Mired as we are in the depths of a national funk of disillusion, it is difficult to imagine the ecstasy and euphoria that swept across Israel exactly 40 years ago in the afterglow of the Six Day War. My wife and I plus four small children were living in Israel during that time, and we remember it vividly.
During May, 1967, the noose inexorably tightened around Israel’s neck. Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran, UN troops were expelled from Suez, Nasser of Egypt, together with Jordan, Syria, the Saudis and Iraq, were all threatening to throw Israelis into the sea. There were daily call-ups of troops and reservists, the streets were empty of able-bodied men, and a palpable sense of anxiety and tension enveloped the country.
One morning, as we sent our children off to school, we confided our fears to a neighbor: “What if there is bombing while they’re in school?”
“Not to worry,” came the not reassuring reply, “They have excellent air raid shelters at school.”
And when the Torah portion for Shabbat, June 2 – Leviticus 22 – spoke both of living in peace in the Land and of being expelled from the Land, we were not sure which alternative the One Above had in mind for us.
AND THEN the war came, on Monday June 5. As we huddled in our (not so excellent) air-raid shelters, glued to our transistor radios, the startling news began to seep in: We were winning on all fronts. The Egyptian air force had been smashed, we were retaking ancient cities like Hebron and Bethlehem, and we were battling inside the Old City of Jerusalem.
Then came the fateful morning of Iyar 28, corresponding to Wednesday, June 7, 1967. The Old City, Temple Mount and all of Jerusalem were once again in our hands. I still remember the trembling voice of the Israel Radio announcer as he declared: “Ani nogea bakotel – I am touching the Wall.”
Special newspaper editions hit the streets. Ma’ariv shouted: “The Place For Which We Have Waited for 2,000 Years.” Yediot Aharonot, hardly a religious-oriented newspaper, carried on its masthead a citation from Isaiah 52: “The Lord Hath Comforted His People, He Hath Redeemed Jerusalem.”
That evening came a live radio broadcast from the Western Wall: The shehecheyanu blessing was chanted by the troops, the shofar was repeatedly sounded, and soldiers fell into each others arms and wept. As did the radio announcer. As did all Israel.
A wave of relief and gratitude inundated the land. In an outpouring of religious awe, tens of thousands of Israelis of all kinds streamed to the Western Wall, to Rachel’s Tomb, to the Cave of the Patriarchs. The world’s media spoke unabashedly of a victory of biblical proportions. The more religiously-attuned were certain they were hearing the steps of the Messiah. We could only think of Psalm 126: “When God returned the captivity of Zion, we were as dreamers.”
THAT WAS 40 years ago. Forty is not an insignificant number. For 40 years the Israelites sojourned in the desert; for 40 days, Moses dwelled on Mt. Sinai.
Much can transpire in 40 years. After the stunning victory in 1967 we were certain that wars between us and our neighbors would come to an end. We were wrong.
Since then we have experienced the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War, two wars in Lebanon, several intifadas and relentless terrorism.
The disdain once directed at Jews in the European shtetl is now directed by many Europeans at the universal Jewish shtetl, the State of Israel. While we have a cold peace with Egypt and a peace treaty with Jordan, Iran is openly threatening to wipe us off the map.
Many things have changed, some for the better, some for the worse, while some things remain forever the same.
Torah scholarship, academic learning, and genuine Jewish piety have grown far more intense. Israel today is the source of astounding creativity of all types: religious, historical, philosophical, scientific. The yiddishe kopp continues to amaze.
SOME THINGS are so ingrained in a country’s psyche that they do not change. Tensions, for instance, between believers and non-believers. Israel’s bloated bureaucracy. One still waits hours for service at the Interior Ministry. When a phone is answered at National Insurance or other governmental offices, it is a cause for celebration. Postal clerks are still sullen and resentful of their customers, and take their tea breaks no matter how many people are standing in line. Government workers are still unhelpful and curt. Courtesy and graciousness are the exception and not the norm.
The decibels of public discourse have risen. The so-called talk shows are in reality shout-shows. The media has grown more partisan and more irresponsible.
Not to be outdone, drivers on the roads have grown more aggressive, more inconsiderate, more impatient. Societal polarization and violence are spiraling upwards.
In political life, incompetence, corruption and venality are no longer impediments to public office. Politicians used to run on their records. Now they run on their police records. Good people like Benny Begin, Natan Sharansky and Dan Meridor, who might have elevated the level of public service, have instead left public life. Idealism is in short supply; cynicism lives – as demonstrated by the forced evacuation by Jews of Gush Katif’s Jews, which was not only a security disaster, but morally repugnant.
Despite all this, the Israeli economy has become more stable and is even growing. Unemployment is down. The once lowly shekel is up. Hi-tech is truly high. There are new bridges, tunnels, malls, high rises, office towers, roadways – and many more cars to fill them. National prosperity, despite painful pockets of poverty throughout the land, is no longer a distant dream.
OUR SAGES say “40 is the age of understanding” (Avot 5:21). If not more understanding, we have certainly matured. In 1967 we believed the press clippings that we were supermen. Forty years and thousands of deaths later, we are finally recognizing that what our neighbors really want is our total disappearance.
Something else has radically changed. Soon after 1967 we embodied the empty boast of Deuteronomy 8:17: “My power and strength achieved all this.”
We conveniently forgot that a tiny country does not normally defeat the combined armies of eight huge Arab states, and we scoffed at those who spoke of miracles. We knew otherwise. Yitzhak Rabin publicly exulted that the triumph was strictly a result of “superior planning and superior strategy.”
Today we know better. “My power and strength” has taken a strong hit. In its place, we hear echoes of another famous biblical verse: “Before the fall, arrogance” (Proverbs 16:18). The Winograd report reminds us of the inevitable link between arrogance and failure.
It has been a long, winding road from the euphoria of 1967. If it has taken us from Deuteronomy’s warnings about invincibility to Proverbs’ warnings about humility, then the painful journey will have been worthwhile.
As for the next 40 years, much will depend on how closely we pay attention to both these verses.
Published in today’s Jerusalem Post.