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6 days that changed Israel forever: Lead-up to the 1967 War (Part 1)

S6
E9
39mins

The 1967 War happened more than 50 years ago, yet its legacy still reverberates throughout the world. Israelis were convinced they were facing another Holocaust. Instead, they achieved one of the most unlikely and legendary military victories in history. This miniseries explores the lead-up and legacy of the Six-Day War.

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Sometimes I like to amuse myself thinking about alternate titles for this podcast. Israel Story. (Hm, taken.) The Milk and Honey Podcast. (Sounds like a cooking show.) Homeland. (Actually, my colleagues did that one, link in the show notes.) Unpacking Israeli Historiography. Oof.

But to be honest, terrible name notwithstanding, that last one is exactly what this podcast is all about. Back in my teaching and principal-ing days, my students used to roast me because I’d start off every class by saying, “Guys, today we’re going to study the most important thing you’ll learn all year.”

IDF forces organizing in secret behind trees in the Golan Heights, June 7, 1967. (Photo: IDF Spokesperson Unit/Wikipedia Commons)

But this wasn’t a joke for me, or a ploy to hype up my students. I was being sincere. Every class did feel like the most important one. 

So if any of my former students are listening, here’s your trigger warning: the next three episodes will cover the MOST important story in Israeli history. And friends, I really, really mean that. That’s probably why we haven’t tackled it until now. We needed to get it exactly right.

Sometimes, it felt too big, too much. How do you even tell this story? What perspectives do you hone in on? What lessons do you take away?

Our team spent months researching, pondering, discussing, leaving each other long and sometimes rambly voice notes trying to work out the best angles from which to tell this story. Because, as always, Jonathan Haidt’s thoughts on history were spinning around and around in my mind. In his book The Righteous Mind, he gives two brief versions of American history. One is the quote unquote “conservative” American view. The other, the liberal narrative. You can probably imagine how each of those stories go, and I’ll leave it to you to imagine that, I’ll leave it in the show notes.

We face this exact dilemma in every single episode of this podcast. But it’s never been quite as pronounced as it was in this series. Even the quick and dirty version I’m about to tell you has an “angle.” There’s no objective way to recount history, but here’s an attempt:

Just a decade after the Suez Canal Crisis, Israel’s neighbors started rattling their sabers again, threatening war. Increasingly desperate, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike that took everyone by surprise – itself included. The Israelis themselves were shocked by their own success. 

The Jewish state utterly humiliated its much bigger neighbors, wresting away their control of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights in under a week. The entire world has been grappling with the legacy of that war ever since.

That’s a pretty benign summary. But it was also so much bigger than that. The Six Day War reshaped Israel’s borders, and thus the contours of today’s conflict. [Nerd corner alert: though most people call it the Six Day War, it’s also been known by a few other names, including the 1967 War, and, according to a book I like to review often, “Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine,” The Aggression of June the 5th.] It reconfigured Israeli and Jewish identity around the world. It changed Israel’s relationship to its enemies and its allies. In fact, it changed Israel’s relationship to power, full stop. It strengthened Palestinian identity and Palestinian resistance to Israel. In the words of historian and sometimes-politician Michael Oren, quote: “Seldom has the world’s attention been gripped, and remained seized, by a single event and its ramifications.”

And that’s why this is both the most important and the most difficult story I can imagine telling right now. We’ll do our best to highlight as many perspectives, and as many angles, as we can. Inevitably, we’re going to fall short. Because let’s be honest. I love being honest, it’s a good thing to be. We could spend a whole semester on this. A year. A lifetime. We could have written several books. But we have less than three hours total to tell you this story. We won’t get to every individual story. But hopefully, we’ll expose you to new perspectives and ideas that you might not have considered before.

Aside from giving a basic breakdown of events, the next three episodes will cover the changes in Israeli AND Palestinian society after Israel took hold of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. We’ll discuss the world’s reaction to the miraculous victory of the tiny Jewish state, as well as the behind-the-scenes machinations of the global superpowers as Israel surprised everyone by winning. We’ll talk about how the war changed Jewish identity worldwide. And as always, we’ll ask our favorite historical question: What if? 

What if the Israelis didn’t strike first? Or if Jordan hadn’t entered the war? What if Israel never built the settlements? Or had kept its authority over the Temple Mount? What if the Arab world had chosen to respond differently to Israel’s victory? What if, what if, what if.

As always, you’ll meet a vibrant cast of characters, among them a one-eyed, womanizing, insubordinate military genius; a careworn king tired of being used as a pawn; and a UN secretary general with – and this is a direct quote from a New York Times op-ed – “the objectivity of a spurned lover and the dynamism of a noodle.” 

But perhaps more importantly, you’ll meet ordinary, anonymous Israelis: people who went to war one week, and returned to work the next. Their testimony comes from one of my favorite books about this war, The Seventh Day: Soldiers’ Talk about the Six-Day War. 

So often, we look at history like a pointillist painting. From far away, we see a big, complicated picture. We talk about nations, rather than individuals. About wars, often neglecting to mention the ordinary people who fought them. But The Seventh Day zooms in on all the tiny little dots that make up the big picture, breaking down the post-war national sentiment into personal, individual stories, some of which complicate or are even at odds with the national narrative. 

Whether they were big names or anonymous private citizens, no one knew, at the time, exactly how the war would unfold. No one quite predicted the haphazard, miraculous series of events that brought us to the reality we inhabit today. So let’s go back in time, to Israel in the 1960s, to tell this story from as many angles as we possibly can. 

Part One: A Land That Eats Its Inhabitants

Levi Eshkol had an unenviable job.

I mean. Duh. He was Israel’s Prime Minister and its Defense Minister. Can you imagine the job description? Seeking: motivated go-getter to make constant, impossible choices; avoid extinction; and act as the UN’s human pinata

Fun times. Though he was a seasoned politician by the time he took office in 1963, Eshkol had one thing working against him: his former boss, David Ben Gurion. According to Yehuda Avner’s excellent book The Prime Ministers, Ben Gurion had, quote, “abruptly renounced the premiership, quit his Labor Party in a war of principle, and went off in a huff to live in a hut on a remote desert kibbutz. There, he relentlessly harangued Eshkol, pouncing on him at every turn.”

Sheesh. As if being the Prime AND Defense Minister of Israel wasn’t bad enough. 

Not that Eshkol fully knew what he was getting into. In fact, a couple days into the job, he beckoned Abba Eban, his Deputy Prime Minister, into his office to tentatively ask for a job description. And because this was Israel in 1963, Eban wasn’t exaggerating when he said something along the lines of, Just make sure the country still exists tomorrow. 

It’s a great line in a career full of them. But Eban wasn’t just being glib. Eshkol was now responsible for a relatively poor country that was, at its narrowest point, only nine miles wide. That’s shorter than the length of Manhattan! That’s like, a mild bike ride (for people who are in shape and wouldn’t pass out after mile three… This definitely reminds me to go jogging after I record this). And that made it very easy for its neighbors to do what they did best: try to destroy it.

Syria spent much of its time firing on Israel’s north from the high ground of the Golan Heights, which, remember, was under their control. Meanwhile, infiltrators from Jordan and Egypt murdered 675 Israeli civilians between 1949 and 1967. Israelis spent a lot of time worrying, rightfully, that if the Jordanians ever got their act together, they could literally cut Israel in half, severing Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Tzfat from Jerusalem and Be’er Sheva. The Jordanians were already constantly sniping at Israeli civilians across the seam that divided East and West Jerusalem.

To add insult to injury, Jordan controlled access to Judaism’s holiest sites. The Western Wall. The Old City of Jerusalem. The Temple Mount. The tombs of the Patriarchs, of Rachel, of Joseph. The Mount of Olives. And when I say they controlled access, I mean that not a single Jew was allowed to step foot on these sites for nineteen years. Yeah, you heard that right. The Jordanians didn’t just bar Israelis from visiting their holy sites. They banned all Jews. And (nerd corner alert!) they were dead serious about it, literally asking for proof of baptism.

So we have Syria shelling in the north. Infiltrators from Egypt and Jordan from the south and east, not to mention Jordan’s sniping and restriction of Jewish access to our holiest sites. And let’s not forget about Lebanon! Though, to be fair, Lebanon was even smaller and weaker than Israel, so it couldn’t do all that much to destroy the Jewish state. It’s OK, Lebanon, you’re doing your best. Israel’s only remotely friendly neighbor was the Mediterranean Sea. (Can a force of nature count as friendly? Let’s call it neutral.)

But Israel did have one saving grace: none of its neighbors liked each other very much, or knew how to work together, like at all. Lots of egos. Lots of coups and violence and corruption and mustaches. (Seriously, there were some impressive mustaches!) Through the late 1950s, the Jewish state watched as the Arab world seemed to tear itself apart from the inside. I’d go into more detail, but honestly, I’d need a diagram and maybe 6 months to properly convey how convoluted this whole mess was.

For our purposes, you need to know two things.

One: The general incompetence of the Arab militaries – not to mention their leaders’ inability to cooperate – worked in Israel’s favor.

But two: On the other hand, Arab countries’ mutual hatred of Israel was more or less the only thing that could get the gang back together. Arab strongmen often used Israel as a kind of back-pocket trump card. Want to humiliate your neighbor? Accuse them of being soft on Israel. Want to make yourself look good? Provoke Israel without actually starting a full-scale war. It’s a surefire way to look tough without actually risking anything.

So when Eshkol took office in 1963, he was well aware that the only thing the neighbors could agree on was defeating his tiny country. Less than a year into his tenure, he got a bitter taste of just how unpleasant life could be when the neighbors joined forces. Somehow, in 1964, the Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, managed to get the Arab states to take on two joint projects.

The first was cutting off Israel’s water supply, by diverting the Jordan River into Syria. (Nerd corner alert: To be fair, Israel had also developed a plan for diverting some of the Jordan River’s waters into its own territory, though it was never actually put into practice.) The Middle East is full of stunning and valuable natural resources. Water? Not one of them. Cutting off your enemy’s water supply is a pretty big deal.

The Arab states’ second existentially-threatening project was to form a United Arab Command, headed by Egypt, to bolster and unify Arab militaries when Israel inevitably responded to being dried out.

Lucky for Israel, Nasser’s plans collapsed almost immediately because, well, the United Arab Command was “united” in name only. To start, no one wanted to take orders from Egypt. Jordan didn’t want Palestinian guerillas on its borders. Lebanon didn’t want foreign forces on its territory. Iraq didn’t want to give up its planes. (Side note: Iraq doesn’t even border Israel, so every time they try and destroy Israel, I’m like, what the heck, Iraq, you don’t even GO here!) To make matters more annoying for Nasser, Syria got a head start on the water-diversion project, without waiting for approval or coordinating with the other Arab states.

And when they did that, they royally ticked off two of the neighbors. The first was Egypt. Seriously, Nasser really, really wanted to be in charge. He did not appreciate that Syria was taking the initiative.

The second state they ticked off was – wait for it, it’s shocking – Israel itself. 

Aside from the fact that water is necessary to maintain literally every aspect of life, it was also kind of Eshkol’s thing. He’d founded Israel’s water company way back before the country even formally existed. In fact, he’d opened Israel’s National Water Carrier System the very same year that Syria started on their plan. Those pipelines were his baby, and he wasn’t about to let them get ruined. So he turned to IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, who advised him to let the Air Force do what they did best: humiliate the neighbors.

Which worked, sort of. 

Now, remember. In the 60s, Israel was not the military powerhouse it was today. But neither were any of the surrounding countries. Flying under the radar, the IAF utterly destroyed Syria’s water-diversion equipment, knowing that there was no way for their northern neighbor to retaliate. At least, not by air.

But they could retaliate by land, by financing Palestinian guerilla raids into Israel. If you ask the Israelis, Syrian-backed guerillas infiltrated Israel 35 times in 1965. If you ask Palestinians, that number goes up to 110.

We’ve talked about these cross-border raids before. True, these were relatively small-scale operations, but they did a ton of damage, particularly to morale. It’s tough to feel safe when you know your neighbors can potentially sneak into your home and toss a grenade through your window as you sleep. (And yes, that’s a real and tragic story. Link in the show notes.) I think, before October 7, 2023, we might not have fully understood what these raids could do. We all understand a little bit better now. 

That feeling that your home is no longer safe. That sense of abandonment, in the one place that promised never to abandon you. The visceral horror of watching the death toll rise, and rise, and rise. 

Now imagine that happening 35 times in one year. Imagine realizing that safety is an illusion you’re too jaded to fall for. That’s where Israel was in the 1960s.

Things went from bad to worse when a new, radical party took over Syria in 1966. These new guys were tight with the Soviet Union, which did not bode well for the Israel-Soviet relationship. 

So, remember, we’re still setting the stage. It’s 1966. Syria was financing a never-ending stream of Palestinian raids into Israel. Stopping them would take a full-on war. But the Israelis knew they’d lose if they picked a fight, given that Syria had the backing of the USSR. 

Meanwhile, Israel had no powerful friends at all.

France, which had once been Israel’s staunchest friend, pretty much wasn’t taking their calls anymore. (Link in the show notes if you want to learn more about that relationship.) US President Lyndon B. Johnson wasn’t ready to permanently tick off the Arab world and risk shoving them directly into the arms of the USSR. Plus, he had that whole Vietnam headache to deal with. So he did his best to walk the tightrope between Israel and the Arab world, which meant tempering his support for the Jewish state.

Israel couldn’t count on the support of the world powers. But what if Eshkol could exploit the tension between the neighbors? Divide and conquer, baby.

Each Arab dictator wanted to be the king of the hill. And no one wanted it more than Egypt’s president slash megalomaniac, Nasser. Sure, he may have collaborated with the other Arab countries when it came to Israel, but he was also a pan-Arabist, and in his heart of hearts, he wouldn’t have minded getting rid of all the other Arab heads of state so he could run his own massive united Arab empire. Syria’s flexing was not a part of that plan! Bizarrely, it seemed that Egypt and Israel had a common goal: get Syria to calm the heck down.

So Eshkol did something that honestly sounds bananas. He reached out to Nasser.

Well. Not personally. He used an intermediary. Whose code-name was… wait for it… Steve. Love that, by the way. Steve is the suburban dad who spends his Sundays mowing the lawn and coaching Little League, not brokering deals in the Middle East.

Nerd corner alert: This actually wasn’t the first time that the Israelis and the Egyptians had conducted secret talks. The two had actually been in contact since before 1948. In fact, the more they fought publicly – which was a LOT – the more they held secret back-channel conversations that, ultimately, did very little to resolve their tensions. 

And this time was no exception. Sadly, Suburban Steve couldn’t help. The talks went nowhere, and Egypt turned back to Syria, hoping that signing a mutual defense treaty would defuse the situation.

It didn’t.

The Palestinian raids kept coming from all directions. Every Arab leader seemed to be trying to outdo the other with their anti-Israel rhetoric. Eshkol had already been rebuffed by his most powerful enemy. So he turned next to the most reasonable: Jordan.

Now, the bar for “reasonable” in the Middle East is pretty low. It really says something when your best hope for an ally is a country that fires at your civilians whenever things get too peaceful. But Jordan’s leader, King Hussein, was a pragmatist. He didn’t particularly love the Israelis, but he also didn’t trust Egypt or Syria. (As always, no one took Lebanon seriously enough to even consider asking for its help. Poor Lebanon.) 

The Jordanian king had been secretly meeting with Israel for some time, each side trying to avert a full-on war. There is no better demonstration of just how messed up the Middle East is than the fact that Ben-Gurion literally congratulated his Jordanian enemy on surviving an Egyptian assassination attempt back in 1960. In fact, in 1962, the Mossad thwarted yet another Egyptian attempt on Hussein’s life. (I wasn’t kidding when I said the Arab neighbors really didn’t get along.)

And still, somehow, Jordan and Israel were technically enemies. So when Israeli reps reached out to their Jordanian counterparts back in ’66, their demands were pretty basic: Stop Palestinian operatives from crossing into our territory and killing people. The King’s response was equally simple. No counter-raids into my territory, a la Qibye. (Link in the show notes.) A real “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” arrangement.

But this semi-cozy relationship came to a crashing halt that November, when Palestinian operatives left a land mine on the border between Israel and Jordan, knowing that Israeli police monitored the area. The mine exploded during a routine patrol, killing three Israeli police officers. And Israel was livid.

Not that Jordan was thrilled, either. The Palestinians were a major headache for King Hussein. Here he was, trying to keep things calm, and they were just setting off landmines, tanking all his efforts. So he dashed off a quick condolence letter to Prime Minister Eshkol, hoping to defuse the tension and signal he was still committed to keeping the borders quiet.

But the letter didn’t reach Eshkol in time. Two days after the explosion, Eshkol had the IDF enter the West Bank village of Samu. It was supposed to be a quick raid, with two clear objectives. One: remind Hussein of their deal. Two: establish deterrence. Basically, remind everyone else that Israel had a breaking point. Mess with us enough, and we will bring the fight to you.

The IDF didn’t expect to encounter the Jordanian army in Samu. But that’s exactly what happened. The two armies found themselves in the midst of a nasty surprise battle. One that killed 15 Jordanian soldiers and three civilians, as well as one Israeli commander.

It was a mess.

Needless to say, the fragile detente between Israel and Jordan was shattered. Across the West Bank, Palestinians rioted, demanding the King abdicate his throne. In the meantime, Israel got a tongue lashing at the UN. The Americans were especially peeved, dressing down the Deputy Prime Minister, Abba Eban, during a visit to Washington.

But worst of all was the infighting within the Arab world. Egypt and Syria turned on Jordan and King Hussein for his apparent “weakness” and inability to defend the Palestinians. The king retaliated by accusing Egypt and Nasser of hiding behind UN Peacekeepers to avoid war with Israel.

Well, Nasser didn’t take kindly to the implication that he wasn’t the most powerful kid on the block. And when dictators’ egos get involved, armies are sure to follow.

Slowly, the region inched closer and closer to war.

And though all the Arab countries were squabbling amongst themselves, their plan of a United Arab Command all but dead, they found it in their hearts to unite on one thing: encouraging an unrelenting stream of Palestinian attacks on Israel.

There’s a quote I like that’s often attributed to Mark Twain, though my extensive googling indicates it didn’t actually originate with him: “history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.” (And if this sounds familiar, it’s because I feel like I say it all the time. What can I say? I’m a one-trick pony.)

Then as now, powerful nations egged on Palestinian terrorism when it suited them, but did nothing to actually help Palestinians build a better life. Then as now, the Palestinians were little more pawns, used and discarded at will in the power plays between sovereign countries.

Not that Eshkol was wasting any time feeling bad for the Palestinians. By early 1967, he was busy trying to figure out how to stop the endless stream of Palestinian raids and Syrian fire that made his citizens’ lives a living hell. To make matters worse, the USSR seemed determined to light up the region, repeatedly warning Syria about (fictional) Israeli plots to invade. 

Syria, for its part, responded with a stream of invective so graphic that the UN even tried to step in, on grounds that Syria was inciting and supporting Palestinian raids. But the UN’s mealy-mouthed condemnations did absolutely nothing to discourage the constant stream of Palestinian attacks or, for that matter, the Syrian propaganda machine.

By the time Israel’s Independence Day rolled around in May, things were grimmer than ever. One day before Israel celebrated its 19th birthday , the USSR told Egypt that Israeli troops were massing on the Syrian border. This was a complete fiction, but Nasser swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. And even though he couldn’t afford another war, he couldn’t not afford one, either. Remember: if you’re an Arab dictator with problems at home or a beef with another Arab nation, just distract your haters by attacking Israel.

Israel is small, and its neighbors are very, very close. So the Israelis heard Radio Cairo’s boast that, quote, “We are in a complete state of readiness for war!” They winced as Nasser announced that he was gearing up for, quote, “the final battle in Palestine.” And they watched, and worried, as Egyptian troops massed on the borders.

And still, Israel waited. Nasser had made threats before, only to pull back at the last minute. Israeli diplomats went into overtime, using every resource at their disposal to reassure the Egyptians that the IDF wasn’t interested in another war. Nasser’s own intelligence confirmed what the US, the UN, and the Brits had been telling him: the Israelis weren’t actually massing troops. But pulling back now would be humiliating.

There was only one problem.

The Sinai Peninsula was supposed to be demilitarized. Ever since the 1956 Suez Crisis, a UN Emergency Force, or UNEF, had been stationed in the Sinai in order to keep the peace. And though no one had any illusions about the UN’s effectiveness, UNEF had, until now, prevented full-scale war from breaking out.

Until Nasser expelled them.

Technically, he was fully within his rights to do so. But the Israelis and the Americans alike were horrified and disgusted by how easily the UN seemed to fold to Nasser’s demands. The New York Times put the UN Secretary General, U Thant (ooh TUNT), on blast in an op-ed for having, and this is a direct quote, “the objectivity of a spurned lover and the dynamism of a noodle.” Friends, I’m crying. Why does no one write op-eds like this anymore?!

But despite these very funny criticisms, the UN Emergency Forces had no desire to get stuck in the middle of a fight. So they pretty much retreated without looking back. By May 19th, 1967, the Sinai was bristling with 80,000 Egyptian troops, 550 Egyptian tanks, a thousand Egyptian guns, and no UN forces to deter them.

Oof. Oof. And oof again.

Imagine being an ordinary Israeli as all this was going down. You get the broadcasts from the Arab world. You know what they’re saying about you. You know you’re massively outnumbered. You know exactly how small your country is, and how difficult to defend. You know that you have no friends to come to your aid. You’re terrified

And maybe you’re also thinking, this again? A decade before, Israel had gone to war against the same guy during the Suez Canal Crisis! Less than a decade before THAT, the Jewish state had fought off five invading armies, losing one percent of its population in the process. One. Percent. That would be like the US losing 3.3 million people.

The Israelis couldn’t afford another massive war. They didn’t have another 1% to sacrifice. And most importantly, they were exhausted. Exhausted from their porous borders. From listening to the neighbors call for their destruction on the daily. From the shelling in the north and the sniping in the south and the raids in the west. From being the so-called “ever-dying” Jews. Was this life in the Jewish state? Constantly living on the sword?

For the next two weeks, Israel waited. And waited. And, breathlessly, stomach-churningly, heart-stoppingly, waited some more. As Arab planes flew over Dimona on a recon mission. As Nasser threatened to “completely destroy” the Jewish state. As the United States repeatedly warned Eshkol not to attack. Which, come on, is that not crazy to me? Nasser was the one massing troops, yet Israel was being cautioned not to attack! Meanwhile, the UN stayed silent about Egyptian troop movements. As did the Americans. The British. The French.

Israel was alone. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

And finally, the Arab nations were standing shoulder to shoulder against their common enemy. How touching that Israel could help bring them together.

Meanwhile, the Israeli public was getting antsy. And by antsy, I mean very, very worried. Why was their government just waiting as the Arab world sharpened its knives?

Maybe it was better that they didn’t know the truth.

The military had been prepping for the worst-case scenario for a while, even drafting plans for a preemptive attack back in May. But the IDF knew that they had — at most – 72 hours before the UN or US stepped in to demand a ceasefire. That wasn’t enough time to push Egypt out of the Sinai, and IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin knew it. So Eshkol kept looking for diplomatic options, hoping he could still turn the situation around. And in the meantime, Rabin was falling apart.

He knew that if war came, Israel was, pardon my French, screwed. The fighting wouldn’t be confined to the Sinai. The north would see action, too. He also knew that there was no way to protect the civilians living in the coastal cities. To make matters even worse, Egypt had unconventional weapons, which Israel had no way to repel.

As nerve-wracking day bled into nerve-wracking day, Rabin ate less and smoked more, all while Eshkol urged restraint. Wait, he said. We don’t have a reason to fight yet. Massing troops isn’t a big-enough act of war.

And then, on May 22nd, the “big-enough” act of war finally came, when Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran – the narrow sea passage that acted as Israel’s single trade route to East Africa and all of Asia. Israel was used to fighting alone. But being isolated from the rest of the world? That was both spiritually and materially intolerable. 

Most of the country’s oil came in through the Straits, just as most of its exports made their way out. Closing this route was more than a provocation. This was casus belli – a fancy Latin phrase meaning “a justified reason to go to war.” Meanwhile, Radio Cairo was whipping the masses into a frenzy. The Egyptian street was howling for an attack, ready to crush the Jewish state once and for all.

A day after Egypt blockaded the Straits, Rabin broke down completely. His wife Leah called the army’s chief doctor, who gave Rabin a tranquilizer. The country was on the brink of war, and the military’s Chief of Staff was out of commission. 

As Rabin recuperated, the IDF’s operations chief stepped up, drawing up plans for a battle on three fronts. And still, Eshkol waited, still hoping to avoid war. Israel did not have the upper hand. It lacked the men, the resources, and the allies. If the Jewish state attacked first, it was uncertain whether anyone would come to their aid. I am literally getting anxious saying this all out loud.

After Egypt closed the Straits, Deputy Prime Minister-slash-Foreign Minister Abba Eban had made a whirlwind tour of Paris and London and Washington. In all three, he heard assurances that Israel wouldn’t be annihilated, but no promises or concrete plans. If Israel struck first, they’d strike alone. And if you’ll permit me to muse for a minute… is this aloneness a fundamental, existential condition of being a Jew? I’ve been asking myself that more and more recently.

So as the Arab street grew increasingly confident, the Israeli public wondered if this was the end. And Eshkol didn’t help matters. On May 28th, he addressed the nation in what would become known as the “stammering speech.” The poor guy hadn’t slept. He was recovering from a cold and a recent cataract surgery. He could barely read his notes. The result was a barely-coherent, rambly speech. Across the country, panic erupted. 

It would only grow worse over the coming days.

Because despite his earlier reluctance, King Hussein was now on board with the rest of the Arab world. Jordan was agitating for war. And he was in a delicate position to begin with – a Hashemi minority ruling over a restless, majority-Palestinian population. If Jordan’s Palestinians revolted, the king could lose his throne –  or worse, his life. 

Plus, the Egyptians had already tried to get rid of him multiple times. If he didn’t join the war, and Nasser struck first, what exactly would stop the Egyptians from crossing over into Jordan when they were done making mincemeat out of Israel? 

Like I said, Hussein was a pragmatist, and smart enough to read the writing on the wall. It was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t. And, understandably, he was furious at everyone: Egypt and Syria, for putting him into this position; the Palestinians, who were proving to be an ever-growing thorn in his side; Israel, for existing; the US, for enabling Israel (in his mind)… I think that’s everyone. Sometimes, it’s not good to be king.

So he hedged his bets. Of all the players to appease, Egypt was the best call. Nasser was the Regina George of the Arab world. (Hey, second Mean Girls reference in this episode, I’m on a roll.) And Jordan didn’t want to go against the most powerful girl in school. So on May 30th, Jordan signed a mutual defense pact with Egypt. If Israel attacked one, the other would come to its aid. Plus, in Hussein’s mind, this pact made it a lot less likely that Egypt would invade Jordan after destroying Israel. So though he had no love for Nasser and no real interest in war, King Hussein found himself preparing for another conflict with Israel.

The entire Arab world was ready. Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon had all massed their troops. Farther afield, Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, and Sudan all promised reinforcements. And in Israel, the mood was grim. Everyone knew that a war would cost thousands of lives – if not the entire country. Where was Israeli leadership? Why wasn’t anyone DOING anything?!

Israel’s 2.3 million Jews began to mobilize. They dug trenches. Built shelters. Filled sandbags. Practiced air raid drills, launched emergency blood drives, stockpiled medicines, prepared hospital beds, and – most horrifyingly – dug ten thousand graves.

Ten. Thousand. Graves. For a country of less than three million.

This wasn’t just a war on their doorstep. Israelis felt another Holocaust looming. I forget sometimes, from my comfortable vantage point in 2024, that 1967 was only 22 years out from the worst genocide in Jewish history. How could Israelis not hear echoes of Hitler in all of Nasser’s bloviating?

Of the world’s roughly 12 million Jews at the time, more than 2 million lived in Israel. If the Arabs won, most would die, leaving the world’s remaining Jews to carry on the memory of the short-lived Third Jewish Commonwealth.

The book of Numbers, aka BaMidbar, tells the story of the 12 spies. The Israelites have been promised a new home in Canaan, so they send a bunch of guys to do some recon, check the place out. 10 of the 12 came back with doomsday predictions. Zo eretz ochelet toshveha, said one. This is a land that eats its inhabitants.

Was it true? Had Israelis fought so hard to be Israelis, only to be annihilated?

It’s 2024, and you know the answer to that. But Eshkol and Rabin and Eban and roughly 2 million Israeli Jews didn’t. They had no idea that they’d win the war, quadruple their territory, and change the world.

So what happened? How did Israel go from preparing for a second Holocaust to burnishing its legacy as the mightiest army in the Middle East? 

It’s a wild ride. But you’ll have to tune in next week, for part two of the story of the Six Day War.

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