Fifty years have passed since the Six Day War was fought and won. Half-a-century during which we have studied that war, its background, causes, and course. Countless analyses have been written, from the most superficial babbling in cheap paperbacks and forgotten newspapers, to the most serious books and articles by the world’s foremost experts in military doctrines, strategists, tacticians, and political scientists.
Today, five decades of hindsight and a Torah-based insight can enable us to begin to understand the real lessons and significance of that war.
Ever since the Exodus, when “we were obligated to thank, to exalt, to praise, to glorify, to elevate, to beautify, to bless, to aggrandize, and to laud He Who performed all these miracles for us and for our fathers” (Pesachim 10:5), it has been fundamental to Judaism that we are commanded to thank G-d and to acknowledge the good that He bestows upon us. This is the halachic reason for saying Hallel on the Festivals, and on occasions when He saved us from extermination. Recognizing miracles inevitably increases our faith in G-d and our connection to He Who saved us and our fathers.
It is appropriate, therefore, to address the question: What was the single greatest miracle of the entire Six Day War?
Not an easy question, for there were so many miracles, both hidden and revealed.
There is no end to the stories that have been documented from the battles:
– of the Egyptian tank commander in the Sinai Desert who surrendered to a vastly inferior Israeli force on the second day of the war, because a desert mirage made him see hundreds of Israeli tanks where there were no more than a dozen;
– of the Jordanian forces who welcomed the Israeli tanks under the command of Colonel Uri Ram into Shechem on the third day of the war, because faulty communications misled the Arabs into thinking that these were Iraqi tanks come to reinforce them;
– of the battle for Ammunition Hill on the northern outskirts of Jerusalem, which was captured by an Israeli scout by mistake when he fell into a Jordanian trench in the moonless night at 2:00 on the Tuesday morning and started shooting from the hip – and the fall of Ammunition Hill was the necessary prelude to the capture of the Old City 30 hours later.
But all these events were details, and in the details it is all too easy to forget the overall picture.
A two-front war is every general’s nightmare: being forced to split the armed forces has been the downfall of countless seemingly invincible armies, from Assyria which lost a two-front war in 612 B.C.E. to a Babylonian/Median alliance, to the Athenian-Spartan army which succumbed to a Persian/Roman alliance in 480 B.C.E., to Germany which lost two world wars when battling Russia in the east and an Anglo-French alliance in the west. In June 1967, Israel was faced with a four-front war along the borders with Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt.
And the Israeli military was outnumbered on all fronts and in all services. Israel could field a total strength of 264,000 soldiers; this included all the reserves, and could not therefore be sustained for any length of time without destroying the economy. Facing them were 525,000 Arab soldiers (of whom almost half – 240,000 – were Egyptian). Israeli tanks were outnumbered by more than three to one: 800 Israeli tanks faced 2,424 Arab tanks (again, about half – 1,200 – were Egyptian). The Israeli Air Force could field 350 aircraft, outnumbered almost 3 to 1 by 939 Arab aircraft (450 of them Egyptian).
While the Arab countries continued to receive vast quantities of weapons from their traditional suppliers – the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and, to a lesser extent, the United States – Israel’s main weapon supplier, France, without warning slapped an arms embargo on Israel; so did the USA.
Little wonder that while the entire Arab world, led by the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser, was proclaiming its forthcoming triumph against Israel, and proudly trumpeting the imminent annihilation of Israel and the massacre of all her citizens (the Jewish ones, that is), Israel was preparing to fight for her very existence, and projecting – in a best-case scenario – some 10,000 dead, maybe up to 100,000 – if she survived at all. Plans were made to turn national parks into mass cemeteries, even as schoolchildren were given canvas sacks and started shoveling sand into them to defend their homes.
The result is history. In six days, Israel captured the entire Sinai Desert (including the Gaza Strip) from Egypt; Judaea and Samaria, and half of Jerusalem, from Jordan; and the Golan Heights from Syria. Instead of being annihilated, she had more than trebled her territory from 8,000 square miles (20,500 sq. km) to 26,000 sq. miles (66,500 sq. km).
Of Israel’s neighbours, Lebanon alone (which had the good sense to withdraw from the fighting after only a few hours) lost no land.
This came at a heavy price: 776 Israeli soldiers were killed and 2,586 wounded – more than double the proportion its total population as the U.S. lost in eight years of fighting in Vietnam. The Arab countries have never published their losses; but reliable estimates put the Egyptian war dead at 11,500 (1,500 officers, 10,000 other ranks), Syrian at 2,500, Jordanian at 1,000 – not counting the tens of thousands injured and captured.
The very fact that Israel survived was a miracle; that we not merely survived, but won a decisive victory, infinitely more miraculous. Indeed, a West Point general once remarked that though the U.S. Military Academy studies wars fought throughout history throughout the world, they do not study the Six Day War – because what concerns West Point is strategy and tactics, not miracles.
What, then, was the single greatest miracle?
In order to answer this, we first have to understand the nature of a miracle. Perhaps the clearest analysis of the precise nature of miracles is given by the Ramban. In Parashat Lech Lecha, G-d forges His covenant with Abram, changing his name to Abraham and promising him that in a year’s time (when Abraham would be a hundred years old and his wife Sarah would be ninety) Sarah would give birth to a son – clearly a miraculous event. The Ramban comments:
“The reason that [G-d introduced Himself here] with the Name [El Shaddai] is that it is with this Name that hidden miracles are wrought for the tzaddikim, ‘to save their soul from death and to sustain them in life through famine’ (Psalms 33:19), delivering them from the sword in war. Such was with all the miracles that were wrought for Abraham and the [other] Patriarchs, and all the subsequent [miracles] that the Torah promises in Parashat Bechukotai and Ki Tavo, [i.e. the promises of] blessings [for obeying the Torah] and curses [for disobeying it]. For all these are miraculous; after all, there is no natural reason why the rains should come in their appropriate seasons just because we worship G-d, or why the sky should become iron [ibid. 19] when we sow in the shmitta year. Thus, too, with all that the Torah commands. All are miracles, and all control natural fortune, even though the normal course of the world is in no way changed, as it was by Moshe Rabbeinu in the Ten Plagues, at the Splitting of the Sea, the Manna, the well in the desert, and so forth” (commentary to Genesis 17:1).
In addressing the calculation by which Jochebed was some 130 years old when she gave birth to Moshe, the Ramban returns to this theme:
“The Tanach mentions miracles which were performed by a prophet after he had already prophesied them, or an angel who appeared for a divine mission; but it does not mention miracles which occurred spontaneously to help a tzaddik or to destroy an evil person.... The entire foundation of the Torah is hidden miracles; the whole purpose of the Torah is only miracles, not nature or custom. After all, all the promises that the Torah makes are miraculous” (commentary to Genesis 46:15).
So miracles are not necessarily supernatural events. Miracles can be seemingly natural events, which only in hindsight can be understood as having been Divinely ordained to have occurred for the sake of the nation of Israel.
With this basis, we now re-examine the Six Day War.
In January 1964, Yitzhak Rabin had become the Chief of Staff of the IDF, a position he would retain until his retirement in January 1968. He had long since proved his mettle: almost exactly 19 years before the Six Day War, on June 21st 1948, in his capacity as Chief Operations Officer of the Central Front, he had commanded the Palmach unit that fired on the Altalena (an Irgun arms ship carrying almost 900 soldiers, 5,000 rifles, 250 Bren guns, 5 million bullets, 50 Bazookas, and 10 Bren carriers). To clarify: the Acting Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, had given the command to blow up this ship; he had ordered Yisra’el Amir (Commander of the Air Force) to bomb it from the air, but he – and all the Air Force pilots – refused point blank to turn their weapons on fellow Jews.
A number of other Palmach officers likewise refused.
It was Yitzhak Rabin who enthusiastically used Israeli artillery against an Israeli ship bringing materiel for the Israeli army, and in the process killed 16 Jewish soldiers – in the midst of the War of Independence, when every soldier and every bullet was needed to protect the nascent state.
There is a word for a person – more, a field commander in the military – who turns artillery fire against his own side during time of war.
Twenty-five years after the Six Day War, Yitzhak Rabin stood for election as prime minister for the second time (his first term had been 1974-1977). During the election campaign, Rabin presented himself as “Mr Security”; his most central election pledges were that he would never engage in dialogue with the PLO; that he would never agree to a foreign armed force west of the River Jordan; that he would never negotiate on east Jerusalem; that even in time of peace, he would not even consider retreating from the Golan Heights.
In fact, during the election campaign, even while he was solemnly swearing never to talk to Arafat and his henchmen, Rabin’s closest colleagues were already cutting deals with those very terrorists, promising them weapons, political power, land, training bases, and the like in return for Arab support for his political party in the elections.
The rest is history: on 13th September 1993 – barely fifteen months after the elections – Rabin, Peres, and Arafat signed the Oslo death accords, under which Rabin’s government transferred tens of thousands of assault rifles and submachine-guns, tens of millions of bullets, armoured personnel carriers, and other materiel to the PLO. In order to dupe the Israeli (and world) public, Rabin deliberately lied, claiming that the state of war with the PLO was over. And after every terrorist outrage, while Jewish blood was flowing in the streets of Beit Lydd, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Hadera – the list goes on – Rabin continued to lie, deliberately protecting the PLO’s reputation, claiming that they were our “partners in peace, the “moderates” who were valiantly battling the “extremists” – even as he knew that the terrorists were those very “partners in peace,” receiving their orders directly from his own friend and confidant, Yasser Arafat.
Again, there is a word for a person – more, a prime minister and defence minister – who cold-bloodedly and deliberately arms terrorists for them to direct their murderous fire against his own side during time of war.
And so in 1967, at Israel’s most critical juncture ever, while facing a thirteen-nation military coalition dedicated to her extermination, outnumbered on four fronts, isolated in the world – at that time, the Israeli army’s supreme commander was a traitor, who consciously and deliberately collaborated with the enemy in time of war.
He demonstrated his grasp of reality on Independence Day, the 5th of Iyyar (15th May). In a press conference, Rabin proclaimed that he “foresees a long period of peace between us and our Arab neighbours”.
As he was talking, Egyptian forces were already deploying in the Sinai Desert, along the Israeli border. The next day, Nasser ordered the UN Emergency Force (stationed along the Israeli/Egyptian border since 1957 precisely to prevent war) to leave, and the UN Secretary General U Thant acceded within a few hours.
Two days later, on May 18th, Syrian forces achieved battle readiness along the Golan Heights. Four days later, on May 22nd, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to all Israeli ships, as well as to non-Israeli ships bound for Eilat – blockading Israel’s supply routes from Africa, and blocking Israel’s oil supply.
On May 30th, King Hussein of Jordan joined the Egyptian/Syrian war coalition, placing his army under Egyptian command. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, and Pakistan mobilised their armies and air forces, and sent contingents to reinforce the forces ranged against Israel.
On June 4th, Iraq joined the anti-Israel pact.
G-d alone knows how Rabin would have acted, had he but been given the opportunity. If his previous record and subsequent behaviour are a reasonable indication, he would not have allowed the IDF to defend Israel – and certainly not to launch the first strike, without which Israel would have been annihilated in the first few land battles.
Quite conceivably, Rabin would have transferred weapons – rifles, machine-guns, strike planes, artillery pieces – to the enemy Arab states, and lied to the Israeli public that he was “strengthening the moderates” in order “to make peace with them”. Who can say that he would not have ordered Israel to withdraw from the Galilee, from western Jerusalem, from Haifa, and from the Negev Desert – in order to “make peace”?
But by the grace of G-d, Rabin was denied the opportunity: on the 17th of Iyyar (May 25th), he suffered a nervous breakdown, and was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward.
(In order not to demoralize the nation, the official cover story was that he had collapsed of nicotine poisoning.)
Major General Ezer Weizman – who had been the Commander of the Air Force from 1958-1966, and was by then OC Operations Branch – became acting Chief of Staff, and prepared the IDF for war, for pre-emptive strike.
Without Rabin’s nervous breakdown, none of the subsequent miracles could ever have taken place: the Israeli Air Force could not have destroyed the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Iraqi air forces within eight hours had they been forbidden to strike: the most highly-motivated soldier in the world cannot vanquish the enemy if his own commander forbids him to fire a single shot. The most dazzled and demoralized enemy tank commander will never surrender when he knows that the Commander in Chief of the opposing side is about to send him weaponry.
Rabin’s mental collapse falls precisely into the Ramban’s categorization of “delivering them from the sword in war…even though the normal course of the world is in no way changed”.
And so we see that the greatest miracle of the entire Six Day War – the base upon which all the subsequent miracles rested – was actually a hidden miracle, which happened quietly and without fanfare (and was, indeed, deliberately kept secret), which happened a week and a half before the Six Day War.