War Of The Generations
Fri, 06/22/2007
Staff Writer
untry steeped in memory, the Jewish state operates on a calendar of Jewish holidays that are implicitly or explicitly memorials, both religious and secular. But the fast pace of recent decades in Israel, one crisis or scandal or existential threat following closely on the heels of another, has left little time for communal remembrance of the latest events. There are so many tragedies, so many martyrs and heroes, so many terrorist attacks and battles, so many lines in the sand not crossed that otherwise-memorable anniversaries go largely unnoticed and unmarked by the Israeli public or by Jews overseas. There is an Ecclesiastical time to reflect, but that time is often deferred until an unspecified tomorrow. Today is the time to Click here to find out more! act, to negotiate, to plot. With hostages still unredeemed and peace treaties still unsigned, the anniversaries of this war, of that national achievement, remain in the shadows of the latest headline. Who noted the anniversary of Entebbe, of the first Gulf War, of Camp David? But nobody forgets 1967. The upcoming 40th anniversary of the Middle East war that changed the physical map of a region and the psychological outline of a generation transcends history. Just as World War I and its aftermath planted the seeds for the German resentment that culminated in World War II, the Arab losses of 1967, both in territory and prestige, paved the way for the war of 1973 and the ongoing disputes over land. The Six-Day War, a legend in its time, which created the image of the bronzed-and-brave Israeli soldier and the indestructible Israeli army, continues to be examined and analyzed as no other war fought by Israel. In earlier years, individual generals and soldiers – on the Israeli side and the Arabs’ – told their stories. Tales from the tanks and trenches became part of Israeli lore. With the passage of time and the opening of archives, new perspectives and sources of information became available. The history proffered in the early 2000’s was different – more complete, more textured – than the history of post-1967. As this anniversary approached, British journalist Jeremy Bowen and Israeli scholar Michael Oren contributed to the historical record. Now, Tom Segev, a writer for Haaretz and a leading member of Israel’s so-called "new historians," who shed what they view as the intellectually confining patriotic myths that surrounded the country’s founding and formative years, adds his voice. "1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East" (Metropolitan Books, 645 pages), is a translation of his best-selling 2005 Hebrew book. Many Hebrew expressions, rendered into English without an accompanying Hebrew text, unfortunately lose in the translation. Written for an Israeli readership, Segev’s book is the most complete and most comprehensive of the works devoted to early June of 1967. It is at the same time the most critical of Israel, citing racist feelings expressed about Arabs, looting of Arab property during the war, and minimal attempts to prevent an Arab exodus afterwards. "Many Israelis," displeased with the borders set by the cease-fire agreement that ended the 1948 War of Independence, "refused to give up the original Zionist dream, hoping for the day when Israel would embrace both sides of the Jordan," Segev writes. "Some Israeli politicians, including Ben-Gurion, as well as some IDF generals, did not rule out military action to expand the state over the Green Line." As the author shows, the outbreak of war, which began with Israel’s pre-emptive strike against the Egyptian air force, was clearly precipitated by the combined threats of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, but Israel’s political and military leaders were prepared to redress the country’s defeat of 1948. The pre-war Israel depicted by Segev was a divided country, with growing unrest of the "Mizrachi" population, from Middle Eastern origins, who felt disenfranchised by the self-entitled Ashkenazi elite, and with a growing disillusionment by Israelis who were leaving the country in record numbers. His book presents no photographs; only gripping text. Using unpublished diaries and letters, government memos and military records, Segev captures the drama of the days when Israel’s very survival seemed in doubt. The sources of information are too often buried in footnotes at the back of the book, leaving various dialogues and interpretations open to question. Switching back and forth from diplomat, both Israeli and American, to general to soldier, he presents the historical context that made the escalation of tensions a virtual inevitability; he paints the months leading up to the war as a period of intolerable bellicosity; he describes battles, both on the Israeli fighting fronts and behind the scenes in political corridors of power; and, of greatest interest, he shows that the greatest miracle of the war was its conduct by Israeli leaders who, wavering between egoism and insecurity, frankly couldn’t stand each other. The year 1967 represented the pinnacle of a generational clash at the highest level of Israeli leadership. A European, Yiddish-speaking generation epitomized by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, a timorous onetime minister of finance who earned the scorn of founding father David Ben-Gurion. An Israeli-born, Hebrew-speaking generation led, in the public mind, by Moshe Dayan, the hero of the 1956 Sinai Campaign who became, under public pressure, minister of defense, dislodging and embarrassing Eshkol, who had held that portfolio. "Sabra warriors facing weak-spirited politicians," as Segev characterizes the schism from the sabras’ point of view. "When speaking at the [army’s] General Staff, [Chief of Staff Yitzchak] Rabin used to refer to Eshkol and his ministers as ‘the Jews.’" "The rivalry between Dayan and Eshkol affected almost every political and military issue," Segev writes. "Eshkol emerges as a statesman with nerves of steel who withstood all pressure" – from critics at home and the US government – "until he could achieve coordination with the United States." What happened during those six memorable days is public record. Israel won, and decades of diplomacy to prevent further wars followed. And the Six-Day War remains a subject of study. "I think you’re going to have a major Middle East war," one of Gamal Abdul Nasser’s advisers told the Egyptian leader before battles began in 1967, "and I think we will still be sorting it out 50 years from now." Segev’s "1967" makes the sorting out of 1967 an easier task.