On May 2, James North and Phil Weiss talked with Norman Finkelstein in his Brooklyn home about the Six Day War, its history, its mythology and its impact on US Jewish life. Finkelstein then revised the transcript of that conversation.
Weiss: How important was the Six-Day War in your neighborhood when you were a kid?
Finkelstein: I was in 8th grade. My social studies teacher, Josh Abramson, was a religious Jew. I remember in the schoolyard—I can see the scene in my mind’s eye—he had transistor radio to his ear. He was visibly worried about Israel’s fate. It seems a lot of Jews worried. I recently read Professor Chomsky’s reminiscences. He and his friends in Cambridge also feared the worst.
But it came, they won, it went.
It was the era of the Vietnam War and Black Power. Go back and look at the topical television programs. Laugh In, The Smothers Brothers, All in the Family. Israel never comes up.
It’s historical revisionism that Israel figured prominently in Jewish life back then. When you say someone in ‘67 was a “Zionist”—well, Zionism, it wasn’t an issue. There were a handful of idealistic young people, the Bernie Sanders type, who had romantic ideas of socialism, kibbutzim.
But folks like Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer—Schumer attended my high school, a few years ahead of me—wanting to experience the hard life? You’ve got to be kidding! Schumer was the son of an exterminator. The last thing he wanted to experience was a gritty life! He once said that his father “hated his job” and he was determined not to end up like his father. Schumer was his class valedictorian. He got a perfect score of 1600 on his SAT, a rare feat in those days. He was out to conquer the upper reaches and inner sanctums of American power, not sing Kumbaya on some kibbutz in a backwater.
Weiss: My mother’s best friend, Golda Werman was born in Berlin in 1930. She and her husband moved from Bloomington to Jerusalem in 1968. My cluster may not be meaningful, but there were people for whom this was very important. Bernie Avishai, MJ Rosenberg—they were called by that, their lives changed.
I, too, remember some classmates who did “aliya.” But I had in mind the top tier in my school, the soon-to-be movers and shakers.
North: In ‘71, ‘72, Chuck [whom North knew] would turn it around to Israel. I would say to Chuck, I admire Ho Chi Minh. Who do you admire? I’d have to think. No American politicians. Certainly David Ben-Gurion. But you’re entirely right, he wasn’t going to move there.
Weiss: What about your family?
My eldest brother lived in Israel for a short while. He was there during the 1973 war. He was a bit of a loner. He went there in search of family. When he returned we argued bitterly. But he later turned against Israel with a vengeance. I suppose it was a feeling of betrayal, as the truth slowly sunk in. Now he makes me look like Alan Dershowitz.
My parents perceived the whole world through the prism of the Nazi holocaust. The Red Army defeated the Nazis, so the Russians could do not wrong. A Jew who didn’t support the Soviet Union was a sellout and traitor. Those were the epithets they used. You can laugh, but for my parents it wasn’t a laughing matter.
Israel Gutman was a director of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. My father knew Gutman in Auschwitz. They were on the Auschwitz Death March together, and then in the same Displaced People (DP) camp in Linz, Austria. They both belonged to Hashomer Hatzair, the Zionist youth movement that was pro-Soviet at the time. They were very close. Gutman eventually became—via revelation or prudence—very anti-Soviet. My father lost all respect for him. As far as my father was concerned, he was just another sellout and traitor.
My parents were, as my mother used to put it, the real McCoys. Starting in the 1970s, everyone who had immigrated from Europe after the war pretended to be a Holocaust survivor. Well, my parents were Holocaust survivors.
Every member of my family was exterminated on both sides. No grandparents, aunts, uncles. [He gestures to pictures on his wall.] That was my mother’s father. My mother’s mother. Her two sisters and her brother. If I can point to these pictures, it’s because my mother had an aunt in the US, so before the war my mother’s mother had sent over the pictures.
Finkelstein family photographs. His father is in the lower left in the glare. His mother’s parents are on the upper left. His mother is in top center. Her two sisters and brother are in the upper right.
No pictures survived of my father’s family. My mother once glimpsed from afar my father’s sister in Majdanek before she was killed. Every so often during their marriage, my father would suddenly stand solemn, erect, pensive, as he pled with my mother, “Tell me what she looked like.”
When the Holocaust industry started up in the ‘7os, authentic survivors were in high demand. My parents were not indifferent to money—I’m not going to idealize them—they would not sneer at the opportunity to make a buck. My mother was a witness at a trial of Nazi concentration camp guards from Majdanek in 1979. The survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, several tens of thousands, including my parents, were deported to Majdanek. My mother was going to testify but—I’m not happy to admit this—at one point she wanted the German government to compensate her. I found that really wrong. I’m saying this in the context of, my parents could have cashed in on the Holocaust. Like Elie Wiesel, who was both a mountebank and consummate Holocaust entrepreneur. He accumulated tens of millions of dollars playing the role of a Holocaust survivor.
But the Holocaust industry only let survivors bear witness if they denounced the Soviet Union. The campaign to “Free Soviet Jewry” was in high gear—the Jackson-Vanik amendment, etc. As much as they liked money, there was no way on god’s earth my parents would ever utter a single word critical of the Soviet Union. So they were never asked to speak.
I’ve always respected their fidelity. They loved Stalin even as the Communist Party blushed at his legacy. My mother was very smart. She knew many languages including Latin—to the end of her life she devoured books at a pace that bewildered the local librarian and she effortlessly summoned forth a better vocabulary than my own—was president of her high school class, and went on to study mathematics at Warsaw University. But she refused even to acknowledge that Stalin killed Trotsky. “It was the CIA.” Well, there was no CIA then.
You might call it fanaticism, but at bottom it was faithfulness: however unpopular it might be, you don’t betray a friend. They might have been wrong, but my parents weren’t up for sale. They despised Israel when it aligned with the US in the Cold War at the time of the Korean war. Up until Korea, it was still touch and go. It was unclear which way Israel was going to lean. Mapam, the second largest Israeli political party, was blindly pro-Soviet. It even supported Stalin during the 1953 Doctors’ Plot.
My mother also couldn’t fathom the Israeli psyche. She couldn’t see anything redemptive in military service or war. She used to say, “Better 100 years of evolution than one year of revolution.” War was the ultimate horror. But Israel was a modern-day Sparta. After ’67, Moshe Dayan came to embody this martial spirit. They reveled in death, killing.
North: Speaking of Moshe Dayan, if you could put blame on a single Israeli for what happened in ‘67, would you choose anyone?
I wouldn’t choose any single person. It was a collective decision. You can’t understand ‘67 unless you remember that only a decade elapsed between it and Israel’s forced withdrawal from the Egyptian Sinai in ’57 after the Israeli invasion in ’56. Israel first tried in ’56 to knock out Egyptian president Nasser, and also to conquer the Sinai, Gaza and the West Bank. It turned out to be the dress rehearsal for ‘67.
Except in ’67, Israeli leaders were divided on whether to attack without a green light from Washington. Prime Minister Eshkol didn’t want to risk a repeat of ’57, when President Eisenhower forced Israel to withdraw from the Sinai. Herein was the critical factor that separated so-called doves like Eshkol from the militants generals in ‘67. Eshkol wanted to ascertain that Washington would not pull the rug from under their feet.
North: They learned the hard way in ’56.
Yes. But once the US in effect gave Israel the green (or amber) light at the end of May and early June, Israel did a repeat performance of ‘56. Its primary goal was to neuter Nasser, to deliver a deathblow to these uppity Arabs and finish off what was called radical Arab nationalism.
Their secondary goal was to conquer the lands they had coveted but didn’t manage to seize in ’48: East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan. Tom Segev’s book, 1967, is not great, but it does copiously document Israel’s expansionist territorial aims on the eve of ‘67.
It also makes clear that Israel had already resolved at the end of May to conquer the West Bank even if Jordan stayed out of the war. The notion that Israel didn’t covet the West Bank and even warned King Hussein not to enter the war so as to avoid a conflict with it—it’s hogwash. King Hussein feared that Jordan would be isolated and an easy prey once Israel knocked out Egypt. He figured, rightly, that Israel was going to attack the Kingdom anyway, so better to join in while the Arabs still had a fighting chance of stopping Israel.
North: No one under 60 will have a grasp of the prominence and importance of Nasser, both within the so-called Arab world and in Israel, as well as the world at large. He’s still the most famous Arab leader (though Saddam Hussein maybe kind of caught up with him).
It was the era of the Nonaligned Movement. Of high hopes and expectations as the former European colonies gained independence after World War II. The heads of these newly independent states convened at the Bandung conference in 1955. The leading and representative figures at Bandung were Nasser, Tito, and Nehru.
North: Nasser gave a monthly speech, and every radio from Casablanca to Baghdad was tuned in.
Yes. He was a galvanizing, mesmerizing, orator, who tapped into popular aspirations for a better, more dignified life. Washington had mixed feelings. It feared that he would overthrow the corrupt elites in thrall to the West, in particular, the Saudis. Nasser and the Saudis were fighting a protracted proxy war in Yemen just before ’67.
But the US also hoped it could buy off Nasser and rein him in. Until the Kennedy administration. JFK finally despaired of trying to bribe him: he was proving too independent, intractable, unpredictable. In a sharp reversal of policy, it sold Hawk anti-aircraft missiles to Israel.
Incidentally, ’67 doesn’t sit easily with the “tail wagging the dog” thesis—that the Israel lobby imposes on Washington a foreign policy alien to American national interests. What you see right on the eve of the ‘67 war is this: Walt Rostow, a key national security advisor to President Johnson, says “radical Arab nationalism represented by Nasser . . . is waning.” It just needs to be ministered one knockout blow. Rostow was prescient. It was a castle built on sand. In the last analysis, Nasser was a blowhard.
The Israelis got what they wanted in ‘67, but so did Washington. They both wanted Nasser done in.
Weiss: Why wasn’t that a US interest in ‘56 too?
In fact, ‘56 was not an exception. Eisenhower and his influential Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, both loathed Nasser. They just didn’t think the timing was right for an armed attack, the moment wasn’t yet ripe. Dulles was very conflicted once the British-French-Israeli invasion got underway. “The British, having gone in, should not have stopped,” Dulles told Eisenhower, “until they had toppled Nasser.”
So-called Arabists hold up Eisenhower as a model to be emulated. But he wanted to dispose of Nasser just as much as anyone else.
Even as things begin to shift under Kennedy, the real break comes after the ‘67 war. The US now sees Israel is a first-class fighting force—a “strategic asset”—that could protect its critical regional interests, while the radical Arab nationalist bubble has burst, the Arabs lay prostrate, they no longer need be taken into account.
North: What’s your take on historians who allege Israel had no aggressive designs in 1967 and there was a lot of confusion and conflict among its leadership?
Yes, there was some confusion and conflict. But there was a lot more unity of purpose. They all agreed on exploiting the opportunity of war to expand Israel’s borders, but some disagreement did exist on which territories to conquer and in what sequence.
The sort of history you allude to is based mostly on self-serving interviews and memoirs, and statements made for public consumption. It’s not serious scholarship. You might not like Benny Morris, but it’s undeniable that, until recently, he’s done solid if tendentious research.
It’s telling that Morris suspends his archival history before the 1967 war. In my opinion—I can’t prove it, it’s only a hunch—it’s because 1948 is, politically, a dead issue. As former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami shrewdly observed in Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, the salient outcome of the ‘67 war was it legitimized the borders that Israel conquered in ‘48. That is to say, after the ‘67 war, the Arabs had no choice except to recognize Israel as a state in its pre-‘67 borders.
So ‘48 was now a dead issue. Israel won ’48 in ‘67. The only open question from ’48 was the Palestinian refugees. But after ’67 it starts being finessed as a “just” resolution of the refugee question “based on” the right of return and compensation.
Why did Benny Morris stop his myth-shattering history at the Sinai invasion? In my opinion, he recoiled at doing to ‘67 what he did to ’48 and ‘56, because ‘67 is not a dead issue. The crucial result of ‘67 is the occupation. That’s not a dead issue, it’s a very live issue.
If Morris had written a true history of the ’67 war based on the available documentary record, he would willy-nilly have to puncture a lot of sacred, propagandistic myths, just like he did in his account of ’48 and ’56.
North: So he preferred not to do it at all?
Yes. Morris, the loyal citizen, recoiled at the prospect of such a scholarly undertaking because every commonplace about ‘67 is either a half-truth or an outright lie. The full truth casts Israel in a harsh light.
The countdown to June ‘67 begins with a dogfight over Syria in April. The Israeli air force downed several Syrian planes, one over Damascus. Who provoked it? We know the answer because Dayan himself later admitted it. Israel would dispatch bulldozers into the demilitarized zones (DMZs) along the Israeli-Syrian border to seize Arab-owned land. These repeated Israeli land grabs provoked Syrian retaliation. What happened in April was just one more in a long series of such Israeli provocations.
Every official history then goes on to say, the Kremlin falsely conveyed to the Arabs that Israel was readying an attack on Syria. But was the Soviet warning false?
North: No, it was accurate.
Yes. The Israelis were going to attack. It’s uncertain how big an attack, but there almost certainly was going to be an assault on Syria. The Israeli cabinet had taken a decision.
The best scholarly study on ‘67—it’s rarely cited—is by the mainstream Israeli historian Ami Gluska, The Israeli Military and the Origins of the 1967 War. He confirms the Israeli cabinet decision. He says, “The Soviet assessment from mid-May 1967 that Israel was about to strike at Syria was correct and well founded.”
Nasser had a defense pact with Syria, so he was obliged to support it militarily.
He repositioned Egyptian troops in the Sinai and told UN Secretary-General U Thant to remove the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) separating Egypt from Israel, which U Thant proceeded to do. U Thant was widely condemned for acquiescing in Nasser’s request, but the fact is, U Thant legally had no choice, he acted properly. It was within Nasser’s sovereign right to order UNEF’s removal. The UN peacekeeping force was stationed on Egypt’s side of the border by agreement, and Nasser had the right to rescind the agreement.
Israeli diplomat Abba Eban famously quipped—he was very clever, very witty—“What’s the point of a fire engine if it’s removed immediately as there’s a fire?” That’s all very funny except for one thing: the original agreement in 1957 was that UNEF was supposed to be stationed—
North: Fire engines on both sides of the Egyptian-Israeli border.
Yes, on both sides. But Israel at the time refused. If it feared an Egyptian attack in ‘67, and believed UNEF was a deterrent, Israel could’ve redeployed this peacekeeping force on its side of the border….
After Egyptian troops entered Sinai and UNEF was removed, Nasser announced he was closing the Straits of Tiran. Israel officially declared this act to be a casus belli. In fact, legally, it wasn’t. But the bigger point is, Nasser didn’t really close the Straits. The closure lasted just a few days. I once talked to the guy who was head of UNEF—
North: Do you mean the Norwegian Odd Bull? A perfect name for a guy, I remember thinking at the time.
No, Bull was chief of staff of UN forces in the Middle East. I spoke with Indar Jit Rikhye, who headed up UNEF. Laughing, he told me, “I personally flew over there, the Straits weren’t closed.”
North: I remember at the time, I was 15 years old, I remember thinking, well, they’re going to choke off Israel. Then I read your research that only 5 percent of their imports came through that port.
The one critical Israeli import via the Straits was oil. But Israel had ample supplies, enough to last several months. Nasser then said, Let’s take it to the International Court of Justice. In fact, right of passage in the Straits posed complex, unresolved legal questions. But Israel balked at adjudication by the Court.
[He grabs a book off his shelf]
Here’s the ‘67 volume from the Foreign Relations of the United States series published by the US State Department. The volume’s editors did not say the Straits were blockaded. They were very cautious as they referred to Egypt’s “purported closing” of the Straits….
Every serious historian agrees, Nasser didn’t intend to attack. There’s some dispute whether Egypt’s powerful defense minister was planning a preemptive strike, Operation Dawn, at the end of May. The legend continues, Nasser nixed it at the last moment. Anyhow, it’s irrelevant. In the week immediately preceding Israel’s first strike, Egypt wasn’t going to attack, and Israeli leaders knew it.
In early June, Israeli major-general Meir Amit, who headed the Mossad, came to Washington. Israel was dispatching many emissaries to feel out how the US would react in the event it attacked. Amit told senior American officials on June 1 that “there were no differences between the US and the Israelis on the military intelligence picture or its interpretation.”
The key findings of multiple US intelligence agencies were, #1, Nasser was not going to attack—
North: And #2, Israel will trounce him if he did attack.
Exactly. President Johnson told Israelis at the end of May, “our best judgment is that no military attack on Israel is imminent,” and even if, against all odds, the neighboring Arab states did attack, “you will whip the hell out of them.” Amit confirmed on his early June trip to Washington that Israeli intelligence was in full agreement.
North: Meanwhile I was watching TV: Will Israel survive? And the rabbis are getting all whipped up.
The Israeli people and American Jews, they were scared. But not the leadership. In his biography of Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad, the historian Patrick Seale titled his chapter on the ‘67 war, The Six-Day Walkover. That’s what it was, a walkover.
In fact, the war did not last six days; it lasted closer to six minutes. Once Israeli planes in a surprise blitzkrieg knocked out the Egyptian air force still parked on the ground, the war was over. Rostow later called it a “turkey shoot.” If the war lasted longer, it was only because Israel wanted to conquer the Egyptian Sinai, the Jordanian West Bank, and the Syrian Golan Heights.
The official story is, Israel attacked Syria because it was shelling Israel below from the Heights, and because of Palestinian commando raids sponsored by it. But if Syria occasionally shelled Israel from the Golan and backed the commando raids, it was in retaliation for the Israeli land-grabs in the DMZs.
Incidentally, the Palestinian commando raids were pretty much a joke. Head of Israeli military intelligence Yehoshaphat Harkabi assessed them after the war as “not impressive by any standard.”
The PLO touted hundreds of successful commando operations, but among themselves Palestinians used to laugh that every time a car crashed in Tel Aviv, this or that PLO faction would take credit. When Yasir Arafat’s wife Suha became pregnant, the joke was, four Palestinian factions claimed responsibility. In any event, it’s clear Israel conquered the Golan because it coveted the headwaters of the Jordan and the valuable agricultural land.
The major impetus behind Israel’s attack in 1967 was to restore its “deterrence capacity”—i.e. the Arab world’s fear of it.
North: You can’t let Nasser get away with closing the Straits, even if he didn’t close them.
Exactly. Nasser was whipping up the so-called Arab street into a frenzy. When Nasser declared the Straits closed, he crossed an Israeli red line. It was the point of no return. Israeli general Ariel Sharon warned the cabinet that Israel was losing its “deterrence capability . . . our main weapon—the fear of us.”
Weiss: Why did Jews call Nasser the momser?
In the West he was dubbed Hitler on the Nile.
Weiss: But why?
I alluded to it before, it was the heady, postwar era of anti-imperialism, Third Worldism. Nasser was an emblematic figure. Of course, it all ended in disaster. I cannot think of anything good that came of it. As my friend, the Marxist economist Paul Sweezy, used to say, “Alas, for illusions.”
North: Nasser brought Nazi scientists to Egypt.
Yes, Egypt purchased the services of Nazi scientists. So did the US and the Soviet Union. Everyone was recruiting them. When it came to mass killing, they knew their trade.
Weiss: But cartoons in the Arab press, Damascus, Cairo, showed Jews being pushed into the sea. In advance of the war.
Yeah, the head of the PLO, Ahmed Shukeiri, gave idiotic speeches threatening to annihilate Israel.
Weiss: This is not meaningless.
No, but Israeli leaders knew it was just bluster. They weren’t deceived, fearful. The Israeli “panic” was all theater. Eban, over at the UN, was the stage manager and scriptwriter. He titled the chapter of his memoir on ‘67, “To live or perish.” A nice touch. He once observed, “Propaganda is the art of persuading others of what you do not necessarily believe yourself.” Eban was a virtuoso in the propagandist’s craft.
Weiss: What did the cartoons reflect? It was folk, popular sentiment?
Yes. But you have to look at the historical context. In his illuminating study Israel’s Border Wars, Benny Morris shows that, upon attaining power in 1952, Nasser didn’t want to go to war with Israel. He was a nationalist. He wanted to modernize Egypt. According to Morris, it was Israel—in particular, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and Dayan—that started to plot and provoke in the early 1950s. They dreaded the prospect of an Egypt that wasn’t backward. They wouldn’t brook a modern Egypt.
North: But you were saying that the propaganda, the war fever, spread to the Israeli public. When he answered the call up, Yossi Israel was genuinely afraid he was going to be pushed into the sea.
Veteran of Israeli Defense Forces and Six Day War, at annual reunion, May 23, 2017, Nablus Road in occupied East Jerusalem. Photo by Phil Weiss.
North: So the leadership was culpable.
It figured the Israeli people would give their all if they felt their backs were up against the wall. The leaders were culpable twice over: they provoked the crisis and then launched an unprovoked attack.
On the other hand, it cannot be said that the lead-up—at any rate, up until Nasser declared the Straits closed—was a precalculated, precalibrated prelude to the final showdown. The situation kept escalating, although at every point Israel could have put on the brakes. It could have repositioned UNEF on its side of the border, it could have gone to the ICJ on the Straits. U Thant delineated in his memoir numerous opportunities to defuse the crisis that Israel passed up.
North: Can you think off the top of your head of a relatively recent historical event in which the popular understanding is so different from the historians’ consensus. Anything equivalent to ‘67 discrepancies?
In the case of Vietnam, popular understanding eventually caught up with the scholarly one on many (but not all) critical points. We had teach-ins, alternative media, activist scholars, skillful popularizers, it was a real movement. But Israeli propaganda has been remarkably resilient on ‘67. In the public imagination, it’s still “to live or perish.”
Weiss: To this day?
Yep. My guess is, the 50th anniversary retrospectives will repeat the same tired story-line: the Soviets falsely claimed that Israel was planning an attack, Nasser closed the Straits strangulating Israel, Israel faced an existential threat when it attacked, Israel didn’t want to conquer the West Bank, etc. etc. It’s so painfully predictable.
Weiss: The New York Times will do that?
It’s doubtful anyone on the Times’s editorial board has a clue what really happened. It’s completely buried in an avalanche of Israeli propaganda.
North: Do you consider Michael Oren’s book on ’67 serious?
No, it’s worthless.
There’s a very good scholar named Nathan Brown, he’s at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. I once attended a conference where I delivered a scathing assessment of Oren’s book. Brown, who knew Oren personally, was also in attendance. After I presented, Brown commented, “I read your paper. I agree with a lot of what you say. Oren does go off the rails when he starts talking about Operation Dawn. But why are you so belligerent, why the hostile tone?”
“Because it’s not scholarship,” I replied. “It’s state propaganda.” This was before Oren became an official Israeli apparatchik. He was still wearing his historian’s cap. “Had he been a serious historian, I would have adopted a different tone.”
Many years ago I dissected Benny Morris’s seminal study on the Palestinian refugees. True, I was very critical, but I was also respectful. Oren, however, wasn’t deserving of respect; he’s always been a hack, and a liar. Once Oren outed himself as he became Netanyahu’s official mouthpiece, I felt retrospectively vindicated in that exchange with Brown.
Weiss: What about the idea that strategically, this was Israel’s biggest mistake? It got the occupation, which is delegitimizing Israel.
North: Well, it’s worked for 50 years.
I agree with James. I once attended the funeral of a former member of the Weather Underground. She had been released early as she was dying of cancer. When she and another woman were arrested, they were locked up in adjacent cells. The other woman was bawling. The woman whose funeral I attended shouted through the wall, “Knock it off! We had a great revolutionary run!”
They set off firecrackers in a couple of post offices. “We had a great revolutionary run!” Alas, for delusions.
But as James says, 50 years isn’t a bad run.
To judge by the goals it set, Israel’s first strike was a stunning success. Did it dispose of Nasser? Yes. Did it bury radical Arab nationalism? Yes. Did it inflict a deep wound on the Arab world? Yes.
North: And it has successfully maintained the occupation.
Yes. The only thing Israel didn’t anticipate was that radical Arab nationalism would be reborn as radical Islamic fundamentalism. But who could’ve predicted that?
North: What do you think happened to the USS Liberty?
I corresponded with one of the surviving crew members, James Ennis, who wrote a book on the attack indicting Israel. His account was totally credible.
For example, a 5-by-8-foot American flag hoisted on the Liberty was fluttering in the wind on a crystalline summer day. Ennis recalled that before the assault an Israeli pilot overhead was flying so low they even waved to each other. So how could Israeli pilots have missed the flag?
It’s ingenious—or hilarious—how Oren explains away this inconvenient fact. He says, “But Israeli pilots were not looking for the Liberty, but rather for Egyptian submarines.” In other words, the pilots didn’t see what was staring them in the face above the water because they were in search of a vessel beneath the water. This explanation must have deeply impressed the Los Angeles Times, which awarded him the newspaper’s annual book prize in history.
North: The reason for the attack?
None of the standard explanations hold up. I have my own hunch but I readily admit it’s highly speculative and unorthodox.
Weiss: The conventional theory is the Liberty had radio surveillance and knocking out the Liberty allowed Israel to continue the war another two days.
It’s alleged that the Liberty had gotten wind of the fact that Israel was going to seize the Golan, so Israel attacked it. But this theory doesn’t hold up on close inspection.
My own hypothesis is, this is Israel’s big moment, the climactic of the Jewish people, a collective paroxysm-cum-orgasm. All the armed services want to get a piece of the action. The air force, the army, the navy.
The navy hadn’t yet seen real combat. As the war was winding down, they were probably anxious to be part of this glorious chapter. To play their part in the Jewish people’s revenge on the goyim.
Remember, the Israelis don’t just hate Arabs. They’re in an eternal war with all the goyim. All the goyim wanted the Jews dead. Just read Daniel Goldhagen if you have any doubts. The Americans are goyim. They refused entry to Jews fleeing the Holocaust; they didn’t bomb the railway tracks to Auschwitz; they, too, wanted all the Jews dead. Now they’re butting into our war, dispatching a spy ship into our waters, trying to restrain us in our moment of glory. Fuck the Americans! Fuck the goyim! Long live the Jews!
Besides the Israeli air assault on the USS Liberty, the Israeli navy torpedoed the vessel. It got to share in the mock heroics and avenge the millennial suffering of the Jews. Everyone got their 15 minutes of drawing blood, in memoriam of the Jewish martyrs.
I am the first to admit gaps in my hypothesis but it probably gets closer to the truth than positing a rational motive.
North: How was the attack suppressed?
Raison d’etat. Of course President Johnson knew what happened. But Israel was now the US’s “strategic asset” in the Middle East, so Johnson gave it a pass.
Weiss: We’re coming to a moment of reckoning in the Jewish community, per Alan Solow. There will be soul-searching, and the Israel lobby groups are going to have to come up with a very good narrative. Do you anticipate any sort of thoughtful examination of the war and will it have any consequences, not just historiographically, but in Israel’s image?
Whereas the real facts leading up to Israel’s first strike will be consigned to Orwell’s memory hole, the baneful effects of the war on Israeli society will probably be cause for reflection. It’s arguable that Israel became a different place after ’67. As journalist Gideon Levy recently observed, pre-’67 Israel was not a pretty place, far from it, but it also did not lack in virtues.
I hate the word nuanced, I hate the word complex—more often than not, they’re moral cop-outs—but, still, it must be possible to reconcile that, alongside the crime that was inflicted on the indigenous population, there were—just as here in the US, burdened with its own “original sin”—redeeming facets of the Israeli experiment before ‘67.
You can’t otherwise explain why many decent, progressive people, solidly anchored in the Left, found a lot to admire there. Professor Chomsky’s wife, Carol, who was very smart, sensitive, down-to-earth—she wanted to stay. She liked the people and kibbutz life. Read Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher’s admiring essays on Israel before ‘67.
Incidentally, the single shrewdest assessment of where Israel was heading after the war was Deutscher’s 1968 interview in New Left Review. It’s a withering portrait of, for example, the newly anointed King of the Jews, Moshe Dayan—“hero and savior, with the political mind of a regimental sergeant-major, ranting about annexations, and venting a raucous callousness about the fate of the Arabs in the conquered territories.” But if you read Deutscher up until ’67, a lot of what he witnessed first-hand on his several visits there resonated with him.
The place inspired a lot of young, idealistic people. It was egalitarian, it was simple, it was austere, it was communal, it was hopeful. The leaders were relatively free from venality and animated by a collective ideal. Ari Shavit’s bestseller, My Promised Land, is, for sure, schmaltz, but its rendering of these years does contain a kernel of truth.
The ‘67 war set in train a sequence of developments that turned it into a very ugly place. Yes, it can lay claim to an impressive high-tech sector, but that’s about it.
Weiss: I would say you are actually now reflecting the conventional wisdom. What you are saying—which I think might take place around that anniversary—is that we will bury the beautiful, the dream, the miracle, the desert bloom. You say, yes you could maintain that illusion up till ’67. Well I think that in this case the loss of the illusion is actually now the conventional wisdom and it will solidify on this anniversary. You’re not such a seer.
I don’t harbor illusions about pre-’67 Israel. But it’s polemical to deny that the country has changed, for the worse. While back then it practiced a Spartan equality, income inequality in Israel today is among the highest in the OECD. Another straw in the wind: Yitzhak Rabin was forced out of office in 1977 merely because his wife had opened a bank account in the US. Compare that with today, when every week another member of Israel’s political elite is implicated in a big financial scandal. It’s hard to gainsay that it’s a different place.
North: You could both be right. Phil’s right in that the realization that Israel was not what people thought it was, is growing all the time. But it might not come out in the half-century commemoration.
I don’t buy the notion of an inescapable “original sin.” Terrible things happened in ’48. But it wasn’t Israel’s teleological fate to become what it has become. Choices were made along the way. No doubt, the choices were shaped by ideological and material factors. But still, they were choices.
We Americans have our original sins. The expulsion and extermination of the indigenous population mostly couldn’t be undone. But the kidnapping and enslavement of African-Americans, well, the situation today is very far from perfect—Jacob’s ladder has many rungs—but, even as it sounds like a cliché, progress has been registered.
There’s a German word aufhebung. Hegelians, Marxists used it. It’s variously and simultaneously translated as to “abolish,” “preserve” and “overcome.” Like other countries, Israel could have abolished, preserved and overcome its original sin. But after ’67, Israel got carried away, it got intoxicated by power. It’s now a lunatic place.
If not a qualitative, then a quantitative transformation occurred in ’67. Still, it’s perhaps not too late for Israel to repair some of the damage done to the indigenous population, and itself. Look at Germany and Japan. In the first half of the 20th century, they were perhaps the most racist, expansionist states on the planet. Now, in public opinion surveys they are typically ranked the world’s most peace-loving states. Or, consider South Africa’s abrupt volte-face.
North: I will say this about South Africa. I left there in 1982, ‘83. No one, no one, would have predicted that in ten years Mandela would be out of prison. All of us would have thought, Eventually we will win. But we would have thought it would take at least twice as long. And a lot more people would have died. We all thought Mandela was going to die in prison, just because the regime was so strong. There were a number of factors, Cubans, Southwest Africa. But yeah, the fact that I was standing there watching him walk out of prison in 1990, that was just astonishing to me in 1990.
Weiss: I remember in sixth grade, JR Krevans ran up to me and said, they knocked out the Egyptian air force on the tarmac. He is now a doctor, Jewish stuff isn’t very important to him, but he had a sense of real solidarity.
Until ‘67, our self-image was scrawny, nerdy, nebbishy Woody Allen types. But after the war Jews could brag about their martial prowess.
North: “Bring Moshe Dayan here and send him to Vietnam and run our war there.” He was the big hero.
Dayan had a patch and he was a womanizer. A Jew who was half-pirate, half-Casanova! It was thrilling.
Life Magazine image of Israeli soldier during the Six Day War
Weiss: The Life magazine cover of the bronzed Jewish soldiers in the desert was also thrilling to a WASP friend of mine. The reversal of the image of Jews in WW2; and they all loved it.
That’s very true. It’s largely forgotten that, growing up in my generation, it was a badge of shame to be a Holocaust survivor. The mantra was that the Jews went like sheep to slaughter.
North: Even though that’s not true.
But that’s how it was conceived. Jews felt embarrassed, ashamed. They were weaklings, cowards.
I mentioned earlier that my mother testified in Germany at a trial of Nazi concentration camp guards from Majdanek. I accompanied her. My mother was shocked to see the guards walking freely in the courthouse. She started to shriek. “Why aren’t they in cages? They’re animals!”
One night as we were exiting the courthouse, the most bestial guard, Birgitta, inched up next to me on one side while my mother was on the other side. I was like, What is this?! I was breathless, aghast.
I waited for Birgitta to get about 100 yards ahead of us. I then turned to my mother and said, “Do you know who that is?”
She squinted her eyes and then her whole body started to convulse: “Birgitta?”
“Yes! What do you want me to do?”
“Get her! Get her! They think we’re sheep! Get her!”
Norman Finkelstein, gesturing as his mother did about Birgitta, toward James North, May 2, 2017.
My mother was a stereotypical hyper-protective Jewish mother. But at that moment, she didn’t give a darn what happened to me. It was just “Get her! Get her! They think we’re sheep! Get her!”
It’s a wretched irony that, after the ‘67 war, American Jews rallied behind Israel as they proved their manhood and mettle and vindicated their honor by vicariously beating up on mostly defenseless Arabs.