Arguably the most dramatic and emotional event in recent Jewish history is the Six Day War.
The backdrop to the event is complicated, but its roots lay in the actions of Egyptian President Gamal Nasser. In his attempt to achieve the goal of pan-Arabism – i.e. bringing the Arab Middle East under his domination — he ran into many great problems… most of them with the Arabs. They were not willing to become his client-subjects. He had engaged Egypt in a bitter civil war in Yemen, which had the effect of quicksand. Over 50,000 Egyptian troops were entangled in a war they could not win. It was like the United States in Vietnam or the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
Egypt’s economy was faltering under the strain. He had mortgaged the entire Egyptian cotton crop to Russia to pay for armaments. Buckling under all this pressure, he sought a shortcut that would take care of all his problems in one fell swoop: war against the State of Israel. Victory would instantly turn him into the hero of the Arab world.
A Fool’s Paradise
By 1967, world Jewry was rolling along in a fool’s paradise. Israel would always be protected, it assumed; the world would protect it. That was further fueled by the fact that the United Nations had its peace-keeping force present in the Sinai Peninsula, as well as at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba to guarantee free passage of shipping. Even though Nasser had violated his word and did not allow any Israel shipping, or even ships sailing to Israel through the Suez Canal, the State of Israel felt it could live with that inconvenience.
However, in May Nasser received reports from his Russian advisors that the time to start a war with Israel was propitious. His army would be able to conquer the Israelis handily. He, therefore, decided not to delay any longer. War, he hoped, would solve his country’s problems.
The Israelis celebrated their 19th Independence Day in May 1967 blissfully oblivious to what was going to happen in the next three weeks.
Pushing the Envelope
Nasser suddenly announced that the Egyptian army was going to go on maneuvers in the Sinai, even though this was a violation of the agreement brokered by the United Nations between Israel and Egypt after the Sinai Campaign in 1956. The Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal with great fanfare – and in extremely large numbers.
Israel protested. But nothing happened. Nasser tried to do what Hitler did, when he brazenly entered other territories or countries and waited to see if there were any repercussions.
When he saw that neither the United Nations nor anyone took any action, he moved to the second step: preventing shipping reaching Israel via the Gulf of Aqaba. This was in violation of free navigation of the waterways.
The United States considered sending one of its own flagships up the Gulf of Aqaba to test the blockade, but for all the good intentions – including soothing remarks from President Johnson — nothing happened. Israel saw a pattern beginning to emerge.
The next escalation occurred when Nasser ordered the United Nations peace-keeping troops off of Egyptian territory. He said that they were only there at the suffrage of the Egyptian government that had invited them there in 1957. Now, a decade later, he told them to leave.
Incredibly, the General Secretary of the United Nations agreed! He flew to Egypt to speak to Nasser, but instead of defusing the situation he gave the order for his peace-keeping troops to evacuate. Now, nothing stood between Israel and the large Egyptian army in the Sinai moving toward its border.
Nasser did not want to face Israel alone. He was afraid deep in his heart that Israel would be able to mobilize an army sufficient enough to defend itself against his forces. He, therefore, had a conference with the Syrians in Damascus, who agreed to shell the Israeli positions in the Galilee from the strategic Golan Heights, which they controlled.
At the same time, he approached Jordan’s King Hussein. He saw now that Syria and Egypt, his two arch enemies in the Arab world, had made an alliance. On paper, his military analysts showed him that there was a very strong likelihood that Egypt and Syria would win the war. They also convinced him that the world would do nothing diplomatically. Furthermore, he was afraid that once Egypt and Syria were successful, they would come not only against the Israeli part of Palestine, but the Jordanian part of it, too.
Therefore, King Hussein joined Nasser. The two archenemies were shown in The New York Times embracing each other in the anticipated victory over the state of Israel and throwing the Jews into the sea. He even went so far as to place his army under the command of an Egyptian general, who would unify the movements of all the Arab armies.
Israel knew now that there would be war. It was not a matter that would go away. Abba Eban, who then was the Israeli foreign minister, traveled the world, stopping at all the capitals, to enlist the good wishes of world leaders – but no one was willing to do anything to stop it.
The Specter of Another Holocaust
The Jews throughout the world were frightened. Here was the specter of the Holocaust happening all over again, not 25 years later. Synagogues in the United States were packed with Jews, including many who had not been in a synagogue for years.
The Israeli army mobilized – and they stood mobilized for almost two weeks. It was both incredibly expensive and emotionally draining.
The politicians formed a national unity government. Then, the prime minister, Levi Eshkol, made a speech to the nation, exhorting it to be strong – but he broke down in the middle of the speech! It was the most demoralizing moment.
On Monday morning, June 5, 1967, the war began.
When word reached America, many Jews did not go to work. Their worst fears were exacerbated by the fact that, as the Israeli news radio went on blackout during the first 18 hours of the war, the Arabs were broadcasting their glorious victories: They were bombing Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, destroying the enemy with impunity, etc.
What really happened was that on Monday morning the Israeli air force had launched a devastating surprise attack which destroyed virtually the entire Arab air force, including those in Egypt, Jordan and Syria — all in under three hours! About 500 Arab planes were destroyed at the loss of less than 40 for the Israelis. The Israelis had flown as low as six feet over the Mediterranean for almost seventy miles at over the speed of sound to avoid radar detection. It was an incredible feat of piloting acumen. Never before had there been such a lopsided battle of air forces.
There was still a war to fight, but the tactical advantage had changed immediately.
Israel now attacked on the Egyptian front, sending three main tank battle groups into Sinai. The three burst into the Sinai, smashing the Egyptian army and destroying it in three days. Countless trucks, tanks, artillery and other burned out Egyptian vehicles littered the desert when it was over. Over 5,000 Egyptian soldiers surrendered immediately. The Israelis were at the Suez faster than they were in the Sinai campaign.
There was now nothing between them and Cairo. After announcing repeatedly that Egypt was winning the war, Nasser was in a panic, on the verge of losing his country.
Meanwhile, King Hussein made the error of entering the war based on Nasser’s public announcements. He thrust forward in the expectation of taking Jerusalem.
There were a number of pitched battles. One was on Ammunition Hill, which had been a British ammunition fortress protecting East Jerusalem where the Jordanians had set up extensive bunkers and defenses. On Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, Israeli paratroopers captured the hill, despite experiencing terrible casualties in the process.
With Ammunition Hill now in their hands, the Jordanians were outflanked and retreated. The Israelis captured the Old City all the way to the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, the last remnant of the Temple that had last been in Jewish hands almost exactly 1,900 years earlier.
The liberation of Jerusalem forced the Jordanian army to vacate the entire West Bank. They were pounded by the Israeli air force across the Jordan River. Along with the Jordanians, about 100,000 Arabs there also fled, further compounding the Arab refugee problem.
One of the memorable images of the time is of King Hussein — unshaven, haggard, tired and beaten – getting on television and announcing his defeat, cursing out the other Arab nations for fooling him.
The Israelis decided that now was the time to settle the score with Syria also.
Beginning on Friday morning they attacked, using many of the same troops that fought in the Sinai and Jerusalem. They were now fighting in their third major battle within the course of a week.
The Golan was considered an impregnable fortress. It had a triple-layer system of mines, bunkers, artillery and machine guns built into the high ground that they occupied. The Israeli air force was of aid, but could not do it alone because it had to be conquered foot by foot, grenade by grenade.
In what was a textbook exhibition of how foot soldiers can dislodge an enemy no matter how strong, the Israelis were able to push the Syrians out of all three lines of defense. They finally captured the peak of Mount Hermon. It is such a strategic location that it is possible to see every plane landing at Damascus airport 20 miles away from its perch.
The entire Golan all fell under Israeli control. It would take them almost a decade to just remove all the mine fields.
No One Called
The Israelis sustained about 700 dead and 2,000 wounded, but the radiance of victory overshadowed the personal tragedy involved. Suddenly, from the small Jewish state on the verge of annihilation Israel was an “imperial power.”
Russia immediately broke relations with Israel. The United Nations voted for a cease fire, which Egypt and Arabs accepted. The Israelis were convinced somehow that now the Arabs would make peace; that they would trade peace for the territory that Israel had acquired. Had the Arabs wanted to in 1967, they certainly could have struck the deal. Politically, every party in Israel would have allowed it. Aside from perhaps East Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall everything was on the table for negotiation. In Moshe Dayan’s famous words, the day after the war was over, “I’m waiting at the phone.”
But no one ever called.
A whole new viewpoint of Israel opened in the world. The Jews were enormously proud while many non-Jews had enormous resentment. In the United Nations and other diplomatic arenas a great deal of that resentment spilled over. It became fashionable not to look at Israel favorably. Aware of the change, Golda Meir famously stated that given a choice between the world’s sympathy and Israel’s survival she would always choose Israel’s survival.
Be that as it may, rarely has a Jew had an opportunity to feel the emotions that Jews felt then. Jewish history and Jewish destiny converged in a brief moment in time. Unfortunately, it did not last. It is always hard to take the emotion of a momentous event and translate it into action.
To this date, the Jewish world has never come back to that level. Nevertheless, in terms of what was achieved at that moment it was one of the high watermarks of the generation. It was an indication of the capabilities and hidden resources of the unity and strength the lies within the Jewish people.