Fifty years ago, the world experienced a defining moment in international affairs. In a region that has been called “the cockpit of national identities and perpetual conflict,” the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, known in Israel and the West as the Six-Day War, was bound to have wide ramifications.
As Israeli historian Michael B. Oren writes, “the 1967 war, the reverberations of which continue to convulse the region, was a primary juncture in the making of the modern Middle East” (Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present). Second only to the 1948 founding of the State of Israel in its repercussions, the brief war had so many consequences that some have said we are still living the war’s seventh day.
“At a very deep level, the war left its mark on everyone in the world who identified himself as either Jew or Arab, and what had been a local conflict became a worldwide one.”
We can certainly see the continuing effect on four ways of thinking and acting—four “isms”—with respect to the Middle East: Arab nationalism, Islamic extremism, Zionism and American evangelicalism. With the defeat of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq—the surrounding states that sought to overthrow the State of Israel—Arab nationalism foundered and the other three zealotries gained ground. Taken together, the progress and discontents of these ideologies helps explain events of the past half century in the region and the ongoing turmoil.
Let’s review the impact of Israel’s 1967 victory for each of them, and for peace in the long term.
The concept of the entire Muslim people unlimited by national boundaries but united as a religious community, or umma, had long been understood within Islam. Thus, in the early 20th century, Muslim Arabs living in the Middle Eastern territories of the Ottoman Empire had been mostly content to answer to Istanbul rather than seek their own separate governments. But when the flames of Turkish secular nationalism were fanned by the Young Turk uprising of 1908, the empire’s Arab Muslims began to search out their own forms of nationalism and independence.
While the intervening World War I slowed down the process, it was to accelerate again with the collapse of Ottoman power at war’s end and the new order that was imposed on the Middle East by postwar treaties. The peace process and the maneuvering of three of the Allied nations—Britain, France and the United States—resulted in new political lines in the sand. Palestine, Transjordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Latakia (today a part of Syria) arrived as entities with varieties of self-determination in their sights. Once British and French temporary mandatory rule would end, Arab nationalist impulses might be fulfilled.
But once more, intervening events including World War II, the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel, and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, along with the complexities of colonial, Arab/Palestinian and Zionist politics, meant that the path to Arab nationalist success was uneven at best.
The rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt during the 1950s propelled Arab nationalism to new heights. His triumph over Israel, Britain and France in the 1956 Suez Crisis encouraged the Arab world and strengthened his regional aspirations. But what seemed a confirmation of the flowering of Pan-Arabism—his 1958 political merger of Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic—was thwarted from within and lasted a mere three years.
This did not prevent his further involvement with Syria, which in the lead-up to the ’67 war supported guerilla incursions into northern Israel by Yasser Arafat’s al-Fateh movement (later to merge with and take over Nasser’s competitive arm, the Palestine Liberation Organization). When Israel retaliated with tank and air battles against Syria, and Soviet intelligence suggested that an Israeli invasion was imminent, Nasser decided to act. He requested removal of post-Suez-era UN peacekeepers from the Sinai and Gaza, and blocked the Gulf of Aqaba and the Straits of Tiran to Israeli and other ships carrying strategic items to the port city of Eilat. Egypt then allied with Syria, Jordan and Iraq in an attempt to eliminate Israel once and for all.
Israel, believing that its very existence was at stake, opted for a preemptive strike. Exact numbers vary, but according to Oren their June 5 surprise attack on Egypt’s air force destroyed 286 planes, most of them still on the ground. Within 24 hours three other Arab air forces were out of commission. In the days that followed, Israeli ground forces pushed all the way to the Suez Canal and Sharm el-Sheikh (at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula), drove back Jordanian and Syrian forces from the Golan Heights in the north, and captured the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem.
Throughout the Arab world, the overwhelming defeat of these secular states severely weakened the appeal of Arab nationalism and its leaders. But nature abhors a vacuum.
“Pan-Arab nationalism and Nasserism would over time be eclipsed by an incipient Islamism that became a threat to the Arab order.”
Following the severe setback suffered by Pan-Arabism of the Nasserite secular socialist variety, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, formed in 1928, attempted to fill the void in Egypt. Its leading thinker, Sayyid Qutb, had emphasized a redefinition of the concept of jihad (“struggle,” especially against the enemies of Islam). He believed that the traditional meaning of limited defensive war should give way to total offensive war against any and all opponents of Islam. The immediate goal of the Brotherhood in Egypt was to create an Islamic theocracy based on sharia law. Both external and internal opponents of Islam should be targeted in an eternal armed struggle “against every obstacle which comes into the way of worshipping God.”
Though Nasser had consulted amicably with Qutb in the early days following his 1952 coup, he eventually put him on trial for conspiring to assassinate him. Found guilty, Qutb was executed in 1966, a few months before the Arab-Israeli war. His death, combined with the defeat of the Arab armies, became a pivotal event in the lives of Islamists of that generation. They regarded the war’s outcome as divine punishment for failure to observe sharia law in the Arab lands. Lebanese-American scholar Fawaz Gerges interviewed many of them, noting, “The jihadis I spoke with all referred to Israel’s 1967 defeat of the Arab states as a watershed in their radicalization and revolt against ‘apostate’ rulers” (The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global).
Among Qutb’s Egyptian followers was the young Ayman al-Zawahiri, later to become the theoretician and subsequent leader of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. Likewise, the 1981 assassination of Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, was carried out by the Qutb-inspired Jihad Group, known later as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (Tanzim al-Jihad), led by Abd al-Salam Faraj, a close friend of al-Zawahiri.
The emphasis during these years was on overthrowing the corrupt practices of local Arab opponents (the near enemy); only later did the target become the non-Muslim world (the far enemy). Even al-Zawahiri’s stay in Afghanistan, where he lived in the 1980s and fought against Soviet forces, was for the purpose of training in warfare for later operations in Egypt. In 1986 he met bin Laden for the first time and became his doctor and advisor. His more localized perspective changed dramatically in 1998 when he merged his Egyptian Islamic Jihad with bin Laden’s World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders (al-Qaeda)—a movement with global goals that underlay the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
Subsequent distancing and rejection of al-Qaeda by Islamists and the Arab world in general, internal dissension within the jihadi movement, and the 2011 assassination of Osama bin Laden by US Navy Seals has brought other protagonists to the global stage, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which gained notoriety in 2014 and continues its terrorist attacks now on a global front.
The Zionist movement had its origins in the early 1880s in a society known as Hibbat Zion (Love of Zion), from Zion, one of the biblical names for Jerusalem. Its members promoted the settlement of Palestine to Jews in Russia, where persecution had recently taken the form of state-abetted pogroms. This violent development was a major catalyst in the demand for a homeland where Jews could normalize their status among the peoples of the world.
The word Zionism was first used around 1885 by the Viennese Jewish author Nathan Birnbaum. He coined the term to describe the movement created to resolve “the Jewish Question”—the problem of persecution of Jewish communities, especially in Eastern Europe. According to his view, other attempts to solve the problem, including emancipation and assimilation into the various cultures and nations of Europe, had not been successful. Nationalism had become the preferred solution for other peoples, went the argument, so why not for the Jews?
Publication of Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State in 1896 led to the convening in Switzerland of the first Zionist Congress (soon known as the World Zionist Organization) the following year. Support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” came in the British government’s 1917 Balfour Declaration.
Thirty years later the United Nations voted in favor of partitioning Palestine into two states—Jewish and Arab—with mutual economic interests, and of internationalizing Jerusalem. As a result, Palestinian Arab forces attacked the Jewish community. The following May (1948), David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel, and five Arab armies immediately invaded. The eventual ceasefire meant an increase in territory for Israel beyond the partition resolution, with Jerusalem divided between Jordan and Israel.
This was the situation that changed dramatically in the ’67 war. Israel’s sweeping victory gave them control over all of Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Sinai and Gaza. For Israelis, the capture of East Jerusalem meant access for the first time in 19 years to Judaism’s most revered site, the Western/Wailing Wall of the first-century temple’s enclosure. Even the nonreligious became religious that day. The capture of the Temple Mount catalyzed the desire in many to make something profoundly religious out of the otherwise military and political. Israeli defense minister and avowed secularist Moshe Dayan announced, “We have returned to all that is holy in our land. We have returned never to be parted from it again.”
Immediate orders were given for the clearing of Arab houses adjacent to the Western Wall. The work was accomplished in 24 hours: contractors hired by the Israeli government and Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek destroyed more than 135 houses in the Mughrabi district and dispossessed almost 1,000 Palestinians. At the same time they drove out Palestinian residents of the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, who had taken refuge there in 1948 after losing their homes in West Jerusalem. It is estimated that five to six hundred Palestinian families lost their homes in the Old City following the 1967 war. Dayan announced that he would like to go further and bulldoze a road through the hills, wide enough to allow “every Jew in the world to reach the Western Wall.”
In the 50 years since then, Israel has steadily built more and more on disputed territory. According to the Israeli movement Peace Now, by 2015 the West Bank had 131 officially established Israeli settlements outside East Jerusalem and a settler population that had risen from zero to more than 385,000 since 1967. Beginning in the 1990s, Israelis created an additional 97 settler outposts without government permission (and therefore illegal according to Israeli law). In East Jerusalem, there are now 12 Israeli neighborhoods and a further 13 Israeli settlements within Palestinian neighborhoods. In all, 200,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem.
“The Six Day War was labelled ‘the Jewish War,’ and with good reason, for the old Jewish spirit within us was roused like a ghost.”
Despite many attempts to negotiate a peace agreement, Israelis and Palestinians are locked in an impasse, with the Palestinians continually losing ground. The most critical issues remain the future border between two independent states; the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland; defense and security; and the status of Jerusalem.
For a segment of American Protestantism, Israel’s triumph in the ’67 war was particularly meaningful. Support for the State of Israel among white Protestant evangelicals is based on their belief that the land was given by God to the Jews and that the existence of the modern-day state is a partial fulfillment of New Testament prophecy about the Second Coming. These ideas are based on the teachings of the 19th-century Anglo-Irish preacher John Nelson Darby, founder of the Plymouth Brethren and originator of dispensational theology. His ideas were later promoted by the Scofield Reference Bible and in more recent times by Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, based on the belief of the rapturing away of Christians before Christ’s return.
Dispensational doctrine—the belief that Bible prophecy requires the return of Jews to their land before the second coming of Christ—has led to dispensationalists being considered “Christian Zionists.” Because such evangelicals number in the millions, they are a significant electoral force in the United States. Accommodating their views on US support for the State of Israel thus becomes very important in any election cycle.
In the years following the Six-Day War, this did not go unnoticed by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, which began to encourage tours of Israel by US church groups with dispensational beliefs; after all, a solid base of non-Jewish evangelical supporters within the United States could be of great service. Already forming into pro-Israel organizations, they began to raise funds for many projects—among them the emigration of Russian Jews to Israel, the support of West Bank settlements, and the funding of the Temple Institute with its goal of rebuilding a structure on the ancient mount in Jerusalem’s Old City. This activity in turn led to a realignment of Israel’s Washington DC lobbying group, AIPAC, with America’s political right wing. Thus politics and religion became intertwined in new ways following the events of six days in 1967.
Everything Changed, Nothing Changed
Some have noted that while those six days in June 1967 changed many things for many people, in another way nothing changed. Nothing changed in terms of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli impasse, nor in respect of human nature’s penchant for violence when its existence is challenged. Nothing changed in the worldwide entanglement of politics and religion. And setting the errors of dispensationalism aside, we may say that nothing changed in respect of what the Bible actually says about prophetic outcomes for all.
Judaism awaits its Messiah, Islam its Mahdi and Christianity the Second Coming. But what the Creator of all humanity promises for the future transcends all our narrow nationalisms and prejudices, our aggressions and hatreds. For all of us, the true seventh day of the Six-Day War is yet ahead: “He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore (Isaiah 2:4, English Standard Version).
In the meantime, for those who want to have a part in preparing for such a changed world, here’s the personal action plan from the same prophetic word: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
Who would not benefit now from practicing such fairness, mercy and humility?