Hartman stands at a transparent podium gesticulating
Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute was the keynote speaker at a conference about the Six-Day War at JCCSF. (Photo/Anna Marks Photography)

In S.F., reflecting on the ‘brand-new Judaism’ created by the Six-Day War

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Judaism changed significantly after the Six-Day War of 1967 because Israel’s unexpected defeat of its Arab neighbors created “a new trinity in Jewish life: power, land and God.”

So said Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute in his keynote address at a daylong Hartman Institute conference on the legacy of the Six-Day War, held May 22 at the JCC of San Francisco.

Instead of being a tiny nation surrounded by vastly larger hostile armies, Israel became the Middle East’s undisputed superpower and greatly increased its size. And a quarter-century after Jews had asked how God could have allowed the Holocaust to happen, they finally felt God was on their side.

But with that new strength also came dangers, such as the risk of arrogance and too readily accepting the status quo, Hartman said at the conference, held two weeks before the 50th anniversary of the war.

“Judaism today is a brand-new Judaism as a direct result of 1967, for better or for worse,” he added. “How do we make sure that the memory of 1967 is a blessing and not a curse?”

black and white: three men in IDF uniforms gaze up at the wall
Israeli paratroopers reach the Western Wall in this iconic photo from the Six-Day War.

Hartman said Jews were not normally associated with the word “power” before Israel’s stunning victory against Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the Six-Day War. Even though Israel was created two decades earlier, “It really was in 1967 that the war for independence was won.”

“Until ’67, we didn’t know if we would be able to survive,” he said. “In 1967, Jews captured the imagination of the world not by virtue of their ideas, but by virtue of their power. Who doesn’t want to be part of a winning team?”

American Jews, who before 1967 were muted in their support for Israel, were swept up in that euphoria and became much louder in calling for the U.S. government and their fellow diaspora Jews to back Israel, Hartman said.

That new strength and resulting Jewish pride led to questions about using power in a way that meets the moral standards of Judaism, he said, citing last year’s case of Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier sentenced to 18 months in prison after shooting an immobilized Palestinian attacker in the head in Hebron. Hartman pointed out that most Israelis, including many government leaders, felt Azaria should not have been charged in the killing.

How do we make sure that the memory of 1967 is a blessing and not a curse?

“Power creates the possibility to live, but now for the first time we have to ask: ‘How do we use our power justly?’ ” Hartman asked. “This is a consequence of 50 years after 1967 — we have the power, but does the power serve us? Does it just serve the basic survival needs of the Jewish people, or does it create opportunities for us to ask who we want to be now?”

Hartman said Israel’s capture of Arab lands — including many of the holiest sites in Judaism — created a sense of belonging, yet posed many political questions that remain unanswered today.

“How do we begin to manage this land 50 years afterward, how do you give back that which you now hold?” he asked. “Fifty years after ’67, we now have control of the holy sites, we now have defensible borders. But land can also become an end unto itself.”

The 1967 victory also gave Jews the sense that God was on their side, he said. Many Jews feared the Six-Day War would turn into a second Holocaust, and found it hard to explain how tiny Israel could survive, let alone win the war.

“After 1967, history becomes that which we could theologize,” Hartman said. “We were taught you don’t count on miracles, and now a miracle is the essential engine of our success.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.