David Harris, the ceo of the American Jewish Committee, gave a talk on the 1967 war on its 53rd anniversary last week and offered unreconstructed mythology. Israel was on the verge of “annihilation” from threatening neighbors, launched a “defensive war” that it won, in a “miracle” that is studied in military academies around the world because no other army has achieved such a victory.
The triumph transformed American Jewish identity, Harris continued. We no longer felt meek and wanted to hide our Jewishness, but walked tall, and dreamed of moving to Israel.
Harris repeatedly cited the Holocaust. A “second Shoah” was in the offing, he asserts. The 1967 War took place 22 years after the Holocaust, and a people who had not been able to defend themselves in Europe against threats the world pooh-poohed were able to do so in the Middle East.
Harris’s comments are worth reviewing because his military claims are today regarded by historians as distortions and myth. Israel was well understood to have superior arms to the bellicose Arab neighbors; U.S. officials knew the war would end very quickly; the threats were thought to be largely bluster. Egypt did not want a war, while Israeli security officials sought a war to provide itself with more territory.
Let’s hear from Harris. Yes, Israel started the war. But:
“[The war] began certainly several weeks earlier. So for example, on May 16 Cairo Radio announced publicly on May 16, The existence of Israel has continued too long, the battle has come in which we shall destroy Israel. On May 27 Gamel Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt, said, “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel.” On June 1, Iraq’s leader added, We are resolved, determined, and united, to achieve our clear aim of wiping Israel off the map. And on June 3, two days before the start of the war, Cairo Radio hailed the impending Muslim holy war. So what we all wanted to believe was a political geographic war, they were framing in wholly religious terms….
“Israel which was 19 years old at the time… Israel which was just 22 years away from the end of the Holocaust– and the central lesson of the Holocaust was that when in the buildup to the Second World War, Adolf Hitler declared his intention to destroy the Jewish people, not enough people took it seriously. People kind of dismissed ‘Mein Kampf’. ‘Well you know when Hitler becomes chancellor he’s going to have to collect the mail and take out the garbage and that’s going to moderate him.’ So think of the Israeli mindset. Bloodcurdling threats to annihilate the Jewish people 22 years after the Holocaust, 19 years after this fragile state was established…
“And in addition.. the Soviets were very unhelpful here, they apparently were spreading rumors and misinformation, disinformation… telling the Arabs to get ready, because War is coming, Israel is on the march, and all the rest.
“Yes on June 5, Israel, surrounded by this threat of war, Jordan having submitted its forces to the control of Egypt and Syria, Iraq calling for the extinction of Israel, the Soviets playing a meddlesome role, Israel this narrow fragile state without much strategic depth launched a war of self defense.
“I can only call it a war of self defense. A war of aggression is when you want to acquire someone else’s land. A war of self defense is when you want to defend yourself against people who publicly call for your annihilation, again, 22 years after the Holocaust, which was so deeply embedded in the psyche of Israel…”
Now here is Harris’s explanation of the effect on Jewish identity:
“For Soviet Jews the idea that the Jewish people 22 years after the Shoah– a people who during the Shoah with few exceptions were unable to defend themselves– not only defended themselves in this brilliant military victory which every, every military academy on the planet I believe studies to this day, whether they’re friends of Israel or not doesn’t matter….
“This– this sliver of land? This remnant of a people was able to defeat not only the Arab armies but the Soviet weaponry which Soviet citizens had been told time and again was superior to American weaponry? This was seen in terms of miracles… I saw it even several years later [in the Soviet Union], the sense of pride. Being a Jew was not a shame, it’s not a stigma. The Soviet Union has always tried to tell me I have to hide my Jewishness. I have to pretend that I don’t look Jewish, whatever the perception of looking Jewish might mean. I have to lay low, I have to be meek in order to survive in the Soviet Union. And darn it! Look at those Israelis! They make me walk taller and prouder, and you know what, I want to know more about Israel, and you know what, maybe one day if miracles continue to happen one day I might go live in Israel.
“And among American Jews it was very much the same thing…That war made many American Jews– I was 18 at the time– walk differently, talk differently. This was a war of survival. The threat was the threat of destruction and annihilation– a second shoah. In six days Israel had performed in a way that no other army had ever done. the same people who couldn’t fight, fight, historically. So the sense of pride and new energy and a new outlook I think was enormously contagious in the Jewish world…”
Three years ago we published a historical post saying, Israel provoked the 1967 war, and it was not fighting for survival. James North interviewed Norman Finkelstein about his scholarship on the war, centering on two large “lies” that are told about the war:
“The truth is that Nasser and the other Arab leaders had absolutely no intention of invading Israel in June 1967.
“And Israel’s existence was never in the slightest doubt, as both Israeli and American leaders knew that Israel could easily win any conflict, even against a coalition of Arab states.”
Finkelstein related that in 1967 Israel had two goals, to overcome the humiliation of its failed invasion of Egypt in 1956, and to expand its borders. Israel’s “primary goal was to neuter Nasser, to deliver a death blow to these uppity Arabs, and finish off what was called radical Arab nationalism,” he said. Israel’s “secondary goal” was “to conquer the lands they had coveted but didn’t manage to seize in ’48: East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan.”
Israeli provocations preceded the Arab bellicosity. “In November 1966, in the largest military action since the Suez invasion, Israel attacked the West Bank town of Samu, then under Jordanian rule, killing 18 Jordanian soldiers and destroying 125 homes,” Finkelstein said. “Israel continued instigating along its border with Syria in April 1967, triggering an aerial battle in which 6 Syrian planes were shot down, including one over Damascus. Voices in the Arab world started to accuse Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of the Arabs, of standing by and doing nothing.”
As a result, Nasser asked U.N. forces to withdraw from the armistice line in the Sinai, and instituted what Finkelstein says was a partial and ineffective blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba, which Israel cited as a casus belli.
David Harris is surely right when he describes the fear inside the American Jewish community as the 1967 war approached. The great majority of American Jews were afraid that Israel was about to be destroyed. Even liberals and leftwingers held emergency meetings for Israel. The growing awareness of the Holocaust surely played a role in that community response. And when Israel won the war, there was tremendous relief and pride inside the Jewish community. Whether we walked taller and ceased being meek — I don’t remember that, I didn’t need Israelis to teach me that. I do remember the joyous surge of triumph.
But that was 53 years ago and myself I was 11 years old, David Harris was 18. We no longer have the excuse of being kids in the 1960s to justify historic ignorance. It is plain from Harris’s remarks that he has not changed his emotional registry of these events in any way in the years that followed: years of colonization, militarization, expansion, and apartheid. Myths need regular reexamination.
Harris is also surely right when he says that the Holocaust informed Israel’s approach to its neighbors. Abba Eban called the Green Line “Auschwitz borders,” and Menachem Begin later said that he invaded Lebanon to destroy Hitler in his bunker — Arafat in Beirut. But these are terrible beliefs to maintain about an enemy whom you have ethnically cleansed and deprive of rights. They reflect a trauma that also needs to be examined when Israel is so powerful.
P.S. Harris is openly dependent on propaganda. “I think most people agree today that the single most authoritative book is Six Days of War by Dr. Michael Oren.” Oren is a former Israeli ambassador who has questioned whether Palestinian youths shot and killed by Israel were really dead or just playacting, and who once said Obama’s Middle East policy was informed by his “Muslim roots.”