Fifty Years Since Six Days of War: An Interview with Gildas Hamel – FULL VERSION
Written by Avery Weinman
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War: a war whose events transformed Israel, Palestine, the Middle East, and the Jewish world forever. In just six short days – June 5th, 1967 through June 10, 1967 – Israel defeated the full military force of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, tripled its landmass, and brought the entire city of Jerusalem – including the Temple Mount and the Western Wall – under Jewish sovereignty for first time in nearly two thousand years. Israel’s victory also triggered the Palestinian Naksa, as an estimated three hundred thousand Palestinians fled the West Bank, and marked the beginning of a military occupation with no seeming end in sight. Israel’s swift and definitive military victory solidified the country as a new geographical titan, and all but diminished some Arab’s hopes that Israel could simply be wiped off the map and out of existence. The Six Day War is undoubtedly one of the most seismic events in the Middle East in the last century, and when the opportunity came for us to interview someone who was in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967 in what was then the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan we seized it.
Gildas Hamel is a Senior lecturer, emeritus in the UCSC History department who teaches the histories of ancient Israel, Hellenistic and Roman Judea, and Early Christianity. He was born in France and French is his first language. Hamel lived in the Old City of Jerusalem from 1966 to 1968 while working at the Collège des Frères while studying to become a Catholic Priest. He witnessed the Six Day War, including the fighting in the Old City, firsthand from what was then the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. He wishes to communicate that because these events took place fifty years ago, his memories have almost certainly been distorted by the passage of time and may not be objectively accurate.
AW: Let’s just start by laying the groundwork. Before the interview I’ll do a little write up on the Six Day War – what it is and why it’s so important – but Bruce [Bruce Thompson, Leviathan’s faculty advisor] told us that you were living in East Jerusalem at the time, and I just want to know what brought you to East Jerusalem?
GH: I came to was called at the time the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and Jerusalem being part of it because I was in a grand seminary to be a Catholic Priest in France – in Brittany. In the curriculum that you followed of six years of studies, the first two years had been done by [the time] I was 20, and you were supposed then to do your military service in France – [I was] an old man by that time but I had to do fourteen months, but instead of doing that you could do what they called coopératcion – which is cooperation, same word – from the point of view of the Ministry of the Army and the Ministry of Education was a – what’s the word – Peace Corps. It’s essentially something like that. So you could go anywhere in the world. A friend of mine he had connections, he wrote to people in Lebanon – a Catholic order, so this is a Catholic story at the time [laughs] – and they answered and said “No, we have no room for you as assistant teachers for kids in Lebanon,” which was very peaceful at the time, this was way before the events [in Lebanon], but they said we have two places in Jerusalem, in the Old City of Jerusalem. At a place called Frère’s College, which educates people all over the world. They’re not missionaries, but they teach kids. They often teach poor kids, but sometimes they also happen to teach the elites: kids in different situations. So there they were right in the Old City. Do you have a sense of the Old City of Jerusalem?
AW: I have some sense of the Old City, yeah.
GH: Ok so it [Frere’s College] was in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, and its by the New Gate. When you come from the Israeli side, to what is now all Israeli, you get through either David’s Gate on the Western Side or the New Gate. The New Gate is not used as often, but it was the New Gate by the College – I can actually show you pictures of it. And I lived there, I had a room there. And so what brought me was a seminary program where we got to choose where to go, that was entirely our own. And there I taught, I was meant to teach kids for two years; that was really the contract. And that’s where I was. It happened to be right near the No Man’s Land. You could hear the Arabic Jewish families speaking in Arabic from the other side of the No Man’s Land daily.
AW: So if you’re living in East Jerusalem, you weren’t actually living in Israel then at the time before the war?
GH: No. That’s an interesting question too. It had different names. So we called it the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan because it was part of this unit created by the British mandate in the twenties. And then after the war in 1948, they had taken this very strange map, shape, which meant there was kind of like a hall going up from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem that gave access, for some Israelis, access to the Mendelbaum Gate north of the Old City, but no direct access to the Old City. In fact, I came out of the Old City through the various paths to go to the Biblical school where I also studied at the same time – a very famous Biblical school on Nablus Road [Ecole Biblique]. And as I came out of the Damascus Gate, which is a super busy gate now, right there you came out. To your left was a wall, a cement wall about – I would say – 50 meters, 20 to 30 feet high. Badly made cement, but it was cement nonetheless, and you knew Israel was the other side. The No Man’s Land kind of serpented all around the Old City.
AW: Did you arrive in Hashemite Jordan in 1967? Or had you already been there?
GH: ‘66 i was there
AW: So you had already been there for a year before the war
GH: So I was there, I would have to check the exact date, but it was the end of August. I took a very pleasant cruise through the Mediterranean on a boat, and I went through Egypt and I went through Lebanon, through Syria. No pictures could be taken. It was really dictatorship (in Jordan at that time), [led by] the father of the present dictator. You had the sense immediately, in the first hours you were there, that you were in a new political situation that was very different. And then we went through the Kingdom of Jordan – Irbid, which is a northern city between Syria and Jordan. And then from there you took the road across the Jordan [river], through Jericho, and you went up to Jerusalem. The famous road that still exists today, a better road now. I still remember arriving at night in this very old city, all made of stones, and it was eerie. And you knew that Israel was there, but it was never discussed. We did not, for two years I never mentioned the name Israel in a conversation. I myself accepted that. At the time I did not know Jews [from Israel] at all. In my own educational make-up I was not anti-Semitic of course, well I don’t think so, but I came from a Catholic-Christian background, very interested in changing the world, but still completely ignorant of either Israel or the Jordanian side, and certainly the Palestinians. But we never pronounced the name Israel. We actually had code in our conversations because we were warned never to draw attention to that.
AW: So you would say you had almost no contact with Israelis when you were living in the Old City even though they were right over this wall.
GH: They are fifty meters away on the other side
AW: You could literally hear them talking, but you didn’t know them
GH: The Jordanian soldiers – there was a squad of Bedouin, perhaps Christian actually, strangely enough, from south of Al-Karak of the Jordanian Plateau. Because that’s all the people who were used by King Hussein as kind of his defense guard and as his army. He trusted only Bedouin type people, he was of Bedouin origin himself. And he did not trust Palestinians. His own grandfather was killed in the Old City of Jerusalem in front of his own eyes when he was five. So it’s an extremely complicated type situation right from the get-go. So the squad of soldiers was right near, not far from my room and you could sometimes see them, but we never talked to them. They spoke, not perhaps daily, but they actually communicated with Arabic speaking Jews on the other side [of No Man’s Land]. It was the strangest thing. This is the most expensive part of real estate in all of Jerusalem now because it’s right at the center. You have the King David Hotel a bit south. The whole place, that’s where I was.
AW: I had a lot of questions prepared about Israeli society, but now I’m guessing you weren’t actually there
GH: No, but I got to know it later. I can answer questions like that too.
AW: Ok I’ll go ahead and try and ask my same questions, but we’ll amend them to fit more of your situation. Preparing for this interview I did a lot more research about the Six Day War. And I’m a History Major and I study Jewish History so I should know it…
GH: Oh good I feel more comfortable [laughs]
AW: But I did some refreshing to get back up to speed. And what I gathered from all of my reading is that the general feeling in Israel right before the Six Day War is that Israelis really thought that this was the end of the road.
AW: They really thought that the Third Arab-Israeli War was going to mean total annihilation of all the Jews living in Israel. I pulled a quote from a book that I read – Daniel Gordis wrote a really good book called Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn which is really a brief introduction to understanding the modern history of Israel – he wrote, “Rabbis across the country cordoned off areas to be used as mass graves. The Ramat Gan stadium [in Tel Aviv] was consecrated as a burial ground for up to forty thousand people. Hotels were cleared of guests so the facilities could be used as massive emergency first aid stations… Israeli intelligence reported to [then Prime Minister of Israel Levi Eshkol] that poison gas equipment had been detected in the Sinai but that Israel had no stockpiles of gas masks. Eshkol muttered in Yiddish, the language of his youth from Europe, ‘Blood is going to spill like water.’” Would you say that these statements – I guess in your contact with Israelis after the war – mirrored the kind of fear that they had felt leading up to the Six Day War?
GH: A little bit overdone, I think. But the general feeling I got from talking to Israelis, and from also studying myself and then from reading, particularly, analysis fifty years later the basis of modern history and for events like that, at the time you have no access to real information. That was the basic rule I learned very quickly. That you could not trust anything you heard. It took me a while, but I learned that it was actually manufactured. Well, manufactured is to say too much…
AW: Over exaggerated?
GH: Over exaggerated, imagination takes over, emotion and things like that. But, the general take of what you just quoted is that, I think, many Israelis – and not all, but many, and certainly many Jews, perhaps the American Jewry, I’m not sure about the European were very sympathetic to Israel of course, but back then it was kind of an either or – they felt that it was as if the whole Arab world was turned against them and there was an apocalyptic dimension that could be stitched to it. Of course, on the other side, 50 meters from there [Israel], I myself had a completely different reading of this thing. We actually expected Israel to come any time, any hour, any day. We were absolutely sure – this is Europeans – we were absolutely sure Israel was coming and was the most powerful military in the area. And there was no doubt that it was happening, we just wondered what day, what hour. So it was a disconnect; any European I knew on our side, on the Palestinian side thought it’s going to happen very quickly and it’s going to happen. This is due to the events in a few days or weeks before. Mainly the closure of the Strait of Tiran by Egypt. Another one was King Hussein of Jordan, strangely to us back then, now it has an explanation, but strangely to us, came to visit Shukeiri who was the head at the time of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. It was not Arafat yet, Arafat replaced him after the war. Anyway, King Hussein came to essentially embrace – there’s the famous kissing on the cheek, Bedouin kissing on the cheek – a mortal enemy. And we thought, that’s the end. We thought that Hussein had absolutely no interest in going to war, he was forced into it.
AW: My understanding was that King Hussein himself was not so eager to go to war with Israel, but that it was really Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser – who was by far the most magnetic political figure in the Arab world at the time – who really wanted to make a showing of Arab force against Israel. I pulled a quote from an address he gave through Cairo Radio on May 26, 1967 – after Egypt had solidified that it had a mutual defense treaty with Syria, so that Egypt and Syria would go in together, and after he had talked to King Hussein of Jordan to get him on the same page – Nasser spoke through Cairo Radio and said, “Our basic objective will be to destroy Israel.”
GH: Right, yeah exactly. So, Israelis felt, rightly so in the general population, that it actually was a tenor of the thinking. That it was an Israel war. This I’ve read since. In every war they had had after ‘48, in ‘56 it was a very peculiar thing it was only eleven years before where a kind of very strange colonial enterprise mixed with an Israeli thing, with the British mandate, and also with the French troops participated in kind of keeping the old world together and the US was completely distant and eventually ordered everybody back to their quarters…
AW: Well you’re talking about the ‘56 War which is to me a very bizarre war because it’s almost like a fixed outcome war
GH: But it’s very much in the background for people like Nasser
AW: Yeah that’s his defining moment – nationalizing the Suez Canal.
GH: So in ‘66 and ‘67, what you mentioned exactly about it, the UAR – the United Arab Republic meaning Egypt and so on – that’s part of response to that, and it’s part of the pressure of the Cold War. The USSR are heavily… and that’s a strange thing and I haven’t checked that… the Soviet Union clearly defended, in public, the UAR and their position about Israel even though it had been one of the only powers to recognize Israel very early, so it’s a complicated thing. But the USSR clearly did not want them to go to war – they could see the risks. That’s my feeling.
AW: I wrote down also that Israel had, I guess you could say issues but issues isn’t really the right word, but when it becomes clear that the Six Day War is going to happen, that Nasser is mobilizing all these forces on the Sinai. I guess you could say that Israel had really fomented diplomatic ties through the Suez War in that a reason that they entered it was to strengthen diplomatic relationships with England and France who they had not really had good relationships to before, which was a major reason to go to the Sinai Campaign as they called it in Israel.
GH: There is a very difficult issue because then once you enter operations, major military operations particularly when it comes to air force, the power that you have in your air force. It just happened that that Monday morning the 5th of June by eight o’clock AM, most of the Egyptian Air Force was destroyed on the ground. They didn’t even take off. And so it was a preemptive act, and it made sense because of course Egypt had closed the Strait of Tiran. That had been made clear by everybody that this was a case of war. As soon as that happened, we knew, us Europeans in the little corner there, we knew the game was up. But we differed from the Israeli population’s feeling in that we thought that there was not a chance that the Arab armies could do anything about Israel – not a chance. The Europeans I talked to had lived in the Middle East since the twenties usually or all of their lives some times were very used to everything. They remembered ‘48 and things like that, and they knew what the strengths of the armies were. The political parties [in the Arab world], they were dictatorships. They had no power but to protect their own interests, they could not protect, even Egypt could not, or at least not like that. So it was dangerous, it was a dangerous moment in that sense. I don’t know how you can present that, or if it can be presented actually, one position regarding Israel’s decision to respond is that Israel was really responding to a situation that was really unbearable for them.
AW: My understanding is that they essentially viewed Nasser’s extreme mass mobilization machinations as an almost sure guarantee that there would be a war in the future,
AW: And that the decision to strike the Egyptian air fields first, and to essentially win the war before it had even started by destroying the Egyptian Air Force was their safeguard against the potential for total annihilation.
GH: Right, so then you can see that immediately and think well how much of that was a calculation? You can take advantage of the tensions and actually resolve things that you did not resolve in 1948. Indeed for some people, other people were in disagreement I am sure. I would love to see the memo notes of the ministry meetings. They must have been very different. I know there were hesitations on the part of people like Rabin – the Chief of Staff at the time.
AW: Rabin, at the time, they’ve said Rabin actually had self induced nicotine poisoning. Rabin was a general at the time and was so stressed out…
GH: Yeah he was a heavy smoker.
AW: He was a heavy smoker and he was so stressed out about the possibilities of the war that he gave himself nicotine poisoning
GH: The generals have to do the right thing. So this is very difficult. And so I feel that, my view at the time, and this changes over time, but my view at the time is that Israel had an interest in pursuing the war. But I don’t know how to put it precisely. I don’t know, I don’t say… because Israel also had good cause to feel threatened, and threatened in its being. Yet at the same time, when you realize that their army, their organization, their capacity of projections for what could be measured at the time – and they certainly measured it and compared – the decisions they made, it’s really more about logistics than you think. The political decisions really following the logistics, and then their political calculations that are not just about surviving. That’s a key question because it leads to the question about Palestine. Were Palestinians in some way victims of calculations made that were much bigger in terms of USSR-US? And in terms of Israel locally mapping things and defending itself, and then having victims who really, that the King of Jordan could not protect? And that’s still my view, and it’s a catastrophe in my view. On the other hand, and I have to be careful in that. This is a thing that we must discuss and you can find it in Google now actually, in November 1966 (the Samu Incident), so a few months before the war, I saw the first demonstration inside the Old City, on a Friday. It must have been after the prayers.
AW: And this is a Palestinian demonstration?
GH: Yes, this is a Palestinian demonstration. Young men, mostly men, going through the shuk – there are three parallel shuks in the Old City – and they’re coming through the main shuk, and I am entering the Old City from the Biblical school through the Damascus Gate and I saw them there. And I still remember, most vivid in my memory is white, absolutely blanched faces. I mean, so angry. And you thought, no capacity for destruction, for doing any evil or anything, but you felt an enormous wave of anger. And I thought oh.
AW: Kind of a precursor of things to come?
GH: And you’ve made me think about King Hussein of Jordan. You think, oh my God, when he took the sides of the Palestinians then – he was forced into it. He had no choice. And so I remember those moments and this must have happened on a Friday I’m sure: a Friday in ‘66. And this was two weeks after an attack, an infiltration by Palestinian soldiers or guerrillas who came from perhaps, I’m not sure where they came from, perhaps from Syria. Because Syria was already its own complicated situation then. Instead of infiltrating the normal way which was from the Golan – going south, shooting at kibbutzim on the eastern coast on the Kinneret, or the Sea of Galilee – they infiltrated south near Hebron. A village called Samu, and they killed three IDF soldiers I think. And the response of the Israeli Army was out of this world. They sent not only a squad, but they sent an armored brigade, I forgot which number, but it was a large, heavily militarized operation that destroyed most of the city and killed [sixteen people] or something like that, and that’s what brought on the anger. I was told, I don’t know if this is true, but I was told there were very few infiltrations on the Palestinian border because King Hussein had no interest in having any infiltration. So he made sure that the mayors, the mukhtars, the heads of the towns – everything was clamped down in terms of relations with Israel. But that’s what triggered the demonstration clearly, and it was clearly one of the opening things on the Palestinian side. It led to the belief, and that’s completely different than the European belief, the belief among Palestinians that they could win. They believed all the rubbish coming from Egypt, of course Egypt has a lot of media presence. I don’t know that side, because I didn’t speak Arabic, and even if I had it would have probably been very difficult to get truth, but I had a sense that very early on Palestinians were very angry at Israel and had those dreams about conquering the whole thing. People ended up paying for constructed history and ideological views that they could not manage, that they did not dare to be critical about. On the Israeli side, yes they could. You always had critics even through the ‘67 war, but among Palestinians there was no criticism.
AW: So you would say a more firm control then on the flow of ideas
GH: An ideological view partly, partly Islam, but this view that is propagated by the dictators who were trying to step away from Islam but could not really. That’s a very long part of this thing, and that led to then, for the first time, the weekend before the war, because the war started on Monday the 5th. On our front it started at like 10 am if I remember correctly. In Egypt it was a couple of hours before. I was studying at the Biblical school, but the weekend before we were waiting because our kids were not in school anymore. I’m not sure why. I think perhaps the end of the year already, very early because the heat comes in June and it gets hard to teach kids, but the college had 900 kids. 300 kids were actually from poorer backgrounds, others were from all kinds of backgrounds: there were nine religions, who knew how many nations. Arab nations, Armenian kids, the Christian-Arab municipality was much larger then – about ten percent of the population in the Palestinian territory. Now it’s like two percent, another catastrophe that happened. But anyway, we were waiting, and then for the first time according to the people I was with, they saw the incursion of these small airplanes – from Israel – flying over the Old City. Between Bethlehem and Jerusalem there’s something that used to be the headquarters of the British Mandate called the Governor’s Villa or the Governor’s Palace or something like that. Just a couple airplanes, but it was unheard of, we had never seen anything like that. I didn’t take any pictures. Anyway, it was taken to be surveillance. Never seen before, but also a provocation, it could be read that way too. We were very surprised, and then for the first time from the college where I was, over the wall, the old Ottoman wall, over No Man’s Land, we could see the Notre Dame, which is a very large building, Christian. To this day it actually exists because all these properties were protected by Israel when they came in. They made sure not to bomb anything. They didn’t touch anything. They made sure of that. But there, we could see soldiers for the first time, probably even officers, on the top clearly looking at maps. And we thought oh my god. We assumed there were soldiers in that building before but we never saw them. We thought, that’s part of intelligence gathering, you don’t show yourself and things like that, and we had no idea. Our interpretation at the time was that this was another provocation, we read it as just another provocation.
AW: So you had no idea that this was the start of the war?
GH: No idea. When we saw little things like that, and the fact that Hussein had kissed Shukairi, that Egypt had closed the Strait of Tiran very shortly before, we assumed that it’s coming any minute now. The way it happened, that Monday morning I went, because I didn’t have to teach anymore, I decided to go and study. We had planned to travel to Iraq and Iran to see ancient history to see ancient history, and to go to the Persian Gulf, but all those things were shelved for the moment. Better to wait and see what happens. And so I went to study, and the director of the school, a Dominican Father – a very well known, very famous intellectual, an amazing figure – came to the library where I may have been alone or with two or three people. He said you better go back to your college where you reside if you have a bedroom there because the attack has been done in Egypt and it’s presumably going to start here at any time. So we rushed back to the Old City. It’s not very far, it’s like 400 meters or 500 meters to a half a kilometer away, and the gates were already closed. We had to take a taxi, go super fast, to the southern side, around towards where you go now to see the Temple and the Mosque. We took a taxi through there and the gate was still open there, but the doors were closing already. We would have been outside. We would have had to stay at the Biblical school I guess. Anyway, we made it. And then we waited. I decided to go and type my notes from a course I had taken over the year with this intellectual exegete and I began typing. I was in a hall with a glass separation and on the other side was St. Anne, across the No Man’s Land. And I had no idea. I began typing and writing, and after a couple hours a little around ten I thought wow nobody’s around, even on Saturday. I was alone. And then I looked, and I thought, there had been sporadic fire like small arms, and I had heard that before and I didn’t pay much attention. I was completely unconscious of the danger, completely. But then I got scared. It was like a psychological state, right? And I remember thinking, one minute you are absolutely unconscious of things, the next minute you’re in overdrive. They could see me, they could shoot at me from the other side there, I’m a perfect target! They could think I’m a soldier. I began to imagine all these things. So I just walked, and I knew how to go, and discovered that everybody was downstairs in a large underground vault-like thing with huge stones just like you have everywhere in all of Jerusalem, everything has an under-basement. So that’s how it started, and the fire started to get very heavy, very loud.
AW: So when it starts, the fighting in the Old City itself is probably some of the most direct in the war. That the IDF forces, the paratroopers, and the Jordanian forces who are there in the Old City, fight longest and hardest compared to a lot of other regions in the Six Day War.
GH: Two things, well many things to say. Two things I remember. They may not be historical. Some of them are historical because I can vouch for the truth of it, but others I think they are true, but I have no proof. I heard by noon, in the early afternoon on Monday, from Arabic speaking brothers who were connected to Jordan and listened to the radio in all kinds of languages – I was listening to the BBC – and that’s another thing you learn. You cannot rely on almost any newspaper, any TV, and radio, any media: it’s all propaganda. I learned that, not the hard way, but fairly quickly. Anyway, I heard from friends of mine who were brothers that all the officers of the Jordanian Army were requested by the King to fall back, at noon. And apparently some took civilian cars or taxis and they went back to Jordan. The problem is, is that historical? I heard that was done very early. We wondered if that was historical because it was in the interest of the King not to lose his officers because of the way his society was built on Bedouin trust, and on not wasting your forces on fights you cannot win. So we thought, wow, King Hussein was doing it for show. On the other hand, I knew five or six soldiers – according to people I knew, again my friends who spoke Arabic so I can’t vouch for it – they were told by the people, by a police team in the Old City told the soldiers on the wall y’know forget it, take civilian clothes, don’t bother, it’s over. This was hours after it began. In this particular case I was told that this sergeant was humanist, and said no: we are fighting for the King, for Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. And my interpretation of it was that they were actually Christian Bedouin from south of Karak, and as minorities in a society that is massively Muslim, they have to show, it’s a bit like Jews in Germany wearing Iron Crosses in the First World War. They showed more courage, more dedication, but also got killed. They were killed by Napalm in the little hotel right south of the college. I still remember I saw just two bodies, but I didn’t go near them. I could not do anything anyway. We were under military government immediately and under complete curfew from Monday ten AM. By noon, Israeli troops must have entered the outside, the perimeter, very quickly. There were victims on both sides, but the people who resisted like this squad I mentioned may have had some effect. The ground outside the college, when we were authorized to leave for three hours on Thursday afternoon, was littered with bullets like that [held up hands to indicate roughly three inch bullet casings]. I mean, littered. I was struck by that. I still remember that image. I didn’t look to see how far it went or anything. And there you realize that wars are actually fought with maximum power, and it’s actually technical, it’s like a machine. And that just spills out metal, that’s how it looked to me. If you’re on the passage of this thing, you’ll get killed. And if you’re not, you’re lucky. Inside our college we were not directly attacked, but we went upstairs on Thursday, or perhaps Wednesday even, and we could see weapons that were completely military stuff like grenades that are shot by, I’ve forgotten what they are called, but they have a parabolic curve and they fly and they drill themselves through walls and then they explode. And you don’t want to be in the hall when that happens. And all this weaponry, and then we saw Napalm. That’s not said, but the Israeli Army, like any army, used phosphor or a version of it because you could see the yellow color. I didn’t see it, but then you could imagine how they could use a flamethrower so you could not enter a building like a hotel you could essentially fire the building. But again, I can vouch for me seeing the bullets, I can vouch for seeing the two bodies – I don’t know what happened to the others but there used to be six of them, I have no idea what happened to them. I know they were Bedouins, I’m not sure they were Christians even, but I could make a very elaborate, emotional story about their faith, and yet as a historian I am very reluctant to do that. So that’s a message I want to give. How you reconstruct an event like that, that had such powerful importance for Israelis, as I realized immediately afterwards because immediately after the war it was interesting to see the relationship between even Palestinians and Israelis who had lived together before ‘48, for a few weeks and months, they were like old friends. It was like, why this war? Why any war? And then it just disappeared, dissipated very quickly. And that’s part of what I lived and what I reflected upon afterwards.
AW: So we can move this into a little bit of the aftermath of the war. We’ll say that probably the most iconic image from the Six Day War is David Rubinger’s really famous photograph of the three young Israeli paratroopers looking up at the Western Wall. And for me, being Jewish, this moment transcends the entire war. This was a bigger moment than that. When I think that the Chief Rabbi of the IDF Shlomo Goren approaching the Western Wall, which had not been held in Jewish sovereignty for nearly two thousand years and where Jews hadn’t been able to visit since the drawing of the Armistice Lines in 1948, with the Torah and a shofar in his hands, surrounded by young Jewish men, many of whom are among the first generation of Israeli Jews to have been born in the state, it makes me believe that miracles are possible. The story goes that Goren himself was too overcome to sound the shofar, and so he handed it to a soldier beside him who sounded it for the first time that the Jews had been back to the Temple in full force since the Romans.
GH: To me, as a historian again, I didn’t see that of course, my immediate question is when did this event happen really? So, it could not have happened on Monday.
AW: The way that it’s recorded this happens on the 7th, so that would have been two days after the start of the war. It would have been on Wednesday.
GH: Possible. Pretty certain. I will not dispute that, that makes sense to me. I say this for a mundane reason, and then I’ll go back to importance of that moment even though it’s in some way framed ideologically.
AW: Oh, definitely. In the Israeli history, in the metanarrative, and in the Jewish metanarrative as well it’s this huge moment.
GH: It’s a huge moment, and it’s also connected to something very important. So it’s both – it’s a historical moment in all kinds of dimensions, and it has reverberations. But, on Thursday, we were entitled to go out for three hours as residents. Under military governorship you certainly had to be very careful where you went, so I decided to walk as quick as I could around the Old City because I wanted to see what had happened. Nothing seemed destroyed. There were little corners here and there where you can see there had been use of flamethrowers, but the Christian side had obviously been protected and the Islamic side too. There was no heavy bombing. It was small. There were some machine guns, but very limited. But we know that 163 soldiers of the IDF got killed in the whole area. I don’t remember exactly which region, but there were fights. And we didn’t know that then, but we learned that fairly quickly. Statistics were compiled fairly quickly. On the Jordanian side we didn’t know how many people had died. Very few civilians, almost none I think. And I’m not sure even what the real number for the soldiers are. Anyway, I went out, and I went to St. Stevens Gate, which is on the eastern side over the Kidron Valley in a kind of cemetery like quarter, where now there is a very big hotel, and you have the Zion hill further down which was always Israeli and an enclave. So I am at St. Stephen’s Gate, and here you have a street wide enough for tanks and vehicles going into what is really north of the Temple esplanade and then going into the Muslim quarter. And there are Israeli tanks, that are huge. Old tanks are big and their engines are like 600 horsepower or 1000 horsepower and they are rumbling, monstrous things to see in operation. And they’re going there – a few of them, I don’t remember how many – fully armed, into the Old City. Thursday afternoon, there’s no need of course. And, on the side, are all television channels from all over the world, dozens of them, and I remember thinking, that’s what people are going to see of the Six Day War. They’re going to picture reconstruct, cut footage because the day it happened on Monday there were no journalists there except those authorized by the army. Which is true of Vietnam, which is true of the French in Algeria. It was a realization, that actually an enormous number of things like Okinawa, the flag being raised, is made up. I mean not made up, it also reflects something historical, but it is also ideological. The image is actually composed, and the army doesn’t leave that to chance. So that was interesting to see. But back then to the seriousness of that [the Western Wall reunification], that to me too was important. I remember going to the Wailing Wall before, and it was this very claustrophobic place where you could still see the wall, and I visited Jerusalem every Thursday for three or four hours with an archeologist. One of the courses I took was actually the level strata of history in ancient Jerusalem, so I was very interested and it was an amazing thing to see that. Of course for Israelis it meant, it was not simply fixing something from their point of view that in 1948 had not gone very well on the Jerusalem side because they had pushed there.
AW: Menachem Begin and the Irgun forces had fought really, really hard to stay in Jerusalem in 1948 but had to retreat.
GH: Right, they had to pull back. And so it was kind of a, in the sense of memory… I do feel that the government of Israel in June ‘67 preparations… they were suddenly in a situation that was totally against them, but that they could also use actually. How much the political, tactical views featured into the macrohistory – they had to respond anyway – I don’t know. Eventually historians gave a better answer to that, but as I said of course that led to the Palestinian thing because, in fact, they [Israel] rolled out to Jordan. It was not only Jerusalem. There was no resistance whatsoever once you’ve taken Jerusalem. And the northern side of the city was always very troublesome for King Hussein – near Nablus. Nablus is still troublesome today for Israel too because that’s where you are going to have actions of people who get educated as Islamic fighters.
AW: So then, you said before the war you didn’t have that much contact, or really any contact at all with Israelis
GH: No, none whatsoever that I know of
AW: And so then after the war ends, and the Old City is now technically in Israeli hands, did you have more contact with Israelis then?
GH: Very few at the time, and very immediately afterwards. During the summer that followed, I’m not sure how it happened but probably through the French Consulate, we could not leave our position [in Cooperation] because we were all under the French military and the Ministry of Defense. I remember going to the consulate and saying y’know I cannot go to Iraq and Iran, we’re under military governorship [in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan], I am not teaching, can I go back to France? And I remember being lectured by the guy at the consulate saying no you can’t; you are like a soldier, you are obeying commands, who do you think you are? You could not decide anything at that time. And so I thought ok, fine. But eventually they let us go back to France, I went back to France for a short trip. My parents did not know if I was alive or not. There was no communication whatsoever because under a military governorship it means that everything has to be cleared. And so I was very low on the chain of things that can be cleared, but it happened eventually and I was able to go back. But before that, we were approached – my friend and I – we were approached by people who were connected to the French Consulate. He was an Israeli and she was an Israeli too, but of French background and she was not Jewish but she had converted perhaps – I’m not sure. But they spoke French, and we didn’t speak Hebrew, and they invited us to the Golan. I was probably one of the first civilians to see the Golan. We saw the Druze villages. Right along the border we saw Syria, and we saw all of the old positions that the Syrian Army had. It looked to me, when I think about it, as some people who were working with the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Tourism. And the Tourism Ministry is partly intelligence and partly PR. That’s what I took it to be, but I didn’t realize at the time. But they were very fine people. So I began to think of Israel through their eyes, but then I realized very quickly that she was in a picture taken on top of a tank going into the Sinai. And of course I knew by that time that this could be made up in post. I became very critical in accepting what really happened and how exactly it happened. Before that I had been UNRRA officers. I had traveled in Jordan and in occupied territories as they would eventually be called. We called it Cisjordan at the time. The whole of what would be called Palestine sometimes, or what would be called occupied territories now. There’s no right way to describe it really. Cisjordan – I visited that with officers of the UN, top officers. And that was a very different experience. They never… they offer you a political view on things. It was very interesting, because they were on both sides. It was very different then to go have initial contact with Israelis. But then I went to films in Israel! It was a very short walk. I would walk directly to the cinema, and I would see films because they had a much better choice of films than in the Arab area [laughs]. And I love film. Ans I would walk back. No contact [with Israelis]. The reason for that was that – we didn’t talk about it but there was some message coming from the brothers [the two Arab brothers Hamel mentioned earlier] and from superiors and others – telling that oh you went to the New City. They never mentioned Israel again – still. It took a while. That’s an interesting, very negative aspect of things.
AW: That it took a while – even after – for the people above you at your school…
GH: History is not over. That was a lesson to learn too. I learned it very slowly, it did not penetrate very quickly. So I realized, oh, I have to be careful now because all the kids, anybody can see me, and I represent the Christian Institution. No matter what I wanted or what I thought. I had to think – no contact with Israelis because it’s fraught.
AW: So even after the war, even after the land has technically changed hands…
GH: At the beginning we did it [talked to Israelis]. I still remember one of the people who worked for the college – I mean the high school, it was Frere’s College but we all just called it the college. One of the people who worked for them, I remember him coming back one day and saying oh I went to the other side. And he loved it. It was exciting. Of course its full of lights, full of life, cafes, very different from the Old City which was still very highly religious. You had to behave in a certain way quarter by quarter. The Christians were divided into groups, by dress. There was a mental map of the Old City of Jerusalem by dress, by mayor – a complicated map. It took you months, and months, and years to learn and to realize. And you went certain ways, you couldn’t talk to certain people, you didn’t look at certain things. You were very careful about not expressing any desire of any kind. Of not being invited by the wrong person. And yet we did not even know the language. So in Israel it was like that too. Even though I told you that for the first few weeks there was a distinct feeling of excitement because Israelis from pre ‘48 – what I took to be older men at the time, in their fifties – came. And you could see them seeing – in the Christian Quarter more likely – embracing or sitting in the cafe. There was a cafe right near us called Abu Attas where I could never manage to pay for a coffee because I was a guest. And guests, for Arab traditional people, cannot pay for anything. And I could not reciprocate. You’re supposed to reciprocate in another value about the same. But I did not know how to do it. Anyway, I was at that cafe and I still remember Israelis talking, in Arabic, with Palestinian guys, sometimes Armenians, at the beginning. It did not last very long. That’s an interesting topic. I would like to know more actually, about exactly what happened, the memories of people were there, who did that…
AW: So these are families who before the Independence War, the First Arab-Israeli War, had been living in the Old City. And then after the war there’s a whole big exodus…
GH: Twenty years. Twenty year hiatus [for Jews being able to go to the Old City]. They went to the same schools sometimes!
AW: People who had been neighbors.
GH: And they liked each other! That was very moving to see. And that leads to a much larger issue that was disputed within Jewish circles abroad, and even in Israel, the position of, for instance the World Jewish Congress. Regarding being outside of Israel in the Diaspora, the logic that Israel always proposes – you must be here. There’s no place for you outside in the Diaspora. What was his name, not Weizmann… one of the founders of the World Jewish Congress…
AW: Not Herzl? After Herzl?
GH: No not Herzl, after Herzl. And then there was Johannes Prince – a German Jew who came in the 40s. In ‘46 they created the World Jewish Congress initially. And then in the sixties there was this Austrian Jew… his name escapes me. It’ll come back. [It was later clarified that Nahum Goldman was the man we were talking about]. He argued very early on – the war was in ‘67 – by September ‘67 he was arguing in the world press in a very long article – his name is on my mind – that now was a moment when Israel had to propose a full deal. Return the whole occupied territories in return for peace.
AW: One of my next questions will be about the many, many shifts that the Six Day War causes, but there is, which is I’m guessing what you’re talking about, the United Nations switch to a kind of “land for peace” doctrine.
GH: Right. Resolution 248.
AW: The idea was that Israel had gained so much land – they actually tripled their landmass I think – that they had so much land that they could use it to try and create diplomatic peace with these countries whose land they technically now held. In some cases this was successful. With Egypt it was successful. They return the Sinai to them which lays the groundwork for Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to do the Camp David Accords. In other cases, it leads to the occupation.
GH: Yeah it took many turns. It took many turns and the voices, like the person who’s name I’m fighting to recover, his voice, a very powerful voice, was not accepted. It was immediately read as interesting – not by Ben Gurion, but by his successors, Golda Meir and so forth – but eventually it became clear that it was not going to go that way. It became very clear to us – people from France – that Israel actually had partly responded to the real danger as we said before, but partly also taken advantage of the danger with their political views over the territory.
AW: I think you can definitely say – it was clear on the first day, when the Egyptian Air Force was no more, that the control of the skies essentially meant that Israel controlled the war.
GH: Absolutely. Of course.
AW: So I know Moshe Dayan, who I think was Defense Minister at the time…
GH: When he was called in as Minister of Defense…
AW: I think he maintained to his death that the only reason they entered the Old City was because there were security threats.
GH: No. This is absolutely not true. Absolutely not true. It’s impossible. It’s impossible. Well Dayan is another piece of cake. One can admire some aspects of his life, but I knew a lot of things about Dayan and his archaeology corps and expeditions. He was essentially stealing things in my view, and in the Israeli view. Israeli critics eventually got really mad at him, but that’s ok. But Rabin was a very different thing. Rabin was not an adventurer. Not a kind of romantic type like Dayan was and cultivated. And Dayan in some way understood Arabs and Bedouins. He spoke Arabic and had a long history – we knew he met the King Hussein and his ministers. But Rabin was a different type of person. More analytic. Engineer type.
AW: We should also mention that yesterday (November 4th) is the 22nd anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Which is an entirely different topic, but his assassination has left very deep scars on Israel.
GH: I can tell you in one sentence. A highly successful political murder. The Two-State Solution is over after him. I knew that in ‘95. I was there actually in ‘95-’96. We spent one year with my family there on a kibbutz in the northern area. And I still remember that night when he was killed. My feeling was everything was working towards negotiating peace. You could tell in the weeks before. You could hear on the radio that the insistence to have the PLO charter translated into Arabic and not only left in English happened. And tit-for-tat, on the official radio – you know like the official radio like radio 7 channel from the army. You could see there was a tit-for-tat day by day. It was moving. And was clear that Rabin had decided that the policy of repression, of breaking arms and so forth…
AW: Yitzhak Rabin famously said “break their arms and legs” [during the First Intifada].
GH: Right. He moved back, and he said that is not going to work. He was a man of practicality. I am not going to defend him politically – I feel for both sides – but at the same time I highly respected him. He had a moral credit of course because he was a Chief of Staff. And that’s how things work in Israel. If you are in a position either in intelligence or in the army in having things done, you have credit. It’s an unspoken rule that you have the most credit. And he was murdered, and it worked. And then it continued [the Two State Solution] because the US kept the thing up, but…
AW: It was never the same.
GH: It was never the same and even the Single-State Solution doesn’t know… we do not know where it leads in terms of do you maintain the Palestinians in an open-air prison like Gaza? Or do you give them voting rights? If you give them voting rights are you prepared for the demographic influx?
AW: I’ve heard it described – and I’m not exactly sure which intellectual first said this – but essentially the One-State Solution is going to have to be a choice between, Israel is going to have to choose between being a Jewish state or being a democratic state.
AW: And at this point it’s really unclear which way the One State Solution will go, and also it doesn’t look to me like there’s really even any plans in the immediate future to do that.
GH: And I would say – and this is a bit daring to say – that our work as intellectuals, or people who reflect upon these questions, is to turn democratic as the revolutionary story that it has been or is still believed to be in the Western world and is expanding all over the world, as really revolutionary and actually fundamentally something that you can already find in Exodus. The notion of not having kings and believing that the law can come – well you can believe in God or not, and I personally don’t – but I believe that the notion of making laws as kind of a transcendental voice. That then you can live and adapt without kings, and without people profiting from their proximity to the sacredness and holiness, to make a better life – a more expansive life for everybody – that’s my hope.
AW: I took a class with Professor Selden on sacred texts, and what we really concluded was that the radical of Judaism is that states definitively that men are not gods. That everyone is equal before the Law. So in theory the democratic dream is the same dream that Judaism gives which is that all people are equal.
AW: Whether or not that will happen in terms of states…
GH: It’s going to be a struggle. And it doesn’t look good, but at the same time that is exactly what I’m thinking about the position we are in as historians where we have to be practical at the same time. We are not going to be going towards the Two-State Solution. Kelly and Obama were the last ones to try and it was very clear that the right wing government were laughing at them.
AW: The last real possible Two-State Solution is what Ehud Olmert proposed in 2008, and even that couldn’t become a reality. I have very low expectations that a Two-State Solution could ever be possible.
GH: Correct. But that’s another story.
AW: So we’ll go in this direction to wrap up even though this has been great and I’ve learned a lot.
GH: You have been patient.
AW: It’s pretty much impossible to overstate just how many seismic shifts the Six Day War does set off. So I thought off of the top of my head and I tallied down a laundry list of just some of the changes that the Six Day War caused around the world and in Israel and Palestine. Anti-Jewish expulsions in neighboring Arab countries and violence, increased anti-Semitism in Communist states and in the USSR – having to do kind of with the relationship between Nasser…
GH: Right, a turn.
AW: A turn to them embracing a more anti-Israel stance…
GH: And then more Russian Jews… in the sixties it accelerated the movement in reaction to the dictatorship.
AW: The Six Day War, definitely among Soviet Jews, spreads a renaissance of Zionism and leads the way for the whole refusenik movement in the 1980s.
GH: That is an important aspect.
AW: Obviously [the Six Day War] leads to the Palestinian Naksa – not the Nakba but the second one.
GH: Right. And that took time. We did not call – at the time I didn’t hear that.
AW: That word didn’t exist back immediately after the war.
GH: And it’s an imitation of the Shoah. Well imitation is not the right word, I shouldn’t say that. But it’s a response. It’s saying we’re victims too. The victimization aspect – terrible things that were done by most European countries in the 40s to Jews – essentially the whole eradication of the whole Jewish people if they could have. If the Third Reich had really conquered the world, it was really clear that it would have meant eradication. There’s not doubt about that. But the Palestinians felt, and I heard many, many stories afterwards particularly in the ‘90s when I was there again, by people who would show me with their arms – that’s where my village was, and now my whole family is in Germany. And you could tell, you got the same impression talking to Israeli Jews who told you yeah I was in Hungary at the end of the war and I lost everything – family, language, culture, children, brothers, sisters – and now I’m here. So it’s a story of survival, but of losing everything. And I thought wow – same destiny, same outcome. How come we cannot start from there? But that’s not how we do. Most politicians take advantage – not take advantage – but they thing they can make things better by responding to the larger number. But the larger number is never the way real history works with leaders or thinkers or people who invest their whole lives and choose to live according to their beliefs and don’t weigh the costs. Because politics is about costs and benefits; it’s always a calculation.
AW: I also wrote, and we just mentioned a little bit about the Naksa, there’s also the Syrian displacement from the Golan Heights. Even though that’s a little bit more of a military, strategic region…
GH: And with a lot of components to it too. Declared Israel though it may go back to Syria some day. It’s always possible.
AW: Also the Six Day War led to the Arab-Israeli Conflict shifting from a military to a more diplomatic process. Even though the Yom Kippur War comes in the next coming years. There’s an extreme swell of support for Israel throughout the Diaspora [after the Six Day War]. The beginning of the modern settler movement that we have now. Not the original settler movement, but what comes after the war.
GH: Right. The switch from a purely national, Zionist, often non-religious…
AW: More socialist leaning…
GH: More socialist leaning… to a Zionism led by religious beliefs. But I don’t want to be negative about them (laughs).
AW: Yeah, these are people who want to go back to Jericho, people who want to go back to Hebron. People who want to go back to… people who see this as the land promised to Abraham as their right.
GH: And are willing to spend enormous energy on it, and are willing to sacrifice for it.
AW: And who are enormously powerful and popular in Israel today as a political group.
GH: Probably a wave, but a long wave.
AW: And probably most notably [in terms of effects of the Six Day War] is the occupation. So my last question is, did people have any idea – either in Israel or in Jordan – just how many things the Six Day War would cause? Did they have any idea that this would be the start of a fifty year occupation? Or was it just a moment of thinking, wow this was a huge war, but really at that moment just another war, just the Third Arab-Israeli War? As opposed to what we know now about this war having insane reverberations throughout the years?
GH: I can answer for myself, I think that it was another war – though I could see the significance of getting to be in control of the mosques in Jerusalem. I immediately thought about the dynamite that it meant because Islam is not going to retreat. That I knew instantly. It was another war, but it was not the same war as in ‘56. The other aspect of it is that it was not simply the war… but as a student of archaeology and of the history of ancient Israel and Judah and so forth, and the gospels and the New Testament, I was very aware of the occupied territories, the so-called occupied territories – the West Bank as we call it, and Cisjordan and so forth – was actually full of sights in their Arabic names that went back to the Biblical sights. And so to me it was immediately a very complicated psychological, religious situation. I was very aware of that. So it was not the same war as any other war. It was an event also where immediately I thought we cannot go back to a kingship, there’s no Davidic-Messianic kingship that’s doable. On the other hand, the only great argument for maintaining the presence of Israel in the hills of Israel and Judah, the only argument is really textual. It’s a continuation. So I was aware of all of that. It was a return. You know I was thinking of Bar Kokhba. At the time I did not yet study that a lot, but I was thinking of Flavius Josephus and others. Christian writing, the Gospels particularly. And so you had the sense that the war, in some ways, completed a cycle, but at the same time did not complete anything because it opened up history. That we were going to march towards decisions made on the nature of history and the nature of human progress. Were we going to stick with the Biblical text, and read it narrowly? Or were we going to read it more humanly? At the time I was very religious still – Catholic of course. So everything was running, all those fires were running at the same time. So to me, it was not a regular, usual war because it was fulfilling text. And yet at the same time I shouldn’t say that because my view is that fulfilling is of course going on the Israeli side. On the Palestinian side, it was destroying who they were and any chance of their being a people. And that’s a difficult question that I still struggle with. And so when I make an interview like that… I am very aware at the same time that I am not representing the Palestinian side. But it’s there, massively. For me, a life is a life. Meaning a life is actually an extraordinary mystery – and the Palestinian lives are indistinguishable from the Israeli lives or the Jewish lives or the non-Jewish lives whether one believes in God or not. I don’t believe in gods, but I believe in things that may look like it.
AW: Well thank you so much.
GH: You’re welcome. Sorry if that was a little bit of a non-answer in some ways.
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