Review: The Seventh Day

the-seventh-dayOver the past few days, I have been working on scheduling meetings with members of Knesset in an effort to wrap up the interview portion of my research here in Israel. Of course, one can only spend so much time on the phone. In my downtime, I have been catching up on my reading.

Today’s book was The Seventh Day: Soldiers’ Talk about the Six-Day War. Compiled soon after the end of the 1967 Six Day War, The Seventh Day is a collection of interviews, letters, and personal reflections by kibbutzniks who either served in the army during the war or otherwise lived close to the battlefront. It was the intent of the project’s initiators, among them Avraham Shapira and Amos Oz, to counter the widespread public enthusiasm and general euphoria which followed the Israeli victory.

What it produced was a deeply introspective examination of the atmosphere of the war, the Israeli national psyche, and public attitudes toward the country’s vastly expanded boundaries. The editors note that only members of Israel’s kibbutz movement are included in the study. As “an elite, dedicated to the furtherance of the country’s national and social ideals,” they believed kibbutzniks were the best and brightest Israel had to offer, whose disproportionate numbers both in military service and in suffering casualties made them representative of “a whole army” (2, 8).

Those interviewed could not be construed in any way as opposed to the war or did not believe in its necessity. Indeed, the editors note in the introduction that should the soldiers not have believed they were engaged in a defensive war at the outset, the discovery of “propaganda posters and schoolbooks designed to inculcate hatred, battle orders for the destruction of Jewish settlements” would certainly have convinced them (6). That said, there is an attitude expressed throughout the work that the soldiers in no way relished battle, rarely felt hatred for their Arab enemies, and wished above all for peace with their neighbors. Expressed support for a “purity of arms” and a general revulsion to practices of looting and abuse of prisoners support this assessment.

There is much in this collection which should be of great interest for sociologists, psychologists, and political scientists alike on the attitudes of people in battle, fighting for home and country, and for engaging an enemy face-to-face. For my own work, I was particularly interested in how the soldiers spoke of their attachment to land and country and their feelings on Israel’s expanded territorial control. Here I found quite a wealth of material expressing a variety of opinions about specific territories, which often varied depending upon the captured lands under discussion.

Three themes in particular dominated this discussion: the Golan Heights (and to a more limited extent the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula) as critical security assets, the West Bank as central to Jewish history and an important security buffer yet problematically populated by Arabs, and Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish people. With regard to the Golan, soldiers unanimously were unwilling to surrender control to the Syrians under any circumstance. An intense feeling of mistrust prompted by 19 years of rocket bombardments from the North (sound familiar?) prompted most who touched on the issue to note that such a situation could not be allowed to continue. One soldier argued, “if they’re given back, it’ll be a crime second to none” (143).

As for the West Bank and expanded borders at large, one soldier noted, “I’d sooner have a war now, with the borders we’ve got at the moment, than any state of phoney cease-fire. The present border lines really do give us maximum security” (110). Another soldier in the same interview expressed his belief that “what the Arabs on the West Bank think will be quite a decisive factor. And that’s no small handful of people – there are nearly a million. I’m not racist, but I know one thing: I read the statistics and for every thousand Arabs in the country there are sixty births as compared to twenty among the same number of Jews. You can make a simple calculation that within one generation – and that’s worrying” (112). A third suggested that the borders are good for the country’s security and Israel should just put a military government in the West Bank (113). In another interview, a soldier suggested giving the whole of the territory to Jordan but under the condition that it remain thoroughly demilitarized with Israeli control of the river.

When it came to the issue of Jerusalem, however, interviewees were considerably more emotional. Despite the secular atmosphere and attitudes which pervaded kibbutz life, many of the soldiers interviewed expressed a kind of religious fervor regarding Israel’s victory, especially with regard to the reunification of Jerusalem and the capture of the Old City. It would be rather unwieldy to include all the quotes to this effect here, but a few in particular are warranted.

The only religious kibbutznik identified in the book had this to say about his experience at the Kotel:

“I saw my friends, kibbutz-educated toward an attitude of scorn for traditional religious values, now overwhelmed by a feeling of holiness, and as elated and moved as I was. Then I saw proof of what I had previously assumed, that there is in all of us, religious and non-religious alike, in the entire Jewish people, an intense quality of Jewishness that is neither destroyed by education nor blurred by foreign ideologies and values” (236)

A soldier who identifies himself as very secular describes similar reactions by his unit as they entered the area of the Old City near the Kotel (Western Wall):

“Then we got to St. Stephen’s Gate and we could see the Western Wall, through an archway. We saw it before, but this time is was right in front of us. It was like new life, as though we had just woken up. We dashed down the steps; we were among the first to get there, but a few had already got there and I could see them, men that were too tired to stand up any more, sitting by the Wall, clutching it, kissing the stones and crying. We all of us cried. That was what we had been fighting for. It goes so deep, this emotion we felt when we reached the Wall. What they did in Sinai and in Syria, sure it was marvelous, but it wasn’t the same thing. Getting to the Wall meant everything.” (68)

For him, the territorial gains elsewhere were important for the state but had nowhere the level of meaning for him. Yet another reflection comes from a soldier who draws a sharp distinction between security necessity and historical cultural entitlement:

“I think you have to make a distinction between the problem of Jerusalem and the rest of the territories we’re talking about. As long as security problems dictate that we stay in the territories beyond our previous borders, then we have to stay there. But the minute those problems are solved, then in my opinion we’ve no more right to stay there, at least so long as our only right is that of military success. And it’s got nothing to do with who started the war, or the background against which it all began.

“But I wouldn’t say the same about Jerusalem, because Jerusalem’s got some far deeper meaning. It’s something in our hearts, something to do with the way we feel. It was the source, the cornerstone of the whole Jewish people. Jerusalem really symbolizes our whole history, it’s a thread that goes right through the story of our people. It was always the focus. Jerusalem’s not just an idea: it’s a whole world that embraces everything…” (105)

In this vein, another soldier expressed his belief that the capture of the Old City of Jerusalem was the unfinished mission of the 1948-9 Israeli War of Independence:

“First of all it’s not the Wall; it’s the Old City. It didn’t have a religious connotation – at least so it seems to me. Today, when I try to explain it to myself, I can’t find an exact answer – but it seems to me that for us the Old City was a symbol of something unfinished. It’s ours. The Old City should be ours. This is our capital. It symbolized what we strove for for nineteen years. Jerusalem was a symbol of something that had been taken from us, a symbol of some sort of defeat in the War of Independence.” (228)

Clearly, while those interviewed were hardly of one mind on the cultural or historical importance of other territories captured by Israel, Jerusalem stands as a critical exception. Indeed, the only person cited in the entire book as disparaging of these claims is Amos Oz himself in his personal reflection “Strange City” (237-242) and in an interview conducted by Oz, “Justice and Strength” (136-153), for which he is taken to task by his interviewees despite his adamant attempts to steer the conversation towards criticism of Israeli control of a united Jerusalem.

Much more recently, editor Avram Shapira has admitted that interviews with a number of religious youths who served in combat units were deliberately kept out of the collection. In these pieces which did not make the cut, soldiers insisted that victory in the Six Day War was divine providence. These interviewees, unlike their secular counterparts, insisted upon the importance of places like Hebron, Shiloh, and Beit-El to the Land of Israel, and, according to Oz, were indifferent to the Arab population now under Israel’s control. In short, their testimonies did not fit the narrative the editors wanted.

That the final product lacked these elements might be taken by some as a condemnation of the project as a whole. Indeed, by refusing to consider the attitudes of these religious youth, the editors deliberately chose to sweep to the side the exploding national sentiment of the time that the Jewish people had returned to the Whole of the Land. This ideology was important not only for the religious who congealed into Gush Emunim, but largely secular (and formerly leftists) Israeli elites who participated in the Movement for the Whole Land of Israel.

I am inclined to be more charitable. While The Seventh Day certainly does not wholly nor accurately represent the widespread enthusiasm for Israel’s newly acquired control of the biblical heartland, it does not aim to. Rather, it seeks to explore the attitudes of a particular population who were, up until that point, truly the intellectual and political elite in Israel, the secular left. That even they were hardly shy to express similar beliefs about the cultural or even religious importance of a reunited Jerusalem speaks to its enormous popular appeal. That they expressed many of the same security and demographic arguments which are still dominant today regarding the territories is no less significant.

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