The outgoing editor of Ha’aretz recalls the drama of a war that Israel was winning — and confronts his own fears for the future
Not bloody likely,” the callow nineteen-year-old grandly dictated to the telegram clerk at the post office on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road, a week or so before the Six-Day War. In Golders Green, my parents received the cocky cable with a mixture of pride and trepidation.
Afterwards, I heard from my friend, later to be my wife, that my mother had spent an entire solidarity event at the Albert Hall sobbing. I couldn’t understand it. I was too stupid, or smart, to understand what she was afraid of. Israel was going to win; no other scenario crossed my mind. And anyway, I wasn’t a soldier. Merely a yeshiva boy who had declined his family’s offer to fly him home with all the rest of the foreign students at the country’s charedi yeshivas, and instead volunteered at the Jerusalem Post.
In the event, my brashness almost did get me into harm’s way. I was too fastidious to sleep with the other Post night staff in a foetid basement under the printing press. I asked the lady from the fourth-floor apartment if I could stretch out on her couch. The mortar shell came right through the roof. Smoke and dust everywhere. I fairly flew down the stairwell into the foetid cellar.
My journalistic skills comprised slow typing with two fingers and workable Hebrew. My chief responsibility was the emergency pharmacies, and I could hardly wait for the mornings to read “my column”, black on white, in the newspaper. The day the war began, I rushed to the newsroom. Dutifully, I took down the text of a outraged letter of protest by Major Maurice Jaffe, the colourful ex-Brit who ran Hechal Shlomo, the former seat of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, and was later to create the Jerusalem Great Synagogue. He invoked the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury on behalf of the shell-battered Holy City. By noon I knew, from overhearing the editor and his deputy, that, mirabile dictum, the war would be won.
The following days and nights were dramatic, and we knew that lives were being lost very close by, as the fighting for the Old City raged. But the elation kept us going, wide-eyed and sleepless, a skeleton team putting out historic editions.
On the Friday, I slipped in among a press pool touring East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Gush Etzion and Hebron. There were white flags everywhere, though in the Old City some shooting could still be heard. Uri Zvi Greenberg, the nationalist poet, was on the tour. I prayed alongside him in Rachel’s Tomb. I will never forget that moment when someone recited the famous lines of Jeremiah: “Thus saith the Lord; a voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, [and] bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children... thus saith the Lord; refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy. And there is hope in thine end, saith the Lord, that thy children shall come again to their own border.”
Years later I heard the Gush Emunim leader Hanan Porat, who fought as a paratrooper in the Old City, describe his sense of vivid, tangible certainty that he was personally fulfilling the Biblical prophecies. He, of course, was spiritually and mentally — and militarily — prepared to be swept up in the surge of apocalyptic fervour. He was a follower of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, schooled in the hitherto-hypothetical but nevertheless mesmerising theories of messianic Zionism. I was just an Anglo-Jewish youngster, with a Bnei Akiva background and a lot of Talmud stuffed into me. But I felt it too, profoundly and overwhelmingly.
On that Rosh Hashana, before the shofar, with the words of the Psalm: “He shall subdue the peoples under us, and the nations under our feet. He shall choose our inheritance for us...”, floodgates opened and I wept as I had not wept since childhood. In fairly short order, though, I parted company with the Hanan Porats and all they stood for. It wasn’t a sudden awakening, but a sober wrestle with reality.
I probably did not know the word “demography”, but I understood the significance of the tiny aliyah from America in the wake of 1967. We had to cut our coat according to our cloth — and the occupied Palestinians’ cloth, too. Years before Yom Kippur, doubts about Golda Meir began to gnaw. She preached peace, but was plainly loth to cede the territories. She rejected Sadat’s overtures, siding with her Ahdut Avoda ministers against Moshe Dayan’s fertile schemes for disengaging from the Suez Canal.
The Post was solidly pro-Dayan, and I, as its young diplomatic correspondent, eagerly toed the line. Once I stepped across it, innocently asking the dour Yisrael Galili, Golda’s eminence grise, why Israel sided with the Hashemite house, clearly a colonialist import, rather than with Palestinian aspirations. The editor, incensed, made me apologise to Galili for this heresy.
Now, with the archives open, we know that far wiser people than I — in the Mossad, in the army — had been thinking the same thoughts from the moment the 1967 war ended, encouraged by Eshkol to think them but never empowered to implement them.
Now, 41 years into the peace process that began with UN Resolution 242 and still has not proceeded to peace, in bustling, boom-town Tel Aviv, I sometimes find myself beset by fears not dissimilar to those that wracked my mother on the eve of our great victory. I fear for the survival of Jewish, democratic Israel once the Palestinian side declares demographic parity — this could come very soon — and the simple, powerful, incontestable cry goes up: “One man, one vote.” I remember vividly the intoxicating sweetness of that (pseudo-) messianic moment. Now it tastes like ashes.