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Was Israel's victory in the Six-Day War a modern miracle?

An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi discuss issues of contemporary life

    Question: How are we to understand Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War? As a miracle that liberated the territories of Judea and Samaria? Or a moral test set by God to see how Israel acted towards the Palestinian population that came under its control?

    Rabbi Brawer: Why must the two options you describe be mutually exclusive?

    During the Six-Day War, Israel fought for its very existence. Some 25 years after the Holocaust, surrounded by belligerent neighbours who vowed its extermination, Israel took on the combined might of five Arab armies and won an astonishing victory. For people of faith, it was nothing short of a miracle. Even many avowed secularists saw the hand of God revealed during those euphoric six days in June.


    However there were unintended consequences to this victory, such as bringing one million Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza under Israeli military rule. Despite numerous attempts at reaching a peace settlement, the situation remains. And this does present Israel with a moral test in terms of how it treats the Palestinians under its control.


    For two millennia Jews sat at the margins of society and exercised no power. The upshot of this unfortunate state of affairs is we were not in a position to mistreat others on any major scale. Unlike the great powers of Christendom and Islam, Jews did not have to confront the kind of moral dilemmas that emerge from governing a state. The establishment of the state of Israel has fortunately changed this reality and with it comes enormous responsibility. Our experience as the powerless and marginalised ought to positively shape the way we treat others who have lost power and reside on the margins. 


    There are those in the religious Zionist camp who insert several highly charged words into the weekly Shabbat prayer for the state of Israel. The words reshit tzemichat ge’ulatienu, “the first flowering of our redemption”, assert the modern state of Israel is a necessary precursor to the ultimate messianic redemption. 


    Putting aside whether or not one believes this to be the case, it can present us with an inspiring framework for the development of the state of Israel. It invites us to see territorial and political sovereignty is not an end unto itself, but rather a means, a first flowering, which can lead to redemption. 


    This gap between the present reality and an imagined future is bridged by building a society that is guided by the Torah’s values, including the premium it places on treating all human beings as created in God’s image. It is an enormous challenge, but one that Israel is more than equal to. 

    Naftali Brawer is chief executive of Spiritual Capital Foundation

    Rabbi Romain: Neither is the case.

    It is fine to talk about the “miracle” of the Six-Day War, providing it is just a way of expressing our sense of awe at how Israel not only survived the destruction we feared it would suffer, but showed its military prowess and tactical superiority.


    But claiming the Six-Day War was a miracle engineered by God is highly problematic as a theological statement. It opens God up to accusations of being highly capricious: why did God let the 1967 victory be so short-lived and not prevent the Yom Kippur War? Why did God not save the six million Jews from the Holocaust?


    It is like those who thank God for delaying their journey to the airport so that they did not catch a plane that later crashed. Where does that leave the family of the person who took their place? If one believes in a God who intervenes in human affairs, then the score sheet of God’s successes and failures is a tricky business to reconcile. 


    Far better to hold that God created the world, handed it over to humans and let us run it for good or for bad. 


    As for the Six-Day War being  “a moral test”, it is true that it has led to plenty of ethical challenges as to how to interact with a population under Israeli rule which wants the same rights of self-determination that propelled the Zionist movement into existence.


    However, I find it offensive that God would use Israelis and Palestinians as a divine blackboard and allow countless individuals on both sides to suffer from the mistakes that are made.


    Instead, the victory is a tribute to the skill of Israeli commanders, the bravery of ordinary soldiers and the careful preparations done beforehand. Some may have been inspired by their faith, others by the desire to defend their homeland, others because they had no other option.


    We should also encourage others not to view 1967 with a different, but equally false set of lenses, through which they wrongly ascribe to it all the evils of the Middle East. Did the subsequent Israel-Palestinian problem have anything to do with Iraq invading Kuwait, the nuclear ambitions of Iran, Muslims fighting Christians in Lebanon, the strife in Yemen or Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood destabilising Egypt, the civil war in Syria, or Sunnis and Shias regularly attacking each other elsewhere? 

    Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue

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