In Six Days in June, 1967, Israeli forces defeated Arab armies massed against, and vowing to annihilate, the Jewish State. This was a good thing. Part of this victory was Israel’s capture of the captured the Old City of Jerusalem – after 19 years in which Jews had been denied access to it, the buildings of the Jewish Quarter razed, tombstones defaced and more. This reuniting of the Jews and the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall, was, too, a good thing. And its goodness is undiminished by all the bad things that happened later – the disastrous Israeli hubris preceding the Yom Kippur War, the open sore of Israel’s unresolved conflict with the Palestinians, the myriad ways in which the post-67 years have frustrated so many dreams, even while fulfilling so many others. It is the inseparability of the good from the bad that demands of us to think and to act.
In retrospect, Israel was unprepared for three things in the wake of military victory. First, assuming authority over masses of Palestinian Arabs. Second, the unwillingness of those Arabs to accept Israel's military victory as politically decisive regarding the state’s existence, as well as to accept any Jewish claim or tie to historic Jerusalem. Third, the secular Zionist ethos that led the country for decades had rendered itself unaware of the theological freight they were carrying, and of the Messianic movements that were now to be unleashed with the capture of Jerusalem and the territories.
To be sure, all three of these mega-strategic surprises have histories of their own. None exist in a vacuum and the existential problems they pose – of Israel defending itself without becoming a garrisoned apartheid state, of imaging any achievable settlement that might truly lead the Palestinians to end their struggle, of Israeli society’s difficulty in forging a civic faith that gives a place to Zionism’s necessarily theological dimensions without letting them devour Zionism whole – are the products of many authors. These problems’ have their current shape owing to decisions and indecisions by all the parties involved, Jews, Arabs, Israelis, their allies and patrons. And together we have to think and act forward.
If there’s one thing we learned in the last fifty years it’s that the easy notions of “reason” and “human rights” beloved by Western elites don’t provide the answer. Not that practical reason, the disciplined application of our minds and wills to the recalcitrant stuff of the material and human worlds isn’t worth more than all the ideologies in the world – it is. Or that the kernel of human rights, the idea of a universal principle that there are somethings that political actors large and small simply may not be allowed to do, isn’t vital to the survival of humanity as we know it – it is. But we do them, ourselves and our children no favors by pretending that their salience is self-evident and that others share our visions of sweet reason and enlightenment.
The forging of workable shared understandings that can make for livable futures for our children is hard work, of the body and mind, but essential. It requires fundamental goodwill, a mix of moral compass and flexibility, and lucidity about others and ourselves. It’s not, however, hopeless. Sometimes, as we learned in 1967, miracles really do happen, even if history still rolls surprisingly along ever after, on the paths we try to shape.
All wars are terrible. Just, victorious wars are no exception. If 1967 proved nothing else it proves that there is no such thing as a war to end all wars. That would take a profound transformation of the human condition. One of the many names people have given to that transformation is Jerusalem. And Jerusalem today shows us how far off that transformation still is and how much work still lies ahead.
Yehudah Mirsky is associate professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis and a member of the faculty of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies. He worked in Washington as an aide to then-senators Bob Kerrey and Al Gore, at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and served in the Clinton Administration as special advisor in the US State Department's human rights bureau. He is the author of the widely acclaimed biography, Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution, winner in 2016 of the Sami Rohr Choice Award for Jewish Literature. He tweets @YehudahMirsky.