As complicated as the Israeli-Arab conflict has become for Israel, externally and internally, there has been a tendency to look back at the consequences of the Six Day War through negative prisms. Issues surrounding the moral and political implications of occupation, the impact of settlements, the demographic threats, and the critical reactions around the world seem to dominate discussions.
These are all, obviously, serious matters that many inside and outside Israel deal with every day. These concerns, however, should in no way obscure the overriding historic significance and contribution of the Six Day War to the life of Israel and the Jewish people that still resonate until this very day.
For American Jews, 1967 was transformative both for its impact on attitudes toward Israel and for Jewish self-perception. Zionism had been a controversial movement within the American Jewish community from the beginning of the century. American Jews took a long time to feel comfortable with the Zionist movement and after the creation of the state, there still were large numbers of American Jews who remained indifferent to the new state, and even some who made clear that that was not their state.
The Six Day War made us all Zionists, if not literally then psychologically. The American Jewish connection to Israel was sealed. Even today, when one hears a lot about disaffection, the pride and depth of the continuing connection owe many of their roots to 1967.
American Zionism was not the only winner. So too was Jewish self-confidence. Association with this little country that defeated its enemies so dramatically was something to be proud of. It was one factor in the maturation of the community. If today American Jews are more assertive, more active, more comfortable, then the Six Day War ranks as one of several significant influences.
The best indication of the transformation factor is that even though Israel’s image has taken many hits over the years, connected to wars in Lebanon or relations with the Palestinians, the self-confidence of the community associated with that period continues to sustain itself.
Let us not forget as well the tremendous impact the 1967 war had on Soviet Jews. The movements toward identity and political activism of Soviet Jews can be traced back directly to the inspiration and courage that Israel’s miraculous victory provided for the repressed Soviet Jewish population. History here, too, could not be reversed after 1967.
And, of course for Middle East politics, it is not the complexities as a result of 1967 that stand out. Rather it is the beginning of the change in the Arab mindset toward Israel, as slow as it is, that began then. It wasn’t the legitimization of Israel that happened (that still hasn’t happened). But the realization that Israel is here to stay that led to peace with Egypt and Jordan, that suffuses much of the Arab world today, that is the basis for future peace, and that is the target for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who would like to bring the Middle East back to before 1967 when it wasn’t clear that Israel is here to stay.
The relevance of the Six Day War to today’s challenges is profound. As the Jewish people face greater threats than at any time since World War II, in particular the potentially lethal combination of ideological anti-Semitism and weapons of mass destruction, it is the memory of 1967 that gives reason for optimism.
In the 1930s, the world for its own sake should have stopped Hitler in the Rhineland in 1936. Had it done so, the great Jewish tragedy might not have occurred. Today the world, for its own sake, should stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. If it fails to do so, this time, unlike then, the Jewish people are not powerless. That is the lesson of "Never Again," that is the lesson of the Six Day War. This time the Jewish people will have the option to act as it did in 1967.
If Jews are making history today in a new way, in Israel and in America, they are doing so because of the creation of the State of Israel and because what happened 40 years ago was the singular expression of the commitment to survive and thrive no matter what its enemies seek to do.
Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and author of "Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism." For more about the Six Day War, go to the ADL’s Website, www.adl.org