This June will mark fifty years since the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, Syria and Jordan. The marking of a span of fifty years has deep significance in Jewish life. It is called yovel / the Jubilee. According to Leviticus 25:8-24, the yovel is described as a sacred time of release and redemption, letting the land lie fallow without new plowing or planting, remitting all debts so no one remains in intractable poverty or servitude, and members of each tribe returned to their tribe’s original land holding, no matter where they had bought land or moved to in the intervening years. Justice is emphasized in our relationship to the land and to each other, with the assertion of a clear message that ultimately the land does not belong to human beings; it belongs to God. We are commanded to “proclaim dror / liberty throughout the land and for all its inhabitants.” The Torah is asserting a utopian vision in which no one is subjugated or enslaved, no one is broken by poverty and the land is a source of security and home for everyone. I think the teachings of the yovel offer us some valuable framing for how we might engage with the anniversary of the Six-Day War.
As the June anniversary approaches, articles are circulating in journals and on social media, vying to assert the most compelling framing of how the war should be remembered and how its significance should shape our present commitments and concerns. In the Jewish community, most of the voices, while there is a wide range of diverse perspectives, emphasize one of two stories — either the story of Jewish survival or the story of Jewish morality.
In the first group are those who underscore the threat of annihilation that Israel faced in the tense months in 1967 leading up to the war, with Israel’s Arab neighbours explicitly declaring their intention to destroy the Jewish State, with Nasser closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships — essentially an act of war — and with Egyptian and Syrian troops amassing along their borders with Israel, poised to make their threats a reality. In this framing, Israel’s 1967 victory was a miracle of David vanquishing Goliath, a complete transformation of the powerless, homeless Jews of the Holocaust into the strong, sovereign Israeli who would never again be at the mercy of another country’s hatred and violence. Israel’s capture of the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from the Egyptians, the Golan Heights from the Syrians, and the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem from the Jordanians were the outcomes of a war Israel was forced to enter. But as a result, Israel gained territory important for security and enabled the reunification of Jerusalem, allowing Jews to visit Judaism’s holiest site again after twenty years without access. Rooted in this framing, the continued threat to Israel’s existence by neighbouring Arab countries, violence from Palestinians, and the persistence of anti-Semitism in the world has made the concern for safety and survival of paramount and on-going concern during these last fifty years.
In the second group are Jews who recognize that while the history that led to this situation is significant, what is essential is the fact that Israel’s victory in 1967 was the beginning of fifty years of Israel’s military occupation of, by today’s numbers, 4.75 million Palestinians who lack citizenship and basic rights such as freedom of movement, who are regularly subjected to detentions and searches, curfews, punitive and administrative house demolitions, confiscation of farmland, and are under constant, demoralizing surveillance. This framing underscores the morally untenable and discriminatory policies that distinguish between Jews and Palestinians living over the Green Line, and view the Jewish settlements and their supporting infrastructure (e.g. bypass roads, checkpoints, military presence, unequal water allocation, etc.) as destroying the possibility of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state. In this framing, the last fifty years of prolonged military occupation is viewed as an assault on the Palestinians’ humanity and dignity, undermining the moral and democratic fabric of Israel, and a failure to live up to Judaism’s essential moral imperatives.
While these two sets of commitments — to Israel’s and Jewry’s safety and to the imperatives of morality toward the Palestinians — are often pitted against each other, I want to see our work in the year ahead as an engagement with holding them both in tandem. On May 15th, the DJC’s Third Space Committee hosted a program called Blurred Lines: Examining the Six-Day War, Fifty Years Later, beginning a process of learning and reflection in our community about the outcomes of the 1967 war. We continue to learn and practice how to structure these conversations so they are opportunities to see history and human experiences through diverse lenses, to deepen our knowledge, examine our values and our assumptions, to grapple with conflicting views even within ourselves, to surface questions. and to strengthen our relationships with one another as we engage with difficult conversations and realities. The US-based organization T’ruah and the Israeli-based organization SISO (Save Israel, Stop the Occupation), have created learning resources for this year of yovel to help communities grapple with relevant and powerful Jewish themes and sources and explore their political implications.
What is important for us to learn and understand, to hear, to witness, and to question as a Jewish community in order to grapple vigorously with such a painful conflict at this important milestone? What will bolster our knowledge, values, self-awareness, and commitments to bring about a different and better reality for Palestinians and Israelis? When the Torah calls on us to proclaim dror / liberty for all the inhabitants of the land, the medieval commentator Ramban notes that the mitzvah is not only to declare liberty for those who are subjugated, but for everyone. He acknowledges the political and spiritual truth that the damaging effects of subjugation distort all of us. Restoration depends on shared and interdependent liberation. I look forward to taking on this important project with you.
Please watch educator Aryeh Bernstein share this teaching in detail in this short video.