black and white: three men in IDF uniforms gaze up at the wall
Israeli paratroopers reach the Western Wall in this iconic photo from the Six-Day War.

Remember the six days — and the soldiers — that saved us

My mother said: “No one expected Israel to survive.”

The Straits of Tiran were closed to Israeli ships, strangling the 19-year-old country from its much-needed oil supply. Egypt and Syria had amassed troops on the borders. The United Nations conceded to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s demand to remove the U.N. peacekeeping forces, foreshadowing a pending attack. The cards were all stacked against the tiny nascent Jewish state and Jews everywhere were on edge.

Like most Jewish families, mine had seen its share of grief, witnessing and enduring the tortuous murder of numerous friends and relatives in the Holocaust. My grandfather worked tirelessly to help settle the few remaining survivors from his town of Kletsk, in present-day Belarus, in Palestine and in the U.S. He dreamed of visiting the Holy Land on his 60th birthday, but he died too soon.

So, 50 years ago, in June 1967, my family was feeling the same intense emotions as nearly every Jewish family in the world. We had barely survived one attempt to exterminate us and were about to experience another mass tragedy that could destroy any hopes we had for the future. And yet, each day’s reports, beginning on June 5, 1967, with Israel’s pre-emptive strike on the Egyptian air force, brought a new sense of optimism.

On June 7, I was barely 5 years old when Israel defeated the Jordanian forces in Jerusalem. Under Jordanian rule from 1948-1967, Jerusalem was divided and Jews were not allowed to visit their holy sites. Jerusalem, which had remained the epicenter of Jewish religion and tradition for thousands of years, would finally become fully accessible.

Recalling the moment when Israel Defense Forces troops reached the Western Wall, Yitzhak Rabin, then IDF chief of general staff, said: “We stood among a tangle of rugged, battle-weary men who were unable to believe their eyes or restrain their emotions. Their eyes were moist with tears, their speech incoherent. The overwhelming desire was to cling to the Wall, to hold on to that great moment as long as possible.” David Rubinger’s iconic photograph of three young paratroopers at the Kotel captured these emotions and was seen everywhere.

This June, my organization, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War locally by reuniting those three paratroopers, Zion Karasenti, Haim Oshri and Dr. Yizhak Yifat, turned into unintentional symbols of Israel’s — and the Jewish people’s — miraculous victory by Rubinger’s lens. By bringing these heroes to the San Francisco Bay Area, we can take a fresh look back at that crucial historical moment and reconnect us to our core mission of supporting the men and women of the IDF.

In 1967, Israel paid a huge price for all of us, with more than 700 IDF soldiers killed and some 2,500 wounded. Today, the brave soldiers of the IDF continue to risk everything so that Jews around the world can maintain their roots and traditions, and their religious and cultural identity. On this 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, powerful memories flood back to me. I don’t take for granted that Israel is a part of our lives. We would be a shadow of ourselves if Israel had lost the war in 1967.

I invite you to join us in commemorating the Six-Day War and supporting the well-being of the soldiers who, 50 years later, continue to fight for Israel and Jews worldwide. Events will be held at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills on June 8 and the Marines’ Memorial Club and Hotel in San Francisco on June 11.

As we celebrate the anniversary of the victory that saved the Jewish people, it is my hope that we will also appreciate the sacrifices Israel’s soldiers continue to make on our behalf. Our future depends on their success. Their job is to look after Israel; ours is to look after them.

For information on the June events commemorating the Six-Day War, visit tinyurl.com/fidf-bayarea-sixday. Funds raised will go toward FIDF’s educational and well-being programs for IDF soldiers.

Jonathan Bernstein
Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is the executive director of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces’ San Francisco Bay Area region.