Monday, June 5, 2017

Six Day War Memories 50 Years Later

Where were you 50 years ago today, June 5, 1967? 

A freshman at Brooklyn College, my normal routine was to drive from my parents’ home to school and plant myself at the Knight House table in the cafeteria in the basement of Boylan Hall. There I’d sit for the better part of the next six to eight hours, schmoozing with friends, only occasionally vacating my seat to attend class.

Around 10 that morning, word started to trickle in that war had broken out between Israel and its Arab neighbors. This was not the era of instant worldwide communications, of CNN or cell phones, of 24-hour news cycles. Israel controlled the dissemination of news from its territory. In those first, terrifying, stomach-churning hours, the only reports we heard were those coming from Egypt, communiqués about Arab troops advancing on Tel Aviv, of Zionists falling in a jihad of epic proportions.

The 1967 crisis in the Middle East had been building for months. Egypt expelled United Nations peacekeepers who guarded the Sinai border with Israel. It closed the Straits of Tiran to ships bound for Eilat. A blockade is considered an act of war. Arab countries vowed to drive Israelis into the sea, to dismember the Jewish state. 

Jews the world over feared another Holocaust. Anyone with relatives or friends in Israel were doubly worried. My sister, Lee, was in Israel, studying at Hebrew University.

All day my friends and I held small transistor radios to our ears. It was not until well into the afternoon or early evening that the true picture of the day’s events became known. The startling revelation of Israel’s air power superiority, coupled with its armored division successes, exceeded even the most optimistic expectations of the 19-year-old country’s supporters. 

I tapped into Lee’s memory bank earlier today, asking her to recall the period before and during the Six Day War. Weeks before June 5, Israel called up military reservists including her boyfriend, Hanan, a fellow student at Hebrew U. in Jerusalem, who asked her to take good notes so he would be up to speed with classwork once he returned from service. Instead of hundreds attending a political science class, just 30 or so students, mostly Americans or other foreign born, Arabs and those physically unable to serve in the military, showed up in the  lecture hall. 

One student, Lee remembered, asked the professor what would happen if Israeli troops were able to succeed in capturing Cairo. His response—they should get out as quickly as possible for it would be difficult if not impossible to rule over any area where Israelis would be a minority.

About two weeks before war began the university closed down. Lee went with Nava,  an Israeli roommate, to her home in Ramat Gan, outside Tel Aviv. They worked in her father’s Matzot Aviv factory packing k-rations, hard crackers Lee said were harder than bullets. They joked they could be used to throw at an enemy if hand to hand combat were necessary.

Going out for a walk at night Lee observed how empty the streets were of youths. All the young men and girls had been called up for military reserves duty.

Just as in America, Israelis were in the dark as to the progress of the war when it began. Lee could hear the constant roar of jets. She could not understand why so many planes were flying overhead with no shooting or bombing, not knowing at the time that Israel’s air force had achieved air supremacy in the first hours of the war.  

To relieve her tension, Nava’s mother cleaned, re-cleaned and cleaned again her refrigerator, inside and out. When the battle for the Old City of Jerusalem started on the third day of the war, Nava’s mother kept up a steady lament (“Oh how many boys we lost”) for the soldiers who died in the battle to take Jerusalem during the War of Independence in 1948.

Proficient in Hebrew, Lee could follow radio broadcasts once news of Israel’s successes became known. But when descriptions of battles in the Galil, where she thought Hanan was stationed, were transmitted, she inexplicably could not comprehend what she heard. Panic had muted her comprehension. It was only after he returned from the war that she learned he was in the Sinai, not the Galil, during the fighting.

By June 7, some normalcy had returned. People went shopping in Tel Aviv. Lee bought her first bikini that day. As memorable was a scene she witnessed on the bus ride from Ramat Gan. A horse drawn cart was by stopped on the side of the road, the horse injured. It would have to be put down. Amid all the trauma of war, passengers on the bus expressed their grief and pathos that a creature not involved in the existential war that surrounded their prayers and hopes would lose its life. 

Sometimes it is hard for contemporary observers to fully appreciate the fragility of Israel’s existence in 1967. From being considered a David facing the Arab Goliath in 1967, the roles have been reversed in the ensuing 50 years. Yet even today a visitor to Israel cannot be anything but wary when hostile borders surround the state, which is but a speck of green in an otherwise sandy expanse. Artillery fire could easily reach Israel’s population centers back in 1967. As it can today. It’s too much to expect friendly neighbors. Secure, peaceful borders, however, are legitimate demands. 

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