marchers hold signs like "Kosygin, let my people go!"
The Six-Day War energized the movement to free Soviet Jewry, leading to marches like this one in New York City in June 1967. (Photo/JTA-Getty Images-Roger Viollet Collection)

How the Six-Day War changed American Jews

On the morning of June 5, 1967, as Arab armies and Israel clashed following weeks of tension, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg sat anxiously amid his congregants at daily prayers — fearful that the Jewish people would face extinction for the second time in 25 years.

“One of the people said, ‘They’re going to wipe out Israel. What’s going to be?’ ” recalled Greenberg, then the spiritual leader of a synagogue in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.

The fear felt by Greenberg pervaded the air in American Jewish communities that week. Two decades after the world learned the full extent of the Holocaust, Americans looked on from afar as Egypt and Syria threatened the young Jewish state.

Jonathan Sarna, then 12, remembers watching on TV as Israelis dug mass graves to prepare for potential slaughter. A teenage Yossi Klein Halevi remembers the broadcasts of mass rallies in Cairo calling for Israel’s death.

But many American Jews, haunted by their failure to act during the Holocaust, didn’t just passively watch events unfold — they decided to mobilize. They raised tens of millions of dollars. They held rallies. They lobbied President Lyndon Johnson.

Within days, however, the fear turned to relief. The relief turned to pride when Israel won the war in six days, tripling its territory and taking control of Judaism’s holiest sites.

The Six-Day War, as it quickly became known, intensified American Jews’ love for Israel and imbued them with a new confidence to advocate for their interests at home and abroad. And the terror that consumed the community in the run-up to the war led to an increased emphasis on Holocaust remembrance.

The shift from terror to power experienced by the Jewish community in June 1967 set up Holocaust memory and support of Israel as the twin poles of American Jewish identity. At the same time, however, it sparked debates on territory, history, identity and occupation — issues that continue to consume American Jews 50 years later.

“There was an emotional trajectory that united Jewish people in a way I don’t think we’ve ever seen since the revelation at Mount Sinai 3,500 years ago,” said Klein Halevi, author of “Like Dreamers,” a chronicle of Israel’s Six-Day War generation. Growing up in Brooklyn, he recalled “moving from existential dread to relief when we realized that Israel had taken the offensive.”

American Jews poured their money into supporting the embattled state, creating a precedent (and expectations) for Jewish philanthropy for decades to come, historians say. In the New York City area alone, the United Jewish Appeal raised more than $20 million during the week of the war, nearly $150 million in today’s dollars.

“The unbelievable amounts of money that were collected before and during the war, nobody had ever seen anything like it,” said Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University. “American Jews didn’t want people to say we did nothing. There wasn’t much they could do, but they knew they could give of their wealth.”

Jews also took to the streets to support Israel. On June 8, the third day of the war, 50,000 Jews rallied outside the White House, already demanding that Israel be allowed to keep its battlefield gains. The day after the war, 20,000 Jews filled this city’s Madison Square Garden to cheer the victory.

While Jews had protested en masse before, the war showed Jewish leaders how powerful demonstrations could be, said Jack Wertheimer, a Jewish history professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The victory also gave American Jews an increased assertiveness to advocate for their own interests. Israel’s victory energized the movement to free Soviet Jewry, which would go on to organize large rallies in Washington, D.C., and protests at Soviet consulates.

American Jews also became far more comfortable displaying their love for Israel, and Americans in general supported Israel in the war. Cold War calculations led the U.S.-Israel alliance to grow stronger, while among Jews, expressions of Israeli culture increased in America. The war led more American synagogues to adopt Israeli pronunciations of Hebrew, Wertheimer said, and to use Israeli melodies for prayers.

“It really intensified a sense of Israel being central,” Sarna said. “American Jews love moments when their Americanness and their Jewishness reinforce one another. There’s this sense that the Six-Day War is a victory for America and for the Jewish people.”

Jews also began traveling more to Israel. Immigration to the Jewish state rose steadily in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and American Jews would later have a disproportionate presence in the settlement movement. While American Jews make up about 5 percent of Israelis overall, they comprise 15 percent of West Bank settlers, according to Oxford professor Sara Yael Hirschhorn, author of the recent book “City on a Hilltop,” about American Jews in the settlement movement.

“There was just this spontaneous need on the part of Jews around the world to physically connect to Israel because of this feeling that we almost lost Israel,” said Klein Halevi.

Even amid the celebration, cracks of discord began to appear. Jewish leaders bristled at criticism from liberal Americans who had allied with Jews on domestic policy fights like civil rights. Criticism of Israel’s military gains from some African American leaders further weakened a once strong black-Jewish alliance that had begun fraying half a year earlier, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee expelled its white members.

Half a century after the victory, organized American Jewry wrestles with its legacy. Fundraisers and activists lament that there isn’t the same kind of unifying cause around which Jews can rally. Committed activists are split: The right wing feels God delivered into Jewish hands a land that can never again be divided, while the left wing sees the war and ensuing decisions as the start of Israel’s most intractable problem: control of millions of Arabs living on lands seized during the victory.

Five decades later, says Hirschhorn, the joy felt in 1967 has faded for many American Jews born long after the war. They don’t remember the Six-Day War as a massacre averted or a near miraculous victory of David over Goliath.

“The pride they felt in that moment has changed for our generation, who look at it in a different way and have seen the outcome of the war,” said Hirschhorn, who was born well after the war. “Now the question of our generation is, how do you manage Jewish power responsibly, whether that’s in the State of Israel or outside of it?”

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

JTA reporter