Fifty Years After: Reflections on the Zionist Dream and Israel’s Story June 1967
As Israel prepares to observe the fiftieth anniversary of the Sixth Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem, this moment offers us a unique point of reflection. Over the course of this year, the Jewish world will observe the 120th celebration of the birth of the Zionist Movement, 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, and the 70th observance of the UN Partition Plan. These interlocking events have ultimately enabled us to rewrite the modern Jewish story.
Yet, just as the saga of Jewish nation-building evolves over the course of the last century, correspondingly the Western world would begin to move beyond its historic commitment to the nation-state system in order to construct regional systems of trade and governance, in part leaving the Zionist experiment as an isolated and vulnerable remnant of a different moment in history.
The emergence of the modern Jew takes place in the context of the historic events that unfolded over the past one hundred and twenty-five years. For the first time Jews were able to affirm their national pride and gain their own political identity. In 1897, Theodore Herzl would convene the First Zionist Congress, formally beginning the journey of Jewish nationalism; in 1917, the Balfour Declaration offered the promise of Jewish Statehood; the 1947 UN Partition Plan facilitated the birth of a Jewish national initiative; and in June of 1967 Israelis solidified their presence in the Holy Land, affording Diaspora Jewry the opportunity to acclaim own political standing.
These events emboldened the Jewish people, both as Zionists reclaiming their national dream and as citizens of the world. Yet, at the same point in time when Jews were redefining their political legitimacy, the forces that have historically haunted our people, the enemies of our community, and the opponents of the Jewish State, were reinventing their case against Judaism and Zionism.
If June 1967 reinvigorated the Jewish community, it would fundamentally change how Americans would come to recognize and appreciate Israel’s unique place in the constellation of American foreign policy priorities. The Six Day War transformed how Americans engaged their Jewish friends, and on a more profound basis this nation would acquire a new understanding of its Jewish citizens. Israel’s victories were equated with America’s Jews; it was as if Jews worldwide were instantly seen as courageous and successful. For a brief moment in time, the new global image of “the Jew” was seen and defined as assertive, secure, and powerful.
With the Sixth Day War, we all became Israelis, as our pride and confidence soared. This transformative moment would fundamentally change a particular generation from being identified as Jewish Americans to becoming American Jews, as we no longer defined ourselves only through our religious standing but now saw our Jewishness as core to our identity. The psychological impact of June 1967 would be as powerful as the reality of that moment. As a people, Jews would be reborn, as a new class of people, empowered to reconstruct their identity. Over time, we romanticized these events creating new images of the war while allowing its memories to forever shape our lives. Indeed, as a people we have set aside particular dates within our calendar that allow us to recall and memorialize the unfolding of Israel’s national story.
Following the war soldiers, writers, and politicians would be regular visitors to our communities, describing those six days that changed Jewish history. Suddenly, each of them would embody the reinvented character of the Israeli people. In Yehuda Amichai’s “Jerusalem 1967” we are introduced to the meaning and impact of this particular moment in the mindset of an Israeli:
“Now that I’ve come back, I’m screaming again. I’m beginning to believe again in all the little things that will fill the holes left by the shells. A man who comes back to Jerusalem is aware that the places that used to hurt don’t hurt any more.”
Moshe Dayan in turn references this event as “the dream of a nation come true.” Amos Elon in his book, A Blood-Dimmed Tide, defines the mounting euphoria, as the heartland of the Jewish people being reclaimed. When talking about the newly acquired territories and their future political status, Elon would go further by asking, “whether any government would dare oppose it.”
In response to this euphoria, the United Jewish Appeal would announce new fundraising achievements, as Jews who had never given to local federation campaigns came forward to support the “Israel Emergency Fund.” Jews, who were seen as marginal in their communal or religious involvement, committed to travel to Israel to serve as volunteers, while others stepped up as community activists.
1967 would also lead to a revolution in the Jewish economy, with the influx of new resources into Jewish institutions, fundamentally reinventing the communal order. This defining event would transform Jewish culture, introduce Israel Studies, and expand the boundaries of the Israel-Diaspora partnership and in the process, change both the direction and focus of the Jewish communal agenda. In the aftermath of 1967, federations were seen as the centerpiece of Jewish life.
But the June Six Day War would also lay the foundation for the fundamental divisions over Israel’s definition of its Jewish and democratic character, just as it would foster the efforts of the PLO to undermine the Jewish State. It produced the seeds defining the great divide among America’s Jews. Issues including settlements, Palestinian rights, the divisions between religion and state, and a conversation around the character and substance of what it may mean to be a “democratic, Jewish state” would emerge over the succeeding decades.
In many ways the import of 1967 and the events surrounding the June war would not be fully realized until sometime later. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 in part challenged some of the heightened and distorted imagery that had emerged from ’67, reminding us of the realities and challenges that are a part of the Middle East and that still remain to be addressed.
For those of us who recall the extraordinary week of June 6th 1967, it would be transformative to our Jewish consciousness. There existed a unique sense of awe at what had happened and what it would mean. That moment represented a fundamental change in how we viewed the Jewish State and how we came to understand our place within the Zionist drama.