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Israel: The Tragedy of Victory

Less than a month after the Six Day War, at the beginning of July 1967, I heard David Ben-Gurion speak at Beit Berl, the “think tank” of the Israeli Labor party. Ben-Gurion was, by then, no longer a member of the party which he had founded and he had even given up his seat in the Knesset, where he ended his political career, a faction of one. In June 1963 he had finally retired to Sde Boker, a rather primitive kibbutz on the edge of the desert in the Negev.

The Ben-Gurion who walked into the meeting had about him the air of a prophet who had walked out of his tent to die, but had paused on this last journey to tell us truths which the less farsighted could not see and which only a man possessed by the spirit would dare tell. He warned his listeners against the euphoria that had swept the Jewish world in the aftermath of the Six Day War. Ben-Gurion insisted that all of the territories that had been captured had to be given back, very quickly, for holding on to them would distort, and might ultimately destroy, the Jewish state. He made only one exception of consequence: the Israelis should not relinquish control of the whole of Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion’s most striking assertion that night was that he did not expect immediate peace with the Arabs; for its own inner health, he said, Israel needed only to give back the territories very soon in return for a workable set of armistice arrangements.

A reporter from Israel’s news service, ITIM, was present. A few short lines of the speech appeared the next day in the Israeli papers. What Ben-Gurion had to say about returning the territories, and his solemn warnings against being emotionally overwhelmed by victory, were read in Israel as only another one of the angry outbursts of the founding father, who had now become a public scold.

Israel went on to rejoice in its new power and its new sense of space; no longer could one drive the length of the country in four hours. Levi Eshkol, the prime minister of Israel, shortly after the war was over offered the Arabs the return of nearly all the territories, if they would recognize Israel and negotiate peace. The response of the Arab League at a meeting in Khartoum in November 1967 was three resounding noes: no recognition of Israel, no negotiation, and no peace. And yet most Israelis, and almost all of their friends, did not believe the Arabs. It seemed beyond doubt that the vanquished would soon realize how badly off they were, and would sue for peace. In such a negotiation, almost all Israelis thought that they would undoubtedly have the power to make themselves more secure by returning less than all of the territories that had been captured in the war.

Now, twenty years after the heroics of June 1967, Ben-Gurion’s speech at Beit Berl, his wrathful cry that the most glorious of Israel’s victories could turn out to be even more poisonous than defeat, has become my most vivid memory of Israel in 1967, when, along with hundreds of thousands of others, I visited the West Bank for the first time, drove freely through the Sinai, and even brought home as a souvenir from the Golan Heights a plate of instructions in Russian from the wreck of a Syrian tank. I am more and more persuaded that the old man I heard that night twenty years ago was more prophet than angry octogenarian. It would, I now believe, have been better had the Six Day War ended in a draw and not in a series of stunning victories. And yet the full effect of the war on Israel cannot be understood unless we begin with the important, even positive, changes that were the results of this victory. The euphoria of victory lasted for years, and not without cause. The Six Day War gave Israel, and the world Jewish community which rallied around it then as never before, something more important than victory or captured territory in which to take satisfaction. It gave the Jews, for the first time, a sense of power.

Throughout the centuries since the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70, the physical existence of the Jews has depended on the good will of others. In 1948, the Zionists proclaimed the State of Israel and defended it in a costly war (6,000 casualties out of a population then of 600,000), but its power was modest. In 1956 Israel went to war against Egypt, to end raids by fedayeen guerrillas into its territory from Gaza. This military campaign was coordinated with the British and the French, who had their own reasons for attacking Egypt; they wanted to regain control of the Suez Canal, which had been nationalized by Colonel Nasser. Despite military success, which took the Haganah all the way to the Suez Canal, the war went badly for Israel, at least emotionally. The British and the French withdrew under American pressure, and they hastened to disavow any connection with the Israelis. By February 1957 the Israelis were forced, by American and Soviet pressure, to go back to their original borders. Israel benefited from the protection of a United Nations force which was interposed on the border in Gaza, and the fedayeen raids ended. But the deeper lesson of this venture was that Israel’s valor was a minor factor in a world in which even middle-sized powers, such as Britain and France, seemed negligible.

During the next decade, between the withdrawal in 1957 and the war of June 1967, nothing happened to change Israel’s perception of itself as still a “Jewish” state, that is, a community which could do little according to its own will: the Americans and the Russians held the ultimate veto power. In 1967 Israel chose to go to war when Lyndon Johnson was suggesting yet another formula for “buying time,” when De Gaulle was denouncing the Israelis as aggressors, when the British were on the borderline between neutral and unfriendly, and when it was feared that the Russians might intervene to support their two major clients, then, in the Middle East, Egypt and Syria. Israel’s decision to go to war was an act of daring, and of faith in its power to complete the action before those who might veto it could intervene.

On June 12, 1967, when the fighting stopped on all fronts, Israel was, for the first time, the modern heir to David. It had slain visible Goliaths, and it had defied even larger giants which were lurking behind them. Even nonbelievers spoke of miracles. In a very deep sense, the exile of the Jews, which had begun with the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, ended in the Six Day War. This victory “cured” Jews of the shame of powerlessness. They were now admired among other nations, and they could admire themselves, as a people of valor, and of independence.

Israel and the Jews of the world were transformed after 1967 by the “normalcy” of power, but not entirely for the better. In the Diaspora, the most striking immediate expression of the new Jewish spirit was in the Soviet Union. A handful of dissidents had begun to agitate in the early 1960s for the right to emigrate to Israel, and they had been supported by a few small groups in the United States and in England. At least overtly, the State of Israel had not been at all involved in these efforts: it had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union which it did not want to endanger. The success of Israel in the June 1967 war was incendiary; it made Jews believe that they could prevail against mighty powers. Everywhere, both inside and outside, Jews began to fight more boldly, and without apology, for the right to leave the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union has had reasons of its own for allowing some 275,000 Jews to leave so far, such as its announced desire to get rid of some troublemakers and its continuing wish to get something from the West in return. Nonetheless, it is clear that the Soviets did not wake up one morning to decide suddenly to let some Jews out. This battle was undertaken and essentially won by Jews who had been moved by Israel’s victory in 1967.

But the bravery of those who have fought within the Soviet Union for emigration has been accompanied by some bravado; in the West there have been histrionics, and considerable political unwisdom, among the activists for Soviet Jewry. It is possible to date the moment when these leaders chose to overplay their hand. In 1974, the Soviet regime was eager to avoid the enactment by the American Congress of the Jackson-Vanick amendment which made favorable trade relations dependent on free Jewish emigration. Leonid Brezhnev offered a commitment of orderly and continuing emigration from the Soviet Union of 38,500 Jews a year, and a solution of the “hard cases.” By now, if this agreement had been fulfilled, over 500,000 Jews would have left the USSR. But Brezhnev’s offer was turned down by Jewish activists in Moscow and by leaders of the Soviet Jewry movement in the West. They were persuaded that more could be obtained by further humiliation of the Soviet Union.

This opinion seemed to be confirmed by the events of the next several years, for emigration continued in substantial numbers, and it even reached a high point of over fifty thousand in 1979. The Soviet government eventually gave up hope that the Jackson-Vanick amendment would be repealed and emigration has been painfully slow during the last several years. Recently, there has been some movement in the Jewish community toward a more moderate approach to relations with the Soviet Union, but these stirrings have already been denounced by no less a figure than Anatoly Shcharansky. There are Jews, who continue to conceive the movement for emigration as an ideological challenge through which they hope to break the Communist dictatorship in Soviet Russia. This may be a laudable objective, but it is certainly beyond the power of Jews, even those who think they are first cousins to the heroes of 1967. The immoderation of the movement on behalf of Soviet Jews has been the self-defeating underside of its courage.

The effects on the self-image and actions of American Jews have been equally striking—and just as ambiguous. In the first decade of Israel’s existence support of the state had largely been a private matter, an internal concern of the American Jewish community. The relatively modest contributions to Jewish fund raising were enough to help pay Israel’s deficit (especially because very large amounts of money were then coming from German reparations). The US government had made almost no contribution either to the budget or to the armed strength of Israel, and American Jews had not even thought of making a political fight for aid. When President Eisenhower insisted in the winter of 1956 that Israel had to back down during the Suez crisis, the leaders of American Jewish organizations preferred to counsel Israel to heed him rather than oppose the wishes of the leader of the United States.

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