Thursday, June 9, 2016
Sweet victory turned sour
History is not an actual place. You can't go there. Instead it is a maze of supposed facts ("a set of lies that people have agreed upon," to quote Napoleon) that can be highlighted, ignored or twisted. History is, in essence, an argument. When the Six-Day War occurred, 49 years ago this week, it was a miracle. The scrappy underdog Israelis fending off armies of much larger, much more powerful countries. Almost a Biblical wonder of the one-day's-worth-of-oil-lasting-eight-days variety.
Since then, Israel's victory has curdled, as the four million Palestinian refugees whose lands was seized in the war have grown in numbers, resentment and international savvy. Sympathy for Israel can be harder to find -- almost impossible on college campuses, except among Jews, and even they, as liberals, can't help but feel conflicted, sensing that something has gone awry in their liberation saga.
I'm of two minds. On one hand, the Arabs hated the Israelis before. That's where the war occupation came from. As much as Palestinian apologists want to paint anti-Jewish fervor as a symptom of the occupation, it was rather a cause. Inability to live with Jews created it, and foster it now. Putting pressure on the Israelis to fix the situation treats the Palestinians as pawns and puppets, and they're not. They're actors in this drama, too.
On the other hand, something has to be done, and the right wing Netanyahu government seems to have no interest in solutions -- joining the Palestinians in a blindered denial of the situation as it stands. And the years go by.
I try not to think about it—what's the point?— but do hold out hope that if the situation becomes grim enough, the Palestinians might decide they want a country of their own, something they've never advocated, because they want all of Israel back, and that's never going to happen. Anyway, on the 40th anniversary of the war, I wrote this. Not much has changed since then. The very definition of tragedy: there is a problem demanding change, but nothing changes.
SIX DAYS + 40 YEARS
The year 1967 is not vivid in my memory. I don't recall the Beatles releasing "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band." Nor the first Super Bowl. The Summer of Love was, in my neck of the woods, the Summer of Kickball. While I remember thinking that hippies looked like pirates in their headbands and fringed jackets, I'm not sure when.
But I do remember the Six-Day War, 40 years ago this week, when Israel crushed the assembled armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, seizing Jerusalem, too. My father had a Hammarlund Super-Pro shortwave radio, and in that time before 24-hour TV news, we'd find out what was going on in the world through the BBC. My grandparents were over at our house for my 7th birthday, and we clustered around the crackling shortwave to hear the war news -- a scene out of a vanished era.
The Israeli victory is painted in somber hues today, colored by the intractable conflict with the Palestinians that followed. "Israel's wasted victory" is the headline on this week's Economist.
I believe this dim view is an anachronism -- contemplating the past through the distorted lens of the present. Before the Six-Day War, Israel faced complete annihilation. And while the Arab states took another crack in 1973, Israel's stunning 1967 victory was its announcement to the world that, as convenient as it would be for them to be swept into the sea, the Jews did not intend to die quietly this time just to please their critics.
Yes, problems ensued. The occupation brought misery and death to Palestinians, who returned the favor to their occupiers. Israel's international reputation is tarred as an occupying force, and people who don't care about repression in any other country on Earth care deeply about the Palestinians, who resist peace today in favor of the fantasy of military victory tomorrow.
The irony is, in 1967, Israel seized land it thought would be needed as a buffer against onrushing Arab armies.
But the victory meant the land would not be needed, and instead brought a restive population and a whole new brace of problems.
This makes the victory complex, but not regrettable -- at least from the Israeli point of view. The Palestinians, I understand, view it differently.
The current problems are thorny, but preferable to the problems posed by larger and stronger nations bent on invasion and conquest.
Had the Israelis not destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground and swept to victory, they might not be around today to debate whether the victory was ultimately a good or bad thing.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 4, 2007