This week marks the 45th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967. The Six-Day War is probably the most fundamental event that shaped my world.
The state of Israel and I were both kids in June 1967. We were both horrified by the sudden responsibility that was put on our shoulders and extremely nervous about our real ability to prevail. Indeed, I was almost about to turn 10 and she was almost 20, but we were both still considered babies because 20 is an infant in terms of a state’s history. The Six-Day War was the founding event of our lives, the constitutive moment that shaped our future.
I grew up in the southern town of Ashkelon, less than 10 miles from the Gaza Strip. Gaza was then part of our most dangerous and threatening enemy, Egypt, headed by its legendary absolute leader Jamal Abdul Nasser.
It is ironic that in the last few years, Gaza, under the Hamas regime, returned as a threat to Ashkelon. But in the old days, the danger was perceived as existential. From my perspective as a 10-year-old boy, the situation was extremely frightening. Weeks before the war broke out, most of the fathers in my class were called to IDF reserve duty (miluim).
We, the kids, took upon our too narrow shoulders the responsibility of preparing our homes and families for the upcoming war. That’s what our fathers told us to do when they put on their uniforms and said goodbye. We took it very seriously. I still remember a sense of loneliness, insecurity, and fear. I was affected by the terrifying Arab propaganda although I obviously didn’t share these skeptical feelings with anyone and tried to remain cool and mature.
I clearly remember the hard physical work, digging a deep pit in our backyard, in order for us to hide there when the bombs and missiles arrive. I remember my great idea to dig it in a shape of the letter “L” (resh) and split the family in two wings so that if we would have a direct hit, at least some of us would survive. I recall painting the headlights of our family car blue so if we would have to drive at night, perhaps evacuating our injured, we would not be seen by our enemies’ jet fighters.
I remember putting tape on our windows so we wouldn’t be hit by broken glass and I was in charge of mobilizing my friends, filling large sacks with sand that we schlepped on our bicycles one at a time from the nearby beach. We distributed them throughout the neighborhood to protect the elderly from the upcoming disaster. Even now, 45 years later, when I put it in writing and recall the experience I can clearly understand why I was so nervous and afraid. It was quite a traumatic experience for a 10 year old.
I believe that what I experienced during the pre-war period is similar to what the general Israeli society felt: “We are strong, we have a state, we have a Jewish army, we survived the War of Independence and the Sinai Campaign, but we are also small, young, and vulnerable; the Holocaust was only 20 years earlier, anything can happen and we have to prepare ourselves for a worst case scenario.”
Then the war came with its tremendous victory. It was rapid, strong, and elegant and far from Ashkelon. We were all surprised ourselves, along with the rest of the world. Suddenly, the pit in the backyard, the blue lights and the tape on the windows were seen as being pathetic. In the next couple of weeks, we laughed about it, planted palm trees in the pit, removed the blue paint, and slowly peeled the tape off the windows (it took us months to get rid of it — they really knew how to produce glue in the old days).
We were all thinking that this would be the last war and that our enemies learned their lesson, once and for all. Our self-confidence was high in the sky. Little David was able to reunite Jerusalem and defeat the Goliath of the Middle East in only six days. We were filled with lots of pride and patriotism but at the same time, with arrogance, disrespect, and destructive euphoria.
Since these sweet, naïve moments after the Six-Day War, both the country and I have grown up. Not only by our chronological age, but by our accumulated wisdom, understanding, and acceptance of our limitations. It didn’t take long for history to show us that this was not the last war and that we are not almighty. We had to fight time and again, sometimes difficult and bitter battles. We have lost too many young adults and are still coping with the same basic situation.
On the seventh day and immediately thereafter, the world was still amazed at Israel’s victory. Jewish communities throughout the world felt as if they were part and parcel of that moment. For a while we became the good guys in our neighborhood; we were the darlings of the world and the heroes of the Diaspora. Unfortunately, with time, this feeling has dissipated. Our control over the occupied territories for the last 45 years does not get us too much sympathy and the historical facts are becoming irrelevant.
However, one thing is still developing; the connections between Diaspora Jewry and Israel are still fundamental for both sides. When I was 10, waiting nervously for the missiles from Gaza to land on my home, I didn’t expect or didn’t even care about anyone from across the ocean that would show solidarity, call, or show up. I didn’t even know that they were there.
Now, 45 years later, missiles from Gaza are falling on Ashkelon, and my parents still need to find shelter. I personally am amazed and our partners are so moved to see how the Diaspora Jewish community feels and cares about our country today. We felt it during Cast Lead when a delegation from MetroWest visited the Negev to show solidarity. We feel it when we receive tons of caring e-mails when missiles fall near Kibbutz Erez and Ofakim.
Even though we keep hearing about the disconnect of the next generation from Israel, I suggest that it is not the case. We must continue to bring them here, tell them the story, and engage them with their peers; they will understand the history of our nation, the power of peoplehood, and our mutual future.