Fifty years after the Six-Day War — in which the greatly outnumbered Israeli forces defeated the amassed armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria; more than tripled the area under Israel’s control; and reunified the divided city of Jerusalem — the breathtaking victory is still regarded as one of the most brilliantly executed campaigns in modern military history.
But those same 50 years have also seen repeated failed peace attempts, often violent conflict over the “occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the increasing isolation of Israel on the world stage, and a growing anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
In a June 5 program cosponsored by the men’s club of the East Brunswick Jewish Center and the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ, more than 100 community members gathered to mark the milestone year. They watched the History Channel documentary “Battlefield Detectives: Israel’s Six-Day War,” heard from a veteran of that war, and listened to a panel discussion of the war and its aftermath.
The program was to have featured Six-Day War veteran Moshe Bar Am, but the Maplewood resident was in Israel following the death of his brother-in-law, Yuval D’vir, a paratrooper commando who served as a colonel in the elite Sayeret Shaked special forces unit for 25 years — including during the Six-Day War.
Bar Am’s wife, Stephanie, instead read remarks her husband had prepared. She first went to Israel during her junior year of college to work on Kibbutz Messilot in the Beit She’an Valley near the Jordanian border, where she met her husband, whose parents were kibbutz founders.
“We slept that summer in a chicken coop,” she said. “I remember there were guards all around the perimeter of the kibbutz with guns.”
Stephanie returned to Israel after she graduated college, and the pair decided to marry. After completing his military service, “I followed my beloved to the United States,” Bar Am wrote in his remarks.
Moshe Bar Am had entered the military at 18, seven months before the start of the Six-Day War, and was assigned to read the radar monitors for the “very top secret” Hawk missile system unit, the ground-to-air missiles defending Israel’s airports, airfields, and Dimona, the site of Israel’s nuclear reactor which is located in the Negev.
In mid-May of that year, tensions heightened as the Egyptians closed the Suez Canal and the Straits of Tiran and Russia supplied them with military experts and weapons.
“We had a sense that war was imminent when we learned that all of the Soviet operatives and their families left Egypt suddenly,” said Bar Am. Three weeks before the war began, his unit was moved to cover the Tel Nof, airbase, as well as Tel Aviv and Israel’s central region.
On June 5, Israel launched a surprise preemptive air strike and destroyed the Egyptian Air Force. Bar Am’s Hawk missile battery moved to Bir Gifgafa, an airbase in the center of the Sinai peninsula, to support the Israeli Air Force, which had moved its Mirage planes to be closer to the front.
The drive itself showed the young soldier just how devastating war could be; his unit’s 20-truck convoy passed the bodies of Egyptians strewn throughout the area.
“The war was still raging, and Egypt did not have the time to collect the bodies of their fallen soldiers,” said Bar Am. “There were many bands of Egyptian soldiers wandering the Sinai, desperately seeking food and water. These starving enemy soldiers were a great danger to us. The Egyptian Army had disintegrated in this area.”
The unit remained in the Sinai for about six weeks until it was replaced by another Hawk unit and returned to an area near Lod, what is today Ben Gurion Airport. Throughout his four-year service, Bar Am trained soldiers at Hawk missile placements, becoming commander of a Hawk missile radar course.
During the panel discussion, Dan Rozett, the federation’s manager of community and Israel engagement and an IDF veteran, told of the difficulties soldiers, such as those who fought to retake the Old City of Jerusalem, faced. They didn’t use tanks, he said, because they were trying to avoid damage to its many holy sites; unfamiliar with areas that had been under Jordanian control since 1948, they had to watch for the enemy both on their flanks and up and down as they made their way through the ancient city’s winding alleyways.
“I can’t imagine what it was like to deal with that terrain under fire,” said Rozett, who reminded the group that life-and-death decisions were being made by soldiers who were often still in their teens.
That situation is played out today in Gaza, said Rozett, where “an 18- or 19-year-old gets to decide whether a Palestinian gets to go to work that day.”
Eilan Ezrachie, a Tel Aviv native now living in East Brunswick, recalled how scared he was as a 14-year-old boy when bustling Dizengoff Street came to a halt during the war.
“I remembered filling up sand sacks,” he said. “There was this great atmosphere of anxiety and fear. But by the third or fourth day, there was euphoria.”
Rabbi Robert Wolkoff of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick reminded those present that Israel’s victory, which led to the so-called “occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza, spawned the anti-Israel BDS campaign which subjects Jewish college students to anti-Israel pressure on campus.
“There is an entire generation that knows nothing about this war,” he said, and why it was necessary for Israel’s fight for survival.