I was 18 years old during the Six-Day War in 1967, which redrew the Middle East map, reunified the city of Jerusalem, and created challenges that Israel continues to grapple with a half-century later. For American Jews of my generation and older, the Six-Day War was transformative. Supporting Israel became the American-Jewish community’s number-one priority, what the prominent educator and author Jonathan Woocher called its “civil religion.” How should we mark this historic anniversary? And how might Israel’s detractors be looking to take advantage of it to undermine support for the Jewish state by stressing the 50 years of “occupation”?
I am a longtime friend and fan of Yossi Klein Halevi, noted Israeli author, journalist, and senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. When he spoke recently at Temple Beth El in Hillsborough about the war’s upcoming 50th anniversary, I jumped at the opportunity to hear him.
To understand the June war, he observed, you must know what transpired in May: Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser’s pledge to destroy Israel; his closing of the Tiran Straits, cutting off sea access to Eilat; the expulsion of UN forces in the Sinai that acted as a buffer between the Egyptian and Israeli armies; the abandonment by Israel’s usual friends, especially France; and total international isolation. Even U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, a great friend of Israel, was too preoccupied with war in Vietnam to intercede.
The May 1967 air was thick with anticipation and dread. I still recall driving to a pre-war rally in my hometown, Harrisburg, Pa., hearing my parents anxiously discussing whether we might be on the verge of a second Holocaust. When Israel emerged with a dramatic and lightning-quick military victory, and with Jerusalem reunited — which meant Jews could access our holy sites after being cut off for almost 20 years — the dread gave way to an enormous sense of relief and even euphoria. It was a time of unparalleled unity in Israel and throughout the Diaspora.
There is way too much ignorance in our community about crucial episodes in Israel’s history, especially among those who did not live through the events of 1967, or the traumatic Yom Kippur War just six years later. One cannot fully understand the situation in Israel and the Middle East today without possessing some basic knowledge about these epic military struggles. This is a teaching moment. Let’s grasp it.
And yet, education, as valuable as it may be, is not sufficient. We should see ourselves as obligated to grapple with the challenges and dilemmas that the outcome of the Six-Day War produced, especially Israel’s responsibility toward the millions of Palestinian Arabs living in the territories Israel seized. Indeed, Halevi reminded the audience that in Jewish tradition, every 50 years is a yovel, a jubilee, “a time for reset and self-reckoning.”
Regarding the Palestinian issue, Halevi believes that both the political right and left in Israel have become disillusioned, which has led to the emergence of a large, pragmatic, and deeply conflicted political center. The first intifada shattered the illusion of the right that the occupation of millions of Palestinians would be cost-free. The second intifada — the wave of horrific suicide bombings unleashed after Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat a Palestinian state in Gaza, almost all the West Bank, and East Jerusalem — shattered the illusion of the left that peace would come easily if only Israel made a fair offer; moreover, the current Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, Halevi said, is no more ready to strike a comprehensive peace deal than was Arafat.
The dilemma. What do you do when, on the one hand, occupation of the Palestinians threatens Israel’s ability to remain both Jewish and democratic, while, on the other hand, Palestinian leadership continues to deny the Jewish people’s fundamental legitimacy in the land, making a separation into two states virtually impossible. On that point, Halevi, who regards himself as one of those conflicted centrists, said that he has two nightmares: one, that a Palestinian state is established; the other, that a Palestinian state is not.
He concluded by observing that American Jews seem to be stuck in the past. The conservative, mostly Orthodox Jews live in the 1980s, pre-first intifada; and liberal Jews inhabit the 1990s, pre-second intifada, still harboring the same illusions of those periods that most Israelis long ago have left behind. He challenged the audience to see the complexity of the situation, for the left to see the “truth” of the right, and vice versa. To recognize that there are no easy answers, that the Zionist way, the Jewish way, is not to settle for the status quo, but to continually be open to new possibilities and to act in accordance with our enduring values. Those values include both self-preservation and continuously striving for peace with the Palestinians based on two states — the “least worst option” — even if currently it is unobtainable.
Is the American-Jewish community living with outdated conceptions? Are we incapable of having a nuanced, complex conversation about these issues among ourselves and with our Israeli brothers and sisters? It may be a bit overstated, but I fear there is more than a kernel of truth in Halevi’s assessment.
Part of the challenge of a self-reckoning is the loss of civility in our Israel discourse, even a reluctance to raise the Israel issue in many quarters. A 2013 survey conducted by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs found that one-third of Reform and Conservative rabbis avoided expressing their opinions about Israel, many fearing they’d lose their jobs if congregants disagreed with their political views. As a community, we have drifted away from the principle embodied in the Talmud’s expression, Elu V’Elu Divrei Elokim Chayim, (Both these and those are the words of the living God), to describe the argument between rabbis from the house of Hillel and rabbis from the house of Shammai. In other words, we should be able to disagree, agreeably.
Civility is a prerequisite to our being able to engage the community in the kind of values-based discourse that unflinchingly faces the challenges and dilemmas Halevi described. Are our central institutions capable and ready to facilitate such discourse? I’m not sure. Federations and synagogues — dependent on large donors, some of whom, sadly, use their leverage to squelch debate — tend to be controversy averse. Many American Jews express their connection to Israel through AIPAC, but it has a clearly defined (and different) mission, namely, to build American government support for Israel. It is not an appropriate venue for self-reckoning. Somehow, we need to find a way to break this gridlock and bring broad segments of our community into a deeper discourse.
What about our adversaries on the advocacy playing field? For months, Jewish organizations active in Israel advocacy have been anticipating an onslaught of activity both in the community and on college campuses stressing 50 years of “occupation.” As we get closer to the anniversary, no doubt we will begin to see more of this. So far, however, it has been relatively muted. In fact, the stridently anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement has been placing its emphasis on a different anniversary, 100 years since the signing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, stating Great Britain’s intention to facilitate establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The “Israel Apartheid Week” website refers to “100 years of Palestinian resistance to settler colonialism.” For these activists, who traditionally intensify their efforts in March and April, the issue is not 1967, but rather 1948, and their conviction that a Jewish state is illegitimate within any borders.
In fact, we have become adept at countering Israel’s detractors. Now we need to summon the courage to conduct the internal self-reckoning Halevi encouraged — civilly — to mark the yovel of the Six-Day War.