Amid the promises of a fresh new year, 1967 would begin the 12th year of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam quagmire and with the Middle East on a fast track to conflict.
Famous entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., who had corresponded with David Horowitz and was himself a convert to Judaism, announced his plans to visit Israel along with his Swedish actress wife, May Britt. He was scheduled to appear in two benefit performances on April 1-2. The proceeds of the benefits would go toward the construction of a rehabilitation center for war victims. In accepting the offer to appear, Mr. Davis had one stipulation, that a certain number of the seats be reserved for war invalids and soldiers.
United Israel World Union Vice President Eddie Abrahams was back in the news when it was announced that an ancient Oriental Torah Scroll would be donated to the Jewish Community of Kansai in the Ohel Shelomoh Synagogue in Kobe, Japan. The Kansai Jewish Community not only serves the religious needs of the Jews residing in the Kobe and Osaka areas but also thousands of Jewish visitors who pass through the busy port of Kobe each year.
The unique Torah Scroll would be brought to Japan during the Passover season and personally presented by Mr. Eddie Abrahams himself.
While the Syrian military bombardment and PLO terrorist attacks intensified against Israel, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser took additional provocative action. On May 15, Israel’s Independence Day, Egyptian troops began moving into the Sinai and massing near the Israeli border. By May 18, Syrian troops were also prepared for battle along the Golan Heights.
Nasser ordered the UN Emergency Force (UNEF), stationed in the Sinai since 1956, to withdraw on May 16. UN Secretary-General U Thant complied with the demand.
Shortly after the withdrawal of the UNEF, the voice of the Arabs proclaimed on May 18, 1967: “As of today, there no longer exists an international emergency force to protect Israel. We shall exercise patience no more. We shall not complain anymore to the UN about Israel. The sole method we shall apply against Israel is total war, which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence.”
On May 22, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to all Israeli shipping and all ships bound for Eilat. This blockade cut off Israel’s only supply route with Asia and stopped the flow of oil from its main supplier, Iran.
U.S. President Lyndon Johnson expressed the belief that the blockade was illegal but at the same time, called on the Israelis not to take military action.
King Hussein of Jordan signed a defensive pact with Egypt on May 30. Nasser then announced: “The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel to face the challenge, while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and the whole Arab nation. This act will astound the world. The critical hour has arrived.”
The Arab rhetoric was matched by the mobilization of Arab forces. Approximately 465,000 troops, more than 2,800 tanks, and 800 aircraft surrounded Israel.
By this time, Israeli forces had been on alert for three weeks. The country could not remain fully mobilized indefinitely, nor could it allow its sea-lane through the Gulf of Aqaba to be interdicted. Israel had no choice but preemptive action. To do this successfully, Israel needed the element of surprise. Had it waited for an Arab invasion, Israel would have been at a potentially catastrophic disadvantage.
On June 5, 1967, the order was given to attack Egypt.
The United States had tried to prevent the war through negotiations, but it was not able to persuade Nasser or the other Arab states to cease their belligerent statements and actions. Still, just before the war, President Johnson warned, “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone.”
On June 5, Israel was indeed alone, but its military commanders had conceived a brilliant war strategy. The entire Israeli Air Force, with the exception of just 12 fighters assigned to defend Israeli air space, took off at 7:14 A.M. with the intent of bombing Egyptian airfields while the Egyptian pilots were eating breakfast. In less than two hours, roughly 300 Egyptian aircraft were destroyed. A few hours later, Israeli fighters were sent to attack the Jordanian and Syrian air forces, as well as one airfield in Iraq. By the end of the first day, nearly the entire Egyptian and Jordanian air forces, and half the Syrians had been destroyed on the ground.
The battle then moved to the ground, and some of history’s greatest tank battles were fought between Egyptian and Israeli armor in the blast-furnace conditions of the Sinai desert.
While most IDF units were fighting the Egyptians and Jordanians, a small, heroic group of soldiers were left to defend the northern border against the Syrians. It was not until the Jordanians and Egyptians were subdued that reinforcements could be sent to the Golan Heights, where Syrian gunners commanding the strategic high ground made it exceedingly difficult and costly for Israeli forces to penetrate. It was not until June 9, after two days of heavy air bombardment, that Israeli forces succeeded in breaking through the Syrian lines.
Jordan’s initial involvement had an interesting twist. Just before Israel launched its attack on June 5, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol sent a message to King Hussein saying that Israel would not attack Jordan unless he initiated hostilities.
When Jordanian radar picked up a cluster of planes flying from Egypt to Israel, the Egyptians convinced Hussein the planes were theirs, Hussein then ordered the shelling of West Jerusalem. Jordan had now entered the war on Egypt’s side. It turned out that the planes were Israel’s and were returning from destroying the Egyptian air force on the ground.
It took only three days for Israeli forces to defeat the Jordanian legion. On the morning of June 7, the order was given to recapture the Old City. Israeli paratrooper battalions stormed the city. After fierce resistance and close quarter battles, the Old City was secured. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan arrived with Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin to formally mark the Jews’ return to their historic capital and their holiest site.
At the Western Wall, the IDF’s chaplain, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, blew the shofar (a ceremonial ram’s horn) to celebrate the event.
It was twenty minutes after the capture of the Western Wall that David Rubinger shot his signature photograph of three Israeli paratroopers gazing in wonder up at the wall. It is now considered a defining image of the conflict and one of the best-known photographs in the history of Israel. A few years ago the soldiers in that epic photo assembled together again and here you can see the two photos together.
The short, intense war had ended. The victory enabled Israel to unify Jerusalem while also capturing the Sinai, Golan Heights, Gaza Strip, and West Bank. But Israel’s victory came at a very high cost. Over 900 Israelis were killed and 4,517 were wounded. Arab casualties were far greater. Between 9,800 and 15,000 Egyptian soldiers were listed as killed, wounded or missing in action. Jordanian losses were estimated to be close to 6,000 either killed or missing and Syrians were estimated to have had over 2,500 killed. It was a bloody and costly conflict.
Buried in the historical records of the war is an interesting and little known fact worth mentioning. In recognition of contributions, Yitzhak Rabin was given the honor of naming the war for the Israelis. From the suggestions proposed, including the “War of Daring” and “War of Salvation” and “War of the Sons of Light,” he chose the least ostentatious, the “Six-Day War,” evoking the days of creation.
The Six-Day War was a devastating defeat for Nasserist pan-Arabism. The decline of Nasser’s brand of secular Arab nationalism left a vacuum that was to be filled by two movements previously marginalized in Arab politics: Palestinian nationalism and Political Islam.
In the decades to come, these two movements would play an increasingly prominent role creating a situation with which the peoples of the Middle East, and the international community as a whole, continue to grapple.
Ralph Buntyn is executive vice president and associate editor of United Israel World Union. A historian and researcher, his many articles and essays have appeared in various media outlets.
This post is the twenty-first in the ongoing series “Remembering David Horowitz.” For the complete archive see here.