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The Heavy Burden of Victory

May 31, 2007 By:
Jonathan S. Tobin
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Israeli paratroopers stand in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem shortly after its liberation on June 7, 1967. Photos courtesy of Israel's Government Press Office

French writer Alexandre Dumas the elder wrote in 1854 that "nothing succeeds like success." But when it comes to the State of Israel, it appears that nothing seems to fail as abysmally as victory.

As the world notes the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War this coming week, much of the coverage and commentaries about the topic seem to center on the same theme: how Israel's historic triumph has become an intolerable burden that is itself the primary "obstacle" to peace.

Once upon a time, the great victory of 1967 that was achieved against great odds and at a moment in history -- when much of the world expected that Israel was about to suffer a catastrophic defeat -- was emblematic of Jewish pride. Yet that event is now increasingly seen as emblematic of unhappiness with the Jewish state.

40 Years of 'Oppression'?
After all, the critics note, the anniversary's not so much of battles fought and won against great odds, but of 40 years of Israeli "oppression" of Arabs in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, the territories "conquered" in 1967.

The toll exacted by Israel's presence in the territories is seen as being responsible for the country losing its soul. Settlements and checkpoints have become deeply negative symbols of the country. In the Diaspora, it is the villainous Israel of "occupation" that has become the pariah despised by intellectuals and academics, and increasingly shunned by Jews who are not eager to identify with an oppressor.

Among those who do still embrace Israel, the war's anniversary inspires nostalgia for the state that existed before the unification of Jerusalem, and access to places where our history began to topple the existing Israeli political applecart. It was, as the Israel Policy Forum's M.J. Rosenberg, recently wrote, the Israel of the book and film "Exodus," a place he asserts, that could be admired without apology.

The war set in motion a series of events that led inevitably not just to settlements, but to the end of Labor Party domination of Israeli politics and the mainstreaming of forces such as the nationalist right, religious and Sephardi Jews, who had hitherto been marginalized by the Ashkenazi elite.

The Israeli right has had its failures, but the idea that the country was better off under the rule of the paternalistic Labor-dominated government of Israel's pre-war era is more myth than fact. The socialism embraced by that governing elite didn't merely retard the nation's economic progress. An era in which the government prevented the development of local television -- to cite just one example of the excesses of this time -- is nothing about which we should wax nostalgic.

Yet Rosenberg is right when he says that a more powerful Israel than the idealized early pioneer state "is a hard sell to those under 50, and particularly to young Jews of college age." But the problem is that those, like Rosenberg, whose main agenda is "to end the nightmare" of the occupation, seem to forget what the alternative to the actual outcome of the Six-Day War was.

That is the crux of much of the teeth-gnashing about Israel's 40 years of post-1967 sin. The main point of contention between Israel and the Palestinians, and their supporters, is the same as it was 40 years ago: the existence of a Jewish state within any borders.

What then was the alternative to victory and "occupation?"

The answer is simple. Had Israel been defeated, then the oft-repeated threats of extermination of both the State and her people by Arab leaders such as Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser and Palestinian leader Ahmed Shukairy, might well have been fulfilled.

We are told, ad nauseum, that the "occupation" is the reason for the ongoing conflict. Yet in 1967, Israel's dominion was limited to the exact boundaries that we are told are the only solution to the conflict. The world of June 3, 1967, was one in which not a single Jew lived in Judea and Samaria, nor in the eastern part of Jerusalem. No Jew prayed at the Western Wall, or could even visit any Jewish historic or religious site in the West Bank.

The war's anniversary ought to bring to mind the fact that the issue then is largely the same as it is today. There is not a shekel's worth of difference between the rhetoric and the goals of Hamas, Al Qaeda, or that of the leadership of Iran and that of the pre-'67 war Arab and Muslim world.

Compare the Jews of Sederot, who are subjected to missile attacks from Gaza today, and those slain by cross-border terror attacks that emanated from the same area prior to June 1967. The only difference is that prior to the Oslo peace accords and Israel's complete withdrawal from the territory in August 2005, we could still harbor illusions about the willingness of the Palestinians to embrace a chance for peace.

Longing for Defeat?
All the introspection about 1967 ought to lead us to wonder why so many of us are so uncomfortable with an Israel that is identified with power rather than weakness. Was the Israel that so many believed to be fated for imminent extinction in May 1967 more virtuous than the contemporary Jewish state? No. The "occupation" that fuels Arab and Muslim fury refers to every inch of the country. Israel's victory did not create Islamist extremism, it's just another excuse for a hatred that already existed.

Conversely, the joy with which the Jewish world greeted the events of June 1967 stemmed not only from being reunited with places like the Kotel, as identification with a proud, successful Jewish people. Like the creation of the state in 1948, the Six-Day War changed the lives of every Jew. For centuries, Jewish identity was bound up with homelessness and powerlessness. These victories allowed Jews to hold their heads up higher not only here in the United States, but even in the Soviet Union, where a movement for emigration to Israel was launched in its aftermath.

The Israel that emerged from that war has made its share of mistakes -- though some of those errors were rooted more in a naive belief in the possibility of peace than triumphalism. But what the war demonstrated to the world was that the Jewish re-entry into history that Zionism represented was not to be erased after a mere 19 years.

That is a verdict some would like still to reverse. Yet the "occupation" so many lament was created by Arab aggression, and is rooted in the alienable right of the Jewish people to their own country rather than in some aberrant variant of Zionist imperialism. More territorial compromise will come when Israel's enemies give up their war to destroy it. Sadly, as recent events have again proved, that moment is nowhere in sight.

Until it does, those supporters of Israel here who spend so much time apologizing for it would do better to apply themselves to the task of asserting the justice of Israel's right to self-defense. Success in war has its drawbacks, but the alternative in 1967, as well as today, remains unthinkable.  

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