On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Six Days in June . . . Fifty Years Later

Jewish conversation in Israel and North America is understandably focused this month on lessons learned from the war fought in early June 50 years ago. One cannot but feel immense gratitude for the victory that saved Israel from the imminent destruction that had threatened in the weeks leading up to the conflict. There is cause for joy beyond measure at the extraordinary achievements made possible by Israel’s triumph, both inside the State and in Jewish communities worldwide. Questions abound on what might have been: opportunities missed, internal Jewish divisions that have deepened rather than healed, the huge cost exacted by a half-century of occupation. Many dreams from 1967 remain unfulfilled in 2017. Above and beneath all these, there is hope that the war Israel won so long ago will finally lead to peace, a hope accompanied by resolve that the immense good accomplished over the years in Israel, by Israel, and for Israel shall not, God forbid, be for naught. We need to nourish that hope and resolve, both in Israel and in North America, lest we find ourselves, at the war’s 60th anniversary, with an end to the conflict still not in sight.

I was a teenager in 1967, drawn to Israel even before my first visit by the dynamism that the Six-Day War had immediately loosened. I was compelled as well by a vision for Israeli society lifted right out of the Book of Deuteronomy. Israel would be just, generous, tolerant, forward-looking. I wanted somehow to be part of that; the future of the State became inseparable from the one that I imagined for myself. “All this is not a parable and not a dream,” we sang with Naomi Shemer. “It is as true as the light of noon. All this will come to pass tomorrow, if not today. And if not tomorrow, then the day after.”

The Israel I encountered firsthand in the 1970s was remarkably confident about its future, despite the widespread suffering and shock caused by the Yom Kippur War. One walked the narrow alleys of the Old City without fear, eating hummus and visiting holy places alongside Israelis who for years had yearned to take that walk as they fought off repeated incursions from enemies across the borders. It was not hard for a young Jew from the Diaspora to grasp the awe and wonder on Israeli faces as together we stood before the Western Wall. I spent many hours in its vicinity looking up at the Temple Mount and out toward the Dead Sea, happily breathing in the “mountain air as clear as wine” and bathing in Jerusalem’s golden light. The prophet Isaiah had stood here some 2,600 years earlier and proclaimed, “Holy, holy, holy . . .  the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” One could envision that happening, in this awesome place where faithful Jews shared the streets with faithful Christians and Muslims. I felt about all of Israel the way Naomi Shemer sang to Jerusalem: the “smallest of the youngest of [its] children.”

It was not a time or place for modest aspirations. Gush Emunim soon began to push its agenda of West Bank settlement in the name of bringing the Messiah. Other Israelis hotly debated which parts of the conquered territories Israel should and should not return in exchange for peace, none doubting that peace would come if only their preferred plan were executed. It was a heady time—the most exciting I can remember—and then Sadat miraculously came to Jerusalem, and Menachem Begin agreed (10 years after 1967) to return Sinai to Egypt in exchange for peace. It seemed things might just work out the way Naomi Shemer and her country had imagined.

Israelis have been treated in recent weeks to a fascinating exchange between Micha Goodman, a well-known philosopher and educator, and Ehud Barak, former general, prime minister, and defense minister.   Goodman has written a book entitled Catch-67 (a play on the name of Joseph Heller’s novel), which argues that Israel today finds itself trapped. The “right” maintains, correctly in Goodman’s view, that to surrender the West Bank in present circumstances would be to take an unacceptable risk to the country’s physical survival. The “left” counters, correctly in Goodman’s view, that not to surrender the West Bank soon would be to take an unacceptable risk to the country’s moral survival as a democratic Jewish state. Goodman sees symmetry between the two positions, which Barak denies in a long and respectful review. Israel is strong enough militarily to take careful, calculated risks for peace, including withdrawal from the occupied territories. To which Goodman replies that most Israelis do not agree either with him or with the “right” but instead, lacking “ideological clarity,” “labor under the nuanced complexity of reality.”

I confess that I too lack a clear vision of the way forward for Israel, as do most North American Jews of my acquaintance. One of the infuriating things about the BDS movement and its Jewish sympathizers is their blithe dismissal of moral, historical, and political complexity.  The absence of peace and justice in the Middle East is entirely Israel’s fault, they maintain; all that is needed for peace and justice to prevail is for Israel to give back the territories and accept Palestinian demands.  Extremists on the “right” seem to me equally unhelpful (and dangerous) when it comes to dreaming a future for Israel, as if several million Palestinians will voluntarily leave their homeland or give up their aspirations for a state of their own—particularly when they witness close-up the spectacular success of the Jewish return to our homeland and the establishment there of a sovereign Jewish state. Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, spoke for me when he said recently: “We cannot discuss the result of the Six-Day War as one conclusion or a one-dimensional result. It is like anything else in this country. It’s complicated.” Lapid celebrates the “unification of Jerusalem” but insists that, “promised the right security measures—we have no interest in ruling 2.9 million Palestinians . . . we need to separate from this idea.”

I am grateful for moderate and pragmatic voices that suggest ways of breaking the current stalemate. Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin, has urged new initiatives (as yet unspecified) “to bring peace to Jerusalem. To grow within her an Israeli hope . . . It is not enough that the city is united if its people are still divided.” Two hundred former generals and heads of intelligence services have joined a group called Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS) that recently issued a set of detailed proposals for unilateral Israeli actions that they believe would simultaneously improve conditions in the West Bank, enhance Israeli security, and leave the door open for a future agreement (in a way that expanded settlement on the West Bank does not). President Trump’s remarks during his recent visit left Israelis perplexed about the future course of American policy, but according to some commentators, they bore the promise of welcome movement to a peace process that for years has seemed stuck.

The most potent antagonist to constructive thought about the next 50 years of Israel’s history may well be fatalism about the chance for peace and therefore about Israel’s future. One hears more and more of it these days both in North America and in Israel. Those of us committed to the Zionist project and the well-being of the Jewish people must do all we can at this moment to keep hope alive.

I believe that hope must be nourished in and by both communities.  Diaspora Jews have an essential role to play in such efforts. That too was a lesson I learned from the 1967 war and its aftermath. As a teenager in Philadelphia, I marveled at friends of my parents who gave all the money they could to Israel in 1967 and then again in 1973, lest another tragedy befall the Jewish people so soon after the Holocaust; in the years following I was stirred by peers who either made aliyah or devoted themselves heart and soul to promoting Israel’s welfare.  Riding Egged busses the length and breadth of the country, I marveled at the strong connection I felt to Jews with physiognomies and native languages very different from any I had ever known. I bore responsibilities toward them, I realized, just as my parents had believed. Like me, my fellow passengers had made their way to Israel.   They too celebrated Shabbat and Passover, felt the tug of Jewish history, and were grateful for the soldiers sitting beside us with Uzis on their laps, protection against enemies who wanted us dead or elsewhere. My graduate studies at Hebrew University taught me that there were only two viable strategies for Jewish life in the modern period, neither without risks: sovereignty in a homeland of our own and strong minority communities in a Diaspora democracy. One immediate benefit of Israel’s victory in 1967 was a resurgence of pride among Jews everywhere that for a while resulted in increased identification with Jewish communities and with Israel.

One hears more and more voices in our community that say, or act as if, they want Israel to prosper but don’t much care what happens there—and one hears prominent Israeli voices that say, or act as if, they do not care what Diaspora Jews like us think or do where Israel is concerned. It has become more urgent than ever that Jews in North America talk and listen to Israeli Jews about the future of our people, and vice versa; it is no less important that those of us who do not live in Israel talk and listen to one another civilly—defying the polarized tenor of the times—about our shared passion and divergent visions for the State we care about so much. There is profound ignorance about Israel among the vast majority of North American Jews, and comparable ignorance about the North American community among Israelis. Myths abound on both sides. Knowledge is in short supply. Strident voices seek to shut down conversation at a time when all Jews more than ever must be heard and brought to the table.

For at the end of the day, Israel is about far more than politics to Jews.  Politics is the means by which we think and argue about the meaning of Jewish existence, in this period of history so unlike anything the world has ever experienced. Arguments about Israel are ultimately about the survival and thriving of the Jewish people and of Judaism. Jews in North America cannot be bystanders to debate conducted in the name of the Jewish people, all the more when all sides invoke Judaism, Torah, God—commitments we share with all our hearts. I take comfort, 50 years after the 1967 war, from the fact that no one back then, in Israel or in North America, “religious” or “secular,” “left” or “right,” even came close to imagining the complex situation “on the ground” that we confront today. This should strengthen our resolve that—despite widespread inability to imagine a way out of the current impasse—such a way will be found, so that by the 60th anniversary of the conflict things will be different.

This is not a parable or a dream, I believe, but a necessity—one I am confident will come to pass.

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