The Israeli cabinet protocols from 1967, which the State Archive released this week in full (with a few redactions) for the first time, highlight a little-known historic fact about the months leading up the Six—Day War. In the meetings of the security cabinet and the full cabinet dealing with the military buildup through weeks of tension in May and early June, the one party in Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s coalition whose ministers constantly opposed military escalation and called for exhausting every avenue of diplomacy before committing Israel to war was the National Religious Party (NRP). That’s right, the forerunner of today’s far-right Jewish Home was the most dovish component of Eshkol’s war cabinet. Indeed, Interior Minister Moshe Haim Shapira and Religious Affairs Minister Zerach Warhaftig warned of the implications of opening war without the backing of any of the world powers, defying not only their hawkish colleagues but also the IDF generals demanding the government quit dithering.
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Even in the last fateful cabinet meeting on the afternoon of June 4, by which time nearly the entire cabinet was in favor of going to war, Shapira’s was one of the lone voices of skepticism, questioning the intelligence assessment that Egypt was preparing an imminent attack. He argued in vain to wait a few more days and try to gain international support. Of all the cabinet ministers, it was the religious ones, those you would expect to have put their faith in God and their confidence in the IDF, who counseled holding back.
Why were the religious ministers so afraid of going to war? Former Mossad Chief Efrayim Halevy, then a newly appointed deputy department head in the intelligence organization, remembers meeting another of the NRP ministers, Yosef Burg, in Tel Aviv on the night before the war, and being struck by how fearful Burg was of “another Holocaust.” Shapira, Warhaftig and Burg were privy to the same intelligence assessments and information as their secular colleagues on the IDF’s readiness. Perhaps it was less a matter of ideology and religion and simply the fact that they were older and had spent larger periods of their lives in Eastern Europe and were more traumatized by the Holocaust and petrified by the thought of tens of thousands of casualties.
Not far from where the war cabinet was holding its meetings in the Kirya in Tel Aviv, the next generation of National-Religious leaders were gathering in the citrus groves south of the city. As the reserve soldiers of the paratroopers units were called up and waited for weeks in the shade to be sent in to battle, the religious among them discovered they were not alone. Yoel Bin Nun, who would go on to become one of the founders of the Gush Emunim settler movement recalls that all had the impression that there were very few yarmulke-wearers among the IDF’s elite airborne corps. “Suddenly, with the entire brigade together for the first time, we realized there were already many of us.” He remembers some 300 religious paratroopers gathered around the makeshift synagogue in the orchard. What would they have thought had they known their political representatives were at that moment arguing they should be kept waiting there?
Fast-forward fifty years and the roles have been reversed. The ultra-hawks in the Israeli government are the ministers of the rebranded NRP, Habayit Hayehudi, while those calling for moderation and taking diplomatic concerns into consideration are the secular generals. Religion is supposed to be a traditional affair, where trends and fashions take long centuries to catch on. How did the National Religious stream turn around in just a few decades?
There are of course spiritual reasons. Some of those young paratroopers had been influenced by Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, who radically interpreted the more romantic writings of his father, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak. The younger Kook fused scripture, ethnocentrism and militarism into a new holy trinity of Torah, nation and land. These young ideologues spearheaded the settlement movement in the West Bank. But it is an insufficient explanation. Kook’s acolytes were, and remain a small minority among both the settlers and the national-religious community. Their success as an ideological vanguard owes more to a deeper need, the need for a national mission.
Growing up religious in the early years of Israel meant feeling an outsider compared to the secular serving elite that had founded the state. For many, the most simple route to joining the mainstream was to take their yarmulke off. To keep your yarmulke on and be the only Orthodox soldier in your paratrooper company, finding the time to pray and study during the exhaustive marches and exercises, in an era when the IDF’s crack units were much less accommodating of religious solders, furnished you with a burning sense of purpose.
Not just in military life. The new swathes of biblical homeland opened up by the 1967 conquest provided the opportunity to make up for their parents’ failure in joining the secular pioneers who had built the kibbutzim in the first half of the 20th century.
Amos Oz once likened the national-religious community after 1967 to the “kashrut supervisor who has left the train’s dining car and is now trying to replace the driver.” It’s a neat image but it misrepresents what the young Gush Emunim settlers were trying to do. They weren’t interested in changing the train’s direction. They were convinced they were keeping it on its original track, and they remain so to this day. They honestly didn’t want to replace the leaders, just join them. They didn’t even realize they were right-of-center, until they looked back and saw that no one had joined them.
And no one did because after seven decades of political Zionism, 19 years of Jewish statehood and six days of war, it was mission accomplished. The old guard didn’t join in resettling Beit El and Shiloh and Hebron because they had already rebuilt Zion in Tel Aviv and the Jezreel Valley and the Negev. And three decisive victories in 1948, 1956 and 1967, plus the completion of the nuclear reactor outside Dimona had finally ended any Arab illusions that what had been built could ever be destroyed. So what next?
Israel hasn’t gone rightwards in the last fifty years because a majority of Israelis share the settlers’ aims and ideology. They don’t. The ideological hardcore living deep within the West Bank has never numbered more than 100,000 Israelis, not even two percent of the population. A tiny, headstrong minority swept the country form its moorings because Israeli society began losing momentum after 1967.
There was another significant anniversary this week. May 17 was the fortieth anniversary of the single most significant event in Israel’s political history. After eight straight election victories of Mapai, the workers party of Israel, or as its better known now, Labor, the Likud first came to power. 29 years after David Ben-Gurion’s party basically founded the state, they didn’t lose power because new prime minister Menachem Begin was more bullish on building settlements than his rival Shimon Peres. At the time, before his metamorphosis in to a snow-white dove, Peres was the fiercest of the Labor hawks and as defense minister in the mid-70s had given the settlers crucial assistance. Labor lost because it was failing to articulate what Israel was about anymore; without a compelling message, it could no longer hold out against Begin’s coalition of outsiders. And that’s been the case for the old Israeli mainstream ever since. Every time the Likud coalition lost favor and Labor made a short comeback, under Peres in 1984, Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and Ehud Barak in 1999, it failed to remain in power for long because it still couldn’t explain what should have come the day after the Six-Day war. Their attempts to break the paradigm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict foundered for lack of a vision for Israel on the day after. Not that the Likud has a better idea or message, but at least its wider camp has some ideological fervor, thanks to its small settler component. They kept on running and for lack of opposition, we’ve all been pulled along by them.
In another intriguing quote from the war cabinet protocols, Prime Minister Eshkol noted on the last day of the war, when it transpired that Israel suddenly controlled the fate of over a million Palestinians, “We have to start thinking about what to do with the Arabs”. Fifty years later, we’re still thinking. Perhaps the key to answering that question is to ask what we do next with Israel. Half a century after the Jewish state fulfilled its purpose, it has yet to come up with a new mission.