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Israelis Have Mixed Feelings About The 50th Anniversary Of The Six Day War


This week, Israel will be marking the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War. The conflict is known by other names, but six days stands out because so much happened in such a short time to change so much. By the time the ceasefire was called, the relatively new nation of Israel had captured territory from Egypt, Jordan and Syria, defended its right to exist, proven itself as a military power and changed the balance of power in the Middle East.

But that victory came at a cost. It started what has become a 50-year military occupation of the West Bank with no end in sight. It includes the flashpoint of East Jerusalem. Israel still controls entry and exit from Gaza. And it created what writer and editor Jane Eisner calls quote, "a painful ambiguity," unquote.

Now, a very great deal has been written and will be written about this anniversary, but we thought Jane Eisner's column stood out, so we asked her to tell us more of her thoughts. She's editor in chief of The Forward. It's a national Jewish news organization in the U.S., and we called her in New York. Jane Eisner, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JANE EISNER: It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: Now, in your column for The Forward about the anniversary, you started with your memories of listening to the radio as a little girl hearing about Israel's preemptive strike on Egypt's Air Force. You recall that sense of dread and of fear and after victory, the enormous pride. But then you write about the anniversary this way - you say (reading) I approach this half century mark with a confusing mixture of wonderment and dread, joy and despair, pride and embarrassment.

Why the conflicted feelings?

EISNER: Even as a little girl, I still remember the sheer terror of thinking that little Israel surrounded by enemies was going to not exist anymore. And so to witness this very quick and stunning victory - it's hard to recognize this now, but Israel captured three times as much land as it had before this war - was just astonishing. And then, of course, the crowning jewel was Jerusalem and the reunification of the city, the ability of Jews to be able to go to the Western Wall, the most sacred spot in Judaism, from which they had been barred since 1948 was - really did feel like a miracle.

And I think that I was not alone in carrying that narrative for many decades. It's only been as a journalist and as an adult that I have opened my eyes to the consequences of that miracle and that it was a disaster for another people who were living on that land.

MARTIN: You suggested that it goes beyond a professional responsibility to address this squarely. For those who aren't journalists, why do you feel that it is important to confront both narratives at once?

EISNER: Well, I think, morally, as a Jew, I should be compassionate to someone else's suffering. I mean, the Palestinians have a lot of agency here. I want to make that very clear. But it is caused, in part, by Israel's actions. That is very painful. You know, an occupation doesn't just hurt the occupied, it hurts the occupiers. And I certainly have seen young Israeli soldiers at checkpoints acting kind of brutally. And I understand it. Sometimes they've been killed in those situations.

But still, you're asking an 18 year old to have an inordinate amount of power over someone else's life, and that harms you as a person. And I think that there is a moral stain to this. You know, we have this phrase in Judaism that we should be a light unto the nations. And I think, in so many, ways Israel is. But I also know that there's this other thing that it is forced to do, and to some degree, chooses to do.

And it's hard because I feel very proud and grateful that Israel won the Six-Day War and still is alive now in such a powerful way. And yet, I also recognize the pain that has caused to another people and the degree to which, even as an American Jew, I feel responsible for that.

MARTIN: You know, few of us deal well with dualities, especially when it comes to military victories. So as this week unfolds, and as people hear more about this story, who, perhaps, do not engage with it as regularly as you do, what would you like them to be thinking about?

EISNER: Well, I think we have to learn how to acknowledge the fact that there are two different people that have an historical, religious and emotional attachment to the same place. So I think it's really up to us, as individuals, to learn more about the other people and feel compassion to them and try to figure out ways in which we can alleviate suffering, even if those are hard to accept.

MARTIN: That's Jane Eisner. She's editor-in-chief of The Forward. It's a national Jewish news organization. The piece we've been talking about is titled "Inner Conflict: The Six-Day War's 50th Anniversary - Does It Merit Celebration Or Despair?" It can be found in print and online. We reached Jane Eisner in New York.

Jane Eisner, thank you so much for speaking with us.

EISNER: Thank you, Michel. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.