The Six-Day War, 50 years later

BrandeisNOW speaks with Brandeis Professor Yehudah Mirsky about the implications of the Six-Day War in 1967

six-day warPhoto/WikiMedia-Matanya

Israeli soldiers during the Six-Day War

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, which took place from June 5 to June 10, 1967. The war resulted in Israel securing its presence in the Middle East and had lasting implications for the people and geopolitics of the middle east and the world.

Yehudah Mirsky, former US State Department official, Brandeis Associate Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and faculty member at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, shared his perspective on the war’s legacy with BrandeisNOW. For additional commentary from Mirsky regarding the Six-Day War, read his essay in 50Voices50Years.

BNOW: How are the reverberations of the Six-Day War still playing out in the geopolitical balance in the Middle East?

Mirsky: For one, Israel still exists. The war unequivocally established Israel’s existence. In short, it was the final and ultimate demonstration that Israel was here to stay and was a significant military power.  

The aftermath of the war sent tremendous shockwaves through the Arab world, which in some ways has never recovered from that loss, though it has had other challenges to face as well. There was also a catastrophic sense of failure and dishonor. This defeat and humiliation discredited secular nationalism and played a role in the emergence of political Islam. And while Palestinian nationalism existed before the war, its aftermath spurred it to much greater growth.

The war also firmed up Israel as America’s loyal, democratic ally, even if America’s role in the war was less than we might think.

At the same time, of course, much of the geopolitics of the region has less and less to do with Israel, as we have seen in recent years. Israel could vanish tomorrow and the internal conflicts besetting many Arab states, within and without, would not go away. That doesn’t mean Israel doesn’t play a significant role in regional dynamics, but that we should keep it in proportion.

BNOW: In your view, was there any avoiding the Six-Day War given the tensions between Israel and its neighbors at that time?

Mirsky: It was avoidable, as there are no historical inevitabilities. The context in which the war took place was fraught. It was one of extraordinary hostility toward Israel, which was a political football in terms of Arab politics, and an extremely volatile football at that.

You had militant Arab nationalism and fierce opposition to Zionism and the State of Israel. However, this didn’t mean the conflict was inevitable. It was instead a result of built-up tensions, including inter-Arab rivalries. In fact, Arab states tried to out-maneuver each other so much politically, that it was just as much about them as it was about the Jewish State.

BNOW: Would you view the result of the Six-Day War as more of a short term or long term victory for Israel?

Mirsky: Clearly it was a long-term victory since it established Israel was there to stay. But there were also short-term gains. For 19 years, Jews had not been able to visit holy places in Jerusalem—the entire Jewish quarter was razed and, in 1967, there was a belief that Israel was facing annihilation. And the historical achievement of a Jewish state is still extraordinary.

However, after the war was won there were three strategic surprises. One was that Israel was unprepared for assuming authority over the Arabs of the West Bank and (until 2005) Gaza.

The second was the unwillingness of so much of the Arab and Muslim worlds formally to accept Israel’s legitimacy even after all these years and even to question Jewish historic ties to the Land of Israel and Jerusalem. The third was that the secular Zionist camp that led the country for decades unwittingly rendered itself unaware of the ideological freights it was carrying.

The state of Israel was built by people who saw themselves as secularists. As such, they weren’t prepared for the intense religious feeling and traditional messianic longing that the victory in the Six-Day War unleashed, and for the ways in which those feelings and longing plucked some of Zionism’s own deepest chords.

BNOW: What are the differences in how Jews — both inside and outside of Israel — regard the legacy of the Six-Day War? Would you say the differences are primarily generational, geographic, or based on observance?

Mirsky: All Israeli’s would say the hubris that followed the victory was disastrous, as it led to another war in 1973. It’s also important to note that almost no one in Israel wishes that Israel had lost. Losing would have mean annihilation, although some have argued the war could have been won without taking Jerusalem or the West Bank.

The dilemma that Israel faces today is that the left is correct in questioning the moral and political costs of ruling over Palestinian Arabs, while the right is correct to raise the security costs of making major changes during a time when the region as a whole is in the throes of change. These dilemmas are felt acutely within Israel - more than a democracy, it’s’ one, vast open-air debating society. It’s a funny mix of extraordinarily intense internal debate along with a deep sense of solidarity.

In terms of those outside Israel, there is no one size fits all answer. Older people who remember the war understand what it meant—that Israel was threatened with annulation mere decades after the Holocaust. That was terrifying. The farther away people are from that mindset, the harder it is to wrap their heads around that. More broadly, Jews’ attitudes towards Israel flow along different channels - of thought, feeling, and action, and vary over time, age and more. A crucial feature is that one’s own thoughts about Jewish identity deeply inform how one relates to Israel, on both the left and right.

BNOW: How is the Six-Day War now viewed in the Arab nations involved in the war?

Mirsky: We are often so absorbed by Palestinian issues that we lose sight of the fact that this was a conflict between states. Remember, there was intense humiliation in the Arab world. These countries found themselves stuck in a sense of failure in which their ideologies didn’t offer a way out.

The Six-Day War didn’t do much to lessen the sense of animosity toward Israel among some Arab states. The Jewish nationalist project of building a Jewish state has been something much of the Arab world has always had trouble accepting, certainly in public.  

Above all, amid the endless verbiage, haggling, suffering, in Israel's conflict with its neighbors and others, the real line isn’t left/right, in any conventional sense. It’s between the people who think it's complicated, and the people who don't. That is the real division, and it slices through every other marker, be it religious, cultural, ethnic. Those of us who see justice on both sides, pain on both sides, reason on both sides—in varied and shifting proportions, and invariably, greater or lesser sympathy for one or the other, and those who think they and theirs have never been in the wrong and ever and always in the right.

For another Brandeis perspective on the Six Day War, read “Should Mormons Take Sides? With Whom?” an essay by Amber Taylor, doctoral candidate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies included in group of essays published by The Atlantic about how the conflict changed Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Mormonism. 

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