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A Fifty Year Trial

06/02/2017 01:47:23 AM


June, 1967 was one of the most momentous months in Jewish history, but the full meaning and implications of its victories still escape us. It is often the case that in our history we teeter between the anxiety of existential destruction and the exhilaration of salvation, but it is rare that Jews remain divided as to which was achieved! On the Jewish calendar, we celebrated this victory 10 days ago, but on the secular calendar, this coming week will be marked by remembrances and analysis of dilemmas whose solutions remain elusive 50 years later.
On June 4th, 1967 things looked grim. Egypt had blocked off Israel’s main source of fuel, and Jordan, Syria and Iraq had joined it in an alliance boasting almost half a million troops, 2,800 tanks, and 800 war planes. They were preparing for war of annihilation. Palestinian fighters had staged a series of increasingly bloody attacks on civilians. The American government was noncommittal, at best in its support. On the morning of June 5th, Israeli commanders launched a pre-emptive strike and scored a lopsided victory against Egypt’s airforce. Other battles followed. When the dust settled six days later, Israel had conquered far more territory than it had anticipated, including the Sinai desert, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and, most significantly, the West Bank and all of Jerusalem.
For the first 19 years of Israel’s existence, its capital, Jerusalem, had been divided by barbed wire and sniper barriers. Half of the city, including its holy heart and its university campus, were off limits to Jews. Suddenly with cries of “the Kotel is in our hands”, Israeli soldiers reunited the city. Similarly, towns with rich Jewish and Biblical history, like Bethlehem, Hebron, and Shechem, were again in Jewish hands. In the exhilaration of victory, no-one had a viable long-term plan of how to handle the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who lived on that land, in and around those sites. Many Jews saw the victory as nothing short of miraculous, a victory plucked from the jaws of defeat. With the sounds of the shofar at the Kotel, and our biblical heartland again blossoming with Jewish farms and villages, perhaps the coming of the Messiah himself was not that far off?
Fifty years later, the Messiah has still not arrived. Yes, Israel has grown remarkably as a state, advanced in so many fields. The desert has bloomed, first with farms, now high rises and high tech. It is a beacon of democracy and creativity in the Middle East. Its 1.5 million Arab citizens enjoy rights beyond those of their neighbors in other countries. However, the unanswered questions from across the 1967 "green line" grow louder. Nearly 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, which seethes with destructive violence, and another almost 3 million live uneasily under Israeli control in the West Bank, outnumbering the few hundred thousand Jews who have built homes and lives there.
Fifty years later, Israel faces an existential dilemma of how to handle these lands and their population. Many have hoped for a peaceful resolution, with a “two state solution” as Palestinians create their own country. However, attempts to do this through negotiation, over 25 years since Oslo, have failed thus far. Israel could unilaterally relinquish control of these areas, which would undoubtedly result in a bloodbath. Israel could offer full citizenship to all who live between the Jordan and Mediterranean. If the resulting state survived, it would no longer be a Jewish state. Within 12 months, the number of Palestinians living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean will outstrip the number of Jews. There is no shortage of other proposed solutions that fail tests of ethics or practicality. The status quo lingers.
In this week’s Torah portion, Naso, we read about the ordeal of the Sotah. It takes place when woman is suspected of improper behavior, and it is unknown whether the charges have merit. It is only after an unpleasant and embarrassing trial by ordeal that she is able to establish her innocence, or must confront her guilt. Whether she is proved right or wrong, the accusations leave a mark. Israel is undergoing her own ordeal, as the debate rages whether Israel was (and is) right or wrong to hold on to the lands captured in 1967.
One can ask whether Israel is better off 50 years later having retained control of these areas, and their inhabitants. Some would claim that they are a “poison pill,” causing Israel to expend countless resources as an occupying force, distorting Israeli society, and tarnishing Israel's moral reputation in the world. Others would say that Israel’s borders would have been indefensible without those lands, that Jews have every right to live in the towns of our historic and holy heritage, and that many in the world seek to overturn not only of the expansions of 1967, but of the state’s creation in 1948 as well. Either way, the clock cannot be rolled back and fifty years cannot be undone. Now we search for a way forward- will the ordeal continue, or is there an alternative to the status quo?
Sometimes, a problem looks different up close than it does at a distance. In just over three weeks, I will be spending an intensive week “on the ground” visiting with Palestinians and Jews in the West Bank, hearing their stories and seeing what life is really like in the lands changed by 1967. I don’t expect to solve these challenges, but I can hope to return with new insights.
Fifty years is longer than I have been alive, but still just a “wink” in Jewish history. We have not yet resolved the dilemmas created by the victories of 50 years ago. I pray that 50 years from now, we will be able to celebrate an Israel that has found creative, ethical and secure solutions to the challenges that she faces, and emerged pure and whole from this fifty year trial.
Tue, December 5 2023 22 Kislev 5784