(RNS) The 50th anniversary of the June 1967 Six-Day War has generated many speeches, articles and debates about the political, economic and military impact of that brief but history-changing conflict that pitted Israel against the combined armed forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq.
Far less attention has been paid to the war’s lasting effect upon Jewish religious thinking and belief. That influence cannot be understood without recounting the profound sense of dread that gripped both Israelis and Jews throughout the world in the tense weeks before the war began.
Each day in late May and early June 1967 was filled with ominous press reports and TV images of various Arab leaders mobilizing their forces to attack Israel.
In the run-up to the hostilities, there were public calls for the physical destruction of the world’s only Jewish state and the annihilation of its people. Was the 1,900-year-old dream of restored Jewish sovereignty in the biblical homeland about to be crushed in a genocidal torrent of blood and devastation? Could another horrific campaign of mass murder of Jews be repeated only 22 years after the defeat of Nazism?
Such fears were not unrealistic or a case of collective paranoia:
- On May 27, 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser declared: “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel.”
- Five days later, Iraqi President Abdul Rahman Aref told his air force pilots: “Our clear aim (is) wiping Israel from the map.”
- On the same day, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s chairman, Ahmed Shukairy, described the impending fate of Israeli Jews: “I estimate that none will survive.”
But between June 5 and June 10, a beleaguered and surrounded Israel achieved a stunning military victory over its foes and gained full control of the divided city of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank of the Jordan River.
Israel’s speedy and surprising triumph is today studied in many military circles, including the U.S. Earlier this month, national security adviser H.R. McMaster told an American Jewish Committee audience in Washington that Israel’s successful strategy and tactics have been incorporated into current U.S. military doctrine.
But the war also intensified profound religious feelings among many Jews as well as evangelical Christians who saw Israel’s “miraculous” deliverance from destruction as part of God’s messianic plan of redemption.
Before 1967, it was believed such extraordinary events could take place only at the End of Days, but now they appeared in clear sight and close at hand.
After centuries of fervent Jewish prayer and yearning, the reunited city of Jerusalem, including the revered Western Wall and Temple Mount, was “redeemed.” Israel’s victory was a rejection of the Roman Empire’s ancient anti-Jewish boast “Hierosolyma est perdita,” or “Jerusalem is lost.”
After the Six-Day War, religious fervor took a different form among evangelical Christians and is reflected in Hal Lindsey’s 1970 best-seller, “The Late Great Planet Earth,” which focuses on Israel’s victory as a necessary precursor to Jesus’ Second Coming.
In Lindsey’s book, Jews are merely actors in a Christian, not a Jewish, religious drama and the book presents a case of Christian triumphalism.
The war also had a lasting impact at the other end of the Jewish religious spectrum. Even for secular Jews who did not share a sense of redemption, Israel became much more than a heroic nation-state that successfully defeated its enemies. Now, millions of Jews perceived Israel as a vital component of their ethnic and personal identity.
That deep feeling was translated into specific action in 1970 when the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Reform Judaism’s flagship academic institution, inaugurated a policy that required a year of study at its Jerusalem campus for all rabbinical and cantorial students. Later, Jewish education students were also required to spend their first year of graduate studies at institute in Israel’s capital.
The religious experience of rabbis, cantors and professional educators studying in Israel where Hebrew is the language of both the sacred synagogue and the modern street has radically transformed the Reform movement.
Students who spent a year in Israel discovered that Judaism was a dynamic, 24-hour-a-day living experience and not merely an indoor series of observances and practices performed only in the synagogue and home.
The Six-Day War has permanently impacted contemporary Judaism and Christianity. Orthodox and Reform Jews have both made Israel an integral part of their religious thinking, albeit in sharply different ways. And evangelical Christianity’s continuing messianic fervor for Israel has not abated.
In their quest for peace, political and diplomatic leaders who fail to recognize these realities do so at their own peril.
(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser. His latest book is “Pillar of Fire: The Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise,” published by Texas Tech University Press. He can be reached at jamesrudin.com)