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History for the Untrained: A Look at Six Days

Reviewed: 1967: Israel, The War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East Tom Segev. Translated by Jessica Cohen. Metropolitan Books, 2007. In a 2002 Salon interview with Israeli historian Michael Oren, interviewer Suzy Hansen asked whether his then-new book, … Read More

By / December 1, 2007

Reviewed:

1967: Israel, The War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East Tom Segev. Translated by Jessica Cohen. Metropolitan Books, 2007.

In a 2002 Salon interview with Israeli historian Michael Oren, interviewer Suzy Hansen asked whether his then-new book, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East was meant to challenge the work of ‘post-Zionist’ Israeli historians such as Avi Shlaim, Benny Morris, and Tom Segev. Replying that "the time has come for a more balanced type of scholarship," Oren not only agreed with Hansens’s query, but suggested that Segev, in particular, lacked proper academic credentials. "Tom Segev is a journalist," Oren noted. "He’s not really a trained historian."

Now that Segev is out with his own book on the Six Day War, 1967: Israel, The War, and The Year that Transformed the Middle East, Oren has used the occasion to continue his battle against what he calls Segev’s "self-styled New Historian" agenda. In his review of the book for the Washington Post, Oren attempts to reassert the primacy of the established historical line on the conflict: “that the Six-Day War was a just and existential struggle that Israel, isolated and outgunned, had no choice but to wage."

Of course, agendas create focus. In Six Days of War, working almost as though he were a military historian, Oren focuses mostly on the war itself: he interviews mostly politicians, army commanders and intelligence officers from all sides (including the US and USSR), squeezing the war’s far reaching political consequences into the last 22 of the book’s 446 pages. Besides taking in a bigger time frame, Segev ‘the untrained historian’ (Segev earned a doctorate in history from Boston University) highlights his perception of how the psychological state of the Israeli people and leaders evolved at the time.

According to Segev, the benefit that Israelis accrued from the war was short-lived, and ultimately, psychological. Israel went from depression and fear before the war, to euphoria at it’s initial battlefield successes, which may have gained the country east Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories, but also brought Israelis a resultant forty years of violent strife.

 

The Facts

 

In May 1967, Egypt, under the leadership Gamel Abdel Nasser, expelled the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) from the Sinai Peninsula, which had been stationed there since 1957 (following the 1956 Sinai invasion by Israel), to provide a peace-keeping buffer zone between Israeli and Egyptian forces. Tensions between Israel (led by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol) and Syria (under the rule of Salah Jadid) led Egypt to station 1,000 tanks and 100,000 soldiers on the border and eventually to close the Straits of Tiran to all ships flying Israeli flags. On June 5 1967, fearing an imminent invasion by Egypt, Israel launched a pre-emptive attack against Egypt’s air force, destroying most of it. Jordan then attacked western Jerusalem and the northwestern coastal city of Netanya. By June 11, the war was over, and Israel had tripled in size after gaining control of east Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.

Using Israeli, American and British historical archives, together with interviews and the personal papers of a plethora of Israeli citizens and their relatives in the Diaspora, Segev assembles a mosaic of lives and voices very much in keeping with the type of progressive historiographies practiced by the new Historian. Oren may set it all aside at the end of his review as "some engaging portraits of Israel in the mid-1960s," but Segev seems driven to personalize Israel from 1966 through the end of the Six-Day War in a way that a more conventional approach to his subject matter resists. Most notably, the author weaves in the experiences of two Israeli men who become emotional avatars inside the war’s story.

Segev starts his tour of the Israeli psyche with Yosef Weitz, a Russian immigrant and head forester of the Jewish National Fund, who led the effort to acquire land for the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine. A resident of the region since 1908, by the time the Six Day War starts, Weitz had already buried a son, Yehiam, who’d died in Israel’s War of Independence and whose name–Hebrew for "Long live the nation"–was used by many parents to name their first generation born in Israel. Although Weitz long advocated the forcible transfer of Arabs from Israel (and is largely remembered for being a proponent of such positions), Segev treats him sympathetically, taking Weitz with him into both bomb shelters and politicians’ offices, and on into the issues of the war’s aftermath.

Also brought to the forefront is Yehoshua "Shuka" Bar-Dayan, an Israeli-born agricultural worker and young parent called up for reserve duty two weeks before the war begins. Unlike Weitz, Bar-Dayan and his family are iconographic Sabras: more pragmatic than ideological, victims of the unnerving 1966 recession that inevitably followed the country’s highly consumerist early 1960s. That recession (mitun in Hebrew)–caused by a slowdown in population growth, a resulting drop in housing construction and investment, and a devaluation of the lira–was explained by PM Eshkol in February 1966 as necessary, that life was too good. But the resulting resentment of government, manifested in unemployment riots and social unrest seemed to have had deeper impact. Segev recounts how the economic downturn of the time disproportionally affected Israel’s Mizrahi community before noting:

"More and more Israelis began to fear that the recession was not simply a discrete economic crisis, but something that was undermining the country’s very foundations."

In a chapter titled “Other People”, Segev ties together accounts of the country’s Mizrahi and Israeli Arab communities with the declining status of the socialist kibbutzim, the uneasy relationships between both secular and religious Israelis, and American and Israeli Jews, the rising emigration rate, the strange dynamic amongst the country’s politicians, and the general boredom of the its youth.

Segev maintains that this state of psychological stress (generally referred to at the time in Hebrew as "Ha’matzav", or “the situation,” ) set Israel’s people, politicians and generals on edge as tensions with both Syria and Jordan escalated. Controversial Israeli retaliatory operations like those in the Jordanian village of Samua (in which the IDF blew up a post office, an elementary school, a medical clinic, and a hundred plus civilian homes), along with Syrian shelling of northern Kibbutzim fuelled the atmosphere. Nothing, it seems, works, and everything appears to be getting worse. As Independence Day approaches, Segev starkly presents the perception of Eshkol’s impotence in the eyes of the Israeli media and his own generals:

"In the [months previous to Israel's Independence Day of May 15, 1967], he had been charged with an awful accusation: that he was incapable of defending the special status of Jerusalem and the dignity of the army, and that this failure was the reason why the IDF could not hold its traditional annual military parade in the streets of Jerusalem."

Segev just as starkly relates Eshkol’s defensiveness:

"Eshkol responded heatedly: ‘Had he not sent the IDF to Samua? Had he not sent the air force to shoot down Syrian MiGs? Three times he had unleashed the air force, and Israel had shot down no fewer than eleven Arab aircraft that year.’"

Just before he chronicles the three-week countdown to war, Segev portrays pre-1948 nostalgia floating above the internal recriminations and tension in Naomi Shermer’s commissioned song "Yerushalaim Shel Zahav" ("Jerusalem of Gold"). Segev depicts it as a "very beautiful…and political song [that] lamented the partition of the city" and "described its Arab half as a deserted wilderness, apparently unpopulated."

As Nasser positions his armies (already drained by Egypt’s war in Yemen) against the Sinai border, Eshkol seems torn, wanting to do all he can to avoid war, yet subject to an Israeli government and public in complete stress mode. On one side Segev presents Eshkol’s predecessor, David Ben-Gurion, forcefully expressing his opposition to an attack, based on lack of both weapons supplies for the IDF and support from the US, Britain, and France. He quotes Ben-Gurion’s diary to this effect "’It will be the end. Our army is wonderful, but these days one cannot fight the way David fought Goliath.’"

On the other are his ministers and generals, and a flurry of opinions and plans. Labor minister Yigal Allon advocated a wait-and-see policy, while Moshe Dayan suggested that, "the main goal would be to destroy the Egyptian military." IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Ezer Weizmann, says Segev, "viewed any postponement as a lack of confidence in the air force and a personal failure…" Segev depicts IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin’s temporary mental breakdown in decidedly human terms. "At times," he says of the internal debates, "the discussion slipped into self-examination of an almost existential-historical tenor."

Off to the side is the United States, under President Lyndon B. Johnson, stuck in Vietnam and warning Israel that if she attacks, she’s on her own. This attitude did not, however, suggest that the United States was willing to see Israel fall. Rather, U.S. intelligence believed Israel would suceed without them. According to Segev, Washington analysts were telling Johnson that "Israel would destroy the Egyptian air force and ‘within days or weeks’ would occupy areas of the Sinai, the West Bank including East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights."

All bets were effectively off when Nasser shut down the Straits of Tiran: "All these feelings welled up in the week before the war, sweeping through the nation in a tide of insanity. The people had not felt this wretched and isolated since the Holocaust." As a result, posits Segev, alternative proposals brought up to foster a cooling-off period (many were offered by the US State Department) were set aside, despite the fact that the Straits had only occasionally been used by ships bearing the Israeli flag.

 

The People

 

When the war starts, Segev chronicles the effects of the actual battleground against Egypt through the words of Israeli infantryman Bar-Dayan’s diary, and depictions of the soldier’s personal correspondence to his wife. This of course creates a highly effective portrayal, and considering the temper of the time, Bar-Dayan’s rising contempt for Egypt appears understandable. Why did Nasser have to bring this on? A mixed bag of emotion comes out in the soldier’s interaction with an Egyptian prisoner, a partial product of British education:

"Bar-Dayan pictured him taking part in the Arab students’ union, slandering Israel, probably supporting resolutions calling for Israel’s destruction…But he told the prisoner that he had also been in Lancashire, and they swapped memories. Bar-Dayan found a can full of sand, cleaned it out, filled it with half the water from his own canteen, and gave it to the young man."

Further, Segev offers up both stories of Israeli soldiers looting homes and shooting Egyptian prisoners and the resultant orders against such acts, eschewing tendencies on the extreme left in these contexts to depict acts without notions of conscience.

After the war, Segev portrays Israeli citizens’ joyful forays and hikes into the Occupied Territories in almost wistful terms: here’s the expression of a relieved populace attached to what they perceive as their land, treading into the homelands of those who feel the same, but who are now dislocated. Segev revealingly quotes Deputy Minister Arie Lova Eliav in this regard: "Like many of my generation, we have developed a blindness of sorts, the skill of not seeing living Arabs: not them, and not their problems.’"

 

History as Politics

 

At the end of his review of Segev’s book, Oren notes that, "by disregarding the Arab dynamic and twisting his text to meet a revisionist agenda, he [Segev] undermines his attempt to reach a deeper understanding of the war."

Oren suggests that, ironically, Segev’s look inward at the Israeli psyche has led him to diminish the Egyptian psyche: "Segev’s book is all but devoid of Arab calls for Israel’s destruction and the slaughter of its citizens. There is no mention of pro-war demonstrations, of Egypt’s willingness to use poison gas against its enemies, or of the detailed Arab plans for conquering Israel…These omissions inflict an injustice on the Arabs by treating them as two-dimensional props in a solipsistic Israeli drama."

Of course, you can’t be exhaustive, and all histories suffer from omissions. Oren’s book likewise leaves out Egyptian Minister of State Amin Hewedy’s advice to Nasser to avoid war, and Jordanian royal confidant Zaid Al Rifai’s contention that Nasser would never have blocked the Straits of Tiran had he known that it would have provoked an Israeli attack (both of which were culled from an interview by the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen). And unlike Segev’s 1967, Oren’s Six Days captures very little, if anything about David Ben-Gurion’s pronounced opposition to the war.

As Tom Segev noted in a conversation with international studies scholar Harry Kreisler, "History in Israel is politics, and history in Israel has an increased tension and importance." Rather than a simple timeline, history can be chronicled not just by historians, but by everyday people—even, as this book might demonstrate, by journalists.

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