June 2, 2017
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Temple Emanu-El
Tucson, Arizona

There are times when the difference between the Jewish lunar calendar and the American solar calendar provide and opportunity for additional reflection and exploration on important subjects.

This week is one of those times.  Three weeks ago we began providing some perspective on the 50th Anniversary of the 6-Day War, in advance of Yom Yerushalayim, which fell on the Hebrew calendar about two weeks ago, the holiday that commemorates the unification of the holy city of Jerusalem in 1967.  In May we explored the extraordinary events and miraculous military results of the 6-Day War itself in context.  We talked a great deal about the capital city of Israel, both the Old and New City, East and West Jerusalem. 

By the way, this week President Trump, ignoring campaign promises as every president of both parties since Bill Clinton has done, Trump declined to begin the process of moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem by signing yet another 6-month waiver.  Absurdly, this keeps our embassy an hour away from the capital city of our close ally Israel for another extended period of time.  This has been an ongoing comedy, really: Israel’s capital has been in Jerusalem since December of 1949, in the large modern part of the city, West Jerusalem, that has always been Jewish and by all standards legally in Israel.  To placate the enemies of Israel and western democratic values, the international community continues to pretend that the actual capital city of Israel is Tel Aviv, and diplomats have to shlep through Israeli big-city traffic to get to offices in West Jerusalem all the time.  Ridiculous.

In any case, after talking about Jerusalem’s liberation a few weeks ago, we then we celebrated two straight weeks of magnificent Confirmation services on this bima, and didn’t really have the ability to continue the discussion of the 50th Anniversary of 1967.  But because the solar calendar lags behind the lunar calendar this year, and the 6-Day War actually took place June 5th-10th in 1967, we are still a couple of days before the 50th anniversary of that critical conflict, and that gives us reason enough to continue the analysis tonight and next week.

This week we’ll look at the other territories that Israel captured—or liberated—during those remarkable six days of war exactly 50 years ago, the Sinai, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip.  Next week we’ll explore the many issues attending the West Bank, perhaps the thorniest problem area of all right now.

First, memorably, in 1967, almost exactly 50 years ago today, Israel captured the entire Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, a victory that more than doubled the land area of the country.  It was a shocking and monumental military accomplishment, and in its aftermath Israelis enjoyed traveling the same wilderness their ancestors had wandered under Moses.  Scuba diving in the Sinai became very popular, as did hanging out in laidback Dahab and other stoner oases.  And then, after the rude awakening of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, in an action that could have served as a model for future treaties in the region, Israel memorably exchanged the entirety of the Sinai, its resorts and especially the oil wells located there, for a peace treaty with arch-enemy Egypt.  Israel’s southern border has had occasional problems since the Camp David Accords concluded in the late 1970’s, and it has indeed been a cold peace much of the time with Egypt.  But it has been an enduring peace, and it has allowed Israel to dramatically grow and innovate and evolve without fear of being attacked by the largest and most populous of its Arab neighbors. 

Even the disastrous Arab Spring in Egypt, and the brief but dangerous reign of the Islamist President Morsi, did not lead to open hostility with Egypt.  The relative security of the southern border has been of great and enduring benefit to Israel.

In the north, Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria, and for strategic reasons annexed them.  For twenty years before 1967 Syrian snipers and artillerists shelled and shot at the Kibbutzim below the heights.  After the lightning conquest of the Golan, and the heroic battles that retained them in 1973, very few Israelis were interested in returning the Golan to Syria, even when it might have meant a peace treaty with the brutal and untrustworthy Asad regime.  Although not heavily settled, the Golan Heights today are the location of excellent wineries, some farming, and many military bases that keep an eye on Syria.  When we were on the Golan three years ago on our Temple Emanu-El Pilgrimage trip there we could see fighting in the Syrian Civil War below us in the town of Quneitra.  It was very close to Israel.

Under Hafez al Asad’s mass-murdering son Bashar al Asad, what’s left of the Syrian state has become an international pariah, and somehow made ISIS look more humane than it is.  As Syria continues to disintegrate, Israel’s decision to hold onto the Golan and gain strategic depth and a defensible ridge of mountains looks better and better.  In any case, no one is boycotting Israel in order to force it to give the Golan back to Syria, and it certainly won’t.

In addition to Jerusalem, the Sinai, and the Golan, another major area captured from the Arab armies in 1967 was the Gaza Strip.  Gaza was a hell-hole then, and it isn’t better now.  The Gaza Strip is a small area of land on the Mediterranean Coast, 7 miles deep and about 25 miles long, overpopulated and under-resourced.  In 1948 Arab residents of the former British Mandate of Palestine, not yet called Palestinians, abandoned their homes in the nascent nation of Israel and fled to Gaza, hoping to return behind the triumphant Egyptian army.  When the Israelis instead defeated the Egyptians, these Arabs were stuck in Gaza, and soon the Egyptians herded them into refugee camps there rather than resettle them in their own large Arab nation.  They stayed there, overcrowded and angry on the small strip of land, increasing in population and misery, until the 6-Day War in 1967 when Israel chased the Egyptian army all the way back to Cairo.  In various negotiations, including at Camp David when Menachem Begin agreed to exchange the Sinai for peace, Israel tried to give the Gaza Strip back to Egypt, but the Egyptians wanted no part of the aggrieved and seething Palestinians whom they had treated so poorly.

So from 1967 until the outbreak of the first Intifada 20 years later, Gaza was a poor, overcrowded place, filled with refugee camps and international aide workers.  But it was also a main source of inexpensive labor for the Israeli economy, and a place where Israelis shopped for furniture and vegetables and fruit.  That was until 1987 and the First Intifada, when all of that changed, and Gaza became a place to protect people from, rather than a place that was integrated in some ways into the Israeli economy and lifestyle.

Israel’s involvement in Gaza, including building some kibbutzim and other agricultural settlements and keeping an eye on things in a way consistent with the relaxed situation, changed dramatically during the Oslo Process twenty years ago.  Under Oslo, Gaza received a fair amount of autonomy under the Palestinian Authority.  It was a heady time.  I vividly remember being in the military headquarters of the Palestinian Authority in downtown Gaza City in the mid-1990’s.  It was a building that had formerly been the Israeli police headquarters, and before that had been the British police headquarters, and before that the Ottoman Empire’s police headquarters.  I will never forget the astonishment on the faces of the young Palestinian policemen holding Kalashnikovs and seeing all those Reform rabbis in one room, and realizing we were Jews but we weren’t enemies. It was stunning. 

All that optimism about Gaza came crashing down in a Second Intifada that, in part, led to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 under Ariel Sharon, after occupying it for 28 years.  The idea was that after the Israeli withdrawal Gaza would be controlled by the Palestinians, and if they later attacked Israel the response could be unilateral, military, and greater in scope than anything the IDF could possibly do to an area under Israeli control.  It also meant that the population time bomb of Palestinian Arab birthrates was defused, because no one could say, “There are more Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank and Israel itself than there are Jews, and we should just have a popular vote.”  It all sounded like a good idea at the time.  Israel’s Gaza settlements were abandoned—some of the evictions by the Israeli military were forceful—and Israel withdrew and set up more secure boundaries.

But in 2007 Hamas, the religious fanatical wing of the Palestinians won election as the leading party of Gaza, and shortly thereafter Hamas won a brutal civil war with Fatah, the better educated secular party of most Palestinians.  And in the decade since then Israel has fought a series of painful wars to try to keep the Hamas-led Gazan Arabs from firing rockets into Israel proper, or tunneling in to perpetrate terror attacks.  Gaza has been partly destroyed in each of these wars, but under Hamas efforts are always redoubled after being defeated by the IDF to find new and creative ways to attack Israel; a huge network of terrorist invasion tunnels have been built by the Hamas-led Palestinians, Israel finds them and destroys them before they can be used to attack Israeli citizens.  A crazy game of hide and seek and destroy.

There is an uneasy quiet now with Gaza; it seems likely that there will almost inevitably be another war sometime, and the IDF will pound Gaza again.  It’s not a pretty situation.

In effect, in the territories we’ve discussed today—the Sinai, the Golan, and the Gaza Strip—Israel has tried three very different approaches to the challenges of occupying the lands of another people and religion.  With the Sinai, Israel used assets, land and oil, in particular—to trade for peace.  With the Golan, Israel simply kept a lightly settled area of great military value, annexed it, and made it its own.  With Gaza, Israel tried benign neglect at first, followed 20 years later by armed occupation and suppression, followed eventually by withdrawal. 

And with Jerusalem, last month’s featured topic, Israel annexed the Old City, Israel’s eternal and sacred capital, outright. 

None of these approaches necessarily worked better than any others might have.  They were the best efforts of the brightest Israeli leaders operating not in the realm of ideal theories but of the real world in which we all must live.  In the absence of comprehensive peace treaties with the Palestinians, none of which eventuated in spite of some serious efforts, it is difficult to know what might have worked better or even what might work better in the future. 

Next week we will look at perhaps the hardest problem today, the West Bank, the settlements, the challenges, opportunities tried and lost.  It is an even more complex question than the ones we have examined thus far, and we don’t really know what will happen next.

We do know one thing, though: in the 50 years since the 6-Day War, Israel has changed dramatically, while the areas that were occupied have changed much less—and not nearly as well, with the exception on both counts of Jerusalem.  And most importantly, Israel has flourished much more because of what has happened within its own original territory than because of what the conquests of 1967 have brought it.

Beyond the Golan Heights and the Old City of Jerusalem and some of the surrounding cities and neighborhoods, the real story of the 6-Day War half a century after is to be found in the amazing development of the Jewish State, and its thriving economy, culture, and society.  The growth in Israel in these 50 years is astonishing, in diversity and quality most of all.

It has been half a century now since the 6-Day War.  And for all of the challenges that remain in these complex areas, Israel is an extraordinary gift, and much of that remains the result of those events 50 years ago.


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