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The Six-Day War at 50: Still Discovering and Still Affirming

The Six-Day War at 50: Still Discovering and Still Affirming

Israeli flag flying against blue sky

Explaining why the opening word of the fourth commandment was differently stated – in Exodus as “remember” and in Deuteronomy as “observe” – the sages taught that both words “were spoken in one utterance, something that is beyond the human mouth to articulate or the human ear to absorb.” Recounting and reviewing modern history, equipped with documentation and enriched by those who still are here to tell the story, is hardly as complex as parsing the mysteries of the Torah. But sometimes, perhaps especially in the era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” recounting history can be just as controversial as interpreting Torah.

We recently passed the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, and it seems there are a few points on which everyone can agree:

  1. The war fundamentally transformed the State of Israel, politically, socially, and psychologically. Not only were Israel’s borders enlarged, so too did the Six-Day War demonstrate that the Jewish State had become a powerful nation state rather than a beleaguered and needy sliver of land.
  2. The war also had a powerful impact on North American Jewry, both in terms of self-perception and in terms of the Diaspora-Israel relationship.

On the eve of the war, with Israel facing the threat of destruction from hostile neighboring states, rabbis, including Abraham Joshua Heschel, questioned whether the Jewish people was facing yet again “another Auschwitz?” And he was not alone. Whether one believes that Israel’s victory was due to Divine intervention, human smarts, or a combination of both, looking back the operative word was “fear” and in the years since the Six-Day War, many of those who came through the experience have recounted those days as “traumatic.”

Not insignificantly, in 1967, North American Jews raised close to $440 million for Israel, doubling the previous year’s numbers. But the war also catalyzed North American Jewry’s complex emotional ties with the Jewish state. Historians may disagree on how and when precisely North American Jewry’s relationship with Israel became more intimate, it is irrefutable that Israel’s military victory engendered tremendous pride and, for many, an opportunity to reengage with their Jewish identity. And American Jewry’s vigorous and focused response to the Six-Day War is now viewed by many not only as a high point of intra-Jewish unity, but also as a springboard for later successful communal endeavors, particularly the Soviet Jewry movement that blossomed in the following decades. As reported in the 1968 American Jewish Year Book:

American Jews, like Jews elsewhere in the world outside Israel, experienced a trauma, perhaps best diagnosed as a reliving of the Holocaust in an eerie awareness of once again being put to the ultimate test. In the words of one observer: the immediate reaction of American Jewry to the crisis was far more intense and widespread than anyone could have foreseen. Many Jews would never have believed that grave danger to Israel could dominate their thoughts and emotions to the exclusion of all else… Before the war, Jews went to pray for the survival of Israel, and afterwards, to give thanks.

Flash back one year, when, as reported in the 1966 Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) yearbook, the Reform rabbis expressed “deep distress” over the “unwanted” war unfolding in Vietnam, and while denouncing the “escalation of military preparations” by Arab States likewise applauded Israel’s “persistent desire” for establishing peace with its neighbors. At the same time, the yearbook records concern for “religious freedom” for Reform Jews in Israel, issuing a call for rabbis to send “books on Reform Judaism for libraries in Israel.”

Reflecting and visioning for the future, we might recall that at the 1981 annual meeting of the CCAR, the professional association of Reform rabbis in North America, held in reunited Jerusalem, two papers were presented back-to-back by Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn, z”l, and Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch, a longtime leader of the Reform Jewish Movement in Israel, respectively titled “Israel Needs Us” and “We Need Israel.” Even 50 years later, those seemingly contradictory sentiments ring true although such dichotomous thinking is almost as intricate as “remember” and “observe” being expressed in a single utterance.

We might too remember the words of an American Jew described in the 1969 American Jewish Yearbook Year Book: a 27-year-old college graduate, with 10 years of Sunday school and Reform temple membership, who related that her "decision to go to Israel's aid was among the most important events in my life. In so doing, I was able both to discover and to affirm many aspects of myself."

A half century after the Six-Day War, we still need Israel and Israel still needs us. So too, must we continue to explore and discover what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century, affirming the Jewishness of the Jewish people in entirety, regardless of borders, ethnicity, or affiliation.

Rabbi Daniel M. Bronstein, Ph.D., is a scholar and educator who teaches at Hunter College and the 92nd Street Y in New York City. His dissertation, Torah in the Trenches, examined the rabbinical military chaplaincy during World War II. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his family.

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