Gellman: American Jews and the Six Day War

I will gladly cede to pundits and political scientists the dubious task of deciding how the Six Day War, whose 40th anniversary we mark this week, changed the Middle East conflict. What I know with agonizing clarity is how the Six Day War changed me and many other American Jews of the boomer generation.

By the year 1967 I had turned 20 and America had turned crazy. The murders of John F. Kennedy in 1963, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman in 1964, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, in addition to the personal risk of my being drafted to serve in Vietnam, had made me feel both embarrassed and scared about America and about being an American. It was a very bad time. The only good thing I remember is that we had very good music.

Then suddenly, on June 5, 1967, we American Jews had a rabbit hole down which we could flee the social traumas of the '60s. Forty years ago, Israel was the perfect escape for us. It was a socialist country of non-American superheroes that was amazingly both strong and innocent, both an underdog and a victor. Best of all, Israel welcomed all of the thousands of American Jews who flocked to Israel right after the Six Day War—including me and my wife, Betty—perhaps less to find ourselves as Jews than to forget ourselves as Americans. The deepest purpose of Israel, enshrined in the law of return, was to provide refuge for fleeing Jews. After the Six Day War, for a very brief period of time, the Jews returning to Israel were fleeing America.

Another spiritual consequence of the Six Day War was that it took Judaism to the streets. In his poem "Hakitzah Ami," the poet Yehudah Leib Gordon recounted the deal made by Jews from the Enlightenment through the French Revolution right on through the founding of America. The deal was, "To be a Jew at home and a man in the streets." Judaism was to be privatized in return for social acceptance and assimilation. The Six Day War changed all that, at least for a while. Suddenly, Jews who were already used to bringing their politics to the streets to protest segregation or the Vietnam War became energized by Israel's victory, and the swelling up of Jewish pride it birthed in us changed American Jewry and America utterly. The clearest and finest example of this was the campaign to save Soviet Jews. Their oppression was not swept under the rug in the way that timorous Jewish leaders had downplayed the Holocaust less than 30 years before. In the 1970s, hundreds of thousands of Jews and our supporters marched on Washington, and President Reagan listened and dissident Natan Sharansky was set free. Before the Six Day War, Jews would never have been so bold, so public, so fearless. Because of the forces focused and unleashed by the Six Day War, we were suddenly Jews at home and on the street.

The Six Day War also split the Jewish community into Left and Right. Before 1967, all Jews voted Democratic, except two Jewish Republicans who preferred to remain anonymous. Then came the aftermath of the Six Day War, and suddenly Israel's victory, and her control of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem were seen by growing numbers of the Left as evidence that Israel was now a colonial oppressor of the Palestinian people. The anti-Israel rhetoric from the Left has steadily grown these last 40 years and was punctuated last week by a vote of the union of British professors to take steps to sever all contacts with Israeli academics; as if now even talking to Israelis was too much of a moral compromise to ask of any educated, progressive person. The consequence of this left-wing anti-Zionism was that many Jews began to rethink their political home base. Conservative American Jews began to speak out against the way Israel has been grotesquely and unfairly maligned. Especially after 9/11 they have made the case that Israel is the front line in the war against the West. They believe that America's future cannot be secured by embracing Israel's enemies. I agree with them.

Paradoxically, both left-wing and neocon Jews are linked by a shared belief that Judaism is not just something to be practiced at home. Judaism is not just about lighting candles and blessing bread. Judaism is about speaking the truth to power and about confronting evil in the streets of our broken world. Liberal and conservative Jews have very different ideas of what it means to repair the world, but if it were not for the Six Day War, the kind of street Judaism that takes these things seriously would never have been born. We would still just be Jews in our homes and the streets would be empty of our passion.