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War Diary

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman

The tension and fear before the Six Day War were palpable for Jews everywhere, who anxiously, hungrily tracked every development. But one American rabbi and his family experienced it in real time, thanks to a sabbatical year he spent in Bnei Brak. Rabbi Emanuel Feldman’s diary, written 45 years ago, is an insightful, inspiring, sometimes humorous and always oh-so-human perspective on a country at war.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

tankDuring the 1966–67 year, I was invited by Bar-Ilan University to be a guest lecturer for one year. My synagogue in Atlanta graciously granted me a ten-month leave from rabbinical duties, and my wife and I, plus four children under 12, took up residence in Israel in September 1966. We had no idea that this would be a fateful year culminating in the Six Day War of June 1967.

It was a period of deep economic recession and even deeper political and diplomatic crises, topped only by the month of May, which was filled with premonitions of a new holocaust. The Arabs, sensing the world’s lukewarm support of Israel, massed their armies along our borders, and were daily threatening our total annihilation. The United Nations issued boilerplate statements asking for “restraint on both sides,” America and Europe were noncommittal, and Israel seemed like a sheep being led to slaughter.

The tension was excruciating. I found that one way to relieve the tension was to keep a daily journal of events. That journal became the nucleus of a subsequent book, The 28th of Iyar — which was the very first Yom Yerushalayim — excerpts from which are below. In it I tried to transmit the atmosphere of tension and fulfillment that surrounded those seminal days in the life of Israel.

Israel then was not what it is now. Bethlehem and Jericho and the Golan Heights were in Arab hands. The Old City of Jerusalem was off-limits, but there was one suitably situated rooftop in Jerusalem from which one might catch a fleeting glimpse of a corner of the Kosel HaMaaravi. Because of an ugly concrete wall separating one half of Jerusalem from the other, one might wander as far as the Mandelbaum Gate at the end of today’s Rechov Shmuel HaNavi, but no farther. There was no Sanhedria Murchevet, no Ramot, no Har Nof, no Ramat Shlomo, no Ramat Eshkol. All were Arab territory, and the Sinai was Egyptian. Israel consisted of a narrow strip of land along the Mediterranean which was all of eight miles wide — vulnerable and apparently helpless.

Perhaps it was the noose that everyone felt tightening around our national neck during that month of May, but the sense of oneness and unity that swept the country was palpable. Chareidi and secular, shtreimel and kippah srugah, black hats and bare heads — all were together, all were Jews, all were being threatened. (I even recall a taxi driver smiling at me!) Our shared identity and shared destiny tied us together. And we waited.

Suddenly, in six miraculous days in June, the sense of helplessness and fragility was transformed into triumph and victory, and fear became euphoria. We all realized that we had been present at a miracle. It was apparent, even to nonreligious Jews, that something most unnatural and mysterious was afoot. Even Moshe Dayan, not known for his religious predilections, quoted Tehillim as he touched the Wall: “Zeh hayom asah Hashem — This is the day made by G-d.” The announcer for Kol Yisrael choked up as he declared, “Ani nogei’a baKotel — I am touching the Wall.”

There was talk of G-d in the air emanating from most unlikely sources. Maariv’s headline was: “We are at the point for which we waited 3,000 years.” Yediot Ahronot cited Biblical passages. For a brief moment in time, the land of Israel had been touched by holiness. There was serious talk of Messianic footsteps. Even world media wrote of a victory of Biblical proportions. Tiny Israel had become a superman.

Israel has come a long way since then. Will Israelis ever again feel the interpersonal bonds that existed then? Certainly this has not occurred since 1967. Opinions and positions within Israel have hardened. The sense of shared destiny has given way to the conviction that those who do not worship in precisely the way I worship, or who do not dress in precisely the way I dress, are standing in the way of Jewish destiny. The shtreimel and the kippah srugah, instead of being the means to cover one’s head out of respect for the One Above, have become ideological banners — to say nothing of brutal leftist attacks on all datiim. Is real Ahavas Yisrael an impossible dream? Can Jews unite as brothers only when outside forces threaten destruction? The jury is still out on this question. One cannot be overly sanguine about the future.

In some ways we have become stronger; in other ways, less so. We have become a regional power militarily, politically, and economically. But the old Jew-hatred, disguised as anti-Zionism, has again reared its ugly head, and the world has transformed Israel into the aggressor, and the Arab world — all 340 million of them — into the victims. The world apparently prefers a bent, broken Jew— one whom they can pity — to a proud, strong, and self-confident one. And one wonders if there is some hidden correlation between the increasing intolerance of Jews for one another and the increasing intolerance of the world for its Jews.

It has been 45 years since the Six Day War. Below is a snapshot of what it was like for one American family living in Israel during those fearful and exhilarating days.


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