This week we mark the 50th anniversary (on the Hebrew calendar) of the 1967 Six-Day War, certainly the most momentous passage in Israel’s history.
Israel’s territory was multiplied almost three-fold, acquiring Sinai (of course later returned to Egypt), Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. These latter two were annexed under Israeli law, though few beyond Israel recognize those actions. With those victories, Israel also came to rule over hundreds of thousands of additional Palestinians, who – though some initially were happy to see Jordanians and Egyptians go – have remained without basic political rights ever since, often facing unwarranted violence, land-theft and systematic oppression.
So the war of 1967 has been both a resounding, miraculous victory, worthy of singing in the street. And also the beginning of a huge moral challenge, which the Israeli government –and, by extension, the Jewish people – have not yet met successfully.
Please join us in two weeks on Friday night dinner, when I will discuss the war and its challenges, with John Ruskay.
Can we hold both of these realities in our minds simultaneously? Often ideologues of right and left resist accommodating to Israel as it is, preferring an impossible perfection to the compromises of reality. They often quote the Talmud’s teaching [Sukkah 5b] that “God will not enter the Jerusalem on high until God can enter the earthly Jerusalem below,” which some take to mean that until we make Israel perfect, there is nothing holy about it.
This is precisely what I reject. Imperfect things are still holy. Struggling societies contending with huge moral challenges can still be holy. In my personal view, Israel must meet the challenges of ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state, with all the attendant risks. Otherwise, the one-state solution is a path to national suicide, God forbid. But keeping Palestinian suffering in mind should not prevent us from celebrating an exceptional victory in 1967.
We should be able to rejoice in the access to sacred sites in the ancestral homeland. We should be able to celebrate the advantages in safety and stability that came to Israel with this victory. We cannot forget the murderous Egyptian threats, which – if it now seems were somewhat boastful – were terrifying to Israelis, who legitimately feared a new slaughter, less than 25 years from the Shoah.
An interesting testimony I found in the Ansche Chesed library: a post-war book by Yael Dayan (Moshe’s daughter) who was embedded as journalist with Gen. Arik Sharon’s battalion. Dayan went on to become a strong leftist and intense critic of the occupation. But in 1967 she was rhapsodic, closing her book this way: “‘Home’ was now something new, safer, larger, stronger and happier.” It sure seemed that way.
And no testimony is stronger than the popular song of the day, Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold.” It was written in the run-up to the war, and when it speaks of a “city forlorn and lonesome with a wall in its midst,” it refers not to the Western Wall, but the barbed wire barrier dividing east from west. After the victory, Shemer added a new verse, for “now the Shofar sounds on the Temple Mount and we can descend to the Dead Sea through Jericho.” Her beautiful poem concludes: “Jerusalem, your name burns the lips, like a fiery angel’s kiss. If I forget you, O Jerusalem, city entirely of Gold.” I hope that every faithful Jew is carried away by that rhapsody.
And yet … that wonderful city is not “entirely” gold.
Meir Ariel – a Leonard Cohen or Dylan like figure in Israeli culture – was a soldier in the battle for Jerusalem. Ariel was not such a good soldier – a free spirit who didn’t fall in line easily. You can read about him and others in Yossi Klein Halevi’s book Like Dreamers.
Ariel wrote an alternative, cynical set of words, for Shemer’s song, called “Jerusalem of Iron.” This version is not a protest song and it is not exactly bitter. In fact, he interleaved with her words and his, capturing both what was magic and tragic about the battle for Jerusalem. “Here you are in the afternoon twilight, Jerusalem, nearly entirely gold.” (Shemer also reportedly loved Ariel’s version.) His words express the pain and loss of young men strafed with sniper fire and mother’s burying their sons. And though he did not speak here of the Palestinians’ plight, one need not work too hard to introduce those thoughts to the equation.
Today, on the 50th Yom Yerushalayim, the day of the unification of Jerusalem, I commend these two songs to you, by two of Jerusalem’s greatest and smallest poets, of the city both “entirely” and “nearly entirely” golden.