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Where Are They Now? Four Americans Who Moved To Israel After The Six Day War

In 1967, when Israel faced off against Jordan, Egypt and Syria, American Jews were gripped by collective anxiety as the young Jewish state fought a war that many predicted would spell its defeat. Israel, of course, was victorious, and the anxiety gave way to pride and Diaspora identification with Israel.

While immigration to Israel was at a low point in the year before the war, it spiked after 1967. Between 1967 and 1973, some 260,000 Jews made aliyah to Israel, according to the Jewish Agency. More than 31,000 of them were Americans, according to sociologist Chaim Waxman’s book “American Aliyah.”

Pride in Israel and a desire to be part of the national Jewish experiment were not the only reasons they came. There were push factors, too, including instability in America in the 1960s, the Vietnam War and tensions in black-Jewish relations. But the difficulty of life in Israel, and disappointment in Israel’s rightward shift, lead many to leave. According to Haaretz, about 60% of Americans who moved to to Israel between 1961 and 1972 went back to the United States.

“The war had a tremendous emotional impact and anecdotal evidence suggests that many were driven back to identifying with the Jewish people out of a sense of pride,” Gideon Shimoni of the Hebrew University told Haaretz in 2007. “The war was certainly a turning point in many ways, but afterwards, because its consequences were poisoned, one has to be careful not to exaggerate its impact.”

Now, 50 years later, American Jews find themselves deeply divided over how Israel has handled the territory it conquered in the 1967 War. With hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and an entrenched military rule over Palestinians, the chance of an independent Palestinian state taking root there seems to grow slimmer by the year. The 50th anniversary of the Six Day War is a time of reflection for Americans who immigrated to Israel, as they consider how they and the young country they have tied their fate to have changed in the past half-century.

The Forward spoke with four Americans who moved to Israel around the time of the Six Day War about their reasons for immigrating and how their perspectives have changed in the years since.

Ilana Kraus around the time she immigrated to Israel (left) and today. Image by Courtesy of Ilana Kraus

Ilana Kraus grew up in Pittsburgh and moved to Israel at age 21 in 1971. A freelance editor, translator and writer, she lives in Kfar Saba in central Israel.

What was your experience with the Six Day War?

I was preparing to graduate from high school at the time of the Six Day War. I remember being far more interested in what was going on in Israel than in the graduation doings, except for the actual ceremony… I remember holding my breath over the news broadcasts preceding the war and being elated at the victory.

Why did you immigrate to Israel?

I came on aliyah because it was the only thing I could think of that I could do to strengthen the State of Israel, which was the only bulwark against another Holocaust. My parents are Holocaust survivors. Almost all of their family members who remained in Europe were wiped out, which meant that aside from one aunt and a cousin in the States, all my relatives lived in Israel. I had already made up my mind to come to live in Israel before the Six Day War… Here, my presence and work contributed to something important. In the U.S., I was just another person. 

Has your viewpoint on Israel changed over the past 50 years?

My feelings about the personal importance of my decision to live in Israel have never wavered. It was the most important decision of my life, next to marrying and having a family, and the fulfillment of a dream. My views on the importance of the State of Israel have not changed, either. Moreover, I have always felt it to be my home, my real home. I would say that I am disappointed in some of the ways Israel is behaving vis-a-vis the social and economic gaps, the issues of religion and state, which I find particularly noxious, and the way society relates to minorities, both Jewish and Arab, as well as asylum seekers and foreign workers.

What should Israel do vis-a-vis the West Bank?

I don’t believe that the territories are the problem, but the lack of goodwill, on the part of both parties. Peace can only be achieved if both sides want it, believe it is in their best interests. I still don’t see either the Palestinians or the Israeli government being prepared to sincerely negotiate a peace, which we all sorely need. 

Yisrael Medad around the time he immigrated to Israel (left) and today. Image by Courtesy Yisrael Medad

Yisrael Medad, originally from Queens, immigrated to Israel in 1970. An education professional at Menachem Begin Heritage Center, he lives in Shiloh in the West Bank.

What was your experience with the Six Day War?

I spent the first few days in a foxhole at Moshav Amatzia in the Lachish Region, with a rifle in hand, facing the Jordanian front.

Why did you move to Shiloh?

Committed to ensuring the integrity of the Jewish homeland since I was 16, it is my belief that my presence with my family in this area of Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] will preserve it for future generations.

How has your perception of Israel changed over the past 50 or so years since your immigration?

Despite a continuance of high political interest by many Israelis, I am a bit upset at the drop in ideological tension and a poor knowledge of the history of Zionism and the founding processes of the state that affects the debate about the issues of the day.

Should Israel keep the areas it captured during the Six Day War?

The Six Day War was the successful completion of the 1948 Independence War and, as [Israeli poet] Nathan Alterman wrote, “returned Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] to Medinat Israel [the State of Israel].” Of course the territories should be retained for reasons of Zionist identity, the country’s security and the regional developments. Moreover, a policy of territorial compromise has never satisfied Arab demands, not in 1922, when Transjordan was separated from the Jewish national home area, nor in 1937 or 1947. There is no demographic threat, either.

What is your hope for the future of Israel?

The country will return to its roots of Jewish ideas, values and vision as much as it has made unbelievable economic, scientific and military advancements. That, in turn, will once again act as a magnet for Jewish youth abroad.

Debby and George Kornfeld around the time they immigrated to Israel (left) and today. Image by Courtesy of Debby Kornfeld

Originally from Rochester, New York, Debby Kornfeld moved to Israel with her husband. George Cornfield, in 1973. She left in 1976 for professional reasons, and then returned in 1981. The couple moved back to the United States in 1988 and live in Rochester, New York, where Debby Kornfeld works as an occupational therapist.

What was your experience with the Six Day War?

We were both college students when the Six Day War broke out. I had just finished my freshman year at Washington University in St. Louis, and George was at Yeshiva University. Our initial impulses were get on the next plane and help…. We were both amazed and grateful that the war ended so quickly and that Israel was victorious.

Why did you immigrate to Israel?

Both George and I were active in Zionist youth groups in high school… Both of us were interested in living in Israel prior to the Six Day War. Although we were both Zionists, we never thought it imperative that all Jews had to move to Israel. We immigrated in February 1973. I was 25 and George was 28.

And what drove you to leave?

We came to Israel twice and we left twice. As mentioned, we first arrived in 1973 and settled in Haifa. After working there I decided that I wanted to get a master’s degree in occupational therapy, which was not available at that time in Israel. We left in 1976 with the intention of returning. We spent five years in the States, in Boston and then in Oneonta, New York. I finished writing my dissertation; [we] had another child, accumulated more money and we returned in 1981. Returning in 1981 was at a more optimistic time: [Egyptian President Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat] had come to Jerusalem, and peace deals were being signed with Jordan and other countries. Of course soon after we returned there was the war with Lebanon. We became naturalized Israeli citizens, had two more children, George served a short time in the Israel Defense Forces.

The second time we left was in 1988; we had a fourth child and planned on taking advantage of the liberal maternity leave policy to spend some time with our families and make more money. We were not so successful financially in Israel and had accrued some debt. Our plan was to return in a year or two. This did not happen, and staying in the states was a very difficult decision for us. Despite reservations in regards to the political scene in Israel, we enjoyed our work and life in Haifa. I think the word “ambivalent” is the most accurate description of our feelings both in regards to living in the States and living in Israel.

Should Israel hang on to the areas it captured in 1967?

We are gratified that Israel has a strong military capacity. We are a little people with a little land. The territories have been a big boon to the development of a very comfortable middle-class life for many Israelis; however, we think that building on the territories captured in the Six Day War has complicated the possibility, however remote, for some sort of peace agreement. We witnessed the evacuation of Gaza and how difficult that was. With almost a half a million Jews living in the West Bank, we are more pessimistic than ever about any negotiated peace. We hope that there is some resolution in the Middle East, including some negotiations which would designate border adjustments to allow for an independent Palestinian state.

Maggie Bar-Tura around the time she moved to Israel (left) and today. Image by Courtesy Maggie Bar-Tura

Maggie Bar-Tura grew up in Washington, D.C., and moved to an Israeli kibbutz after college. A consultant to not-for-profit and social change groups, she now lives in Tel Aviv.

What was your experience with the Six Day War?

As a relatively unengaged college student from a strongly Zionist family, I was shaken by the apparent fragility of Israel’s existence at the time, and galvanized by the mobilization of the Jewish people around the world in its defense.

Why did you immigrate to Israel?

I was just out of college when I came to Israel. My decision had more to do with expatriating from the U.S. than moving to Israel. I was active in the student protests and the anti-war movement of the late ’60s. After I arrived in Israel for a six-month work-study program on kibbutz, I fell in love with the country and have felt deeply at home here ever since.

Has your perception of Israel changed over the past 50 years?

Over time, my understanding of Israeli society has become more nuanced and includes groups, ideologies, cultures, voices and aspirations that are different and often competing or even conflicting with my own. The sense of homogeneity and solidarity — one big happy Jewish family — that was so powerful for me when I came has been replaced by a perception of what [Israeli] President [Reuven] Rivlin calls the “tribes” that compose Israeli society. My simplistic perceptions have given way to an often frustrating, always exhilarating embrace of the complexities of this complicated, extraordinary place.

What is your hope for the future in Israel? What are your concerns?

My hope is that progressive and liberal forces in Israel — secular and religious, Jewish and Arab — will be able to craft a new vision for Israel that will be a compelling alternative to the messianic, Manichean wave of incitement and hatred that passes for leadership in Israel’s current political and rabbinic establishments. The growing intolerance for criticism, the increasing acceptance of the possibility of rebuilding the Temple and instituting a theocracy, and the demonization of the “other” — a mere 70 years after the Holocaust — are, I believe, a certain recipe for the destruction of the third Jewish commonwealth. My hope is that we will be able to reassert the prophetic Jewish tradition of Isaiah, Micah and Amos before it is too late.

These interviews have been edited for length and style.

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at [email protected] or on Twitter, @naomizeveloff


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