Jewish Journal

Revisiting the Six-Day War, 45 years later

by Tom Tugend

Posted on May. 24, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Abraham Rabinovich (center) with Israeli paratroopers on the Temple Mount a few hours after it was captured. Photo courtesy of Abraham Rabinovich

Abraham Rabinovich (center) with Israeli paratroopers on the Temple Mount a few hours after it was captured. Photo courtesy of Abraham Rabinovich

June 5 marks the 45th anniversary of the Six-Day War, a turning point in Israeli history that, in the popular recollection, brought the new nation a swift, almost painless, victory marked by brilliant Israeli strategy and planning.

The reality on the ground in 1967 was quite different, especially in the 48-hour battle for Jerusalem, according to veteran journalist and historian Abraham Rabinovich in his new eBook “The Battle for Jerusalem: An unintended conquest that echoes still.”

Chief among the unintended historical turning points was the taking of the Jordanian-held West Bank and Jerusalem’s Old City, and to this day Israel is still wrestling with the aftermath of those momentous events.

The e-book is an extensively revised version of Rabinovich’s acclaimed 1972 hardcover book, “The Battle for Jerusalem” (Jewish Publication Society). In the intervening 40 years, the author has learned much about the Arab side of the war and of the clashing views within the Israeli leadership, while gaining the perspective of time.

But he has retained his eyewitness descriptions of the confusion and random chances of war, the mayhem of battle, alongside occasional flashes of chivalry and humanity.

When Israel launched its pre-emptive air strike on June 5, which decimated the Egyptian air force, Prime Minister Levi
Eshkol and his military advisers tried desperately to keep Jordan out of the fight.

However, in the greatest deception of the war, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser convinced Jordan’s King Hussein that Egypt had scored a great victory, and the deluded Jordanians loaded their artillery pieces and started pounding Jewish Jerusalem within two hours after the Israeli air strike.

Even then, Israel sought a cease-fire with Jordan, reinforced by strong opposition within the Israeli cabinet against capturing the Old City. The strongest objections came from the religious ministers, who feared that the international community would never countenance Jewish rule over Christian and Muslim holy places.

Israel’s leadership also remembered the 1956 conflict with Egypt, when Israel had to relinquish the conquered Sinai Peninsula under pressure from the United States and the Soviet Union.

So, while Jordan continued shelling Jewish Jerusalem, Eshkol and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan insisted that any conquered territory, including the Old City and the West Bank, should be returned after the war.

Moreover, Israel’s generals had not drawn up plans for the capture of the Old City and hastily improvised tactics as Israeli troops reached the Old City walls.

Only after paratroopers were on the verge of capturing the Old City “did the Israeli leadership come to see this as a historical dictate that they could not avoid embracing,” Rabinovich said in an interview.

In the end, had King Hussein not fallen for Nasser’s fantasy victory claims, the Old City and the West Bank would have remained under Jordanian rule. “Egypt, more than Jordan, was responsible for the loss of the West Bank,” Rabinovich noted.

While most Jordanian troops fought well and were respected by their Israeli counterparts, Jordanian officers deserted their men en masse during the 48-hour campaign.

Thus, on the second night, the commander of the Jordanian defenders told his government that only two officers still remained with him, and he was, therefore, pulling the last 500 troops out of the Old City.

King Hussein then ordered all his troops to pull back to the east side of the Jordan River, a message intercepted by Israeli intelligence.

Until then, and even after the fall of the Old City, Dayan had ordered the army not to advance into the West Bank and had actually recalled an armored brigade that had moved on its own halfway to Jericho. Only after reading Hussein’s message did Dayan order the army to roll on and fill the vacuum.

One of the book’s more startling reports is that Ariel Sharon, then a division commander, actually contemplated a coup against the civilian government when
Eshkol rejected the army’s demand for a pre-emptive strike during the tense three weeks preceding the war.

Rabinovich was born on New York’s Lower East Side, educated at Brooklyn College, served in the U.S. Army and then worked for New York-area newspapers, including Newsday.

While reporting for the now-defunct Suffolk Sun, he asked his boss for an early vacation so he could hop over to Israel. He promised to return in two weeks, which stretched into a lifetime.

Rabinovich arrived in Israel five days before the outbreak of the war and then attached himself to Israeli troops during the fighting. For his original “Battle of Jerusalem” book, he interviewed some 200 soldiers and 100 civilians.

Staying in Israel, he became a reporter for the Jerusalem Post and is the author of six books, including one on the Yom Kippur War.

His reports and vignettes of men in battle and of civilians before and after the fighting lend “Battle for Jerusalem” its sense of intimacy and immediacy, making it one of the most gripping war books in memory.

To cite but a few of the indelible images he vividly describes::

• Rabbis and yeshiva students digging trenches on Shabbat, in anticipation of 2,000 to 6,000 civilian casualties and the likelihood that Jerusalem would resemble a rubble-strewn Warsaw Ghetto after the Jordanian attack.

• When Israeli soldiers, walking in single file, cleared a minefield; after the point man had been blown up, standing orders called for those behind to step on the body and keep moving.

• After Israeli troops took the Rockefel-
ler Museum in the Old City, exhausted soldiers struggled to their feet to eagerly join a tour of the museum, led by archaeologist Avraham Biran, one of Israel’s early consuls general in Los Angeles.

• Israeli paratroopers encountered their bitterest fighting in storming Jerusalem’s Ammunition Hill. After the battle was over, reservist Mike Ronnen affixed this hand-written sign to a Jordanian rifle: “Here lie 17 brave Jordanian soldiers.”

Many of the battles were infused with a strong sense of history. “We are now fighting in the same place as our ancestors fought the Roman legions,” one soldier observed.

The night battles to reach Mount Scopus, fought in complete darkness, were marked by utter confusion, with many tank drivers taking the wrong routes.

In the hour of triumph, Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, watching his troops sweeping through the West Bank and Gaza, turned to his officers and asked, “How do we control a million Arabs?”

It is a question that continues to face Israel’s leaders and citizens nearly half a century later.

Yet, from the perspective of a Diaspora Jew, it can be said that the outcome of the Six-Day War stiffened the spine of every American Jew, even if he or she would rather not acknowledge it.

Whether rational or not, Israel’s victory — along with the black civil rights movement — ironically gave Jews from New York to Los Angeles the confidence and self-respect to feel fully part of American society.

The Kindle edition of “Battle for Jerusalem” can be ordered through amazon.com at a list price of $9.99.

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