Israel’s Bar Mitzvah–by Peter Eisenstadt

On June 3rd, 1967, as the world remembers, I was Bar Mitzvahed in a small synagogue—Temple Beth Am—in southeastern Queens. I confess I don’t remember too much about the day. I do remember my haftarah, from Hosea, in which the prophet likens Israel to a fallen women—“let her put away her harlotry from her face/and let adultery from between her breasts/else I would strip her naked/and leave her as on the day she was born.” I had to read that in English, and I was mightily embarrassed. This is the haftarah for B’Midbar, in the wilderness, the opening parasha from the Book of Numbers. This parasha is always read the weekend before Shavous, celebrating God’s giving the of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, because, as one rabbinic saying has it “one should be as open as a wilderness to receive the Torah.”

By the next Shabbat, Mt. Sinai, or at least the mountain traditionally identified as such, was, for the first time in history, under Jewish control. On my Bar Mitzvah day Israel was spending one last tense day under the 1949 Armistice lines. By June 10th the Middle East had changed forever. The Six-Day War had the same impact on Israel as my Bar Mitzvah—it marked the transition from childhood to maturity. And like me at Bar Mitzvah, Israel ended the week with a lot of new presents. The Six-Day War was 48 years ago. As for me, I am well along my path to the final stage in Shakespeare’s “seven stages of man” certainly in the sixth—“with spectacles on nose and pouch on side” and hurtling towards the seventh “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Israel though is still in its early adolescence, still awkward in its new body, at once proud and embarrassed on its recent growth.

The events of the Six Day War will be fifty years old in 2017. No one expects the occupation to end before the anniversary. We study history to understand what happened and what might have happened differently, what other outcomes could have been reached, what other paths taken. For me, there is no event more tragic in recent history than the Six Day War primarily because of what was not done in its aftermath. I recently got around to reading Avi Raz’ s The Bride and the Dowry, published by Yale University Press in 2012. It is the best history ever written of the aftermath of the June 1967 war, meticulously researched in Israeli and Arab primary sources. The title comes from a cynical quip of Israeli prime minister Levi Eskhol from the period immediately after the war: “We won the war and received a nice dowry of territory, but it came with a bride we don’t like.” Or in other words, the land is nice, too bad there are so many Arabs living on it.

Raz discusses the many post-war complexities. Both sides at first had little idea what to do. Although there were some new Palestinian refugees from the war, the number was far less than in 1948, perhaps because the war was over so quickly Palestinians did not have time to flee. He discusses the extent to which Israel tried in the aftermath of the war to depopulate Gaza, by transferring population to the West Bank and encouraging emigration, but this effort was largely stillborn. Raz explores how many Israeli assumed that in one way or another, the West Bank would have to be restored to either Jordanian or Palestinian control; how Palestinians at first were excited that the war would be a new start for the Palestinians now free of Jordanian control; and the involved negotiations with King Hussein and Palestinian leadership that came to naught. Raz explores Israel’s failed effort to form a docile and compliant Palestinian leadership, and how Israel at first utterly failed to realize the new importance of the PLO and Yassir Arafat. Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, or what it called East Jerusalem, 12 times the size of the former Jordanian municipality of Jerusalem, greatly complicated these early talks, and Raz argues that it probably doomed them to failure.

No one looks very good in Raz’s telling. Eskhol, despite some noises to the contrary, really wanted to keep the land, as did Dayan. Abba Eban, Israel’s foreign minister, is one of Raz’s bete noires, coming off time and again as pompous and mendacious, his honeyed words disguising Israel’s real intentions. And all of the early talk about reaching a modus vivendi of some sorts with the Palestinians came to a full stop in 1971 when the bitterly anti-Palestinian Golda Meir replaced Eskhol.

But the Palestinians don’t come off much better—timorous, divided, unwilling to recognize that there could be no return to the status quo ante bellum. If both sides knew what they now know, that some 50 years later, the West Bank and Gaza would remain open wounds, festering and suppurating, perhaps they would have done things differently, and tried harder to reach an understanding to get the West Bank and Gaza returned to Palestinian control. Or perhaps not. The forces that have blocked a settlement since then were fully in place by the end of June 1967. The saddest conclusion one takes from Raz’s book is that a far-seeing reconciliation and transfer of real political power on the West Bank and Gaza from Israel to either the Palestinians or Jordanian control was probably outside the realm of political possibility on either side. And that is why we remain, some 48 years later B’Midbar, still wandering in the wilderness, directionless, walking in circles, endlessly retracting old paths, getting and going nowhere. And that doesn’t that things should have been different. And if this is to happen, we must heed the rabbinic statement, and learn to be open as a wilderness to new possibilities, alternatives, and revelations.