Six Days Remembered: The Battle Is Not Over
The 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War will be commemorated in many ways in the coming days. Media retrospectives, conferences, new documentaries and first person remembrances of the battles and their aftermath will be seen and heard in Israel, here in the United States and elsewhere.
For those of a certain age, we’ll be asking each other: “Do you remember where you were on June 5, 1967?” I do.
I vividly recall being in my high school cafeteria waiting for the bell to ring for first period. Each morning, a group of us would gather at the back of the cafeteria, just shooting the breeze, as high school seniors do. But this morning was different; one of my friends, who had obviously seen the news before leaving for school, perhaps on the Today Show, said to me, “You guys are really beating the Arabs.”
I knew immediately that the war had begun. It was the culmination of more than three weeks of threats to destroy Israel emanating from Cairo and Damascus. Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Syria’s President Nureddin al-Atassi, and those who represented them, were clearly signaling their intention to finish off the Jewish state.
Actually, these threats began months earlier. A New York Times headline on October 15, 1966, read: “Israel Tells UN Syria Plans War to Destroy Her.” Abba Eban, then Israel’s foreign minister, addressed the Security Council, referencing dozens of Syrian threats against the Jewish state.
Between then and May 1967, hardly a day passed without threats from Nasser. On March 8, he declared: “We shall not enter Palestine with its soil covered in sand, we shall enter it with its soil covered in blood.” A month later, Syria Information Minister Mahmoud Zubi predicted that, “this battle will be…followed by more severe battles until Palestine is liberated and the Zionist presence ended.”
The pace picked up throughout May, with both official radio outlets in Cairo and Damascus promising to defeat the “Zionist entity.” Egypt demanded the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers from the Sinai Peninsula, who had been stationed there since the Suez campaign of 1956. Then Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, considered by some to be an act of war. Neither the UN, nor the international community, seemed willing — or even the slightest bit interested — in taking Israel out of its isolation. The best UN Secretary-General U Thant could utter, after Egypt’s demand that the peacekeeping forces leave, was a weak, “…may I advise you that I have serious misgivings about it… [the] withdrawal may have grave implications for peace.”
The closing of the Straits was criticized by both the United States and the United Kingdom as contravening international law, with Britain’s Prime Minister Harold Wilson stating “[Egypt’s blockade] must not be allowed to triumph; Britain would join with efforts to open the Straits.” But, in the end, nothing was done to stand up to Cairo and Damascus’ march toward war.
The Egyptians and Syrians were so confident of victory that Hafez Assad, then Syria’s defense minister and later its president, said on May 20: “Our forces are now entirely ready not only to repulse any aggression, but to initiate the act ourselves, and to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland of Palestine. … I believe that the time has come to begin a battle of annihilation.”
Sitting in our living room in New Hampshire, my family watched and listened to this litany of threats unfold, one more belligerent than the next. Egypt’s UN Ambassador Mobared El-Kony and Syria’s, George Tomeh, were particularly threatening in Security Council debates on the crisis. We worried endlessly about our relatives living on a kibbutz not far from the Syrian border.
Each day brought even greater boasts from the region, and we took them all seriously. We comforted ourselves only by watching and listening to the oratorical skills of Eban, whose speeches at the UN Security Council not only outlined the Arab threats, but the rightness of Israel’s cause.
On May 30, Nasser ratcheted up the tone even more: “The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel…to face the challenge, while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation. The act will astound the world…”
And Iraq’s President Abdul Rahman Arif couldn’t have been more direct, when he said on May 31: “The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear — to wipe Israel off the map.”
The rest is history. Israel’s defense forces routed the Arab armies in six days, and the war — which was named for its length — has been enshrined in Jewish history as one of its most glorious chapters.
I rushed home from school on the afternoon of June 5, turning on CBS News on our local station, WKNE, to hear Michael Elkins reporting from Israel that the Israeli Air Force had destroyed the combined Arab air forces on the ground. We were jubilant.
Back at school the next day, I was able to follow events on the radio in the high school office. In the small city in which we lived, my father took a petition supporting Israel to merchants and friends on Main Street, asking that they sign in support of Israel. Nothing else in our lives mattered that week. As the days passed, the feelings of relief turned to triumph and then to pride in what we never imagined happening.
Today, it is the Iranian regime that is making the threats to annihilate Israel. The Jewish state is a “cancer” that needs to be eradicated, its leaders say. Tehran paints those very words on the sides of ballistic missiles that it parades, with hubris, in full sight of international TV coverage. Iran has a nuclear weapons program, and it makes no difference, really, if it is in mothballs for a few years. Already, European officials say that Tehran is shopping for dual use technologies to utilize when it is ready to do so. And Iran provides thousands of rockets to Hezbollah, and mentors and supports Hamas, both of which call for Israel’s destruction many times daily.
And the United Nations, which stood idly by in 1967, today has under its roof agencies like the UN Human Rights Council and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), which year after year have sought to delegitimize, demonize and marginalize Israel. In 1967, Britain’s Sir Alec Douglas-Home, speaking about the closing of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, presciently said: “…the first casualty (of this crisis) had been the United Nations. It would need an immense effort, an almost superhuman effort, to restore the prestige of that organization.” The more things change, the more they stay the same. The UN continues to risk irrelevancy by allowing the pummeling of Israel to continue.
The Six-Day War was a miracle, aided by courageous leaders and soldiers who had no choice but to win. It was a defining moment for young Jews of our generation. And it fortunately established the Jewish state as the regional power it is. But the battles that followed, including the Yom Kippur War, the First and Second Lebanon Wars and the Gaza campaigns, attest to the continuing desire of Israel’s enemies to bring it down — one way or another.
Iran is only the latest of these foes to threaten Israel, and its newfound bounty, by way of the nuclear agreement, has left it flush with cash to attempt to carry out its objectives. While we observe those momentous six days, let us all be sure to sleep with one eye open.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is the executive vice president and CEO of B’nai B’rith International. As the organization’s top executive officer, Mariaschin directs and supervises B’nai B’rith programs, activities and staff around the world.