out the aggressive final stanza for “a peaceful stanza,” Eisenberg said.
“It seems a little absurd that at this moment of military tension the prime minister was worried about a poem,” she continued. “The prime minister could have said, ‘skip it.’ But micro history says to look deeper.”
The poem incident illustrates how much the government did not want to go to war, Eisenberg explained. The message to the Arab world was that Israel did not want to attack, and Israeli officials wanted to use the poem “if it might stop war from breaking out.”
Mercer-Wood, spokesperson and consul for media affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York, was not yet born in 1967, but gave a spirited recounting of the six days of the war, having grown up in Israel “hearing a lot about it.” His father came to Israel from Africa with the Ghana Embassy in 1965, bore witness to the war, converted to Judaism and joined the Israeli army.
The reason West Point does not teach the Six Day War, Mercer-Wood postulated, is because “it sounds like one of those biblical stories where we say, ‘Oh, yes. That’s very nice, but it didn’t happen.’”
The circumstances which occurred during that week in 1967 sound more like “Jewish mythology” or “fake news,” he said.
In the days just prior to the war, so certain was the world that Israel would be vanquished that the foreign dignitaries in the Ghana Embassy received a cable telling them to leave. Mercer-Wood’s father, however, stayed.
Mercer-Wood described Israel’s offensive airstrike against the Egyptians, Operation Moked, which destroyed most of the Egyptian Air Force on the ground and which started the Six Day War.
“When you see an enemy with the means to destroy you and the intent to destroy you, you don’t wait for them to come to you,” Mercer-Wood said. “It was true then and it is true now.”
While Israel was fighting Egypt on that first day, the Jordanian army began bombarding Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. By day two, “there was peril for Israel wherever it looked,” said Mercer-Wood.
“There was an apocalyptic air of approaching peril and Israel faced this danger alone,” with no help from the United States or other allies, he said.
Mercer-Wood described the Syrian army’s attempt to conquer Kibbutz Dan in the north — an effort thwarted by Israel — and the reunification of Jerusalem.
“By day five, Israeli troops had reached the Suez Canal,” he said. “Tens of thousands of Egyptian soldiers were stranded in the Sinai, a number of biblical proportions.”
With days five and six concentrated on the northern front, the parties finally came to a ceasefire, effectively ending the war.
The lessons of the war are profound, according to Mercer-Wood.
“At the core of the conflict is the legitimacy of the Jewish state and the right of the Jewish people to statehood,” he said, adding that Israel must be recognized as a “legitimate entity” if there is to be peace.
The Six Day War demonstrated the necessity of Israel having “defensible borders,” according to Mercer-Wood. “The pre-1967 borders were indefensible. In any future peace resolution, the questions of security are not idle ones.”
If and when a Palestinian state is established, he said, it will “owe its existence to the Six Day War.” Prior to 1967, Gaza and the West Bank had been controlled by Egypt and Jordan, respectively, which “never would contemplate Palestinian statehood.”
Rabbi Danny Schiff, foundation scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, took the podium to discuss the American perspective and reaction to the events of the war, beginning his portion of the program by quoting Zechariah and this week’s Haftarah: “Not by might and not by power but by my spirit, says the Lord.”
For the first time in 2000 years, Schiff noted, Jewish power “became a tangible reality” as a result of the Six Day War.
While the Jews demonstrated power in 1948, he said, “we weren’t powerful,” adding that just two decades after the Shoah, Jews were prepared for another one in the days leading up to the war.
“Zechariah had been right for 2000 years; we were the weaklings of history,” he said.
That all changed in 1967, with the euphoria resulting from the Israeli victory “uniting the Jewish people in a way we hadn’t seen since Mt. Sinai,” Schiff said. “For a shining period, we were as united as we were at Sinai.”
Prior to the war, he said, Israel did not have control of a single religious site. To resume sovereignty over the “ancestral graves of the first Jews,” and to come back to the Temple Mount after 2000 years, was like being “reconstituted from the ashes.”
The Six Day War established Israel as “the center of Jewish life,” he continued.
“We were passionate about the protection of the state and seeing it as the center of the Jewish people,” Schiff explained, adding that Israel became a tangible connection to Judaism for those for whom “God, mitzvot and Torah was too much of a reach.”
The victory itself, Schiff said, “was quasi-Biblical in nature.”
“Did we live through a miracle? If it’s not able to be explained simply in the realm of military history, what should we think about the Six Day War from a theological perspective?” he queried.
“Fifty years later,” Schiff said, “it’s hard not to think that if you believe in miracles, we too have lived through something similar.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.