I’ll explain my odd title, but first: I am reading an absolutely marvelous book, by an old friend. It’s called The 28th of Iyar, and it’s by Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, but it’s just “Emanuel Feldman” on this one. It’s not a religious book in the usual sense, and yet it is deeply so.
The Jewish date of the title is now Yom Yerushalayim, which commemorates the reunification of Jerusalem under Jewish rule in 1967—for the first time in nineteen centuries. And the book is a diary of Feldman’s life with his very American family in Israel in the days leading up to and during the Six-Day War.
I’ve been saving it to read during this year’s anniversary of the war, and I am savoring it without disappointment. It is by turns ethnographic, elegiac, proud, sad, alienated, emotional, spiritual, painterly, and—as always if you know Rabbi Feldman—laced with a delicious delicate wry humor even in this most ominous moment.
Make no mistake, it was. I keep slapping my forehead to remind myself: You know the outcome, but they didn’t! In fact, there was little reason to believe that Israel would survive.
Information Office in July, just after the war.
The title represents the explicit Arab goal. President Nasser of Egypt said, “Our objective is the destruction of Israel…the liquidation of Israel.” President Atassi of Syria said in May 1966, “We are looking for a total war which will not recognize any bounds.” Damascus Radio screamed, “More battles! Kill them! Butcher them! Wash your weapons clean of their blood in the waters of Jaffa, Acre, Haifa!” But if a picture is worth a thousand words, the cartoons speak many thousands.
Still, Feldman’s words profoundly evoke the day-to-day of the crisis. Two weeks before the war, call-ups began. Men left B’nei B’rak, the Feldmans’ Orthodox neighborhood, in large numbers, even on Shabbat, boarding military buses while still in shtreimels—their traditional fur hats—and carrying duffel bags, with the Rebbe’s dispensation. An officer came to one family’s door during Kiddush and waited. The cup passed to all lips, including the officer’s. Then the father grabbed his own bag and followed him.
In the parking lot of Bar Ilan University where he was teaching Feldman saw his students boarding buses. “My students. Off to war. To be killed, to be maimed…my boys. I had not realized I had become attached enough to them to become maudlin…All the tensions and fears of the past week well up within me, and I sit in the car in silence, watch them load up, and weep. It is such a bright, crisp, blue morning. They might be going off to a football game, so carefree do they seem.”
The world is not there for them. France wants Arab oil and stays neutral. The U.S. stalls “and issues platitudes. And England—lovable England…sends its well-groomed diplomats with their carefully trimmed mustaches all over the world…See my diplomat. Watch him fly. Here he is. There he goes. See his nice clothes. Hear him speak.
“Let’s face it…the free world is going to be quite content to sit idly by and fold its hands and allow another two and a half million Jews to be slaughtered. Al tivtichu bindivim, do not trust in princes. And the Catholic Church…so ecumenical, so repentant…so embarrassed over their silence in World War II—what are they saying now? An ominous, deathly silence thunders forth from the Vatican.”
Thousands of resident Americans clamor for the exits, but the Feldman family stays. Israeli acquaintances are first baffled, then grateful. The rabbi, lightly mocking himself, tries to convince them that God still has a role. “God knows we need tanks,” one skeptic finally says.
he said that the “satanic powers” of the U.S. will be “uprooted” and that Israel is “about to die and will soon be erased from the geographical scene.”
I showed my wife his angry face juxtaposed to the Israel-Must-Be-Annihilated cartoon book of 1967. “Oh,” she said. “I’m-a-Dinner-Jacket.” She calls him that with fine contempt, just as Winston Churchill used to say “Nar-zees” instead of Nazis. “Sure, he’ll eliminate America and Israel at the same time.”
She’s right, of course. He’s a tin-pot dictator banging on himself and sounding hollow. Now. If he gets nuclear, though, he still won’t be a match for America’s powers, but he will be able to annihilate Israel.
Today, June 5, 1967–the 26th of Iyar in that year–with war imminent, Israel destroyed the air forces of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan while the planes were on the ground. Had they not, Israel would not have existed a week later. The Feldman family, B’nei B’rak, and the rest of Israel’s neighborhoods would have been decimated. The vision in the Arab cartoons and speeches would have been realized.
Now President I’m-a-Dinner-Jacket, a couple of years away from nuclear arms, promises to destroy Israel. Soon, he can. What will Israel do? I don’t know; any course is gravely perilous. I am not there and I will not decide. But I do know this: The threat to Israel’s existence—and of another genocide—is far from over, and I will support what they decide.