Posted on Wed, Jun. 05, 2002

The enduring legacy of Israel's Six Day War

Israel's Six Day War, fought and won 35 years ago this week, marked a sea change in the life of the U.S. Jewish community. It was the fateful week when concerns about Israel and the Holocaust moved to the center of Jewish concerns in this country. The effects of that change still sow seeds of insecurity in American Jewish life. This insecurity hampers U.S. efforts to serve as an even-handed broker in the Middle East.

Before 1967, Jewish life here did not focus on Israel or the Holocaust. In the early 1960s, the concerns and values of Jews were virtually identical to those of their gentile neighbors. Jews here had gained a level of social acceptance and security never before achieved anywhere else in the Jewish diaspora.

Then came the Six Day War of 1967. Millions of U.S. Jews felt, far more strongly than before, that Israel's fate symbolized their own fate and the fate of Jews all over the world. Virtually all Jews claimed that Israel's very existence was threatened (though some historians now question this claim).

It seemed logical to conclude that Jews in the United States, and around the world, faced another Holocaust. Rather than celebrate its newfound security, American Jewry portrayed itself as an outpost of an eternally endangered and embattled people.

Today most Jews still embrace the religious vision that has dominated U.S. Judaism since June 1967. The eminent historian of Judaism, Rabbi Jacob Neusner, calls it ''the Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption.'' In this new form of Judaism, the prime religious commandment is to ensure Jewish survival by supporting Israel. With Israel the symbol of every Jew's fate, it seems that only the Israeli army stands between survival and another Holocaust. This gives the actions of Israel's military a seemingly irrefutable ethical, and even spiritual, legitimacy.

Why did this intense concern for Israel, the Holocaust and Jewish survival emerge so suddenly during the Six Day War? Part of the answer lies in the pattern of U.S. Jewish history. Jews here have always wanted to be somewhat distinctive without being too different. In every generation, they have most often expressed their distinctive identity in ways that fit the dominant patterns of U.S. society.

The Johnson administration supported Israel, seeing it as a crucial U.S. surrogate in the Middle East. Israel became a symbol of the Cold War battle against communism (though Israel's opponents actually had little sympathy for the Soviets). To be pro-Israel was to be pro-America.

Cultural factors reinforced the political factors. In 1967, most Jews were liberals. As mainstream liberals embraced visions of racial equality and turned against the Vietnam War, many Jews sought (perhaps unconsciously) a way to define their identity that would be compatible with these trends.

Jews were learning to see themselves as white people in a nation whose people of color were demanding equal rights. They had to ask themselves whether they were indeed the oppressors rather than the oppressed. Watching the horrors of Vietnam on television, they also began to question whether they, as Americans, were among the oppressors of the world.

The Six Day War solved this problem. It allowed Jews to view themselves as members of an oppressed group. They could see their acts of self-assertion as morally valid, even when those acts were deadly military strikes. So Jews could gather in their synagogues to celebrate pride in Jewish power, which appeared to be both military and moral.

This was the pride of an oppressed people fighting back to prevent a new Holocaust. It was a pride that non-Jewish Americans could readily understand and applaud.

This synergy has served Israel's interests well. ''The Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption'' still permits many U.S. Jews, who have unprecedented safety, to imagine themselves as members of an oppressed and therefore insecure people. Out of that imagined insecurity, they support, or at least tolerate, hard-line Israeli policies that fuel Palestinian resistance and perpetuate the cycle of violence. Most non-Jewish Americans do the same, and so does their government.

The insecurity that grew out of the Six Day War led many Jews to demand a pro-Israel tilt in U.S. policy. But that tilt, so evident in the Bush administration and Congress, makes it impossible for the United States to play a role of neutral peacemaker in the Middle East.

The special U.S-Israel relationship now blocks the path to peace. If U.S. Jews need a peaceful and secure Israel to feel secure themselves, the attitudes born in June 1967 still block the path to their security, too.

Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado.

©2002 History News Service