Bernard Avishai | 5 June 2017 | THE NEW YORKER
Fifty years ago today, on June 5, 1967, we awoke to the news that the war we had dreaded was begun—and decided. I was eighteen, had just finished my freshman year at McGill, and was living with my father, who had been a Zionist leader in Montreal during the nineteen-fifties and had recently married an Israeli woman. During the previous month, grim reports had come to us in rushed calls from Tel Aviv: Israel’s mobilized reserves were baking in the Negev Desert; seaside hotels were being converted to makeshift hospitals. In April, there had been conflict with Syria over the headwaters of the Jordan River; in May, President Nasser, of Egypt, brandishing new Soviet arms and claiming to support Syria, expelled United Nations peacekeepers from the Sinai and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. By early June, Jordan’s King Hussein had thrown in with Egypt. We knew that the Israeli military would strike. I heard that students were contacting the Israeli consulate and volunteering—not to fight but to help with the summer harvest. On June 3rd, I surprised myself by doing the same. On the morning of the 5th, the Israeli Air Force destroyed the Egyptian Air Force on the ground. The rest, as my father put it, with uncharacteristic swagger, would be “a mopping-up operation.” Unopposed in the skies, Israel conquered Jerusalem on the 7th and rolled into the West Bank. By the 11th, it had taken the Golan Heights, from where Syrians had fired on the Hula Valley. I got to Tel Aviv on June 14th, to work, but mainly to celebrate.
Nothing prepared me for a country so close to general euphoria. I lived with my new stepsister, who had married my cousin (seven years later, both would die in a terror attack), and, as soon as he was demobilized, we rushed to Hebron to buy blown glass, as if the West Bank were an exotic vacation spot that had suddenly opened to us. Drivers on the highway cheered the sight of a captured Soviet truck. Jingoistic songs played on the radio, and dark jokes circulated (“How many gears on an Egyptian tank? Five: one forward, four reverse”). The jauntiness was shadowed by grief: nearly eight hundred Israeli soldiers and more than eighteen thousand Arab soldiers had died in what would be called the Six-Day War. Two years ago, the writer Amos Oz released previously censored portions of tapes that featured interviews conducted with Israeli soldiers; tormented, some confessedthat the “mopping up” had included killing Egyptian prisoners of war.
On June 28th, I drove to Jerusalem in a straining Citroën Deux Chevaux with a paratrooper friend. Improvised memorials to fallen soldiers—piles of rock, a rifle, a helmet—sat undisturbed. We arrived at the Mandelbaum Gate, dividing Jewish West Jerusalem from the Arab East, expecting to be stopped and interrogated. But we found no barrier and no guard. My friend turned on the radio, which broadcast only the anthem “Jerusalem of Gold” and a looped announcement that the city, just a half hour earlier, had been declared “united.” Few of us considered the significance of the moment. Jordan had excluded Jews from the Old City and the Western Wall; we thought that might had made, of all things, right. Now Israel was annexing East Jerusalem and several neighboring Arab towns, creating a capital of more than forty square miles, incorporating two of Islam’s most revered mosques, the walls of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and sixty thousand Arabs—a third of the city—who would not be Israeli citizens. When, five days ago, the Trump Administration announced that it would not, after all, move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to this capital, it was refusing—like all other governments and previous U.S. Administrations—to accept as accomplished fact what neighboring Arab countries and major world religions considered a provocation. On that day in 1967, the occupation had begun.
The government archives from those weeks have recently been opened, revealing conversations we were not privy to then, and confirming attitudes that subsequently trickled out in various memoirs. Not surprisingly, the ultra-nationalist populist Menachem Begin, who later founded the Likud, had pushed for Jerusalem’s conquest as soon as Egypt was defeated. Yet even secular Labor Zionists were gripped by the euphoria; the leftist military leader Yigal Allon joined Begin. What began as a defensive war became an occasion for redemption in more senses than one. Two weeks ago, in Haaretz, the veteran reporter Uzi Benziman, who had covered the war, wrote that “Jerusalem was unified in the wake of a storm of emotions, not to say a tempest of caprices, that took hold of a small number of decision makers in the government and the IDF, and drove them to transform radically the situation in the Middle East.” (The Haaretz editorial on June 28, 1967, had reverted to prophetic thunder—and pathetic fallacy. It read, “The Old City of Jerusalem is ours. Its gates are open. No longer will the Western Wall stand deserted and silent.”)
What Benziman is suggesting is that impetuous action in Jerusalem portended the half century of conflict that followed. Jerusalem was the first step in establishing rule over a disenfranchised population, and the first site of settlement over the Green Line, the armistice line set in 1949. Annexation preëmpted peace talks with Jordan, and so made the occupation of the West Bank seemingly perpetual. It also subtly corrupted the rhetoric of Israel’s Labor leadership, the custodians of the young state’s democratic norms, introducing a fatal ambivalence toward the right’s Biblical casuistry—as well as a tolerance for the neo-Zionist ideology and illegal squatting of ultra-rightist settlers, which began in Hebron the following year. In August, 1967, the aggressively secular defense minister Moshe Dayan, who was treated like a rock star after the war, gave a speech on the Mount of Olives. “We have returned to the Mount, to the cradle of our nation’s history, to the land of our forefathers, to the land of the Judges, and to the fortress of David’s dynasty,” Dayan said. He knew, he added, “that to give life to Jerusalem, we must station soldiers and armor on the Shechem mountains.”
In a way, the most enduring legacy of the 1967 war was Labor’s ambivalence. Did a land liberate the people or a people liberate the land? If “return” applied to Jerusalem—and “Shechem,” the Biblical name for the Arab city of Nablus—then why not to the whole of “Judea and Samaria”? Before 1967, political borders, however provisional, subtended cultural ones: sovereignty derived from international recognition and the consent of the governed. After 1967—beginning with the annexation of East Jerusalem—the claim over land, even for Labor’s most distinguished leaders, was irrespective of that consent. Rights were somehow established by “the cradle” of national history.
Nothing in this year of commemoration has underscored Labor’s rightward, post-1967 transformation more touchingly than a documentary titled “Ben-Gurion: Epilogue.” The film is patched together from newly discovered footage from early 1968, of an interview that the young Clinton Bailey, who later become an authority on the Bedouin, conducted with David Ben-Gurion—Labor’s old lion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, and Dayan’s mentor. They met on the Negev kibbutz, Sde Boker, where Ben-Gurion was living in retirement. In the interview, he reflects on the ideas that saw him through democratic-socialist state-building: his childhood reading, in Poland, of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”; his determination to be a manual laborer; his skepticism about “big cities,” in which people could not be “friendly”; his pioneering of the Negev. His colleagues in the Labor leadership took workers’ salaries, built collectives, valorized technological advance and scientific doubt, and were steeped in tolerance for spiritual idiosyncrasy. (Ben-Gurion, who admired Buddhism more than Orthodox Judaism, is seen in the film with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, both of them in yoga headstands.) “We wanted to create something new,” he says.
In Ben-Gurion’s telling, the classical Labor Zionist view was that the Israelis’ right to their land derived from mixing Hebrew labor with it—improving it, without having Arabs do the dirty work. Indeed, the 1948-49 war had reinforced Israel’s self-sufficiency, he implies, because the Israelis had fought for their lives, and, except for the area around Nazareth, the Palestinians had mostly fled or been expelled. Labor Zionist institutions, along with the quasi-official Jewish Agency, had settled over a million new immigrants, mainly from Arab countries. Labor leaders could plausibly (if coldly) argue that there had been an exchange of populations. “I believe we had a right to this country—not to take it away from others, but to reclaim it,” Ben-Gurion said. (After 1967, these same institutions were in place to settle newer immigrants in hastily constructed eastern suburbs of Jerusalem.)
As the occupation hardened, however, and “united” Jerusalem became the new normal for Israelis, even his attitudes changed; “Ben-Gurion: Epilogue” is touching also for what it fails to anticipate. In 1970, Ben-Gurion gave another interview, this time to Israeli television, and spoke in a quite different register. “We have a history of four thousand years in this land,” he said, claiming for modern Jews the mantle of ancient Judeans. “No other people has a history here!” Was he saying that Israelis were in this land by God’s will? the interviewer asked. “Jews built here something no other people built here!” he answered. So the claim is not belief in God but “belief in ourselves”? the interviewer, exasperated, pressed, one last time. “There is no ‘ourselves’ without God—no ‘thing’ without God,” Ben-Gurion replied, invoking Spinoza, slipping the trap. Save for the Golan Heights, which had permanent strategic value, he would give up the occupied territories for a full peace. But, also, he would not give up Jerusalem, which had “unique” value.
Ben-Gurion died just after the 1973 war—the 1967 war’s second act, which brought the country close to general anguish. It paved the way for Labor Zionism’s defeat at the hands of Begin and his successors, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon, and Benjamin Netanyahu. Two weeks ago, anticipating the Trump Administration’s Embassy decision, Netanyahu declared that Jerusalem was “the main artery of our national consciousness”— that “the root of Zionism is in Zion.” The 1970 Ben-Gurion might have found that claim difficult to refute. Yet I suspect that the pre-1967 leader, still enmeshed in “something new,” would have seen through it. Much like Ehud Olmert’s and Mahmoud Abbas’s 2008 agreement, Ben-Gurion’s partition plan, from 1946, created an international zone for sites that could never be the “root” of any one consciousness. His modern Hebrew democracy would make a capital in Jerusalem, not of it. That city would have room for the world’s embassies, and much else besides.