The black-and-white films of Israel shown to Sunday school students in the early 1960s extolled the labors of the halutzim (pioneers), who were “making the desert bloom” dressed in shorts, shirtsleeves and those kova tembel hats.
In six days, from June 5 to 10, 1967, the image of an Israeli was transformed.
Now American Jews acclaimed the valor of the men and women wearing the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces.
The IDF’s defeat of the armed forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, as well as other Arab nations that contributed to their coalition, remains consequential five decades later.
In those six days, the Israeli landscape, on the ground and in the psyche of Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora, changed radically.
Suddenly, Jews could pray at the Western Wall, as that remnant of the Second Temple no longer was beyond reach but could be touched and wept upon.
Israel, a sliver of land on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea (roughly the size of New Jersey, the Sunday school teachers said), now controlled the high ground of the Golan Heights, the vast Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank (the biblical lands of Judaea and Samaria west of the Jordan River), including the eastern sector of Jerusalem and, notably, the Old City.
“As someone who lived through the experience of the Six-Day War, I think the stories should always be recalled. When I think back to the Six-Day War, I think of the song ‘Yerushalayim Shel Zahav’ (‘Jerusalem of Gold’), the longing and the return of the Jewish people to their city of gold, Jerusalem,” said Ambassador Judith Varnai Shorer, Israel’s consul general to the Southeast.
The attachment of American Jews to the 19-year-old Jewish state reached unprecedented heights during the summer of 1967. From boardrooms to schoolrooms, chests puffed out in pride as “the Jewish homeland,” thousands of miles away, made a bold statement on the world stage.
Atlanta native Shai Robkin was 15 and living in “an intensely Zionist household.”
“There had not been anything that created such enthusiasm and a great feeling of pride and joy in the state of Israel until 1967,” said Robkin, who made aliyah with his wife in 1976 and served in the IDF before returning to Atlanta in 1984. Today Robkin chairs the Atlanta regional council for the New Israel Fund and is an active supporter of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.
Israel remains a significant component of American Jewish identity.
“Caring about Israel” was less essential than remembering the Holocaust (73 percent), leading an ethical life (69 percent), and working for justice and equality (56 percent) but more than having a good sense of humor (42 percent), being part of a Jewish community (28 percent), observing Jewish law (19 percent) and eating traditional Jewish foods (14 percent).
Pew found that the emotional binding of American Jews to Israel was more than twice as strong among those who identified with Judaism as a religion than for those who did not. The attachment was decidedly strongest among those 50 and older.
The bond was fairly stable across the spectrum of educational achievement and somewhat stronger among those identifying as Republicans than Democrats or independents. By denomination, Orthodox Jews evinced slightly greater attachment than Conservative Jews, and both were notably ahead of Reform Jews and those Pew listed as “no denomination.”
Fifty years ago, the issue of how Israel would administer the lands that it captured — including the lives of 600,000 Arabs in the West Bank and 356,000 in the Gaza Strip, according to an Israeli census conducted just after the war — was of less concern to the American diaspora than Israel’s survival.
In 1967, America’s estimated 5.8 million Jews rallied in support of Israel, even though only a fraction had visited and not until after the war did more than 1,000 Americans annually immigrate to Israel.
“More American Jews chose to be buried in Israel than to live there,” Seton Hall University Professor Edward S. Shapiro wrote in “A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (The Jewish People in America),” published in 1992.
During and immediately after the war, Atlanta’s Jewish community, numbering about 16,000, raised more than $1.5 million (worth approximately $11 million in 2017) for an Israel Emergency Fund coordinated by the national United Jewish Appeal. (AJT articles in June will look at how Atlanta’s Jewish community responded during the war.)
Fifty years later, unity has given way to division, especially when discussing the effects of the war.
“It’s hard to imagine how far we’ve come from that feeling of exhilaration to being a divided community as we are today. It’s felt in Israel, and it probably is felt more in America,” Robkin said, citing Israel’s control of the West Bank as the “focal point of that division.”
The words used to describe the events of 1967 can be controversial.
“Calling it the war of 1967 or the Six-Day War comes from a particular Jewish narrative and perspective and from the victor’s point of view,” said Ilise Cohen, a scholar on Mizrahi Jews and an activist in Jewish Voice for Peace. “The Naksa is the Palestinian name for the Israeli state’s occupation, displacement and dispossession of the Palestinian people in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza, as well as the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, in 1967. The Israeli state understands itself as a victor, but by winning and occupying the Palestinian territories, it is also known for its rejection of international law and human rights and for its decades-long refusal to allow the Palestinian population under its control equality and freedom.”
(Nakba, meaning catastrophe, is used by Palestinians to refer to the events related to Israeli independence in 1948. Naksa, meaning setback, refers to 1967.)
“After 50 years, the only meaningful way to observe this anniversary of occupation is to ensure that it is the last,” Cohen said.
The June 1967 war was mentioned but was not the focus of local celebrations of Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day), and no Atlanta event is scheduled to mark Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) on May 24. The 50th anniversary will pass without a communitywide commemoration bringing together thousands of Jewish Atlantans — the kind that have happened to show solidarity during Israel’s wars.
The war and its impact likely will be part of the discussion when Daniel Shapiro, the most recent former U.S. ambassador to Israel, speaks Wednesday, June 7, to the annual meeting of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta at Ahavath Achim Synagogue and when CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer delivers the annual Eizenstat Family Lecture on Sunday, June 11, at Ahavath Achim.
The only local event focusing directly on the anniversary will be produced by the Friends of the IDF’s Southeast Region on Monday, June 12, at The Temple, featuring the three paratroopers —Yitzhak Yifat, Zion Karasanti and Haim Oshri — who appear in an iconic photograph taken by David Rubinger on June 7, 1967, some 20 minutes after the IDF secured the Western Wall. (Rubinger died in March at age 92.)
The paratroop veterans are attending several events sponsored by FIDF around the country.
The FIDF event, however, is not free. General admission tickets are $36. Those who become commemoration sponsors by purchasing six tickets for $1,000 will receive copies of the Rubinger photograph, to be signed at the event by the three veterans.
“The soldiers of Israel still fight today as they did 50 years ago to protect our Jewish homeland and guarantee our existence. Our commemoration will stress the importance of the Six-Day War and the sacrifices of IDF soldiers. This was a pivotal moment in history that changed the landscape of Israel and the lives of Jews worldwide,” said Seth Baron, the executive director of FIDF Southeast.
Israel today is far from the plucky little Jewish nation founded just three years after the end of the Holocaust. Its population has grown from 2.74 million in 1967 to 8.68 million. An estimated 74.8 percent of Israeli citizens are Jewish, and 20.8 percent are Arabs. An estimated 2.8 million noncitizen Arabs live in the West Bank.
For some, the victory in 1967 was nothing less than evidence of the divine, a miracle that should not be ignored half a century later.
“Any observance of this anniversary by any Jewish community without noting the hand of G-d would be a travesty,” said Rabbi Ilan Feldman of Congregation Beth Jacob, who witnessed that history as a 12-year-old.
His father, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, was on leave from Beth Jacob and teaching for a year at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, several miles east of Tel Aviv. He and his wife, Estelle, decided that they and their four children would remain in Israel during that perilous time.
The two Rabbis Feldman spoke at Beth Jacob in April about their experiences during the war and their belief that the events of 1967 were miracles.
“We who were living there saw in our own eyes the hand of G-d,” Rabbi Emanuel Feldman said.
Rabbi Daniel Dorsch of Congregation Etz Chaim traveled to Israel later in life.
“I was born after the miracle of 1967. Today, many of my peers are simply unable to even entertain the notion of a world without Israel because it has always existed in their lifetimes. Unfortunately, this narrow-mindedness that allows us to take Israel’s existence for granted also leads us to myopically view present-day challenges of Israeli society without any greater context of history,” he said.
“I’ll never forget walking around the Yemin Moshe neighborhood (in Jerusalem) during my first trip as a teenager and seeing the bullet holes that came from Jordanian snipers from the Old City. As a young man in 1999 visiting Israel, these seemed to me to be ancient history. But for the people of Israel, these serve as daily reminders of how a united Jerusalem helps to maintain peace and security in their country,” Rabbi Dorsch said. “As Atlantans approach the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war, I hope they will take a moment to reflect on the miracle of the reunification of the city of Jerusalem, that in our day continues as a flourishing, booming city under Israel’s governance.”
Rachel Rothstein teaches modern Jewish history to 11th-graders at the Weber School. Most of her students have been to Israel or will visit in their senior year. Rothstein reminds them that it is because of the 1967 war that they can visit the Western Wall (Kotel Ha’Maravi in Hebrew).
“It’s something that’s so much a part of their own experiences that they can understand the impact of the war from that perspective,” she said.
“It’s a period that I’ve found my students to be really interested in. They ask good questions about the war and how the territorial gains then directly impact the situation in Israel today. It’s a good way to bridge current events and history, and it’s like things click for them once we go over this period. They hear terms like West Bank, settlements, etc. ,all the time, but they don’t always understand what they mean,” Rothstein said. “This is the point in the semester when I can unpack a lot of the complexities for them and help them begin to understand.”
Jesse Benjamin, an associate professor of sociology and coordinator of African and African diaspora studies at Kennesaw State University, is clear about how he believes those complexities should be understood. Benjamin was born in Israel and raised in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States before returning to Israel as a teenager and college student.
“Until 1967, many black people globally saw Israel as an anti-colonial force with which they could identify, but after this expansionist war, most African nations and conscious people everywhere, including a handful of Jewish Israelis, began to see more clearly that Israel was aligned with U.S. imperial interests and embroiled in its own internal settler-colonial issues,” he said.
“The peace process held out the hope of peace in return for land occupied in 1967, as when peace was made with Egypt and Sinai was returned. But the relentlessly expanding settlements and Jewish infrastructure in the West Bank have made this impossible, while the rise of social media and the nonviolent boycott movement have all promoted a wider awareness of the deep racial divisions at the core of Israeli society and its occupation,” he said.
“For Atlanta Jews committed to the deeply held core Jewish values of social justice, remembering 1967 is a time to renew our fight for Palestinian, Mizrahi and African migrant liberation and for an end to racist policies in Israel and to say ‘not in our name.’ It’s our duty as Jews to stand on the side of social justice, and our concern is to salvage some version of Israel before it descends any further along its current xenophobic path,” Benjamin said.
If Benjamin occupies one end of the spectrum on this issue, Chuck Berk holds the other.
Berk, a past chairman of the Israel Bonds Atlanta board, and his wife, Bonnie, received Israel Bonds’ Israel69 Award this year for their “exceptional support for Israel and efforts to perpetuate Jewish heritage.”
“The war dramatically changed the Middle East balance of power to Israel’s advantage. Israel changed from being perceived as a beleaguered, small nation surrounded by big, powerful Arab states to the pre-eminent military power in the Middle East. (That) set the stage for Israel to be seen as a potential aggressor,” Berk said. “Over the years, liberal, progressive Jews, many with little real knowledge and understanding of Middle East history, came to believe erroneously that the Palestinians were an oppressed people. This has led to support of the destructive boycott, divest and sanction movement, which has tried to marginalize Israel and label it as apartheid.”
In Berk’s view, supporters of an immediate, two-state Israeli-Palestinian solution are “naive.”
“The Arabs and Palestinians are not ready to support any form of separate Jewish state, no matter what the boundaries,” he said. “They also do not understand or are unwilling to admit that, even if awarded a separate Palestinian state tomorrow, the state would fail due to inadequate Palestinian leadership, infrastructure and financial stability.”
Jan Jaben-Eilon, an Atlanta-based correspondent for the Jerusalem Report magazine, said that, coming from a Zionist family, “I always thought Israel was mine.” She called her decision to make aliyah in the mid-1990s “the best thing I ever did and the most challenging thing I ever did.”
Jaben-Eilon takes a different view from Berk of the lessons to be learned from the 1967 war and its aftermath.
“Perhaps the observance of this 50th anniversary should require us to ask what we want to observe in another 50 years. What do we want Israel to look like, to be? What kind of Jewish state? What kind of democracy? I know Israelis aren’t necessarily asking those questions, but we should if we care about Israel,” she said.
“In 1967, we thought Israel’s existence was in question. We were tiny and really unproven. We were the David to the Arabs’ Goliath. This isn’t true anymore. Israel’s top military and intelligence officials say we are not really at existential risk from the outside. They cite only the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an existential threat,” said Jaben-Eilon, who serves on the regional NIF board.
“The divisiveness comes from whether one believes one side of this over the other: Are we the underdogs, or are we the stronger side? Should we be living in constant fear, or should we, can we, take risks to separate from the Palestinians?” she said. “The older generation seems to still be living in the fear that goes back 75 years, or thousands of years. The younger generation has grown up with a different Israel: It’s been strong all their lives.”