After 50 Years, A Tangle Of Emotions


JERUSALEM — On Wednesday, when Israel marks 50 years since the unification of Jerusalem, Chana Henkin will be embracing the occasion, feeling that its positive impact has exceeded all expectations. But it will be a non-event for another American immigrant, Patricia Golan, who will be feeling that there’s nothing to celebrate anymore. Her mood, she said, “180-degrees from how I was feeling when I came.”

The years after the Six-Day War were a peak time for aliyah from America, and most arrivals, even if not spurred to move by the victory, remember arriving to a state of euphoria. Today, interviews with half a dozen Americans who made aliyah after the war reveal a portrait of Israeli opinion in miniature and the fault lines that exist over the country’s settlement-building enterprise — a mix of pride, disappointment and complex emotions about the reality that has emerged from the momentous events of the summer of 1967.

Chicagoan-turned-kibbitznik Muki Telman recalls being “swept up with the excitement of the time” at a youth movement camp in America, and upon his arrival in Israel seven years later, but now talks of his “mixed feelings” about what came out of the war.

As a massive crowd is expected to march triumphantly in the city on May 24 to mark Jerusalem Day, Telman will attend a quiet ceremony on his kibbutz, but with a feeling that the legacy may be best undone.

About a month after the war, he reluctantly went to a labor Zionist Habonim camp in America, where he acquired a sense of awe for the “amazing victory” in the face of Israel’s “existential danger.” He says that “the feelings of the time certainly got me hooked” on Habonim and Zionism. Within seven years he was in Israel, ready to stay, and by 1977 he was pioneering a new community in the Negev,, Kibbutz Grofit, where he lives today.

Telman is unusual among secular Israelis — he’s “very” non-religious — in attending a Jerusalem Day ceremony; the event has increasingly become the preserve of the religious right wing. “Jerusalem is Jerusalem, and there’s no question about its importance,” he explains. “But it’s the center of a national dispute and conflict, so I would be willing to make concessions.”

“Jerusalem is Jerusalem, and there’s no question about its importance,” he explains. “But it’s the center of a national dispute and conflict, so I would be willing to make concessions.”

So as Telman, 62, prepares for a range of emotions over the Six-Day War anniversary, he is a tangle of contradictions. He’ll be marking Jerusalem’s reunification, but wondering if it should be undone with the city once again divided. He’ll be feeling positive that Israel controls more land than it did before the war, while criticizing the settlements built in the West Bank. And asked if any of his three sons live there, he says: “No, not in the territories, I’d disown them. OK, not disown them but be unhappy.”

All things considered, he doesn’t regret his excitement for the 1967 victory, but he has difficulty accepting what has followed. “I’m not disappointed with what happened after ’67,” says the normally upbeat electrician. “But I’m disappointed that it’s 2017 and it’s not getting better, and I don’t see it going in a positive direction.”

Chana Henkin, a New Yorker by birth, knows first-hand just how bitter the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be. Her tears were some of the first in the current wave of violence, when in October 2015 one of her six children, Eitam, was killed along with his wife Naama Henkin in a terrorist shooting attack in the West Bank. Four of her grandchildren were in the back seat of the car in which they were driving. To her, the importance in 1967 in the conflict, and the claim that peace has been elusive because the 1967 gains were mishandled, doesn’t hold water.

“The ’67 war did not hold back peace; exactly the opposite, it created the chance for peace,” she says. “Never before ’67 were the Arabs ready to speak about peace, no Arab country recognized Israel, Egypt demanded that we cede the Negev to her and the PLO operated from Judea and Samaria into Israel. The war showed the Arab world that Israel is a fact and won’t disappear, and thus made peace into an option.” Henkin talked to me shortly after lighting one of the torches at the national ceremony in Jerusalem for Israel’s Independence Day, where the theme was the unification of Jerusalem. The war, she says, didn’t just fill her with pride, but in her opinion also paved the way for the whole area of Jewish life that she’s helped to pioneer.

“In 1967, the world of women’s Torah learning did not exist. Today, women’s learning is a pulsating, vibrant world centered in Jerusalem and energizing the entire Jewish world.” – Henkin

“In 1967, the world of women’s Torah learning did not exist,” says Henkin, who made aliyah in 1972 and 10 years later moved to Jerusalem, where she established a prestigious religious-Zionist seminary for women. “Today, women’s learning is a pulsating, vibrant world centered in Jerusalem and energizing the entire Jewish world.”

Henkin, 70, was chosen to light the Independence Day torch because of her achievements at Nishmat, the Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women, where she is dean. The institution encourages high-level Talmud study, often the preserve of men, and trains women to be halachic advisers on some matters.

She recalls: “In 1967, like the rest of the Jewish people, I was exhilarated at the unification of Jerusalem. I was still in the U.S. on the eve of the Six-Day War, taking a final examination in Jewish history on the Wednesday of the war. I wrote, ‘Today is the most historic day I have lived through,’ and I left the room. I got [a grade of] 100 percent. The holy city was now free. But I would not have been able to predict that when I made aliyah, I would have a place in shaping the spiritual life of Jerusalem and as a result of the Jewish world.”

For Patricia Golan the Six-Day War victory is a dream turned sour, and Jerusalem Day brings no joy. “It will be hard to ignore it, but I won’t be celebrating it,” says the Beersheba-based journalist-turned-star of Israel’s amateur light opera circuit. “I would have celebrated it 10 years ago, maybe, but not now.”

Now 74, she arrived in Israel from Milwaukee in 1969 with her daughter, after a messy divorce. Zionism had been her “teenage rebellion” that “enraged” her assimilated Jewish parents, and when she felt she needed to leave the country, she decided to take advantage of a free ticket that went along with making aliyah.

“I went straight from the divorce court to the aliyah office,” she says, remembering how impressed she was with Israel. “I remember a euphoria that I had come to the Garden of Eden. A truck was impressive, and I would say, ‘Look at these cows.’ It was like a super-reality.” For Golan, the excitement of victorious post-’67 Israel was combined with the sense of adventure and the feeling of having wrapped up her “scary” divorce.

“I remember a euphoria that I had come to the Garden of Eden. A truck was impressive, and I would say, ‘Look at these cows.’ It was like a super-reality.”

Like many immigrants of this era, it was the general excitement of the victory and Israel’s escape from annihilation that enthused her; she didn’t have strong feelings about the specifics of a reunified Jerusalem and expanded territory. When she voted in the 1973 election, she didn’t cast her ballot to advance a view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but just on local issues, which she recalls raised some eyebrows on her kibbutz. “My political awareness came much later,” she says, adding: “My political leanings in Israel could be called left wing today; it wasn’t the case then.”

She became politicized in the late-’70s and says that in the last decade this has “just hardened because of political intransigence.” Asked if she can muster joy at the thought of Israel’s 1967 victory, Golan says: “I can’t think in those terms anymore; I can’t get excited. It doesn’t make me any less of a Zionist, but it’s not the way I see the world today.”

Muki Telman got to Israel “hooked” on Zionism, Chana Henkin arrived full of faith, Patricia Golan arrived fleeing divorce and Ruth Sernoff, who lives in the quaint artists’ village of Ein Hod in the Carmel Mountains, came for a very different reason — to escape “bourgeois” life.

Sernoff and her then-husband Ed were American artists, Quaker and Jewish respectively, who found themselves in search of a home, disappointed with Spain, where they found themselves when Israel seemed like the right choice. “We were looking for another country, and we decided Spain was too Catholic,” Sernoff said.

“When I arrived, I was looking at everything with starry eyes; now I’m looking at things with more tired eyes…”

She explains: “We were looking desperately for a place to take the children away from the United States with all the riots and general issues — we thought the children were very bourgeois.” They didn’t know much about Israel, but “we read about the kibbutzim and the attitudes and the dancing.”

Despite their desire for an alternative non-materialistic life — and deep disappointment when “bourgeois” values arrived in Israel “when the American movies came” — her attitude towards the territory gained in 1967 was close to the views of the right. “We were happy because we felt it brought Israel back together,” she says. “We thought that was part of Israel. In 1947 we wanted to have peace, but they fought us.” She adds: “We looked at it as fair because they started so many wars with us.”She converted to Judaism and they moved to Israel in 1969, setting up home two years later in Ein Hod, where they both live today with new partners. They led a “strange life,” working round the clock in their jewelry factory and then “on the weekend would sing and dance at night; sometimes we would watch the sun come up.”

Looking back now, Sernoff, 80, maintains that Israel took the right course of action after the Six-Day War — with one exception. “I think they did the right thing at the time — the only thing I’m sorry about is that they gave back Gaza, because this brought so many problems.”

But Sernoff’s broad satisfaction with Israeli policy regarding the conflict doesn’t translate to satisfaction with life in Israel. “When I arrived, I was looking at everything with starry eyes; now I’m looking at things with more tired eyes,” she says. Sernoff thinks that Israel has become materialistic and “corrupt,” and said that if all of her four children were happy to emigrate, she would leave Israel. “If we could take our family out and leave and they’d be happy, I’d be happy, because I don’t like the government, and I don’t like the religious element and the materialism, and there isn’t the dancing anymore.”

Some of the immigrants who were most excited by Israel’s post-’67 reality were those who had been to the country before the war and stared at borders that stopped them from going to the Kotel.

Paula Edelstein, 77, recalls: “When we were here in 1959, there was a laboratory building that you could go to the top of to see inside the [old] city. That was then very exciting.” Scaling heights to see the Jewish sites of Jerusalem had been commonplace. Another American immigrant, Yisrael Medad of New York, remembers: “We would attend a melave malke on Mount Zion and after some schnapps and herring, we would climb a minaret and see if we could see the Kotel.” Medad was actually in Israel when the change came about — he spent most of the war in a foxhole in Moshav Amatzia near Kiryat Gat along with the rest of his gap-year program participants.

Edelstein and Medad’s stories have many similarities — the two American Jews, religiously committed albeit Reform and Orthodox respectively, both wanted to see Jerusalem’s Jewish sites before ’67 and felt elation when they could; both made aliyah shortly after the Six-Day War, feel glad they did and that they have Israeli children and grandchildren. They arrived in the ’70s as young couples and are still married to their spouses — Edelstein to Don, whom she met on the boat to Israel in 1959, and Medad to Batya, whom he married in 1970 just a few weeks before immigrating. The couples live just 30 miles apart.

But they relate to the war very differently today.

Edelstein traveled from her native Minnesota to Jerusalem in 1959 for a short study program, and returned to the city an immigrant. “It was very different than the city in 1959,” she says. “The fact was that you could go anywhere, including the Old City, to the West Bank, to Ramallah, through the winding hills to Bethlehem — this was very exciting.”

Medad, a settler who directs educationl programming at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, considers Jerusalem Day a festival. The Edelsteins will be steering clear of public events, unlike when they first arrived. They have “very ambivalent feelings — more ambivalent now than they were then,” says Edelstein.

Edelstein, who worked in public health, still feels relief at the Israeli victory but thinks that the “results of the Six-Day War were very unfortunate,” referring to what she considers a mistaken policy in the West Bank and the “hardening of positions on the left as well as the right.” She feels satisfaction at the unification of the city but thinks that it “should have been handled differently,” including through “giving Arab residents of the city some sense that it’s their city too with some sense of self-rule.”

In the years after her aliyah, she started to hope that the new territory would serve Israel’s interests by becoming a bargaining chip for peace. “Our son was six weeks in the army when the first intifada broke out, and it wasn’t within our expectation that his daughter would now be in the army,” she says.

Edelstein’s reservations about how the 1967 gains were handled go beyond the Israeli-Arab conflict. The iconic moment of Israel’s Six-Day War campaign was the recapture of the Kotel. She is disappointed about how control of this site has turned out, and supports the “battle” by feminist activists and the Reform and Conservative movements for dedicated space for egalitarian prayer. It is a cause she tried to promote through leadership roles — which she took on after her career in public health — in Arzenu, the umbrella organization of Reform and Progressive Religious Zionists and in the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement.

The Kotel conflict is one of many bones of contention that have gradually made Edelstein question her choice of where to live. “In Jerusalem you have political conflict and conflict between Orthodox and Reform and secular, and it all bubbles up in one place,” she says. “If I were choosing again, I’m not sure I would choose Jerusalem.” She may have been more likely to choose somewhere in the Tel Aviv area, where both her sons live.

Medad has no regrets about his choice of home. During his first years in Israel he lived in Jerusalem, including the Old City, and then 11 years after aliyah he moved to the West Bank settlement of Shilo, founded three years earlier, as one of 10 families settling a new hillside.

His settlement is today the center of the “bloc,” where the first new government-ordered settlement since the Oslo peace process is to be built. When he moved to the area there were only 300 Israelis there; now there are thousands. “This is normalization of our life out here,” he says of the plans for the new settlement, which were announced in late March.

Medad has started a dynasty of settlers, with several of his five children and six grandchildren living in the West Bank. “There are three generations of Medads beyond the Green Line and that gives a great deal of satisfaction for me,” he said. After all, in his opinion, what made the 1967 gains real was settlers like him. “It’s obvious that the most important element of the last 50 years has been the push [for settlement building] from below. For me, looking back shows that if we don’t put our own bodies in the line to commit ourselves [to the settlements], then nothing can be done.”

Medad remembers feeling “euphoric and exuberant” after he emerged from the foxhole at the end of the Six-Day War. He was on his gap year with a small group from the rightist Betar movement, and most of the other members of the youth movement they had studied with in previous months were centrist or leftist. He felt that his ideology was vindicated, and that Israel was moving in the direction that Betar had been hoping for. At the end of his gap year he returned home, finished his studies, tied the knot and went to live in the neighborhood he had looked longingly at when he climbed the minaret tanked up on “schnapps” — the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.

He directed the Betar Students’ Hostel and tried bravely to learn Arabic, giving up after several attempts in a Palestinian-run language class. It was a time when the Jewish Quarter was being renovated after decay and destruction under the Jordanians and, to Medad’s joy, the settlement movement in the West Bank was beginning. But not everything went his way, and he, like Edelstein, has a gripe about how Israeli leadership of the 1960s handled its newfound control over holy sites.

He feels that he can’t fully celebrate Israeli rule over Jerusalem when the holiest site in Judaism, the Temple Mount, is overseen by an Islamic trust — the Waqf — and the number of Jewish visitors is restricted and they are banned from praying. “I should have tried harder at that time with my friends,” he said, referring to the campaigns by right-wing activists for Israel to keep full control of the site.

Will this temper his enjoyment of Jerusalem Day? “It reduces my joy every day.”

Nevertheless, Medad has no doubt that the 1967 victory has taken Israel in the right direction. “Israel, Jews and Zionism keep moving upwards and onwards,” he says. “That’s the significance.”