Every time I see the movie “Titanic” I hope that there will be a different outcome. I hope that the captain will successfully avert the massive iceberg. I hope that the ship won’t sink, that so many of its passengers won’t perish. I hope that “Jack” will live to write his strongly worded letter to the shipping line.
Despite knowing the outcome, that’s the same feeling I got when reading “Six Days of War” by noted historian and former Israeli ambassador to the US, now Knesset member Michael Oren. Leading up to the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War this week, I thought it was finally time to read the book gathering dust on my shelf for years. As I read the first half, recounting the weeks leading up to the war, I couldn’t help but think that there were so many instances that war could have been averted. If only Egyptian President Nasser hadn’t done one of any of a number of things. If only Jordanian King Hussein heeded Israel’s warning to stay out of the war and avoid being attacked. If only the combined armies of the Arab world and Soviet Union didn’t promulgate lie after lie. If only the UN stood fast and retained its troops in Sinai, or had reacted aggressively to the Egyptians brazen aggression. If only Israel hadn’t felt so very isolated as the Arabs threatened to annihilate the 19 year old Jewish state. If only.
“Six Days of War” is filled with incredible historical detail that brings the reader a concise and objective look at what led up to the war, and then follows day by day the miraculous Israeli army routing of armies of its neighboring Arab countries, lusting to push Israel into the sea and slaughter its Jewish citizens. And miraculous it is indeed, with the odds so deeply stacked against Israel, while the Arabs falsely blamed US and British intervention on Israel’s behalf, they missed giving credit to the One who truly stood by Israel with His divine intervention. The awakening of Jews and Christians who understood God’s protection makes this chapter of Israeli history a must read if only to give Him praise.
I decided not to be intimidated by the sheer size (446 pages, of which 118 are notes and the index) and to dig right in. I figured that even if I didn’t learn anything new, then at least it would be a good refresher on the historical milestone of the 50th anniversary of the war itself, and specifically the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem. While that is celebrated according to the biblical Jewish calendar on the 28th of Iyar the war began on June 5, 1967 and Israel’s liberating Jerusalem’s Old City was complete on June 7.
An historian will have a field day with this book as it recounts a wide array of Israeli, Arab, American, Soviet, and UN officials that make it challenging to keep track of all the players, even for someone well versed in Middle East history. Names and places of battles and strategic significance, whether parts of urban Jerusalem today or distant desert locations, are also noted in great depth. The sources, research, and time to put this book together are laudable, as is its historical objectivity.
Not to be a spoiler, but the war ended with a ceasefire on June 11 with Israel completely vanquishing the armies of its Arab neighbors, and taking control of all of Sinai, the Golan Heights, what’s commonly called the West Bank but is historically biblical Judea and Samaria, and of course the reunification of Jerusalem. “Six Days of War” is one of the most authoritative and best sources of historical documentation of the war, yet there are many other sources of information and personal perspectives from the Six Day War. (Please write and I will be happy to share a list of others.)
Following Jerusalem’s liberation, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan made a statement that was at once historic and celebratory, but conciliatory at the same time. He reflected a common feeling then among Israeli leaders that Israel’s victory was a new opportunity for peace. “This morning, the Israel Defense Forces liberated Jerusalem. We have united Jerusalem, the divided capital of Israel. We have returned to the holiest of our holy places, never to part from it again. To our Arab neighbors we extend, also at this hour—and with added emphasis at this hour—our hand in peace. And to our Christian and Muslim fellow citizens, we solemnly promise full religious freedom and rights. We did not come to Jerusalem for the sake of other peoples’ holy places, and not to interfere with the adherents of other faiths, but in order to safeguard its entirety, and to live there together with others, in unity.”
One point of difference I have with the book is use of the loaded term “Palestinian.” While the PLO was founded in 1964, use of that word implies, as it has become common to do today, that somewhere along history there was a country called Palestine that Israel occupied. The term may be correct today only if because of how commonly it is used now, but in June 1967, Jordan controlled all of what’s today called the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, and Egypt controlled Gaza. “Palestinian” identity was hardly well established, except as a foil for Israel and as a vehicle and excuse for terror and war. Use of this term today, that was not in vogue then, to describe a population as this could have been chosen differently, or noted that while unavoidable, it emphasizes an historical bias and is possibly not entirely accurate, something the author certainly tried to avoid.
As documented in “Six Days of War,” two weeks before the outbreak of the war, UN Secretary General U Thant met with President Nasser in Egypt. Also attending was General Indar Jit Rikhye, commander of the UNEF forces in Sinai until they were expelled a week earlier. Maybe it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out, but Rikhye’s comments following the meeting (p.86) were prophetic. “I think you’re going to have a major Middle Eastern war and I think we will still be sorting in out 50 years from now.”