50 Years to the Six Day War- Personal Recollections of a Young Lobbyist
How can I convey to a young Jewish college student today what it was like to be a Jew before 1967?
Today, I hear of talk of us Jews as “White and privileged” and therefore, the Jewish narrative of suffering is irrelevant compared to the suffering of everyone else in America- except, of course, whoever is “White”. So, in this mix, my fellow Jews from Iran, you are white, my wife’s family, from Yemen, are white, but Muslims from the same countries are not white.
So let me step back from my rant, and look back, before 1967, at what it meant to be a Jew whether in the US, under the best of circumstances, or in the Soviet Union, under much less than ideal circumstances, or even in Iran, under the Shah.
We had barely survived the Holocaust when one third of our number vanished. True, the birth of Israel gave us all a major boost, yet that State was still a nebulous, unsure entity. It had held back the invasion, at its birth, of six Arab armies. It had pushed back the Egyptians in 1956 to the Suez Canal, yet its standing was not yet solid. There were constant terror attacks by Fedayeen gangs from Gaza and from Jordan-occupied West Bank. Oh, did I forget to add that Gaza was occupied by Egypt and the West Bank by Jordan and neither of these occupiers offered Palestinians a state when they had it in their power to do so. Then, on top of it all , the Syrians were constantly shelling the farmers in the Galilee below their positions on the Golan Heights.
Jews were being expelled en masse from the Middle East, from lands we had lived in for five centuries before Christianity, a thousand years before Islam. Yes, the supposedly tolerant Islamic world suddenly had no room for Jews that were indigenous to the Middle East. This was the epitome of racism.
In the Soviet Union, to be a Jew was to live with a liability that blocked all avenues of advancement. Almost one third of our people trapped in limbo. Jews could live as individuals as long as they sacrificed their souls on the altar of Marxism-Leninism.
Even here, in the United States, in the most prosperous and secure Jewish community in history, we Jews were, internally, still insecure. I recall that my father served a congregation in the suburbs of Washington, DC. The President of the congregation , himself a refugee, still spoke with a heavy accent, and since the members were all involved, in some way, with government work, they were concerned that my father did not sound American enough. That is the kind of insecurity that we Jews had absorbed, even if the American non-Jew, himself or herself, could not really care.
I myself had just begun college in the fall of 1966. We had a Jewish student’s group on campus and it was active, yet it could involve only a fraction of the much larger number of Jewish students on campus. This was New York University, after all. This was their exclusive campus, in the Bronx, that had, until a few years before, restricted access to Jews. It opened doors wide only when it received a huge donation for a new dormitory less than a decade before. Furthermore, Jewish students had bigger fish to fry-- the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, the beginnings of Hippy and Yippy-dom.
Then, that May of 1967, Egypt’s Nasser closed access to the Straits of Tiran. This was an outright violation of the terms of the cease fire agreements of the Suez Canal Crisis and the Sinai War of 1956. This meant that no ships bound for Israel could get to Eilat, which in turn meant that oil shipments, from an unnamed, anonymous, Middle Eastern Farsi speaking country, could not get through. This in itself was an existentialist threat to the survival of Israel and, by international law, grounds for war. Nasser ordered the UN forces out of the Sinai (which politely obliged him without a peep, meaning, for Israel that international guarantees were worthless), and then massed tanks and troops in the Sinai. This was a larger massing of tanks in North Africa than that of the campaigns between Montgomery and Rommel in World War II. In Israel, mass graves were being readied. It now has been revealed that Israeli intelligence knew, before anyone else, that Nasser had chemical weapons of mass destruction and had used them on his fellow Arabs in Yemen just a few years earlier. Arab leaders never had mercy on their fellow Arabs. Go ask Saddam Hussein and Bashir Assad. (Israel had supplied the anti-Nasser forces with weapons and had their people on the ground in Yemen).
Even here, in America, the tension for us Jews was palpable.
Then Vice-President Hubert Humphrey spoke to the convention of the Conservative Rabbis, which my father attended, that the United States of America would protect Israel. “Trust me”, he assured the assembly, as my father relayed to me. No assistance came forth; instead, President Johnson warned Israel not to initiate a pre-emptive strike.
In June, the fighting broke out; Israel scrambled jets and tanks. One the first day, they broke the back of the Arab air forces, on the second day, they broke the back of Egypt’s tank forces, on the third day, they liberated the old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall, on the fourth day, they broke the back of the Jordanian army , the best trained fighting force in the Arab world, and on the sixth day, they drove tanks up mountains where tanks could not go and made their way to Damascus. On the Seventh Day, they rested.
American Jewry scrambled as well- to demonstrate support for Israel.
My father served at the time as Rabbi of a small Jewish community in the heart of West Virginia. The Jews of West Virginia, as did those of the rest of the country, sent delegations; we were joined by noted journalist and biographer of Ben Gurion, Robert St. John. At the time, I was home on vacation from NYU and the community wanted a young presence to go with them. I was selected to join the delegation and I presume that I must have been one of the youngest lobbyists at that epochal event.
We flew out of the small airport on one of the last of the DC-3s to still be flying. (As I said, it was a small airport on top of a hill in a very hilly land).
In Washington, we met with our Senators and Congressmen. We had one Senator, Jennings Randolph, who was “ Shomer Shabbat”, kept the Shabbat, but he was not Jewish. He was a Seventh Day Baptist ( different form Adventist) , and he, long before Senator Joe Lieberman, would not show up at Senate business on Shabbat. He assured us of his support and made mention of his being the only Sabbath-keeper in the Senate.( The great Jewish Senator of that time, Jacob Javitz, did not keep Shabbat ).
It was our meeting with the other Senator, though, that was significant. It was Senator Robert Byrd, who had just become the leader of the Senate Democrats, who made the great impression on us.
Senator Byrd was leveraging his long-career in the Senate (since the early fifties) to move up in the ranks. By 1967. he had become the Secretary of the Democratic Majority and he was a close friend of President Johnson. He had, in his early years, been a member of the notorious Ku Klux Klan, bona fide racist and anti-Semite, but he had seen the light and the changes coming to America.
Ten years earlier, he told us, when the first Suez Campaign broke out in 1957, he had been a vocal opponent of Israel’s actions, as were President Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles. At that time, he was sure that Israel was in the wrong to go into the Sinai.
This time, all was different.
He had studied the documents and treaties regarding the rights to the use of the Suez Canal and access to Eilat through the Straits of Tiran. Egypt, this time, was the aggressor and the closures were clearly causus belli. Israel was acting in self defense.
Furthermore, the next morning, he declared, he would introduce a major appropriations bill on the floor of the Senate for immediate funding and arms for Israel. Indeed, that is what happened next. Appropriations were issued, President Johnson met with his Soviet counterpart as Glassboro State College, and the US replaced France as Israel’s great ally. The rest is history.
Did we, the tiny Jewish community of West Virginia, cause this change of heart? I would love to take the credit, but more probably, it was Senator Byrd, who looked to the changing landscape of America, and saw his future in the new direction of America—Israel as an ally and an America open to all races and creed. This was a major shift for a master politician who knew how to move ahead. He became the longest serving member of the United State Senate and the most powerful Senator as Majority leader, third in line of succession to the White House.
The Arab world did not change. The Arab League of Nations responded to Israel’s offers of negotiating a return of the territories with the “Three Nos” of Khartoum: “No negotiations, no recognition of Israel, and no peace.”
It would take another major war, the Yom Kippur War, to lead to an actual peace accord with Egypt. It would take more decades , a fake peace by the PLO, and finally the threat of a nuclear Iran to bring the Arab world to a recognition that they were better off on Israel’s side, not against it.
But what changed here, with us as Jews?
When I came back to my campus that all, and led the Jewish students group on campus, the atmosphere was electric. Suddenly, all realized they were Jewish. Suddenly, the administration showed an interest in a kosher cafeteria. Suddenly, the faculty discovered Hebrew as a language. The downtown campus had a long standing and prominent Hebrew language department.( That campus, by the way, is at the Washington Square arch that you see in every romance movie filmed New York and I later would have my office, as director of the Jewish student group, right by that arch. It was also the site of the very first telegram sent and the very first major computer-one city block wide ).
The uptown Bronx campus was a very different entity from the rest of NYU at that time. It had always seen itself as on a par with the Ivy Leagues, was home to the original Hall of Fame, and had always refused to introduce Hebrew! As I said, for a long time, it had a numerus clausus policy towards Jews.
We wanted Hebrew as an academic language. The faculty Senate had skeptical views of our request for Hebrew: Hebrew is a dead language, Hebrew has no literature , like Swahili.( Our campus Rabbi, from South Africa, lectured them on Swahili.)
But here is my key point: we had energy! Like all good college students of the age, we staged a sit-in in the dean’s office.(At the same time, major donors were holding off donations until we got our way. I learned then how university administrators can be easily manipulated by their students; true in the 60’s, true today).
This was but one small aspect of the change that came over the Jewish world.
The campaign for the cause of Soviet Jewry led ultimately to opening the gates of the Iron Curtain to Jews to leave and it was a factor in the collapse of Communism as an ideology.
There was a resurgence of interest in all things Jewish. Look Magazine would have a cover issue on the Vanishing American Jew. Look Magazine vanished, not American Jewry.
The cause of Israel has become the one thing that both parties in America support. Israel has been considered by the US military as its “Aircraft carrier” in the Middle East, an integral element in America’s defense.
These are but a few of the effects that we, Jews world wide, have experienced from the event 50 years ago. Let no one tell you that Israel or world Jewry would have been better off if that event had not taken place. Fools die out very quickly. Israel is here to stay. Am Yisrael Chai.