For those, like me, who was born after those six days in June, it is difficult to fully contend with the scale and scope of the threat Israel faced. Gamel Adbel Nasser amassing his armies on Israel’s southern border and closing Israel’s sea outlet for international trade at the Straits of Tiran. Egyptian radio broadcasts rattling Arab sabers and talking of the conquest of Tel Aviv. In the face of this threat, Israel called up its reserve forces, causing its small economy to grind to a standstill. While these events are difficult to recall, what is familiar is the sense of encirclement and of isolation that Nasser sought to impose—and the sense in which Israel faced this threat utterly alone. The commitments of the international community to ensure free passage of the Straits remained unfulfilled.
While military threats to Israel have diminished, and despite Israel’s cold peace with Egypt and Jordan and the prospect of emerging relationship with Gulf states, Israel remains surrounded by hostility. This naturally continues to define the psyche of Israelis—and those who care about Israel. Despite the great advances made by Israel over these past decades—today it is the strongest military power in the region—this sense of aloneness remains. Efforts such as the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement have had little material impact on Israel’s remarkable and innovative economy. Yet they have had a psychological effect—isolating Israel in the region and perpetuating the deeply felt sense that Israel and the Jewish people are a“nation that dwells alone.”
It is the United States that most powerfully assures Israel that it is not alone. The Six Day War changed Israel’s relationship with the United States. As Israel asserted its military primacy in the region, Israel emerged as a great asset and ally. The American Jewish community has played a critical role in ensuring the longevity of this relationship, rooted not only in shared interests in the region, but in shared values, as well. American Jews are invested in Israel’s flourishing.
Israel’s victory in this war also birthed a great divide -- in Israeli -- and American Jewish politics over the final disposition of territories acquired in that war. This great divide often overtakes our political conversation, its fault lines pitting us sharply against one another—and often so vehemently that we lose the capacity for civil discourse. Its legacy, however divisive for our community, is not one we can afford to avoid. It strikes at the heart of what it means to be a Jewish state— the Zionist dream to be a free people in our land. It is a conversation over the value that undergirds the relationship between American Jews and Israel—the common commitment to democracy.
These questions persist and must be answered: What will the Jewish people do to ensure that Israel remains a Jewish state and democracy? How do we best ensure our security in the present and our prosperity in the future? Who will lead our people down the difficult path ahead?
The Six Day War continues to define the history of Israel. For those who lived through the harrowing days of May 1967, the fear-filled weeks when Arab leaders threatened to complete what they failed to do in 1948—to destroy the Jewish state—Israel’s lightening victory was a relief of immense magnitude and cause for great joy. Israel’s victory repudiated the threat of annihilation – a threat which took shape in the shadow of the Shoah. It brought a type of existential relief that reshaped the lives of many. For American Jews, Israel became a source of enduring pride, meaning, and unity. And it led to a contemporary rebirth of the old strands of Jewish messianism -- that Israel’s vanquishing of its foes was the harbinger of the redemption.
Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO and sixth National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), is an accomplished entrepreneur and innovative leader with deep experience in the private, public and non-profit sectors. Previously, Jonathan served in the White House as Special Assistant to President Obama and Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.