Although I was a young girl when the Six Day War broke out, I clearly remember the 5th of June, 1967. I had no personal connection to the war. Our family had no relatives or close friends in Israel at the time; the country was as abstract as the map on my Hebrew school classroom wall.
Nevertheless, I distinctly recall the terror I felt as my family gathered in the small kitchen of our house in Mount Vernon, N.Y., listened to the radio and learned that, after heightened tension on all its borders, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike against the Egyptian air force. Absorbing my parents’ existential fear, I truly believed that the Jewish state’s very survival was at stake. Had Israel not moved first, the historic modern Zionist enterprise would likely have been eradicated before it had the chance to stand on its own.Then, only five days later, there was sheer elation at the swift and conclusive end. Israel crushed Egypt, Jordan and Syria — countries thought to be militarily powerhouses in comparison with the Jewish state.
Israel, little Israel, David to the Arab Goliath, was victorious, virtuous, united. For Jews far away in America, the Six Day War became a dramatic turning point, reshaping ethnic and religious identity and rekindling pride. The stunning military victory legitimized Israel’s moral right to exist.
Fifty years later, I wish I could recapture that pure, simple feeling. But I can’t. I approach this half-century mark with a confusing mixture of wonderment and dread, joy and despair, pride and embarrassment. The crushing military victory that expanded Israel threefold and brought Jerusalem back to the Jewish people has also turned the Israel I love into a sometimes-brutal occupier of an estimated 2.9 million Palestinians, with no end in sight.
I believe many others share this painful ambiguity. The temptation is to turn away, because it feels too damn hard to reconcile, but that shirks our responsibility as Jews.
Instead, we must figure out how to hold two very different narratives simultaneously, even though they conflict at their cores. The Six Day War was an enormous military and strategic accomplishment worthy of celebration. And Palestinians continue to pay a terrible price for that victory, which we cannot ignore.
A 50th anniversary carries special significance in Judaism — it is the jubilee, the yovel, a holy year after seven cycles of seven years. The significance of the number is not lost on those who consider the outcome of the Six Day War a miracle.
By the time of the June 11, 1967, cease-fire, the Israelis had captured the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from the Egyptians, the Golan Heights from the Syrians and the West Bank from the Jordanians. But the real prize was the liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordan, which had ruled it since 1948. David Rubinger’s famous photograph of a few young soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces reaching the ancient stones of the Western Wall, the most sacred spot in Judaism, has become the iconic Jewish image of the past 50 years. Multiple generations have been raised on this tale of triumph.
As Motta Gur, commander of the brigade that recaptured the Old City, told his soldiers: “The Western Wall, for which every heart beats, is ours once again. Many Jews have taken their lives into their hands throughout our long history, in order to reach Jerusalem and live here.… You have been given the great privilege of completing the circle, of returning to the nation its capital and its holy center.”
That sense of historic redemption encapsulated the Six Day War for me. It felt miraculous, even from afar. It cemented Israel as the perpetual underdog that overcame a crescent of aggressors, because right made might and not the other way around.
But over time, a contrasting narrative emerged — especially because, as a journalist, I am duty-bound to understand other perspectives.
As years of occupation turned into decades, as Jewish settlement in the occupied territories grew and grew, as negotiations fizzled, as violence begot more violence, as hope for coexistence faded, as I spoke with Palestinians and saw the checkpoints and occasionally glimpsed what it is like to live without basic freedoms, I was forced to accept Israel’s complicity in this inhuman drama.
Complicity is not total responsibility. The Palestinian quest for statehood has been damaged from many self-inflicted wounds over the years: weak and corrupt leadership; embrace of terrorism; lack of courage and vision, and abandonment by other Arab states. Only about 1% of the world’s refugees and displaced people are able to return to their homes each year. That Palestinians still hold to the notion that they alone will defy global norms and reclaim homes they fled 50 years ago is a grand, heartbreaking delusion.
But to completely blame the occupied for the occupation is perverse.
“From the get-go we didn’t view them as Israelis. We coveted their land. We did not covet them,” Danny Seidemann, one of the nation’s top experts on Jerusalem, told me a few months ago. “And they didn’t view themselves as Israeli. Everything derives from that.”
It was a historic victory for Israel, absolutely. It was also a disaster for another people.
Palestinians in East Jerusalem still don’t consider themselves Israeli; though they are given the right to vote in municipal elections, most do not. But too many of the Jews who will be celebrating the reunification of the city in early June don’t see past the gleaming new hotels and trendy restaurants of Jerusalem’s remarkable renaissance to acknowledge how oppression of their Palestinian neighbors continues just a few blocks away.
I continue to struggle with how to deal with these two conflicting narratives. Hope for a peaceful end to the occupation seems to be slipping away, especially when the political leadership in Israel, the Palestinian Authority and now the United States is so utterly devoid of vision, courage and compassion.
The recent Passover Seder offers a modest moral lesson. Just as we symbolically spill a drop of wine for each of the Ten Plagues to recognize that our process of liberation caused suffering to the Egyptian people, we should temper our joy and not approach this anniversary as pure celebration.
It was a historic victory for Israel, absolutely. It was also a disaster for another people — a people that Israel continues to rule rather than govern. This is not a time for triumphalism, but one for humility and gratitude. We must find a way to end an occupation that has stained Israel’s profound accomplishment of half a century ago.
Contact Jane Eisner at Eisner@forward.com or on Twitter, @Jane Eisner
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.