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50 Years After the Six-Day War: The Zionist Dream and Israel’s Story

50 Years After the Six-Day War: The Zionist Dream and Israel’s Story

Israeli flags

As Israel observes the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem, this moment offers us a unique point of reflection. Over the course of this year, the Jewish world will observe the 120th celebration of the birth of the Zionist Movement, the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, and the 70th observance of the U.N. Partition Plan. These interlocking events have enabled us ultimately to rewrite the modern Jewish story.

Just as the saga of Jewish nation-building evolved over the course of the last century, the Western world began to move beyond its historic commitment to the nation-state system to construct regional systems of trade and governance, in part leaving the Zionist experiment as an isolated and vulnerable remnant of a different moment in history.

For the first time, Jews could affirm their national pride and gain their own political identity.

The Six-Day War solidified their presence in the Holy Land, affording Diaspora Jewry the opportunity to acclaim its own political standing. These events emboldened the Jewish people, both as Zionists reclaiming their national dream and as citizens of the world. Yet, at the same point in time that Jews were redefining their political legitimacy, the forces that have haunted our people historically – the enemies of our community, and the opponents of the Jewish State – were reinventing their case against Judaism and Zionism.

If June 1967 reinvigorated the Jewish community, it would fundamentally change how Americans came to recognize and appreciate Israel’s unique place in the constellation of American foreign policy priorities. For a brief moment in time, the new global image of “the Jew” was seen and defined as assertive, secure, and powerful.

With the Six-Day War, we all became Israelis, as our pride and confidence soared. This transformative moment would fundamentally change a particular generation from being identified as Jewish Americans to becoming American Jews, as we no longer defined ourselves only through our religious standing but now saw our Jewishness as core to our identity.

The psychological impact of June 1967 was as powerful as the reality of that moment. As a people, Jews were reborn – a new class of people, empowered to reconstruct their identity. Over time, we romanticized these events, creating new images of the war while allowing its memories to forever shape our lives.

In response to this euphoria, the United Jewish Appeal announced new fundraising achievements, as Jews who had never given to local federation campaigns came forward to support the “Israel Emergency Fund.” Jews, who were seen as marginal in their communal or religious involvement, committed to travel to Israel to serve as volunteers, while others stepped up to as community activists.

1967 also led to a revolution in the Jewish economy, with the influx of new resources into Jewish institutions, fundamentally reinventing the communal order. This defining event transformed Jewish culture, introduced Israel studies, and expanded the boundaries of the Israel-Diaspora partnership and in the process, changed both the direction and focus of the Jewish communal agenda. In the aftermath of 1967, federations were seen as the centerpiece of Jewish life.

But the Six-Day War also laid the foundation for the fundamental divisions over Israel’s definition of its Jewish and democratic character, just as it fostered the efforts of the PLO to undermine the Jewish State. It produced the seeds defining the great divide among America’s Jews. Issues including settlements, Palestinian rights, the divisions between religion and state, and a conversation around the character and substance of what it may mean to be a “democratic, Jewish state” emerged in the following decades.

In many ways, the import of 1967 and the events surrounding the June war would not be fully realized until sometime later. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 in part challenged some of the heightened and distorted imagery that had emerged from 1967, reminding us of the realities and challenges that are a part of the Middle East and that remain to be addressed.

For those of us who recall the extraordinary week of June 6, 1967, we now know it transformed our Jewish consciousness. There existed a unique sense of awe at what had happened and what it would mean. That moment represented a fundamental change in how we viewed the Jewish State and how we came to understand our place within the Zionist drama.

Steven Windmueller Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of Jewish communal studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, CA. Dr. Windmueller’s collection of articles can be found on his website, The Wind Report.

Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
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