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.


     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


  1. Israel has been totally incompetent at public relations for most of the last 40 years.
    After Abba Eban left the scene, they didn't have a single spokesman who spoke decent English until Netanyahu, but since he's right wing, no one outside of Israel cares to listen to him. All of Israel's high ranking politicians of that period spoke with that atrocious guttural accent when speaking English, while the Arabs always managed to have someone who spoke with either an American accent or far more likely, a very distinct British accent, known as "received pronunciation", which the the way BBC people talk. And if you can't get your message out in a way that people can understand it, they won't even hear it.

    There was also a terrible TV ad campaign for tourism about 30 years ago, that was obviously done totally in Israel, with zero American input. When I saw it, all I could do was laugh at it! The images simply were bizarre to an American mindset, not what we were used to in a tourism ad & it flopped.

    It seems to me, that Israel has put all its energy into working to have Congress support it & have the wacko evangelicals support it, even though the sole reason the wacko evangelicals support Israel is that they expect all the Jews to either convert or die in the final battle of Armageddon, which they expect at any moment.

    You're not going to do well with the general public if your main non-Jewish supporters are batshit crazy!

  2. living in a country seized from its previous inhabitants myself. i try to understand oppression from the point of view of the victor. wanting to keep what i have gained its easier to villify the vanquished than acknowledge my role in seizing their land . while americans displacement of the original people here is further in the past and most tribes have very little power compared even to the palistinians . its hard to find a country not founded on displacement and aggression. though israelis do sometimes seem singled out for disdain, its hard to find sympathy for the aggressor. i disagree with neil that palestinians will never take back the land they lost. the birthrate there indicates that certainly it will happen . its hard to take the side of the palestinians harder still the side of the israelis . i honestly have no skin in the game nor a dog in the fight. the future will show the eventual outcome. it could take decades or centuries.

  3. My feeling in 1967 -- and maybe I got it all wrong -- was that Israel grabbed the land to use as a bargaining chip, as in "Now they'll HAVE to make peace with us to get their land back." But of course the Arabs just saw the Palestinians and the conquered territory as pawns in their long game of trying to annihilate Israel. Over the years, Israel's position hardened and now it is stuck. If it gives back the land, it will have armed and hostile neighbors much closer to its citizens than they are now. If it doesn't, it will continue to lose face in the world.

  4. What I've found about the history of the Middle East is that the more I learn about British and French political games there and yes, T.H. Lawrence and his Arab friends, along with German and Ottoman maneuverings, not to speak of the various insurgent Jewish groups over the years and the current goofyness of right-wingers here and there, the more bewildered I become. Paying attention is equivalent to taking Dante's inferno seriously.


  5. "But when the chosen people grew more strong,
    The rightful cause became the wrong." Dryden 1681

    I suppose it's easy to look at the situation dispassionately if one isn't a Jew, but the history of colonial occupation suggests that Israel will ultimately find the cost of ruling a hostile population too high.

    Tom Evans

  6. I find the hard-liners on both sides repulsive.

    1. Anybody with a special hot-line to heaven is hard to like.


    2. Looks like people are afraid to say the word Muslim here.

    3. Muslim Muslim Muslim.


  7. "In Jerusalem hatred has often been another form of prayer." Amos Alon


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