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"If I am not for myself . . . ": The American Jewish Establishment in the Aftermath of the Six Day War

From: American Jewish History
Volume 88, Number 2, June 2000
pp. 253-286 | 10.1353/ajh.2000.0045

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American Jewish History 88.2 (2000) 253-286

"Has the Six-Day War produced a change in my weltanschauung?" mused Elie Wiesel in early 1968. "I would go even further and say that the change was total, for it involved my very being as both a person and as a Jew." The celebrated writer echoed a consensus among American Jews that they had reacted to the previous year's events in perfect accordance with their historical obligations and to the betterment of Jewish existence. "To destroy [Israel]," he continued, "to let it be destroyed, would have meant the end of an affirmation, the end of hope, the end of our history which we shaped as both Jews and human beings . . . [T]he end of Israel would mean to me the end of man." But Israel had not perished, and American Jews felt strengthened, if still baffled, by their role in its victory. "[W]hatever happened last year represents for me-and I hope for you as well," Wiesel concluded, "a moment in which each gesture became an elan, an opening toward pride and humility and, above all, astonishment. For me, then, the problem is not how to explain it, but rather how to capture it, how to keep it alive, and make it mine."

Like Wiesel, subsequent commentators have widely acknowledged the Six Day War as a profoundly transformational event in American Jewish history. Yet if many American Jews were themselves mystified by the unprecedented unity and cultural regeneration that the crisis inspired, most chroniclers have emphasized another aspect of the story. Identifying the summer of 1967 as "the triumph of Jewish insecurity," one such recent account explains that "[f]or Jews, the change was utterly disorienting . . . The victory marked the end of one era and the beginning of another . . . the moment, it is often said, when American Jews gained pride in being Jewish." More significantly, the crisis converted the once-liberal Jewish establishment into a mere "instrument of defensive nationalism."

In this new mood, the cause of Jewish advocacy underwent a fundamental transformation of values. The world after 1967 was regarded as a hostile place, divided between the Jews' friends and their enemies. The values that for so long had characterized American Judaism -- equality, tolerance, and social justice -- became suspect in New Jewish leadership circles. A new set of basic values came to replace them: loyalty to the Jewish people, commitment to its survival, and hostility toward its enemies.

This general theme pervades writing on recent Jewish history. "[T]he Six Day War taught American Jews a lesson in politics," claims a typical study. "It helped destroy the belief, ingrained since Emancipation, that the left generally supported Jewish interests while the right was the source of antisemitism." Arthur Hertzberg maintains that the war "united the Jews of America but . . . also made them somewhat lonelier and even angrier," while Lucy Dawidowicz writes that "American Jews were responding to Israel's exigent needs and to their sense that being Jewish was as important to them, perhaps even more important, than being American. For America's culture and politics were creating a milieu in which Jews no longer felt at ease, no longer felt quite at home."

The understanding that American Jews turned inward and rightward after the Six Day War is associated implicitly with the concurrent decay in their relations with the African-American community. A prominent historian of the 1960s explains that "postwar [after World War II] liberalism regarded civil rights as the preeminent issue." By extension, the conspicuous role American Jews played in the civil rights movement has consistently served as a benchmark of Jewish liberalism. Thus, in 1971, Newsweek could instinctively surmise that "the rise of black militancy has posed a major challenge to the characteristic liberalism of U.S. Jews." Many writers addressing the domestic impact of the 1967 war echo this prevailing though imprecise equation. One popular review of the faltering black-Jewish alliance asserts that "[t]he Six Day War, and the feelings that flowed from it, threw into sharp relief the changing status of American Jews." Just as the Middle East conflict materialized to rouse dormant ethnic and religious sensibilities, "[t]he political moorings...



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