Ethan Katz teaches at the University of Cincinnati and writes about Jewish history, politics, and culture in Europe and the Middle East. He is the author of The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France, winner of a number of prizes including the National Jewish Book Award. His most recent book is the co-edited collection Colonialism and the Jews (Indiana University Press, 2017).
For many Muslims, too, the war was a political awakening. A generation earlier, anti-colonial Muslim activists in the Francophone sphere had been ambivalent about Zionism, with some seeing Israel as the product of the first successful anti-colonial insurgency. The events of 1967, however, would make anti-Zionism basic to the political DNA of many Muslim activists. The war brought not only an increase in pro-Palestinian activism but also a wave of anti-Arab racism. In the months following Israel’s victory, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) distributed literature and built networks among Muslim workers and Far Left activists. This process accelerated with the social uprising that the French call “May ’68,” as Maoists, Trotskyites, and others embraced a range of international causes. By the early 1970s, a series of “Palestine committees” had emerged, seeking basic worker rights for Arab laborers. Activists distributed newsletters whose rhetoric and iconography idolized the Palestinian “fedai,” or freedom fighter, as a metaphor for their own struggles against discrimination.
Israel, long seen as a David in the international order – a little country of socialist idealism born from the ashes of the Holocaust and surrounded by hostile neighbors – was coming to be perceived as a Goliath.
The change was far-reaching. Until 1967, France had been Israel’s most important ally; it had sold the country the Mirage jets used to such great effect in winning the war. The war, however, marked a turning point. By November 1967, at what would become an infamous press conference, President Charles De Gaulle signaled that France would take a more critical stance in its policies toward Israel and described Jews as “an elite people, sure of itself and domineering.” French Jews were shocked and outraged; they faced a new political reality in which supporting Israel often meant opposing the policies of their own government. Formulations like De Gaulle’s meant that such tension often made French Jews feel vulnerable.
The war also became linked to the legacies of empire. By the early 1970s, more than a million Muslims from France’s former North African colonies resided in the country. Muslim activists often saw Israel as a colonial entity and linked the Palestinian cause to that of their parents in Algeria from 1954 to 1962. Reinforcing the parallel, many former colonial settlers from Algeria became loud supporters of Israel.
Fifty years after the war, transnational activism, shifting French policies in the Middle East, and the shadow of colonial history continue to make Israel/Palestine a site of vulnerability and tension for both Jews and Muslims. In this manner, the 1967 War remains in France, just as it does closer to home, an open wound in an ongoing struggle.
The 1967 War was an earthquake whose aftershocks reached beyond the borders of the Middle East. Nowhere was this truer than in France.
Due to French Jewry’s longstanding quietist ethos of privatized religion and devoted French patriotism, public Zionism bloomed late in France. Yet as tensions escalated in the Middle East in May 1967, Jewish community figures and organizations became preoccupied with Israel, expressing fears of a second Holocaust, soliciting donations, and marching at rallies; Jewish school children baked cakes and sold them at recess to raise funds for Israel. Soon, Israel’s victory began to reshape French Jewish identity, eliciting widespread financial support, parades, synagogue prayers, and trips to Israel.