U.S. Jews Divided Over Whether to Celebrate or Mourn 50th Anniversary of Six-Day War

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Israeli paratroopers break through the Lions Gate in the Old City to the Dome of the Rock, June 1967.
Israeli paratroopers breaking through the Lions Gate in the Old City and advancing on the Dome of the Rock, June 1967.Credit: IDF

NEW YORK – It was a star-studded summit, the likes of which are unimaginable today. Virtually every movie and TV star with even the slightest connection to Judaism was at the Hollywood Bowl that particular Sunday: Kirk Douglas and Frank Sinatra were there; Barbra Streisand urged the 40,000 attending the Rally For Israel’s Survival to back their love for Israel with donations.

That June 11, 1967 event took place just hours after the conclusion of the Six-Day War. Fifty years on, American Jewry is responding to the anniversary of Israel’s victory and reunification of Jerusalem in ways that reflect the community’s deeply divergent approaches to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. For most, it is either a joyful day or one to mark with sadness. Few American Jewish communities are even attempting to integrate both realities.

For those on the right of the Jewish political spectrum – many of whom are Orthodox Jews – the 50th anniversary will be a moment of unabashed celebration. Some 3,000 Jews from around the world, including 500 from the United States, are participating in a World Mizrachi Movement trip to the Israeli capital for Jerusalem Day, which falls on May 24.

For many other American Jews, though, the anniversary marks the start of the occupation and remains a deeply complicated and conflicted milestone. Some see nothing at all to celebrate.

“What was once seen as an unmitigated blessing has come to be seen as a very mixed blessing,” said Rabbi Edward Feinstein, leader of Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Encino, California, who attended the Hollywood Bowl rally in 1967 a month after his bar mitzvah.

“We find ourselves with this terrible conundrum of an unending occupation,” he added. “A moment of celebration turns complicated as the years go on.”

“It’s not a complicated day” for the Orthodox community, said Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, director of media strategy for the Orthodox Union (and occasional Haaretz contributor). “The only drama over Yom Yerushalayim [the Hebrew term for Jerusalem Day] has nothing to do with the occupation,” she said, “but rather whether you say Hallel or not,” referring to the traditional prayer of praise recited to honor miracles that took place in Israel.

For those who relate to it religiously, the 50th anniversary “celebrates the dream that generations have had,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, vice president for university and community life at Yeshiva University. “My father and my in-laws survived the Shoah, and I have a son who served as an Israeli soldier.”

It’s “not just a spiritual celebration, not just recognition that redemption has begun, but also that the Jewish people are in a safer place, that Jewish blood is no longer cheap,” he noted.

The nonprofit New Israel Fund is among others taking a very different approach. It’s kicking off a campaign called #50isEnough, which includes a book tour by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, who are among contributors to “Kingdom of Olives and Ash,” a new anthology of anti-occupation essays.

A protest by the IfNotNow group during the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, March 2017. The group will be holding demonstrations in 11 U.S. cities to mark the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War.Credit: Gili Getz

The grassroots network of mostly millennial IfNotNow members will hold demonstrations in 11 cities against what they regard as Jewish establishment groups’ complicity in the occupation.

Pain and suffering caused to others

Sara Sandmel, an IfNotNow organizer and Jewish educator in Boston, will enter rabbinical school in the fall. The anniversary “feels complicated,” said Sandmel, who spent part of high school and a gap year in Israel, during which she lived in Jaffa – a historically Arab city that is becoming increasingly Jewish. “I’ve seen a lot of disparity firsthand,” she said, referring to differences in the way each group is treated. “I grew up in a community going to day school and synagogues where we would celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem. As I’ve learned more about how the conquering of Jerusalem by the Israeli military is experienced and perceived by Palestinians, I feel completely unable to celebrate. I’m not sure if mournful is the right word, but holidays like this bring up the anger and disillusionment about the way the holidays were taught to me, without any mention of the pain and suffering it caused for other people.”

IfNotNow will not be alone demonstrating: T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights will be holding prayer vigils outside Israel’s embassy in Washington and consulate in New York on Jerusalem Day.

“It’s possible to celebrate that Israel survived that incredibly tense moment and that we do have access to Jerusalem, and still do some real cheshbon hanefesh, some inner accounting, and maybe some solemn commemoration about what we’ve done over the past 50 years regarding the Palestinians,” said T’ruah Executive Director Rabbi Jill Jacobs.

The anniversary puts us “in a heightened moment,” said Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, which is supporting the Boston Federation's year-long Community israel Dialogue to bring people together in conversation around Israel. The JCRC is also focusing more on publicly backing a two-state solution.

The challenge, Burton said, is dealing with the complexity. “We’re in a world we weren’t anticipating when we started this conversation” before the 2016 presidential election. “How this administration is engaging Israel is very different than what had been expected. People didn’t expect the president of the United States [to be] in Israel around that day on the Hebrew calendar. People weren’t expecting to spend the last six months wondering, ‘Will they, won’t they move the embassy?’”

Because the anniversary is loaded for so many people – emotionally, ethically and morally – those producing materials intended for broad consumption have been extraordinarily careful about the language they use.

Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, leader of Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis, calls it the anniversary of “the matzav [situation], for lack of a better word.

“I am deeply grateful for the courage of the people who created the modern State of Israel. I celebrate having a Jewish land and Jewish people. And I am deeply pained by the occupation,” he said. “It’s a moral wound to the Jewish people. We are increasingly living in a world where people want moral simplicity, and this is morally complicated.

“I celebrate being able to pray at the Kotel, having [Jerusalem Day], and at the same time I am heartsick at what we are perpetrating that runs counter to who we are.”

Latz said that when he marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, “I’ll sing, but I’ll sing softly.”

Even T’ruah, though its position on the occupation is clear, calls the book of texts and study resources it just published “Yovel: A Sourcebook for Fifty Years.”

“We specifically called it a resource for 50 years, not a resource about occupation,” said Jacobs.

The term occupation isn’t even in the vocabulary of Rabbi Gideon Shloush, the executive vice president of Religious Zionists of America. He compares Jewish sovereignty of the “Land of Israel” to owners returning to property from which they were temporarily exiled.

On May 17, Shloush will lead 100 people, representing 25 Jewish organizations, on a trip to Washington, where the House of Representatives is expected to pass a bipartisan resolution celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification.

Participating groups range from the Zionist Organization of America to the Conservative movement’s Zionist arm, Mercaz, to Hadassah, he said.

Some 220 Orthodox synagogues have agreed to run activities celebrating the 50th anniversary around May 24, added Shloush. And about 200 congregations have signed up for a series of video lectures distributed by the OU, which explore the religious meaning of Jerusalem’s reunification.

Shalom Hartman Institute of North America President Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer said that though it is challenging, “There’s no reason someone can’t celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem and be concerned about the occupation.”

Communally, “we’re not taking seriously that these historical events are complicated. June 1967 followed tremendous existential dread” for the Jewish people, he said. “The performance of Jewish power should be celebrated. But people should also take it seriously.”

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