How The Six-Day War Changed Israel's Mind

Fifty years ago today, on June 5, 1967, we awoke to the news that the war we had dreaded was begun—and decided. I was eighteen, had just finished my freshman year at McGill, and was living with my father, who had been a Zionist leader in Montreal during the nineteen-fifties and had recently married an Israeli woman. During the previous month, grim reports had come to us in rushed calls from Tel Aviv: Israel’s mobilized reserves were baking in the Negev Desert; seaside hotels were being converted to makeshift hospitals. In April, there had been conflict with Syria over the headwaters of the Jordan River; in May, President Nasser, of Egypt, brandishing new Soviet arms and claiming to support Syria, expelled United Nations peacekeepers from the Sinai and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. By early June, Jordan’s King Hussein had thrown in with Egypt. We knew that the Israeli military would strike. I heard that students were contacting the Israeli consulate and volunteering—not to fight but to help with the summer harvest. On June 3rd, I surprised myself by doing the same. On the morning of the 5th, the Israeli Air Force destroyed the Egyptian Air Force on the ground. The rest, as my father put it, with uncharacteristic swagger, would be “a mopping-up operation.” Unopposed in the skies, Israel conquered Jerusalem on the 7th and rolled into the West Bank. By the 11th, it had taken the Golan Heights, from where Syrians had fired on the Hula Valley. I got to Tel Aviv on June 14th, to work, but mainly to celebrate.

Nothing prepared me for a country so close to general euphoria. I lived with my new stepsister, who had married my cousin (seven years later, both would die in a terror attack), and, as soon as he was demobilized, we rushed to Hebron to buy blown glass, as if the West Bank were an exotic vacation spot that had suddenly opened to us. Drivers on the highway cheered the sight of a captured Soviet truck. Jingoistic songs played on the radio, and dark jokes circulated (“How many gears on an Egyptian tank? Five: one forward, four reverse”). The jauntiness was shadowed by grief: nearly eight hundred Israeli soldiers and more than eighteen thousand Arab soldiers had died in what would be called the Six-Day War. Two years ago, the writer Amos Oz released previously censored portions of tapes that featured interviews conducted with Israeli soldiers; tormented, some confessed that the “mopping up” had included killing Egyptian prisoners of war.

On June 28th, I drove to Jerusalem in a straining Citroën Deux Chevaux with a paratrooper friend. Improvised memorials to fallen soldiers—piles of rock, a rifle, a helmet—sat undisturbed. We arrived at the Mandelbaum Gate, dividing Jewish West Jerusalem from the Arab East, expecting to be stopped and interrogated. But we found no barrier and no guard. My friend turned on the radio, which broadcast only the anthem “Jerusalem of Gold” and a looped announcement that the city, just a half hour earlier, had been declared “united.” Few of us considered the significance of the moment. Jordan had excluded Jews from the Old City and the Western Wall; we thought that might had made, of all things, right. Now Israel was annexing East Jerusalem and several neighboring Arab towns, creating a capital of more than forty square miles, incorporating two of Islam’s most revered mosques, the walls of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and sixty thousand Arabs—a third of the city—who would not be Israeli citizens. When, five days ago, the Trump Administration announced that it would not, after all, move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to this capital, it was refusing—like all other governments and previous U.S. Administrations—to accept as accomplished fact what neighboring Arab countries and major world religions considered a provocation. On that day in 1967, the occupation had begun.

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