the procession of people stretches a long distance toward a far-off dome of the rock
In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, a huge crowd streamed from the Old City moving from the Armenian Quarter toward the Western Wall. (Courtesy/Linda Kurtz)

Bay Area recalls fear, pride, elation in Israel in 1967

Larry Stone had been volunteering in northern Israel for four days when a soldier knocked on the door at 3 a.m., ordering Stone and his pregnant wife to grab their pillows and head to the kibbutz bomb shelter. Syrian shells soon began exploding nearby.

The Six-Day War had begun.

When the leaders of Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi handed out rifles, there weren’t enough for all the overseas volunteers.

“I said, ‘what happens if we need a rifle,’ and they said, ‘If that happens, take one from a dead person,’ ” said Stone, who was a 24-year-old from New York. “That was a wake-up call.”

Stone, now a Santa Cruz psychotherapist, is among the Bay Area residents who were in the war zone a half-century ago as residents, students, volunteers or tourists when the war that reshaped Israel and the region broke out.

Rina Alcalay was a 20-year-old sociology student from Chile who flew to Israel to pick fruit on a kibbutz where the residents had been sent to war. A few days after the fighting stopped, a group went to the historic amphitheater in Caesarea to hear Handel’s oratorio “Saul.” Before the show, a soldier raised the Israeli flag and the orchestra played “Hatikvah.”

“We all sobbed. It’s one of the most significant moments of my life,” said Alcalay, a professor emerita in public health sciences at UC Davis who lives in San Francisco. “The idea that Israel was going to disappear had been so powerful.”

Many Jews around the world feared Israel was going to be overrun by its Arab neighbors, who amassed armies and told their own citizens in broadcasts that the Israelis were going to be driven into the sea.

But Israel defeated Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the war of June 5-10, 1967, capturing land that changed the map of the Middle East and asserting itself as the region’s military superpower. Fifty years later, the region is still experiencing the aftermath of the Six-Day War and Israel is trying to deal with its consequences.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute, said in a May 22 talk at the JCC of San Francisco that the victory gave Jews a sense that God was on their side for the first time, as well as a new feeling of power and a greatly expanded Israel, which tripled in size with the taking of the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan.

Tourist shops began selling Israeli army uniforms alongside postcards of the Western Wall, one of the many holy sites Israel captured from its Arab neighbors in 1967, as Israelis celebrated military leaders such as Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.

“This is when the sabra that Zionism speaks about was fulfilled. We have new heroes, not farmers and intellectuals but Moshe Dayan,” Hartman said. “Everything that a Jew feels post-1967 is a result of that newly acquired power, and power is a phenomenal thing.”

The smell of war is terrible. It was something I was not prepared for.

The Six-Day War, and a year in Israel, changed Stone’s political views forever. It also changed his name — when he arrived in Israel, he was Kenneth Lawrence Bernstein. When he returned to the U.S. in 1968, he was Uri Bar-Evan. (In the 1990s, he Anglicized it to Larry Stone — “evan” is the Hebrew word for “stone.”)

“I tended toward socialism at the time. Israel cured me of that,” he said. “I went to Israel as a socialist and came back as a Zionist.”

Stone said the Six-Day War changed the world’s impression of Jews, as well as their impression of themselves.

“It changed the image of the weak Jew, the image of the Jew who went uncomplaining to the death camps, the Jew who was a businessman but not a fighter willing to stand up for himself,” he said.

A few weeks after the war, Stone toured the newly captured East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, where he saw caves used by Syrian soldiers to shoot at the area that included his kibbutz.

He remembers the caves being littered with comic books read by the Syrian soldiers, one of which showed an Arab warrior with his boot on the throat of a caricatured Israeli being pushed into the sea.

Alcalay also remembers seeing anti-Semitic cartoons in Syrian bunkers in the Golan Heights, where she went with a cousin who was an Israel Defense Forces officer. She also visited Hebron and spent the night in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jericho.

“There was an optimism, and the narrative was that we are going to return everything that we took in exchange for peace and recognition. We assumed there would be peace and recognition, but it didn’t happen, and this is what the world forgets,” she said. “The 1967 war changed the image of the Jew from being the victim to being the victimizer, which I find appalling.”

Alcalay, whose father was the head of the Chilean Zionist Federation, spent nights on a sleeping bag in the Israeli Embassy in Santiago during the war while waiting for flights to resume to Israel. She helped translate English-language news reports from the Associated Press and Reuters into Spanish, including false claims by the Arab nations that they were winning the war.

“Suddenly I get the news we won, so I go to the elders of the Jewish community, and they’re all almost in tears thinking [Israel had been destroyed and] how to save the survivors,” said Alcalay, who flew to Israel as soon as the war ended. “So I told them we had won and they didn’t understand at first. Then these old men grabbed me and threw me up in the air.”

Mohammed Desouki, who was a 13-year-old living with his family in Cairo in 1967, was equally shocked by the result of the war. Egyptians were told throughout the six days that their forces were winning.

“We were in a five-story building and every time the fighter jets came in from Israel, the siren would go off and everyone would have to come down to the first floor. Imagine a small apartment for one family now has at least four other families,” he said. “Kids were crying, lots of people were cursing the Israelis and the Egyptian government.

“It was really, really a dysfunctional time because there was a radio station jockey, Ahmed Said of Voice of the Arabs station, and he continued to announce we destroyed more and more tanks, we shot down so many jets,” said Desouki, now a real estate agent in Campbell. “And on the sixth day, he suddenly says: ‘All these cities are under control of Israel.’ ”

Desouki said he was so upset at being deceived by his own government that he vowed to leave Egypt, which he did in 1975 — going first to Kuwait, and then coming to the U.S. four years later.

“It was eye-opening. The Six-Day War is what turned my life to be a 100 percent disbeliever in the country,” he said. “I became a very, very firm believer that the government is nothing but liars, all of them.”

Zeev Benoni was an IDF tank commander in Egypt and Syria during the Six-Day War and remembers the horrible stench.

“The only thing I was not prepared for was the smell,” he said. “The smell of war is terrible — from the ammunition and the bodies and being in the desert, it was something I was not prepared for.”

Benoni, who was just a year old when his family moved to Israel from Austria in 1948, was in a Sherman tank unit that performed exercises for the defense minister, Dayan, just days before the war began. The operations in Egypt went so well in the war’s opening days that his unit was then flown to the Golan Heights to fight the Syrians.

At a party his neighbors threw for Benoni after the war, people said “we did such a good job that it would be maybe a hundred years before another war would happen — obviously, looking back, that was not true.”

In fact, just six years later, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Benoni moved to the U.S. in 1969, arriving at a time when Americans had their own war to fight. He was shocked at criticism of the Vietnam War, since there was virtually no opposition inside Israel during the Six-Day War.

“It was very foreign to me,” said Benoni, who lives in El Cerrito and founded Mezzoni Foods there. “There was no two sides in Israel. We were going to be annihilated. There was no question of people saying no.”

Linda and Frank Kurtz were students at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1967. In the weeks leading up to the war, they listened in their dorms as speakers on Arab radio stations threatened to “kill every Jew … and drive everybody into the sea.”

Many Israeli citizens at the time were Holocaust survivors.

“It was horrible enough for us to listen to these threats for three solid weeks before the war broke out, but you can only imagine what it was like for someone who survived the Nazis,” Linda Kurtz said.

The Kurtzes had met in 1966 on the ship taking Hebrew University students from the U.S. to Israel, and were engaged by the time the war began. U.S. diplomats urged the students to leave Israel, but the Kurtzes stayed to help bail hay and pick fruit on a kibbutz.

After the war, they went back to Jerusalem, where Frank Kurtz remembers white flags hanging outside Arab homes and shrapnel scattered outside their dorms.

The Kurtzes, who are retired and live in San Francisco, passed by rubble on their way to the Western Wall, which at the time was open to all and had no partitions separating men and women.

“That day that we went to the Wall — with religious, non-religious, every diverse kind of Jew that there was — we all stood there, not screaming out victory cheers and songs,” Linda Kurtz said. “We were solemnly recognizing the fact that we had survived a terrible threat to our very existence, and we stood at the Wall and recognized the weight and the power of Jewish history.”


J.’s 1967 coverage, online for the first time

In the summer of 1967, the Jewish Community Bulletin (our predecessor) was as elated as the rest of the Jewish world at Israel’s lightning victory in the Six-Day War. Until this week, if you wanted to read our articles from that time, you’d have to come to our office to look at the bound volumes of old newspapers.

Now you can read them online. As part of a pilot project to digitize all 121 years of our coverage of the Jewish Bay Area, we have started with the issues from 1967 and 1904 here.

Now all we need is another $120,000 to do the rest! Contact sue@jweekly.com if you are interested in contributing to this important project to make our Jewish past accessible to all, in perpetuity.

Meanwhile, here are links to articles published about the war and its aftermath that we think you’ll enjoy.

June 9, 1967:

“Give as You Have Never Given Before!”

June 23, 1967:

“Israel Conquests Pose Serious New Economic Problems”

Aug. 11, 1967:

“Now Children Play Where Tanks Fought a Few Weeks Ago”

Aug. 11, 1967:

“Conqueror Role Posing More Trouble for Israel”

Aug. 25, 1967:

“‘Jerusalem the Golden’ Top Postwar Tune”

Sept. 8, 1967

“Much to Do Now … and Israel Needs Our Help”

 

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Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster is J.'s senior writer. He can be reached at rob@jweekly.com.