Six Days that shook the Jewish world: June 1967

Pages from the St. Louis Jewish Light in June, 1967, covering the Six-Day War in Israel, and a major Jewish community fundraiser for an emergency fund for Israel.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-In-Chief Emeritus

For the psyche of American Jews — indeed Jews the world over —  the lightning Israeli victory in the June 5-10, 1967, Six-Day War was a transformational event.  

For that brief, shining moment 50 years ago, Jews seemed to have shaken off their victimhood and their “shtetl slouch.” They  could stand tall and proud, relieved that the Jewish State had scored one of the greatest military upsets in history against the combined armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.

I remember the sun-drenched gorgeous spring day in 1967 when my wife, Barbara, and I were attending Congregation Shaare Emeth’s young adult picnic at Creve Coeur Park. In addition to the usual small talk about kids, preschools and the latest movies, the conversation turned to the ominous war clouds over the Middle East, where fiery Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was giving increasingly bellicose speeches to mobs in Cairo, making it clear that he was taking steps to avenge the victory that Israel had achieved back in 1956, the Sinai Campaign — or the Suez Crisis. 

In the words of Abba Eban, the eloquent former foreign minister of Israel, “Vast crowds gathered on the streets of Cairo shouting, ‘Nasser, Nasser, we are behind you. We will slaughter them.  We will destroy them. Slaughter, slaughter, slaughter.’ ” 

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These blood-curdling threats were deliberately broadcast directly to the State of Israel and could not be brushed aside as mere propaganda. Nasser was preparing for war against Israel, with the stated aim of destroying the Jewish State.

Nasser was a charismatic, secular, Arab nationalist who had a vision of  a pan-Arab, secular Middle East achieved through clever diplomacy and, if necessary, by force. Back in 1962, Nasser was caught using chemical weapons to support his allies in a civil war in Yemen. After the 1956 Sinai Campaign in which Israel, France and Britain defeated Nasser when he nationalized the Suez Canal, a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was placed in the Sinai Peninsula as a buffer between Egypt and Israel, but on the condition that Egypt could order it removed at will.  

Nasser did order UNEF to withdraw from the Sinai and then massed troops in the Sinai, directly threatening Israel at its border with Egypt and the Gaza Strip. He then cemented a military alliance with the vehemently anti-Israel regime in Syria, and latter pressured Jordan’s King Hussein into joining the coalition, which encircled the tiny Jewish State. Threats to “push the Jews into the sea” reached a fever pitch in Cairo, Damascus and Amman.

Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman of Shaare Emeth had many friends and some relatives living in Israel at the time. Usually smiling and optimistic, he told me at the young adult picnic, “My friends in Israel tell me that within the first few hours of an all-out war, all of its major cities will be destroyed.” 

With increasingly dire developments coming out of the Middle East, the Jewish population in St. Louis and nationwide united in solidarity for the protection of the tiny Jewish nation surrounded on all sides by heavily armed Arab nations with a combined population of 130 million vs. the 3.5 million Jews then living in Israel.

The Jewish Federation of St. Louis mobilized the community to support the embattled Jewish State, turning to its immediate past president, Al Fleishman, and then-President Morris Shenker to help provide direction. Sidney Salomon Jr., the original owner of the St. Louis Blues, was the general chairman of the 1967 Jewish Federation Campaign, which added the Israel Emergency Fund to its fundraising efforts.

In an emergency meeting called by Federation on June 1, Fleishman said, his voice choked with emotion, “We have lived through 6 million dead. We cannot live though another 3.5 million dead.”

Salomon added, “We have said before that the need is great. It is no longer just that. In Israel today, it is a matter of life and death. We are now $600,000 short of our $2 million goal. We must not fail. We cannot fail.”

And the local community did not fail; the goal was not only reached, it was exceeded.  

At the time of the Six-Day War, I was a young staff attorney, administrative assistant and speechwriter for St. Louis County Supervisor Lawrence K. Roos, who was Jewish but not especially interested in the State of Israel.

I recall going to my first meeting of the St. Louis Chapter of the Zionist Organization of America at Shaare Zedek in University City. Rabbi Julius J. Nodel of Congregation Shaare Emeth was the local ZOA president at the time and gave the most stirring talk of his career.

Nodel complained that local Christian clergy, with whom the Jewish community had been active in interfaith work, did not want to take sides between the Arab states and Israel. He quoted one prominent Protestant leader with the Metropolitan Church Federation as saying that the interfaith group could not “take sides” and pass a strong statement of support for Israel, “but if Israel is destroyed, I will weep.”   

Along with the rest of the worldwide Jewish population, I became fixated on the nonstop TV coverage of proceedings in  U.N. Security Council, which reported that Israel had staged a surprise raid June 5 — the day before the war was expected to break — and destroyed most of the Egyptian air force with precision bombing that gave Israel mastery of the skies in the first hours of the conflict.

My predecessor as editor of the Jewish Light, Geoffrey Fisher, happened to be in Israel when the Six-Day War broke out. “U.N. – HALT WAR” screamed the Page 1 headline over Fisher’s bylined story.

Fisher, who was attending an American Jewish Press Association conference in Jerusalem, described the events he was experiencing under the subheadline, “No Choice But Fight To Death.” He wrote:

“They came from the factories, the farms, the kibbutzim — they came hard and bronzed from the long hours spent in the sun that shines here 11 months of the year. They come from every village and town – the brave sons of Israel. They stream into training centers by foot, by mule cart and by hitchhiking to once again answer the call of their embattled little nation. They came singing their Hebrew songs, and they came with a spring in their step and a flash in their eyes. Because they know what they come for and they know where they go and why they go.”

At the United Nations, Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, whose eloquence and mastery of the spoken word was often compared to that of Winston Churchill, electrified the world with his address to the Security Council. The demand for recordings of the talk became so big that Federation mass-produced vinyl copies of it, which were mailed to the entire Federation and Jewish Light mailing lists.

“Not backward to belligerency, but forward to peace,” Eban urged the nearly defeated Arab states. “If the Arabs will come to the peace table, they will find that Israel is prepared to be magnanimous.”

On June 7, 1967, Israel achieved what was long considered a forlorn dream: the reunification of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital for the first time in 2,000 years. Jordan’s Hussein had rebuffed pleas from Israel not to engage in combat against the Israel Defense Forces, but the Royal Jordanian Army did go on the attack around the Old City of Jerusalem, which Jordan had seized during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. During the 19 years of Jordanian rule a barrier called the Mandlebaum Gate divided the city, and Jews were barred from visiting and praying at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Jerusalem.

I can recall listening to reports of Israel’s liberation of Jerusalem on a small transistor radio in my office in the St. Louis County Government Building.  

“We have returned to our Eternal City,” said Moshe Dayan, the dashing Israeli defense minister who wore a distinctive black eye patch, adding, “Never again to leave.” 

Then there was the worldwide publication of an iconic photo taken by Israeli photographer David Rubinger of three young Israeli paratroopers staring at the Western Wall, the only part of the Second Temple that survived the Roman destruction of the Year 70.

The Israel Defense Forces, in the last three days of the conflict, would also recapture, at great risk, the Golan Heights from Syria, a cluster of peaks from which the Syrian army fired shells down upon Israeli kibbutzim for 19 years, wounding or killing civilians just for sport. 

Amazingly, only 777 Israeli troops died during the Six-Day War, still a heavy toll given that there were only 3.5 million Jews in Israel at the time.

Nasser’s plan to destroy Israel did not succeed, much to the relief and pride of Jews the world over.  

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, famously said: 

“In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.” 

The Six-Day War half a century ago proved him right.