Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Spiritual Lessons of the Six Day War by Yosef Hakohen

Spiritual Lessons of the Six-Day War

by Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

Dear Friends,

The Six-Day War broke out on June 5, 1967, and I was then a student at Yeshiva University. A few weeks earlier, on May 15, Egyptian troops began moving into the Sinai Peninsula, near the Israeli border. The United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) had been stationed in the Sinai Peninsula as a buffer between Israel and Egypt, but on May 16, Nasser, the ruler of Egypt, requested the withdrawal of the UNEF, and the Secretary-General of the UN complied with the demand. After the withdrawal of the UNEF, the Voice of the Arabs radio station proclaimed on May 18, 1967: “The sole method we shall apply against Israel is total war, which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence.” Syrian troops then began preparing for battle on the Golan Heights.

On May 22, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to all Israeli shipping and to all ships bound for Eilat, Israel’s southern port. Under international law, a blockade of this nature is an act of war, and Israel called upon the nations of the world to intervene. The nations, however, did not offer any practical assistance in ending the blockade. In the meanwhile, Egypt and Syria formed a military pact, and Jordan soon joined this alliance, followed by Iraq.

During that period, Jewish families all over the world saw on television the Arab mobs at government-organized rallies in Cairo and Damascus that were screaming over and over again, “Push the Jews into the Sea!” Despite these calls for our destruction and the gathering of Arab troops on the borders of Israel, the nations of the world were deserting us; thus, a generation after the Holocaust, we had a sense of déjà vu, for we remembered how most of the world had abandoned our people during that dark period.

I decided to encourage support for Israel in the area where I lived. As a first step, I contacted an influential liberal Christian minister. I briefly reviewed the latest developments in the Middle East, and I spoke about our concern for Israel’s survival. I then asked him if he would speak to his congregation about the danger facing Israel. He told me that he did not think that this conflict was America’s business. When I reminded him that Israel was facing possible destruction, he gave me the following message: This is not a concern of America.

I was stunned by his reply, but not discouraged, and I called another well-known liberal minister. After briefly reviewing the latest developments, I asked him if he would speak to his congregation about Israel’s isolation and the danger facing her people. He did not even attempt to give me a reply; he simply hung up the phone.

Years later, I became the director of the Youth Commission of the American Jewish Congress and the director of their Martin Steinberg Center – a center for Jewish artists in the performing, visual, and literary arts. (In my work, I was known by my English name, Jeff Oboler.) Through discussion with my colleagues at the AJCongress, I discovered that what I had experienced in May, 1967 on a local level, liberal Jewish organizations had experienced on a national level. My colleagues told me that during the weeks before the Six Day War, the leaders of liberal Jewish organizations had contacted leaders of liberal Christian organizations whom they had worked with in the past and asked them to support Israel during this period of great danger; however, the Christian organizations refused to get involved.

In the early morning of June 5, I and my roommates in the dormitory of Yeshiva University were woken by cries that the war had begun. According to the news on the radio, Egypt announced that its planes were bombing Tel-Aviv, and there was no report from the Israeli government! The media did not yet know that Egypt’s claim was false, and the silence of the Israeli government was frightening. We joined together to say our morning prayers, and I remember the tears and the anguish which accompanied those prayers. After the morning prayers, a group of students decided to go down to the United Nations plaza and demonstrate on behalf of Israel. A friend of mine was going in his car, and he invited me to join him. He brought with him a loudspeaker with a microphone.

The United Nations building is located in a wealthy area of the East Side of Manhattan. When we arrived at the U.N. plaza, I noticed an elderly woman, elegantly dressed, who was approaching our car. She came to the open window of the car and said to us in a vitriolic tone, “You Jews are now going to get it!” She then quickly walked away.

After she left, my friend turned to me and asked what we should do at this demonstration, as many of the students had already arrived. I felt that our public demonstration should be in the sacred spirit of our people, and I suggested that we begin to say the appropriate psalms. My friend handed me the microphone and told me to lead the students in prayer. I began chanting the Hebrew words of Psalm 130, verse by verse, according to the soulful melody that we all knew, and the students repeated after me each verse. As we chanted the words of this ancient psalm, the plaza of the United Nations was transformed into a synagogue where the Children of Israel were praying to their God.

The following is a translation of this psalm:

“Out of the depths I have called to You, Hashem. O Master of All, hear my voice; let Your ears be attentive to the sound of my pleas. If You, God, should take account of iniquities – O Master of All, Who could survive? For with You is forgiveness, in order that You may be revered. I hope for Hashem, my soul hopes, and for His word, I wait. My soul longs for Hashem among those longing for the dawn, longing for the dawn. Let Israel hope for Hashem, for with Hashem is loving-kindness, and with Him is abundant redemption. And He shall redeem Israel from all its iniquities.” (Psalm 130)

That night, I called my parents, and I was surprised when they told me that they saw our prayerful demonstration on a major television news program. I had no idea that television cameras were present. My parents said that they heard the chanting of the psalms, and my sister, Devorah, even recognized my voice. I had no idea that our prayers to the Redeeming One would be heard by millions of people in a world which had abandoned Israel.

Before discussing some of the miraculous results of the Six-Day War, I would like to raise the following question: What can we learn from the lonely experience of being abandoned by the world during the weeks preceding the Six-Day War? This question is very relevant to our current situation when we are experiencing the increasing isolation of Israel. I would like to suggest that we turn to the biblical period for an answer. During this period, the Prophets warned our people not to put our trust in alliances with other nations, as our true and lasting security in the Land of Zion depends upon our following the path of the Torah. One of the sources for this idea is found in the following Divine message to our people before we entered the Land:

“If you will follow My statutes and guard My mandates…I will provide shalom in the land, and you will lie down with none to frighten you” (Leviticus: 26:3,6).

When many of our people began to abandon the Torah, and powerful enemies began to threaten Israel, the leaders of Israel thought that they could depend on their alliances with other nations for support. We find examples of this attitude after the reign of King Solomon, when Israel became divided into two kingdoms: the northern kingdom of Ephraim and the southern kingdom of Judah. When the northern kingdom of Ephraim was weakened and threatened with destruction, the people still felt that their salvation would come from seeking the friendship of other nations. The Prophet Hosea therefore rebuked the people, and he began by mentioning that the people “did not return to Hashem their God and they did not seek Him despite all this” (Hosea 7:10). The Prophet then spoke about their naive reliance on other nations, and he said: “Ephraim was like a foolish dove with no understanding: They have called to Egypt, they have gone to Assyria.” (Ibid 7:11)

In another prophecy, Hosea proclaimed: “Return Israel, unto Hashem, your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity” (Hosea 14:2). In the next statement, Hosea called upon the people not to depend on Assyria, or the horses of Egypt, or on their own military and economic accomplishments:

“Assyria will not save us; we will not ride upon horses, and we will no longer say, ‘O our gods!’ to the work of our hands” (Ibid 14:4).

The Prophet Jeremiah issued similar warnings to the leaders of Judah. These leaders thought that some of the other nations were “friends” that would come to the aid of Judah if it was attacked by the mighty Babylonian army; however, their hopes were dashed. Jerusalem was conquered, the Temple was destroyed, and the people went into exile. Following the great destruction, the Prophet Jeremiah wrote the Book of Lamentations which opens with the following cry of mourning over Jerusalem:

“Alas – she sits alone. The city that was great with people has become like a widow...She weeps bitterly in the night and her tears are on her cheeks. She has no comforter from all her lovers; all her friends have betrayed her, they have become her enemies.” (Lamentations 1:1,2)

The above statements of the Prophets can help us to develop a spiritual perspective regarding Israel’s isolation during the weeks before the Six-Day War. This isolation can be understood as a Divine reminder that our security and future in Zion does not depend on the “friendship” of other nations. And the following amazing events which were a result of the war can be understood as a Divine reminder that our security and future in Zion depend on our renewed commitment to fulfilling the Torah in Zion:

After the war broke out on June 5, Jordan, which ruled over the Old City of Jerusalem since 1948, started to attack the New City of Jerusalem within Israel. On June 7 – the 28th day of the Jewish month of Iyar – the army of Israel entered the Old City and defeated the Jordanians; thus, the Old City was reunited with the New City. Through the unification of Jerusalem, we also regained access to the Kosel – the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. (Under Jordanian rule, Jews were not allowed to visit the Kosel.)

Six days after the unification of Jerusalem was the Festival of Shavuos – the festival which celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. With great fervor, over two hundred thousand Jews made a pilgrimage to the Kosel on that Shavuos. This was probably the largest pilgrimage of our people in Zion since the destruction of the Second Temple, and Divine Providence caused this historic pilgrimage to take place on the festival which celebrates the giving of the Torah. The fact that our return to the Old City of Jerusalem and other parts of the Land of Zion took place before the Festival of Shavuos may have been Hashem’s way of reminding us that we were given the Land of Zion in order to fulfill the Torah and thereby serve as a spiritual model for all the nations. In this way, we will merit to experience the fulfillment of the following prophecy:

“It will happen in the end of days: The Mountain of the Temple of Hashem will be firmly established as the head of the mountains, and it will be exalted above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it. Many peoples will go and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the Mountain of Hashem, to the Temple of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways and we will walk in His paths.’ For from Zion will go forth Torah, and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2: 2,3)

(Picture courtesy of Paul Schutzer, killed in the Six Day War)

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