June 5 marks the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Six-Day War.
For many of those old enough to recall that period, the day will trigger memories of the emotional roller-coaster Jews around the world experienced in the spring of 1967. However, for anyone concerned about Israel’s current geopolitical situation and future prospects, attention to the war’s long-term results may prove more productive.
Fifty years ago — when the entire Arab world rejected the legitimacy of the state of Israel — Egypt and Syria, the two most powerful Arab states, formed an alliance. After securing the withdrawal of a U.N. peacekeeping force, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser declared a blockade of Israeli shipping through the Straits of Tiran off the Sinai coast, Israel’s only outlet from the southern port of Eilat to Africa and Asia. Egypt mobilized its army. On May 25, government-controlled Cairo Radio broadcast: “The Arab people is firmly resolved to wipe Israel off the map and to restore the honor of the Arabs of Palestine.”
On June 5, after frantic diplomatic attempts to defuse the crisis, Israel launched devastating preemptive strikes on Egypt and Syria. When Jordan joined the anti-Israel coalition and attacked across the ceasefire line, Israel moved against its forces as well. After six days, the Jewish state found itself in control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the entire West Bank of the Jordan — including the Old City and eastern half of Jerusalem.
With the benefit of 50 years of hindsight, we can identify five transformative shifts the war triggered:
1. The outcome demonstrated that Israel could not be eliminated by military means, that it is, in fact, a permanent fixture in the region. In 2017, the major Arab states either officially or tacitly recognize Israel. Although it would take the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and considerable diplomatic maneuvering, Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979 that returned the Sinai to Egyptian control and established diplomatic relations between the two countries. Jordan, for its part, gave up its claim to the West Bank in 1988, and six years later established diplomatic relations with Israel. In addition, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States maintain unofficial contacts with the Jewish state that may well lead to formal ties if there is progress on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
2. The military prowess Israel showed in the Six-Day War led the U.S. government to view Israel not just as a friendly democracy, but also as a potent regional ally, a strategic partner in the U.S.-led anti-communist coalition. The previous American reluctance to provide Israel with arms was replaced with a policy of close military, intelligence, and diplomatic cooperation that has survived and greatly expanded — despite the ups and downs of relationships between presidents and prime ministers — even after communism’s fall until today.
3. The war’s greatest impact may have been its transformative effect on Jews around the world. The potential annihilation of Israel so soon after the Nazi destruction of European Jewry evoked the sublimated Jewish sentiments of even totally unaffiliated Jews: Morris Abram, president of AJC at the time would later describe the visits he received from “Americans of Jewish ancestry so totally assimilated as to have changed the actual pronunciation of their names, haunted now by the specter of history and the common fate of Jews,” asking how they might help. And Israel’s quick victory instilled pride in Jews everywhere — nowhere more so than in the Soviet Union, where news of Israel’s lightening triumph helped ignite the renaissance of Jewish identity that generated the Soviet Jewry movement and led to the eventual opening of the gates to emigration.
4. While Israel’s treaty with Egypt ended all territorial disputes with that country and the continuing standoff with Syria has effectively frozen the issue of Israeli control of the Golan, the West Bank and Jerusalem constitute an ongoing, festering problem. In the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war, no consensus emerged among Israelis about how to deal with this territory — the biblical heartland of the Jewish people — nor has one developed in the five decades since, even as hundreds of thousands of Israelis have established homes in the region and the Palestinians have taken to violence against Israelis. Whether, and how much, to annex to Israel; whether, and with what degree of sovereignty, to allow the Palestinians a state; and how, under any conceivable scenario, to ensure security for the Israeli people, remain open questions. And Gaza, now controlled by the terrorist group Hamas, will likely remain an intractable problem even if Israeli and Palestinian negotiations move forward.
5. The results of the war also unleashed a new mutation of anti-Semitism — the allegation that far from acting in self-defense, a colonialist, imperialistic, expansionist, Jewish State of Israel was the aggressor in the conflict. Beginning as a Soviet meme and attaining popularity in the “third world,” it is now exploited by the Palestinians, who portray themselves on the world stage as the innocent victims of a malevolent Zionist Israel—a caricature that has proven very popular on the political left and on college campuses in many countries.
In these fundamental ways, a war that fended off destruction 50 years ago profoundly altered Israel’s place in the world. And while the country still faces grave difficulties, that victory has enabled Israel to remain the beacon of democracy and freedom in the Middle East, and the focus of Jewish pride worldwide.
Looking back from the perspective of five decades that is surely reason to rejoice!
Lawrence Grossman is the American Jewish Committee’s director of publications.