War galvanized American Jews

New American olim walk down the street at an absorption center in Israel in 1970. (Moshe Milner/GPO)

New American olim walk down the street at an absorption center in Israel in 1970. (Moshe Milner/GPO)

NEW YORK (JTA) – Honey Stollman remembers being glued to the radio in June 1967 as the momentous events of the Six-Day War unfolded. Then a blackout brought the news reports to a grinding halt. “We all ran for the transistor radio because that was the only way we could continue to listen to the news of what was going on,” Stollman said by phone from her Jerusalem home. Stollman, a native of the Boston area, had been a Zionist long before 1967. She spent a year studying in Jerusalem in 1959 at age 17, well before such trips were common for American students.But it wasn’t until 1969, two years after Israel’s historic victory, that she and her husband, Gene, immigrated to the Jewish state with their three children, the youngest of whom was only a few months old. “Certainly the idea had been there in my youth, growing up in youth movements and camp and so on,” Stollman said. “And certainly the euphoria that swept the Jewish world after the ’67 victory helped make our decision.”North American aliyah, or immigration, to Israel has never equaled levels from other parts of the world where Jews have historically been less financially and physically secure. But in the years immediately after Israel’s stunning military victory in 1967 – a victory that reunited the city of Jerusalem, returned the Temple Mount and the Western Wall to Jewish sovereignty, and quadrupled the territory of the fledgling Israeli state – North American aliyah spiked. In 1967, 739 North American Jews moved to Israel, according to figures from the Jewish Agency and Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Only two years later the number had grown to 6,419 – a nearly sixfold increase from the highest yearly figure to date. In 1971, 8,122 immigrants came, a number never equaled before or since. But the impact of the war, whose 40th anniversary will be marked next week, was felt well beyond the minority that chose to migrate across the ocean and build new lives in Israel.For American Jews it marked the beginnings of Israel as a major communal concern and made it a central part of the communal agenda. Prior to 1967, Israel largely had been the concern only of a small cadre of Zionist activists.”The Six-Day War made us all Zionists, if not literally then psychologically,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote in a recent article. “The American Jewish connection to Israel was sealed. Even today, when one hears a lot about disaffection, the pride and depth of the continuing connection owe many of their roots to 1967.”The enduring power of those six days draws in part from the roller-coaster of emotions it inspired among Diaspora Jewry.In the war’s opening hours there was a widespread sense that the young experiment in Jewish sovereignty might be snuffed out before its 20th birthday. Jewish leaders across the country organized prayer vigils and rallies, where they sounded dire warnings of a second Holocaust. Synagogues drew crowds comparable to the High Holy Days, and thousands descended on Israel’s diplomatic missions offering to stand in for Israeli soldiers deployed to the front. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, writing in Commentary magazine in August 1967, described the mood of American Jewry as having undergone “an abrupt, radical, and possibly permanent change.”Fear of Israel’s annihilation, coming barely two decades after the end of the Holocaust, forged a nearly universal sense of political unity and prompted an outpouring of fund raising that Hertzberg called “unprecedented not only in Jewish experience, but also in the history of private philanthropy in the United States.”When the tide turned so quickly – with Israel not only surviving but emerging as the dominant victor and a regional superpower – it sparked an intense rush of pride and thrust Israel into a central position in the Jewish consciousness that it has never relinquished.The ensuing euphoria helped transform AIPAC from a struggling lobby pressed for funds into a congressional powerhouse.”It had enormous impact on Jewish institutional life,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “It galvanized the American Jewish community into a movement in a lot of ways. And it projected a sense of what’s being referred to today as a global Jewish peoplehood.” The war not only changed Jewish institutions but Jews themselves. Raffel had never been particularly interested in Israel, but the emotions stirred by those frenzied weeks in the summer of 1967 inspired him to take a year off to study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and eventually led him to a career in Jewish communal service.”It put Israel on the map for me,” Raffel said. “For me the Six-Day War was the pivotal historical event that launched my path in life.” Many wonder whether that kind of spontaneous outpouring could occur today. Though the Six-Day War represented for many Jews the victory of a plucky underdog, its legacy has become far more complicated.While Israel once may have been widely seen as the weakling, in some quarters it has become the oppressor. While the territories captured in 1967 may once have been seen as enhancing Israel’s security, now they are frequently considered a liability that must be surrendered if peace is to be achieved. The consequence of that turnaround is that Israel’s plight, even at times of crisis, fails to generate activism on par with 1967, particularly among the young. American Jews gave more than $350 million during Israel’s war with Lebanon last summer, but most donors were old enough to have remembered the existential wars of Israel’s past. Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, said today’s young Jews grew up with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and two Palestinian intifadas. Solomon recalls walking down Fifth Avenue in the summer of 1967 and seeing four young people holding up an Israeli flag while passers-by dropped money on it. “That kind of grassroots support from young and old,” Solomon said, “has not been replicated.”

NEXT STORY