Once There Was A War


The killers were at the gate. On the morning of June 5, 1967, in our yeshiva high school, there was no Talmud class so we could say Tehillim — the desperation of deathbed Psalms. Egyptian troops were moving against the Negev in the south, bombing Tel Aviv in the north, shooting down 42 Israeli planes, said Cairo Radio. (That morning, who knew what was true?) Egypt, we were told, roused its troops, “Oh, Arab soldiers … your time has come. Attack, destroy and liberate Palestine and launch yourselves against Tel Aviv!” Their war aims were simple. Egypt’s President Nasser declared, “our main objective will be the destruction of Israel.”

Rabbi Pesach Levovitz, of the Rabbinical Council of America, wondered about a “third world war.” Parents, teachers and kids (with our second-hand, hand-me-down memories) remembered the last world war, Holocaust and all. It was only 22 years before. In the last days of May, Israelis were digging mass graves, knowing how quickly mass graves could fill.

Israel’s allies in the 1956 war, Great Britain and France, were now neutral. The Soviet Union warned that “Zionist aggression” would bring the Soviet superpower into the war against Israel. Egypt and her allies — Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Sudan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Yemen, Tunisia and Morocco — had four times as many planes, almost five times as many tanks as did Israel. Although Jordan’s ethnic cleansing of 1948 left the West Bank Judenrein, the Palestine Liberation Organization announced plans “to step up terrorist attacks on Israeli soil.” Another ethnic cleansing was in the offing. Arab military orders in 1967 called for the “physical destruction of the civilian population of any [Israeli] town which the invading armies may conquer.”

The State Department said the United States was “neutral in thought, word and deed.” Thanks, pal. But we kids understood. Why would America back Israel, which might not last the afternoon? Plenty of New Yorkers were against Israel. The New York Times reported, “Communists and other leftists sided with the Arabs … while moderates deferred to Israel.”

In the days before the war, The New York Times reported that children in Cairo came home from school singing, “Palestine… we are your fighters. We have sworn to drive the hated enemy from your soil.” It was time, said the Egyptian song, to return with an army “to liberate the homeland.” Nasser brushed off calls for peace, “Does peace mean we should ignore the rights of the Palestinian people?” Jewish kids were suddenly getting an education about words like “occupation,” “liberation,” “homeland,” and what the Arabs were prepared to do for it — “it” being the entirety of Israel.

We brought transistor radios to school, standing on the sidewalk, listening to war news on 1010 WINS, the only all-news station on radio or television. On 77 WABC, the new Beatles album, “Sgt. Pepper,” was getting airplay. The Rascals’ “Groovin’” was No. 1. The “Pick Hit of the Week” was Scott McKenzie’s “If You’re Going To San Francisco (Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” a messianic end of the world fantasy if ever there was one. In less than two weeks, McKenzie, along with the Mamas and the Papas, Canned Heat, Al Kooper, Laura Nyro, Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix were set to play the Monterey Pop Festival, kicking off the “Summer of Love.”

Love? We were the wallflowers of summer. I felt like the lame boy in Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” when all the children were led by the Piper to “a wondrous portal” that opened wide, “and when all were in to the very last, the door in the mountainside shut fast,” leaving only the one who “could not dance the whole of the way.”

Another song that was making the rounds in Jewish circles, Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold” (“Yerushalayim Shel Zahav”), had been introduced just two weeks earlier. It was hardly a war song, gentle as a lullaby: “The mountain air is clear as wine, the scent of pines is carried by the afternoon wind with the sound of bells… [Jerusalem] lies deserted, and in its heart a wall.” Jordanians did not allow Jews into the Old City. Shemer was writing from a 19-year memory.

Something was in the air. When was the last time a Jewish song even mentioned the Old City? In Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook made an off-the-cuff speech as melancholy as Shemer’s song: “Where is our Hebron? Are we forgetting it? And where is our Shechem? Are we forgetting it? And where is our Jericho?” Listening to him was a student, Hanan Porat, who later told an Israeli paper, “He was really like a man crying over the dead. … In those days, no one spoke of the complete Land of Israel; the concepts ‘Hebron’ and ‘Nablus’ did not exist.” Two weeks later Porat was in uniform, kissing the Wall, hearing the shofar on the Temple Mount.

On June 7, with Israel more than holding its own, the United States sent the Intrepid aircraft carrier (now a museum docked in the Hudson), carrying 60-70 bombers, into the eastern Mediterranean.

Many New York Jews rallied to Israel. One professor divested himself of all he owned, giving the money to the United Jewish Appeal’s Israel Emergency Fund. People cashed in their insurance policies. In the street, passersby tossed cash and pocket change into Israeli flags, held like a hammock by young Jews. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union purchased a million dollars’ worth of Israel Bonds, as did 30 other unions.

Suddenly, on the seventh day, God and Israel rested. Life magazine, then the closest thing to America’s heartbeat, published a cover image featuring a tousle-haired Israeli soldier wading in the Suez Canal, a broad smile on his face, an automatic weapon held high. “Wrap-Up Of The Astounding War,” the headline read. The hot poster was of a Jew in a phone booth, changing into Superman. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein said Jews who were walking around with the postures of a question mark, were now strutting like an exclamation mark.

Messianism was aromatic, in the air. Going to San Francisco with flowers in your hair? Jewish kids were going to Jerusalem, most for the first time. Reb Shlomo Carlebach, who flew to Israel to sing for the troops, had a peace plan: “Give me 5,000 seats on El Al to bring the holy hippies from San Francisco,” where he had his shul, the House of Love and Prayer. “We will give flowers to every Arab in the country, telling them we want to be brothers and sisters.” The plan worked as well as any other.

The rock band Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs (with hits “Wooly Bully” and “Little Red Riding Hood”) decided to change its name. The Pharaohs, formed in 1961, had admired Yul Brynner’s mean-cool in “The Ten Commandments.” But in 1967, after the “Israelites” turned the tables on the Egyptians yet again, the Pharaohs became the Sam the Sham Revue.

Folks joked that President Johnson ought to hire Moshe Dayan, Israel’s eye-patched hero, to lead us in Vietnam so we could end it by Sunday. Anti-war activists such as Sen. George McGovern made it clear that they liked Israel’s war. Two weeks after the Six-Day War, when there was already a demand for Israel to withdraw from Arab territories, even without a single Arab concession, Sen. McGovern said Israel should “not give up a foot of ground” until her borders were secure.

On Sept. 24, 1967, The New York Times reported that Israel “made the first announcement tonight of concrete plans for the settlement of territories seized from the Arabs in June,” specifically “the Etzion bloc.” The Times reported that the Jordanians had destroyed a kibbutz there, with almost every Jewish civilian expelled or murdered, and no burials allowed. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, spiritual leader of the Riverdale Jewish Center, spoke on Shabbat morning about the 1948 orphans of Etzion (now with children of their own), returning and needing $10,000 for a Quonset Hut to serve as their new school. Rabbi Greenberg asked for $50 donations. The appeal took less than 10 minutes.

The United States government sent thousands of tents to the Jordanians to house Arabs who fled the West Bank, as the Arabs feared the Jews would do to them what the Arabs did to the Jews in 1948. Well, Arab tents were traditionally woven from dark goat hair and decorated with quotes from Mohammed. The American tents, from Sears, were bright blue, green and yellow with a quote from Ted Williams: “For my money, a tent’s got to be easy to get up and easier to take down. I like a tent that provides lots of fresh air and light.” The Jordanians were grateful for “the tents of Ted Williams.”

In New York, we learned the new verse to “Jerusalem of Gold”:

“A ram’s horn calls us from the Temple Mount in the Old City /

And in the mountain caves thousands of suns are shining /

Once again, to Jericho we will descend via the Dead Sea.”

Once there was a war. A war as improbable as the opening and closing of the Red Sea. Fifty years later, the United Nations still doesn’t recognize Israel’s rights to Gush Etzion or the Old City, where the shofar blew in that long-ago June.

“They will condemn us,” said cabinet member Yigal Alon in 1967. “And we will survive.”