Westfield, the Jewish people, and the Six-Day War

Westfield, the Jewish people, and the Six-Day War

It was Tuesday evening, June 6, 1967. Eleven hundred women, men, and children — Jews and non-Jews alike — were gathered in the sanctuary of Temple Emanu-El of Westfield to support the State of Israel. 

Three weeks prior, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt had ordered the United Nations Emergency Force out of Sinai, blockaded the Straits of Tiran to prevent ships from reaching Israel’s southern port of Eilat, and declared on Cairo radio, “The existence of Israel has continued too long. The battle has come in which we shall destroy Israel.”  

I cannot exaggerate the sense of doom that had descended upon the Jews of North America. Would the 19-year-old Jewish state survive the impending onslaught of the Arab world? Were we confronting a second Holocaust? 

Our loudspeaker system piped in the stirring address of Israel’s Ambassador Abba Eban to the United Nations. The hushed crowd hung on every word. 

When Eban concluded his defense of Israel’s pre-emptive attack on the Egyptian air force, a middle-aged woman, her voice shaking, rose to her feet. “I have very little money,” she announced, “but I went to my bank today to withdraw the balance of my savings account. Here it is. I want to contribute to Israel in her time of need.” The next speaker declared that he had taken a mortgage against his home to contribute to the cause. 

The outpouring of gifts that night amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars (millions in 2017 dollars). We sang “Hatikva” like never before. This scene was repeated in synagogues and Jewish community centers across North America.

That week not only demonstrated Israel’s ability to defend itself. It also transformed our synagogue and Jews worldwide into an Israel-centric community. From that moment on, Jewish pride in Israel soared, and non-Jews acquired new respect for the fledgling state. It seemed as if every Jew I knew walked with his or her head a foot higher.

Tourism took off as Jews and Christians alike flocked to visit a united Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai. Even in the USSR — where the Soviet government severely repressed Jewish life — Jews were emboldened to learn as much as possible about Israel and Jewish tradition. That renewal culminated several decades later in the stunning aliyah (immigration) of a million Russians to Israel, transforming the face of the Jewish state. 

The Six-Day War breathed new life into the Jewish world. Courses in Jewish studies, especially modern Hebrew, sprang up; Israeli flags adorned Jewish institutions; Hebrew songs burst forth; and Israeli dance took center stage. Pro-Israel advocacy in Washington garnered wide support.

Meanwhile, in Israel, secular and Orthodox Jews began to settle the West Bank. Non-religious Israelis flocked to less costly housing in the occupied areas while devout Jews built settlements as an act of religious faith. They believed then — and now — that they could hasten the coming of the Messiah by settling all of the territory from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.

From my teenage years in the Zionist youth movement, Young Judaea, through my more than 40 visits to Israel, right up to this week’s historic anniversary of the Six-Day War, I have been a passionate ohev Yisrael, lover of Israel. 

I believe that the establishment of the Jewish state in our time is one of the most transformative events in all of Jewish history. I believe that its security and moral value system are indispensible to our Jewish future. 

We American Jews are blessed not only to enjoy the fruits of the Jewish state in our time, but also to be able to contribute to her strength.

What does it mean to support Israel today?  For me, it means that we should do three things: 

1. Become strong advocates for a two-state solution. The occupation has eroded Israel’s moral fiber and undermined its standing among the nations. History demonstrates that one people cannot dominate another indefinitely without profoundly disastrous consequences. 

Familiarize yourself with the group known as “Commanders for Israel’s Security.” You’ll discover a plan advocated by 270 former senior security officials from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Mossad, and Israel’s security agency known as the Shin Bet, that enables Israel to disengage from most of the West Bank while ensuring Israel’s security and territory for its national aspirations. They argue that until conditions ripen for a final status agreement, Israel must take independent action to restore security and preserve conditions for a future agreement.

Consider the advice of Brigadier Gen. (Ret.) Uzi Eilam, who commanded the 71st Battalion, 55th Paratroopers Brigade, which liberated Jerusalem. (It was Eilam who, upon reaching the Western Wall, sounded the shofar on behalf of the chief military rabbi, Shlomo Goren, who was too overcome with emotion to do it himself.) “If we want our children and grandchildren to remember the war as a victory,” said Eilam, “we must be honest about the destructive path Israel is currently on.”

2. Support religious pluralism in Israel. Israel must not become a theocratic state whose government is the captive of religious extremists. If that were to happen, Israel’s economic and military strength would collapse under the weight of zealots who would seek to impose their brand of Judaism on all citizens. Israel’s vaunted hi-tech startups would become a thing of the past because entrepreneurs and hi-tech wizards will have fled for more receptive lands. Women would have a bleak future because their status as second-class citizens would be enshrined into law.

Don’t let this happen. For starters, become familiar with and support the Israel Religious Action Center and the New Israel Fund. Empower the work of Mercaz, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement, and the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). They fight for religious pluralism in Israel every day.

3. Celebrate Israel. Celebrate the country’s achievements. Extol the Six-Day War as a heroic, miraculous event in our history. Celebrate with Israel as you would members of your own family, but don’t hesitate to offer constructive criticism whenever you feel that your critique addresses issues central to your family’s future. Remember that you can be passionately supportive of friends or family without agreeing with every decision.

Every day I recite the blessing, “Shehecheyanu,” thank you, God, for enabling me to be part of the renewal of the Jewish people and the state of Israel. Long may it prosper: Jewish, democratic, and at peace.

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