Savouring the Memories
Great historical events give birth to great works of history, and the Six-Day War is no exception. Michael Oren's Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, is a magisterial survey of the political and diplomatic background leading up to the war and throughout the fighting. Oren draws on all the relevant archives: Hebrew, Arabic, English, and Russian.
Abraham Rabinovich's The Battle for Jerusalem must rank with the most gripping military histories ever written. In his account of the battle for Ammunition Hill, for instance, Rabinovich makes clear how large a part heroism continues to play even in an era of highly mechanized armies. The crucial defeat of the Jordanian forces came at a very high price. Among Israeli troops, the casualty rate of killed and wounded was 50%; among officers over 70%.
Junior officers led the men under their command around every bend in the Jordanian trenches, and exposed themselves first to Jordanian fire. When they fell, others picked up their weapons and carried forward:
[T]he loss of their leader stunned most of Eliashiv's men into helplessness. They gathered in the dark trench and debated what to do. From the paucity of their briefing, they had no idea of the shape of the defenses or what their objective was. All they knew was that since they had set foot on the hill half their number had been killed or wounded – mostly killed – and that an enemy who knew the ground was waiting for them.
Haimovitch did not wait. Laying down his bazooka on the trench floor, he unslung his rifle and started forward. With movement on both flanks stalled, the Israeli assault on the most powerful Jordanian position in Jerusalem had come down to a single frightened private willing himself to move forward into a black maze of trench networks, certain he would be dead before he had taken five steps. One of the other soldiers started to follow him, and then another.
By contrast, not a single Jordanian officer from that crucial battle was found in hospital afterwards: The officers in the best-trained Arab army simply ran away.
Yehuda Avner, then a young diplomatic aide to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, provides in The Prime Ministers a riveting fly-on-the-wall account of the pressures on Eshkol as the public and top military brass clamored for war, after Nasser's closure of the Straits of Tiran. In a public radio address meant to calm the nation, Eshkol, who was suffering from a bad cold and could barely read the heavily marked up text in front of him, ended up sounding panicked.
So unnerved was the public that Eshkol had no choice but to take Moshe Dayan into the cabinet as defense minister and to offer the premiership back to David Ben-Gurion. Yet the restraint of the uncharismatic Eshkol made him one of the War's heroes. Because he heeded American warnings against initiating hostilities for so long, Eshkol was able to win the crucial commitment from American President Lyndon Johnson months after the fighting concluded to rearm Israel, even as the Soviets were resupplying Arab armies to the hilt.
Avner also details the discussions over whether to launch an assault on the Old City. Dayan argued that a frontal assault would be too costly in casualties. Another minister feared that even if Israel captured the Old City, it would be immediately pressured to turn it over to international control. But finally, Minister without Porfolio Menachem Begin succeeded in persuading his cabinet colleagues, including many lifelong political foes, not to miss the historic opportunity of regaining Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount.
RABBI EMANUEL FELDMAN'S The 28th of Iyar does not compare in sweep to the aforementioned works. It is Rabbi Feldman's private diary from the tense weeks leading up to the war to its exultant conclusion. But it is a fascinating read, and we can all be very grateful to Rabbi Feldman – then a congregational rav in Atlanta spending his sabbatical year in Bnei Brak -- for sharing it with the public and to Feldheim Publishers for once again publishing it on the 50th anniversary of the War.
Rabbi Feldman enables us to experience the Six-Day War largely through the eyes of the Torah-observant public – the rumor-mongering in the famous Itzkovitz's minyan at the Bnei Brak bus station, the hoarding of supplies, a shmuess of Rabbi Chatzkel Levenstein in the darkened Ponevezh beis medrash , etc.
Rabbi Feldman's characteristic wry wit and sharp-eyed observations are on ample display. And there is not a trace of bravado in his wife's and his decision to remain with their five children, even as 8,000 American citizens, many of them in Israel for years, headed for the exits over a two-day period.
One surprise is the degree to which the citizens of Bnei Brak were full participants in the preparations for War. The book opens with call-up of reservists, at least one, as he was making leil Shabbos Kiddush for his family. Soon the streets are empty of military age men. On the Shabbos before the outbreak of fighting, two weeks after the call-up of reservists began, the streets of Bnei Brak are filled with uniformed men in beards and peyos walking with their families.
Reb Emanuel muses about the contrast between the efficiency of the mobilization of reserves and every other encounter with a government office, which inevitably involves waiting in multiple lines – sometimes the same line twice – only to find that it is time for the clerk's tea break when one's turn finally arrives.
He captures the dread of those days prior to the War, when tens of thousands of graves were dug for the expected casualties. Holocaust survivors worried that they were about to experience a second Holocaust.
Survivors despaired of the thought that once again the world seemed prepared to abandon the Jews. When the United States denied that it had committed to gathering an international flotilla to reopening the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, "the age-old agonizing truth" dawns: "No one in the world really cares about Israel." The neighbor whom Rabbi Feldman engages in conversation, as she sweeps the sidewalk in front of their building, asks rhetorically, "What do they want from us? Wherever we are they persecute us. In Europe, I lost my sisters, my brothers. I'm the only one left. Why won't they let us be?"
Carlebach, the proprietor of one of Bnei Brak's most bustling seforim stores, now virtually empty, tells Rabbi Feldman, "They just slaughtered us and killed us all out a few years ago. We who were left – human rags – came here. For a little peace. . . . I'm not afraid of dying, of being killed, but the wrong of it all, the sheer injustice , the brutality of this world of ours, I am sick. Sick at heart."
But there is also the "latent religiosity" of that average Israeli that becomes more evident in times of crisis. When not using his car to help deliver letters for the Bnei Brak post office, which has had nine of its ten trucks commandeered by the army, Rabbi Feldman is busy picking up hitchhikers. A Yemenite woman, who lost a son in the 1956 Suez campaign, epitomizes rock hard faith: "G-d is good, and I trust in Him to do what has to be done, even if to us it might seem bad."
Another hitchhiker, who is quick to make clear that he is not religious, nevertheless assures Rabbi Feldman, "I want no other place and I will die to stay in this place. But I will not have to die, because God wants us to live, I am sure."
Best of all, however, is the quotation from Yeshayahu (52:9) on the masthead of the decidedly not religious newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, following the capture of the Old City: "Break forth in song, shout together, O ruins of Jerusalem; Hashem has comforted His people, He has redeemed Jerusalem."
Waking Up Jewish
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky once said at an Agudath Israel of America convention that but for the creation of Israel in 1948, the most of non-Orthodox American Jewry would have lost all Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people. The Six-Day War played a similar role for my generation born after 1948.
During the tense three-weeks leading up to Six-Day War, all normal rules were thrown out the window in my house. A TV had never entered our dining room or the adjacent living room. But during that period the entire family sat glued to the TV set at dinner. No one spoke as we listened to Abba Eban's mellifluous oratory at the United Nations.
On the morning of June 5, my mother came into my room to awaken me. She was crying. The explanation followed immediately: "Israel is at war." Though it was already well into the afternoon in Israel, and the Egyptian air force lay a smoldering wreck on tarmacs across Israel, I knew none of that as I headed for the high school, just a half block from my house. The initial reports were not good, and the hysterical crowing of the Egyptians of historic victory dominated the early news. (Jordan's King Hussein was misled by the same lies coming from Cairo into the ill-fated decision for him of joining the attack on Israel.)
That day, as I walked through the familiar high school corridors, there was nothing visibly different. And that was what struck me. My high school was about half Jewish, and much more heavily so in the upper track classes. But as I moved from class to class, everyone seemed to be going about their business as usual.
Of course, one does not know what is going on in anyone else's head. But I saw none of the panic that I felt. No sense that the entire world held in the balance, and that a second Holocaust might be unfolding before our eyes. That afternoon, I asked the driver education instructor to turn on the radio of the car in which I and two other classmates were practicing on the local roads. His bull neck (he was also the wresting coach) tensed at the request, and he turned around to look at me, as if I had lost my mind, which, in some way, I had.
Ours had always been one of the more identified Jewish families in our leafy suburb. At least one of the pre-school books read to us by my parents featured a green tractor run by curly-haired kibbutzniks, in shorts. My next brother and I had already been to Israel with my mother five years earlier, at ages 11 and 9. I don't recall any other classmates who had done so, though many would over the years.
Surprisingly, my memories of the elation upon learning of the miraculous Israeli victory are much less strong than those of the gnawing fear in the weeks leading up to the war and the day of its outbreak. Less than two years later, my parents brought my four brothers and I to Israel to see how radically changed things were from my previous trip in 1962 – the Kosel, Hebron, Bethlehem.
What comes across most strongly from the period preceding the war and the Six-Day War itself is the discovery of how intense my feeling of connection to my fellow Jews was compared to that of most of my friends. I became obsessed with the fact that Jewish teenagers more or less my age were risking and too frequently losing their lives fighting for the Jewish people, while I fretted about acne, getting the car on Saturday night, and college applications. Some of those guilt feelings remain to this day.
But that awakening also made it clear to me that I had met the woman I was going to marry when my wife told me on our first date that she had spent the year after high school in Israel, as part of her Zionist youth group. And it had a lot to do with bringing us to Israel to live two months after our chasanah.
Most important, the increased awareness of being Jewish undoubtedly paved the way for myself and three of my brothers to decide to find out what that really means.