All that I love was cast at my feet. . . . The old Land of Israel, the homeland of my youth, the other half of my cleft country.
—Israeli poet Haim Gouri, after the Six-Day War
By 1967, the Jewish state had survived an onslaught of unrelenting attacks, had absorbed over a million immigrants,1 had emerged as a player on the international stage, and was quickly cultivating national, political, and cultural traditions. Many challenges undoubtedly lay ahead, but nineteen years after its founding, Israel had fared far better than anyone might have dared imagine when the United Nations had voted in November 1947 to create a Jewish state.
Yet Jerusalem was still divided. In the War of Independence, the fledgling Israel Defense Forces had been unable to hold on to the eastern portion of Jerusalem and the Old City, which was now in Jordanian hands. For nearly two decades, a wall of cinder block and barbed wire ran through the heart of the country’s capital. Even if the Israeli government was prepared to live with that, for many Jews, most particularly (but certainly not exclusively) in the religious community, it was a wound that refused to heal.
As Independence Day 1967 approached, Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek commissioned songs about Jerusalem that could be broadcast on national radio as part of the second annual Israeli Song Festival. Until then, few Israeli poets or composers had written songs about Jerusalem. The handful that had been written since the turn of the century made no mention of the facts that the city was divided or that Jews could not approach the Western Wall or even enter the Old City.
So Kollek asked five people, including songwriter Naomi Shemer, to compose songs about Jerusalem. Intimidated by the challenge of writing a popular song about such a fraught subject, all of them declined. Eventually, though, Shemer relented and wrote a song. She called it “Jerusalem of Gold.”
“In the slumber of tree and stone, hostage to her dream,” the first verse declared, “is the city that sits alone, while in her heart there lies a wall.”2 Then came the now well-known refrain:
Jerusalem of gold, and of bronze and of light
Behold for all your songs, I am the violin.3
The song, originally sung by a young, unknown soprano named Shuli Natan, became an instantaneous hit, heard on the radio seemingly incessantly. “Israelis had suppressed their longing for the missing parts of Jerusalem,” wrote one of Israel’s keenest observers, “but now they were singing along with Shuli Natan, mourning their divided capital.”4 Now Jerusalem, like Israel itself, had an (unofficial) anthem.
IN THE RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY, the despair over Jerusalem’s division was particularly poignant. The Western Wall—the only remnant of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem—was off-limits to Jews. For two thousand years, Jews had prayed there, albeit in small numbers. Now, because Israel had lost the Old City of Jerusalem in the War of Independence, and because Hebron and other traditionally sacred Jewish sites were also in enemy hands, the Jewish state ironically had sovereignty over no traditionally Jewish sacred places.
Just a day before Naomi Shemer’s song hit the airwaves, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (son of the mystic bridge builder Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook) spoke to his disciples about his own experience of the day of the UN vote nineteen years earlier. Like David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, he, too, had been unable to celebrate, but for a different reason:
The whole nation flowed into the streets to celebrate its feelings of joy. . . . [But] I couldn’t go out and join in the rejoicing. I sat alone, and burdened. In those first hours I couldn’t make my peace with what had happened, with the terrible news that the word of God in the book of the Prophets had not been fulfilled: “They divided my land!” . . . Where is our Hebron? Have we forgotten it? And where is our Shechem [Nablus]—have we forgotten it? And where is our Jericho—have we forgotten it? And where is the other bank of the Jordan River? Where is every clod of earth? Every piece of God’s land? Do we have the right to cede even a centimeter of it? God forbid! . . . In that state, my whole body was stunned, wounded and severed into pieces. I couldn’t celebrate. “They divided my land!” They divided the land of God! . . . I couldn’t go outside to dance and rejoice. That is how the situation was nineteen years ago.5
According to those who were present, the reaction was “[t]otal silence. The students had never heard such grief, such outrage, from their rabbi.”6 What, they wondered, was he trying to tell them?
FOR SOME TIME, the region had been growing increasingly tense. Syria had declared its intention to divert water away from Israel’s National Water Carrier, by up to 35 percent. Israel had responded that it would consider such a diversion an act of war, but the Syrians continued. Border clashes ensued, with Syria firing on Israeli villages while Israel attacked heavy earth-moving equipment the Syrians were using for the project.
In the spring of 1967, outside parties consciously added fuel to the fire. The Soviets informed Egyptian and Syrian representatives that Israel had brought twelve brigades to the north in preparation for attack. Prime Minister Eshkol denied the claims, and on April 26, he even invited the Soviet ambassador, Dmitri Chucakhin, to go to the north with him and to see for himself. (Chucakhin declined.) Though the United States also insisted that the Soviet reports were utterly false, the Syrians chose to believe the Soviets. By informing Syria and Egypt that Israel was planning a war, the Soviets were, in essence, sparking one.
A few weeks later, on May 15, Israel staged its annual Independence Day Parade. Typically held in a different location each year, in 1967 the parade was scheduled to take place in Jerusalem.* As always, the parade was largely military in nature, designed to highlight the army’s strength by displaying massive amounts of armor. That year, though, in keeping with Israel’s 1949 armistice agreement with the Jordanians that Israel would limit the number of tanks it brought to Jerusalem, the parade included much less armor than usual. To the Egyptians and Syrians, on high alert because of the Soviets’ warning, the small number of tanks in the parade seemed to confirm that the tanks were elsewhere, preparing for war.
As the parade proceeded, an Israeli official passed a note from IDF intelligence to Yitzhak Rabin—now the IDF’s chief of staff—who in turn passed it on to Prime Minister Eshkol.* Egyptian armored vehicles, it said, had entered the Sinai Peninsula. Eshkol and Rabin chose to act with restraint, but as the day went on, the notes became more frequent and urgent. What was supposed to be a day of celebration was quickly turning into something much more ominous.
The Israeli leadership was not certain how to respond. On the one hand, they knew that Nasser was an aficionado of such military displays and still hoped that he was not intent on war; on the other, they knew that Egypt and Syria had signed a mutual defense treaty several months earlier. But Israel’s hope that the crisis might be resolved diplomatically or with a minor military action eroded when Cairo Radio announced, “Our forces are in a complete state of readiness for war.”7 On May 15, a day that Arab nations marked with mourning for their defeat in the 1948 war (and the day of the parade), Nasser declared, “Brothers, it is our duty to prepare for the final battle in Palestine.”8 The long-anticipated “next round” in the Arab campaign to destroy Israel seemed increasingly likely.
THE NEXT THREE WEEKS—known in Israel as the hamtanah (“the waiting period”)—were one of the most stressful periods in Israel’s history. The Egyptians poured five divisions of troops and equipment into the Sinai, each one composed of 15,000 men, 100 tanks, 150 armored personnel carriers, and a supply of Soviet artillery.
Did Nasser truly intend to go to war, or was this all a matter of posturing, of restoring Arab pride, that ultimately got out of hand? Scholars remain divided on that subject. Whatever his true intentions, Nasser’s actions created the sense among Israelis that his goal was war. On May 16, he raised the stakes by taking the impending conflict into the international arena. Since 1957 (after the 1956 Sinai Campaign), the UN Emergency Force had stationed several thousand troops in dozens of observation posts along the international border of Gaza and Sharm al-Sheikh (the name of the area at the very southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula). The troops were to stop infiltrations into Israel and to make sure that Egypt did not close the Straits of Tiran. (See Map 8.) Now, though, Egyptian troops were streaming into the Sinai.
In what was a clear act of belligerency, Nasser instructed U Thant to remove the UN troops from the region. Israel assumed that the secretary-general would put up at least some pro forma resistance. But U Thant complied immediately, without so much as informing the General Assembly. By May 19, there was no UN presence in the area. The United Nations, it was painfully clear, was not going to offer Israel protection against an onslaught.
The political and military brass agreed that Israel would consider Egyptian steps to close the Straits of Tiran (which connected the southern Israeli port of Eilat with the Red Sea and was Israel’s critical commercial link to the east)9 a casus belli (an act that justifies war). Two days later, Egypt did just that. In the space of eight days, Egypt had successfully erased every diplomatic gain Israel had made in the 1956 Sinai Campaign.
THE DIPLOMATIC FRONT NOW became the most critical. The man at the center of Israel’s international efforts was Abba Eban. Born in Cape Town in 1915, Eban moved with his family to London when he was an infant. He later studied classics and Oriental languages at Cambridge, at which time he became very involved with the Federation of Zionist Youth and edited its journal. At the start of World War II, Eban began his career by working with Chaim Weizmann at the World Zionist Organization. He then served as a British Army intelligence officer, in both Egypt and Palestine.
By 1947, Eban was appointed liaison to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), at which point he Hebraicized his first name to Abba. He later served both as Israel’s ambassador to the United States and, simultaneously, its ambassador to the United Nations. He returned to Israel in 1959 and was elected to the Knesset. In 1966, he began what would be an eight-year stint as foreign minister.
In Eban, Israel had a uniquely brilliant, articulate, and eminently qualified representative. (Years later, President Lyndon Johnson told Eban, “I think you are the most eloquent speaker in the world today.”) Eban rushed to France, which only eleven years earlier had been Israel’s chief ally in the Sinai Campaign and was still its main supplier of armaments. But Eban departed for France worried that those sands were shifting. Hervé Alphand, secretary-general of the French Foreign Ministry, had stated not long before that “there was no contradiction between France’s recognition of ‘Israel’s existence’ and France’s friendship with the Arab states.”10 It was not lost on the Israelis that Alphand had spoken merely of “Israel’s existence” but of actual “friendship” with Arab states.
Eban’s meeting with French president Charles De Gaulle confirmed his fears. De Gaulle insisted that the situation had to be resolved by France, Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. But that was a patently cynical demand that no one could satisfy; the USSR was fanning the flames of the conflict and was not going to facilitate a diplomatic solution. De Gaulle also warned that Israel must not be the one to “shoot first.” When Eban pointed out that the closing of the Straits of Tiran constituted a casus belli, De Gaulle rejected the notion out of hand. That Egypt was crippling Israel’s economy could not have mattered less to the French leader. When Eban pointed out to De Gaulle that in 1956 France had promised that it would recognize Israel’s right to fight if Egypt imposed a blockade, which is precisely what had happened, De Gaulle responded nonchalantly that 1967 was not 1956.
Disappointed by France, Eban proceeded to London and met with the Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson. There he found some support. Wilson told him that the cabinet had met and “that the policy of blockade must not be allowed to triumph.”11
In return for Israel’s leaving the Sinai in 1957, the United States had promised to recognize Israel’s right to self-defense should Egypt ever close the Straits of Tiran again. But Eban’s meeting with President Lyndon Johnson, his next stop after London, was disappointing. Johnson agreed that Egypt’s closing the Straits was “illegal” and told Eban that the United States was formulating a “Red Sea Regatta” plan, to use an international convoy of ships from forty maritime powers, affirming free passage through the Straits of Tiran to guarantee international maritime rights.
Eban left the meeting uneasy. Israel was facing an existential threat, while Johnson—clearly preoccupied with the American war in Vietnam—was unlikely to be able to act on the Regatta plan. Like De Gaulle, Johnson also warned Israel not to be the first to attack. “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone,” said the American president.
It was a far cry from the commitments the United States had made in 1957. The United States, like France, was reneging on its 1956 promise.
AS EBAN TRAVERSED THE world with only marginal success, matters in Israel became increasingly tense. The primary question facing the country’s leadership was whether to wait before shooting, as America had demanded, or to gain the upper hand by attacking first. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol insisted that Israel had to wait: “It is not politically, diplomatically and perhaps even morally logical to start a war,” he said. “Now we have to restrain ourselves and to maintain our forces for a week or two or even longer. . . . [M]aturity demands that we stand up to this test.”12
On May 27, the cabinet voted to wait before acting. The next day, May 28, Eshkol took to the airwaves, seeking to calm an already rattled public. Israel, he said, still hoped to settle the crisis diplomatically, with the assistance of the United States.
His speech, though, was a disaster. As Yehuda Avner, the prime minister’s English speechwriter, would later recall:
There then came the sound of more paper being rustled, accompanied this time by repeated grunts of “Err, err,” as if Eshkol had lost his place, or was struggling to decipher scribbled alterations about “responsible decision-making” and “unity of purpose.” . . . [H]e stumbled along, speaking in fits and starts, stuttering “Err, err” over and over again. . . . His audience was a frightened nation, and the more he stumbled over his reading, the more indecisive and panic-stricken he sounded, even when he rounded off with an assurance that Israel would know how to defend itself if attacked.13
Eshkol’s radio disaster became known as the “Stammering Speech.” “Suddenly, the country seemed powerless and leaderless,” Avner later recalled. “Israel’s enemies rejoiced while Israeli soldiers in the trenches smashed their transistors and broke down in tears.”14 “It’s amazing how a people who suffered a Holocaust is willing to believe and endanger itself once again,” wrote a leading columnist for the Ha’aretz newspaper.15
In fairness to Eshkol, he had originally planned to record the speech at his home, but he was late reviewing it and by the time he finished making changes to the text, the pages were filled with cross outs, comments, and arrows. The studio then informed him that it was too late to prerecord the speech, and the prime minister was forced to read the speech live, from pages that were heavily and almost illegibly marked up.
But the damage had been done, and public confidence in Eshkol had evaporated. Calls for his removal followed, along with suggestions that Ben-Gurion reassume the role of prime minister. Another Ha’aretz columnist wrote the following day:
If we could truly believe that Eshkol was really capable of navigating the ship of state in these crucial days, we would willingly follow him. But we have no such belief after his radio address last night. The proposal that Ben-Gurion be entrusted with the premiership and Moshe Dayan with the Ministry of Defense, while Eshkol takes charge of domestic affairs, seems to us a wise one.16
The military brass was deeply frustrated by the prime minister’s decision to wait. Ariel Sharon, by then a general, an infantry brigade commander, and still a rising star in the IDF, thought Israel’s delay was a major strategic blunder:
Today we have removed with our own hand our most powerful weapon—the enemy’s fear of us. We have the power to destroy the Egyptian army, but if we give in on the free passage issue, we have opened the door to Israel’s destruction. We will have to pay a far higher price in the future for something that we in any case had to do now. . . . The people of Israel are ready to wage a just war, to fight, and to pay the price. The question isn’t free passage but the existence of the people of Israel.17
On May 29, Jordan’s King Hussein flew to Cairo to meet with Nasser. Nasser brought to the meeting the defense pact he had signed with Syria a year earlier, and Hussein said, “Give me another copy; let us replace the word Syria by the word Jordan and the matter will be arranged.”18
Israel had invested a great deal in building a relationship with Jordan. In the War of Independence, the relationship had held fairly firm despite fighting in and around Jerusalem. Palestinian incursions notwithstanding, there had been relative peace on the Israel-Jordan border for nineteen years. But now, under unbearable pressure, the king felt he had no choice but to go to war. The Jordanians also signed a mutual defense pact with Syria, and Israel was now facing the possibility of war on three different fronts: Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. A day later, Iraqi troops reached Egypt, just as they had in 1948, eager to join the fight.
In the meantime, the United States did little. There were no ships in the area that could support an effort to break the blockade, and Israel had no time to spare. American and British requests for other countries to join them went mostly ignored. Johnson announced that he could see no way out of the crisis, while the White House—focusing on its endless problems in Vietnam and wary of expending precious political capital on yet another military venture—simply ignored Israel’s pleas for missiles, tanks, and jets.
The news from France was even worse. De Gaulle had earlier told Eban that France would impose an arms boycott on whichever country fired first. But De Gaulle changed his mind and banned all weapons sales to Israel even before the outbreak of any hostilities. France apparently did not believe that Israel could defeat the Arabs and therefore saw this as an opportunity to revive its long-term relations with the Muslim world.
So great was the stress that even Rabin, the IDF’s chief of staff, began to falter. He barely ate, was smoking some seventy cigarettes a day, and drank copious amounts of coffee—and then suffered a nervous breakdown. Knowing that its lead soldier had collapsed on the eve of a war would have sent an already frightened country into uncontrolled panic, so his ailment was called “nicotine poisoning.”19 Rabin’s doctor was only slightly more honest and called it “acute anxiety.” As Yossi Klein Halevi, a profound observer of Israeli society, noted, “Israel was facing not just a war but a war of survival, the end of the Jewish dream of sovereignty, and the responsibility had overwhelmed Rabin.”20
Rabin rested for a day, was medicated, and returned to active duty.
ISRAEL’S PRIME ALLY at the moment of crisis was world Jewry. European and American Jews, listening to the rhetoric coming from Arab capitals, understood that this was no game. Knowing that they had underreacted during the Holocaust, American Jews were not prepared to make the same mistake again. They contributed money, organized rallies, and applied political pressure in Washington.
A rally in New York in support of Israel attracted 150,000 people, the largest rally American Jews had ever staged. (AIPAC—the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which would eventually become American Judaism’s central voice on Capitol Hill in support of the U.S.-Israel relationship—existed during this period, but would achieve genuine influence only a decade later.)21 Within six months, the United Jewish Appeal’s “emergency campaign” raised $307 million. American Jews were deeply moved—a new relationship between American Jews and Israel was dawning, just as Jews everywhere wondered whether the Jewish state would survive an inevitable onslaught. Across America, individual Jews dug deep, just as Israelis had, to do what they could to ensure the state’s survival. One couple in Beachwood, Ohio, for example, who had been painstakingly saving money for years toward a renovation of their home, pledged all the money they had saved to Israel.22
But the Arab world had also awakened. On May 26, Nasser announced, “Our basic objective will be to destroy Israel.”23 Ahmed Shukeiri, who had been the Saudi ambassador to the United Nations from 1957 to 1962 and who would eventually become the Palestine Liberation Organization’s chairman, declared, “In the event of a conflagration, no Jews whatsoever will survive.”24 Protests were held in Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus, and throngs of people gathered in the streets, chanting, “Death to the Jews!” and “Throw the Jews into the sea!”25
Herzl and Bialik’s Europe had come to the Middle East. Just twenty-two years after the ovens of Auschwitz had burned thousands of Jews daily and five years after Israelis had been riveted and horrified by the Eichmann trial, the Arab world consciously evoked Holocaust imagery. One cartoon in an Egyptian newspaper depicted a hand stabbing the heart of a Star of David; it was signed, “Nile Oils and Soaps Company,” a clear reference to the Nazi practice of making soap out of the bodies of dead Jews.
Israel prepared for the worst. Rabbis across the country cordoned off areas to be used as mass graves. The Ramat Gan stadium was consecrated as ground for the burial of up to forty thousand people. Hotels were cleared of guests so the facilities could be used as massive emergency first-aid stations. Schools were converted into bomb shelters, there were daily air raid drills, and in an ironic twist on the Kindertransport of 1938–1940 in which Jewish children were shuttled out of harm’s way (mostly to England), plans were prepared to send Israeli children to Europe. Israeli intelligence reported to Eshkol that poison gas equipment had been detected in the Sinai but that Israel had no stockpiles of gas masks. Eshkol muttered in Yiddish, the language of his youth from Europe, “Blood is going to spill like water.” There was even black humor; Israelis joked that there was a sign at the country’s only international airport that read, THE LAST ONE TO LEAVE, PLEASE TURN OUT THE LIGHTS.26
BY JUNE 1, IT WAS clear that Johnson’s Regatta plan—the international effort to open the waterways—had aroused no international interest and was not going to happen. Asked if the United States would seek to restrain Israel from firing first, U.S. secretary of state Dean Rusk replied, “I don’t think it is our business to restrain anybody.”27 Israel had the first indication that it might be allowed to attack.28
Domestically, Eshkol understood the country’s mood and decided that, more than anything, the government needed to make a show of unity. He established Israel’s first “unity government,” bringing leaders of the opposition into the cabinet. Among those opposition leaders was Menachem Begin, who under Ben-Gurion had been banished to the political desert. Eshkol’s unity government moved Begin closer to the center of Israeli politics.
In response to widespread demand, Moshe Dayan, who was a member of Ben-Gurion’s Rafi Party and not Eshkol’s Labor Party, was appointed defense minister. Israel’s nervous public, which had never seen a unity government before, greeted Dayan’s appointment with cheers.
Then, in a move that astounded his colleagues, Begin actually suggested that Ben-Gurion be brought back to serve as prime minister during the crisis. Ben-Gurion declined, but the gesture softened his attitude to Begin and a tentative relationship began to develop. “If I knew Begin like I know him now,” he would later say, “the face of history would have been different.”29
At the unity government’s first meeting on Thursday, June 1, 1967, the decision was made that the political echelon would meet with the general staff and defense committee the next morning, in the “Pit,” an underground operations center at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv. At that meeting, on Friday, the government made the decision to go to war. On Saturday, June 3, the generals (Sharon, Rabin, Yeshayahu Gavish, and others) presented their war plans, and Dayan said that the cabinet would meet the next day to authorize the army to act.
On Sunday, in a seven-hour meeting, Dayan presented his military proposal to the cabinet. The situation was dire: the Egyptians had at least 100,000 troops and 900 tanks in the Sinai. To the north, Syria had readied 75,000 men and 400 tanks, while the Jordanians had amassed 32,000 men and almost 300 tanks. In total, Israel faced a potential force of 207,000 soldiers and 1,600 tanks. With full mobilization, Israel could muster 264,000 soldiers but had only 800 tanks. When it came to planes, the situation was even worse. The Arabs had 700 combat aircraft, while Israel had only 300.
But Dayan insisted that Israel could win if its forces struck soon. He asked the cabinet to approve a first strike, with the further request that he and Eshkol alone would determine the timing. The cabinet voted 12–5 to authorize a preemptive attack on Egypt. The timing of the attack was left to Dayan and Rabin.
ON THE MORNING OF June 5, the Fifty-Fifth Paratrooper Brigade was stationed at the Tel Nof air force base, not far from Rehovot, a small Israeli city along the Mediterranean Sea situated about twelve miles south of Tel Aviv. At 7:10 A.M., the Israeli soldiers were astonished to see dozens of planes taking off, flying extremely low and heading south. Thanks to their location, they were some of the very few soldiers who saw the planes taking off and then returning for the next ninety minutes.
By seven thirty A.M., two hundred Israeli jet-fighters were flying toward Egypt, ready to attack. Israel knew that at that hour Egypt’s pilots would be eating breakfast, and that their planes would be entirely unattended. The attacking force represented a huge portion of Israel’s air force; only twelve planes stayed behind to defend the entire country, a terribly risky move. The attacking planes flew dangerously low, often at an altitude of only fifteen meters, to evade Egypt’s radar. One paratrooper later recalled that the planes were flying so low that it felt that if he reached his arm up, he could have touched one of them.
The pilots observed strict radio silence. All had been told that under no circumstances were they to radio for help, no matter how dire their position. If they were desperate, they were to crash their planes into the sea.
Jordanian radar detected the Israeli jets, but they were unable to warn the Egyptians, who had changed their frequency codes without informing the Jordanians. It was a costly mistake. In just three hours, in successive waves of attacks (Israeli aircraft returned to base, were refueled and rearmed, then set out for Egypt again), Israel destroyed hundreds of Egyptian aircraft. A third of Egypt’s pilots were killed, thirteen bases were no longer functional, and twenty-three radar stations and antiaircraft sites were knocked out of service. For all intents and purposes, Egypt no longer had an air force.
The Israelis lost seventeen planes and five pilots. One of its planes suffered damage and strayed over Dimona, the site of Israel’s nuclear reactor. Because the pilot was unable to communicate over the radio, Israeli hawk missiles shot the Israeli jet out of the air.
At 10:35 A.M., about three hours after the first Israeli planes had taken off, Yitzhak Rabin received a simple report: “The Egyptian air force has ceased to exist.”30 Israel would suffer many losses in the days that would follow, but the IDF’s leadership understood what had just happened—Israel had essentially won the war before it had even begun.
THE ISRAELIS APPROACHED JORDAN’S King Hussein, pleading with him not to enter the conflict. Though Jordan had begun firing on Israel, the Israelis said that if the Jordanians held their fire, Israel would continue to accept the terms of the armistice the two countries had signed in 1949. But King Hussein—who may well have believed Nasser’s protestations that Egypt was faring well in the conflict and had to worry about fury among his own population if he did not join the battle—responded by instructing his troops to cross the armistice line and by putting his air force on alert to prepare for action.
At 11:50 A.M., Jordanian, Syrian, and Iraqi planes attacked Israel, but over the next two hours, the IAF shot down or repelled all the enemy aircraft and destroyed Jordanian and Syrian air force bases. On June 5 alone, Israel destroyed four hundred Arab planes. Its air dominance was now established.
On the ground, Israeli troops cut off the Gaza Strip from the rest of Egypt. The next day, Israeli soldiers captured Sharm el-Sheikh without firing a single shot and reopened the Straits of Tiran.
AS HE WAS ON HIS WAY to his swearing-in ceremony on June 5, Menachem Begin heard the sounds of Jordanian shelling. Yet Begin sensed not danger, but opportunity. As the cabinet gathered in a dusty subterranean storeroom filled with used furniture and cleaning materials (the cabinet had been instructed to meet there since shells had fallen on the Knesset lawn, shattering some windows), Begin suggested that Israel make the most of Hussein’s decision to enter the conflict. Israel, he said, should reclaim the Old City of Jerusalem. When Eshkol expressed concern about the costs that such a battle would exact, Begin—as he often did—described the conflict in the context of Jewish history. “Gentlemen,” he exhorted in his characteristically impassioned tones, “the Jordanian army is all but smashed, and our own army is at the city’s gates. Our soldiers are almost in sight of the Western Wall. How can we tell them not to reach it? We have in our hands a gift of history. Future generations will never forgive us if we do not seize it.”31
Within a few hours, the IDF command issued the order that two battalions “break through the barrier separating East and West Jerusalem, navigating through the minefields and trenches and reach Mount Scopus.” The soldiers were told to prepare to take the Old City and to “erase the shame of 1948.”32 The next day, June 6, paratroopers entered Jerusalem by bus. Though they could hear shelling on the far side of the city, West Jerusalem—which had been in Israeli hands since 1948 and was now Israel’s capital—was silent. Moved but also discomfited by the stillness, the soldiers broke the silence by singing Naomi Shemer’s lyrics that had become so familiar to the country in just three weeks. “Jerusalem of gold, and of bronze and of light,” they sang. “Behold for all your songs, I am the violin.” Little did those “violins” know that they were about to take part in the fiercest battles of the war.
The attack did not begin auspiciously. Based on faulty intelligence, Israel sent ground troops to a Jordanian stronghold now called Ammunition Hill, just outside the Old City, believing that the Israeli force would be three times as large as the defending Jordanian force. But the Jordanians had stationed many more troops there than Israel had expected. The battle began on June 6 at two thirty A.M. and ended at six thirty A.M. As Michael Oren describes the outcome, “The point Israeli squads were all but annihilated. One of their three Shermans was knocked out; the other two could not depress their guns low enough to fire at the submerged Jordanian positions. Unable to call for artillery support without endangering themselves, with their packs too wide to maneuver through the enemy trenches, the paratroopers were compelled to advance without cover over open ground.”33 It was one of the bloodiest battles in the history of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Israel lost thirty-five soldiers in the four-hour battle; seventy-one Jordanian soldiers died.
Still, by four thirty the next morning, after the night of heavy fighting, Israeli soldiers had crossed into the no-man’s-land area close to the Old City, and a few hours later, Israel had control of all the Arab areas outside the ancient walls. The soldiers hunkered down, waiting to hear what the cabinet would decide and what orders would come their way. At nine fifteen A.M. Motta Gur, then the commander of the Fifty-Fifth Paratrooper Brigade (and later the IDF’s chief of staff) was told—“Go into the Old City immediately and capture it.”
Motta sat on the ground and gazed at the walled city. It was a bright, cool morning, and the sun was on his back. The gold and silver domes of the Temple Mount glowed before him. He closed his eyes, as if in prayer. He was about to enter the Jewish pantheon, along with King David, who’d conquered Jerusalem and turned it into his capital; Judah the Maccabee, who’d purified the Temple after its desecration by the Hellenists; Bar Kochba, who’d thrown himself against Rome and lost the Jews’ last desperate battle for Jerusalem. Then came the centuries of enforced separation, landscape transformed into memory. And now landscape was reemerging from dream, shimmering back into tangible reach.34
Gur commanded his paratroopers to make their way to the Lion’s Gate. An hour later, they had burst through the gates of the Old City and had reached the Temple Mount. Motta Gur took the radio and relayed a report that has now become an iconic Israeli phrase: “The Temple Mount is in our hands.”
Only three weeks earlier, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook had stunned his students with his agonized cry, “Where is my Jerusalem?” Now, along with the paratroopers who had just captured the city, he descended from the Temple Mount to the Western Wall. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, chief rabbi of the IDF (and later, chief rabbi of Israel) was also there. Shofar and Torah in hand, he was hoisted onto someone’s shoulders. Too moved by the emotion, though, he was unable to sound the traditional ram’s horn. Another soldier, who played the trumpet, told Goren to hand him the shofar, and he blew it. The last time that the shofar had been sounded at the Western Wall, it had been by young men of the Irgun who had defied British orders and who had to flee immediately. No longer. For the first time in thousands of years, the Temple Mount and the Western Wall were in sovereign Jewish hands.
BY JUNE 7, JUST TWO DAYS after the war had begun, the Egyptian and Jordanian forces were all but defeated. Nasser ordered a general retreat. Still, though, he refused to sign a cease-fire, because he wanted a clause similar to that of 1956 that would require Israel to leave the Sinai. But De Gaulle had been right: 1967 was not 1956; Israel was not going to agree. Only when he saw that he had no hope of regaining any of the territory he had lost did Nasser accept a cease-fire at midnight on June 8.
AS THE WAR IN the south and in the center of the country had unfolded, the IDF’s leadership had struggled with what to do in the north. Dayan and Eshkol were against taking the Golan Heights from the Syrians. Syrian troops, they both insisted, had thus far made no effort to cross the northern border, and both feared that extending the war to the north would provide the Soviets with an excuse to intervene.
But others disagreed. On June 8, David Elazar (commander of Israel’s northern front) went to Eshkol to try to convince him to take the Golan. For years, he reminded the prime minister, citizens of Israel’s north had lived under regular Syrian shelling and with the constant fear of Syrian infiltration. Syria would start to shell, Israelis would descend to bomb shelters and come out a short while later to find their homes, public buildings, or their fields ablaze. They lived in terror for themselves and their children, and with daily uncertainty about their future. This was Israel’s chance to erase these dangers once and for all and to provide the north with a modicum of normalcy.
An emergency Ministerial Committee on Defense convened to hear Elazar’s petition as well as Rabin’s plan for taking the mountainous region. Even after the presentations, though, Dayan remained unmoved. He was still worried that taking the fighting to the north would provide the Russians with an excuse to enter the battle. Earlier that day, in a case of mistaken identity, Israel had accidentally strafed and bombed an American ship, the USS Liberty, just off the coast of Egypt, killing 34 U.S. crewmen, wounding 171, and causing extensive damage to the U.S. Navy’s ship. It was a catastrophic moment in U.S.-Israel relations, and the prospect of having the Russians enter the battle just as the Americans were enraged with Israel seemed reckless.
After the meeting, Rabin called Elazar to tell him of the committee’s decision. Elazar was disappointed and felt that the government had once again abdicated its responsibility to citizens living on the border. “After all the trouble they’ve caused, after the shelling and the harassments, are those arrogant bastards going to be left on the top of the hills riding on our backs?” he would later mutter. “If the State of Israel is incapable of defending us, we’re entitled to know! We should be told outright that we are not part of the State, not entitled to the protection of the army. We should be told to leave our homes and flee from this nightmare!”35
At two A.M., the exhausted military command dispersed and went to bed. But at six, Dayan awakened with a sudden change of heart. He called the central command, which informed him that although Israel had not attacked in the north, Syrian units on the Golan Heights were crumbling and fleeing. At a quarter to seven, Dayan phoned Elazar directly and ordered him to begin the attack on the Golan Heights immediately.36 When Rabin awoke to the news, he called Elazar and warned him that the central command’s assessment was entirely wrong. “The Syrian army is nowhere near collapse. You must assume that it will fight obstinately and with all its strength!”37
Rabin was right. The fighting was vicious, and Israeli losses were intense; 115 soldiers were killed in that battle alone, and 306 were wounded. But Syrian losses were greater, and by the night of June 9, the Israelis had the upper hand and Syrian defenses were collapsing.*
Soon thereafter, the IDF was on its way to capturing Kuneitra, a Syrian town just forty miles west of the Syrian capital, Damascus. When Israel occupied Kuneitra, Syria agreed to a cease-fire. At six thirty P.M. on June 10, the Six-Day War was essentially over.
THE WAR HAD BEEN exceedingly brief—it had lasted a mere 132 hours. And Israel’s victory had been decisive. The Egyptians lost between 10,000 and 15,000 men, 5,000 more were missing, and thousands were injured. Jordan lost 700 soldiers, with an additional 6,000 missing or wounded. On the northern front, 450 Syrians died and almost 2,000 were missing or injured. Only 15 percent of Egypt’s military hardware remained intact. Israel lost 679 soldiers (some Israeli sources later adjusted that number to about 800) and 2,567 were wounded.*
In terms of territory, the war changed Israel dramatically. Israel had gained forty-two thousand square miles in the war, more than tripling its original size.38 (See Map 8.) It captured the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank of the Jordan River (including East Jerusalem), and the Golan Heights. Israel felt like a different country. Haim Gouri, who had become accustomed to Jews not having access to those lands, said after the Six-Day War, “It seemed to me I’d died and was waking up, resurrected.” The once-divided country had finally been reunited. “All that I love was cast at my feet, stunningly ownerless, landscapes revealed as in a dream,” Gouri said. “The old Land of Israel, the homeland of my youth, the other half of my cleft country.”39
DURING THE WAR OF INDEPENDENCE, some seven hundred thousand Arabs had left Israel and made their way to neighboring countries (which would, for the most part, turn them into permanent refugees by refusing to make them citizens). The Six-Day War radically altered their lives once again. They now found themselves living not under Jordanian rule, but Israeli control. There were, in 1967, some 1.25 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and their fate would become an issue of international concern.
It is therefore not surprising that as was the case in the 1948 war, revisionist historians (the school of “new historians”) would once again seek to fashion a narrative about the Six-Day War that was different from the mainstream Israeli narrative. Some asserted that the war was a result of enduring belligerence of Palmach members who had been frustrated by Ben-Gurion’s decision in 1948 not to take the West Bank. Haim Hanegbi, a Jewish Israeli political columnist, for example, wrote, “It must be remembered that in 1967 the army was still commanded by former members of the Palmach who were burning to exploit the Six Day War to complete what was denied them in 1948: To take over the Palestinians’ remaining territories and, through the power of conquest, realize the true Greater Israel.”40 Others argued that the war was the product of economic failure, with the government seeking to avert attention from high levels of unemployment. “The process of escalation that started in 1964 was ‘not necessary’ in the sense that it did not stem from the exigencies of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The force of Israel’s reactions in those years expressed . . . a certain strategy . . . compensating for the state’s retreat from its social principles.”41
Over the years, it has become clear that these allegations have argumentative power but not historical merit. Indeed, once thirty years had passed since the war and Israel’s State Archive declassified documents from that period (Arab archives remain closed, indefinitely), it was possible to review the diplomatic history and to prove, as Michael Oren did in his magisterial Six Days of War, that “Israel was desperate to avoid war and, up to the eve of the battle, pursued every avenue in an effort to avert it.”42
WITH THE GUNS SILENCED and the danger averted, Israel was in the throes of virtually unbridled euphoria. The Jewish state had more than survived. Betrayed by the French, put off by the Americans, and rattled by the Russians, Israelis had been left entirely on their own. And they had won, decisively. The ragtag band of fighters that had pushed the British out of Palestine had now been transformed into a highly professional army. Israel was the region’s most powerful country, by a wide margin. And the Jews were out of danger. Gone were the days when one could threaten the Jewish people with impunity. Gone were the days when Jews would cower in fear as their enemies amassed arms. Gone were the days when Jews had to wonder about whether another Holocaust was just around the corner. Those early Zionist thinkers had dreamed of a world in which the Jews, sovereign on the land of their ancestral home, would finally be safe. That day had finally come.
Israelis were not the only ones in the thralls of the euphoria. Soviet Jews, witness to a different image of the Jew than that on which they had been raised, suddenly felt a new pride in being Jewish.43 Their demands to leave the USSR for Israel would become only more vociferous in the years to come. American Jews were also jubilant. In the year after the war, sixteen thousand American Jews moved to Israel, which was more than the total number of American Jews who had made that move since Israel’s creation.44
As the paratroopers in Jerusalem were celebrating the capture of the Old City, Naomi Shemer was in the Sinai, preparing to sing to a group of soldiers. But then she heard a radio broadcast of soldiers singing her song, “Jerusalem of Gold,” in which she’d written of Jerusalem as a “city that sits alone, while in her heart there lies a wall,” and she realized that six days of war had made her song outdated. So using a soldier’s back as a desk, she quickly scribbled an additional verse:
We’ve returned to the water holes, to the market and the square
A shofar calls out on the Temple Mount, in the Old City
And in the caves in the rock, thousands of suns shine
We will once more return to the Dead Sea, [this time] by the Jericho road.45*
A long-cultivated Zionist dream had come true. It was a dream of safety, of confidence, of pride, of international admiration.
It would not last long.