09 Jun The Six-Day War in the Soviet Union
Day by Day
This week is the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War fought between Israel and three Arab countries. Only recently I realized that this war and its unintended consequences gave me much to thank life for.
When the conflict started on June 5, 1967, the Soviet Union expected the Arab side to score a quick victory. The news announced that Israel lost 72 airplanes, the same on the second day. Of course, three mighty Arab armies would eat for breakfast a country of pushovers who could not hold a weapon. And its general, the one-eyed Moshe Dayan just begged to be mocked. (As part of the British diplomatic mission he earned a Soviet military order for his role in liberating Kiev but why confuse trusting citizens with irrelevant details.) However, the numbers of downed planes made logical people scratch their heads – wow! did Israel actually have that many planes?
The Soviet Jewry tried to blend into the background. We knew nothing about Israel, except that it was the leading enemy of progressive mankind. But nothing good awaited us at its demise.
Snatches of the jammed Voice of America reports caught in the dead of night told a different story: Israel was winning! The information percolated through the grapevine thus standing in the way of concealing the war outcome. On the third day, the Soviet media promoted Israel from pushover to arrogant aggressor. It eventually acknowledged that the aggressor did, indeed, have the nerve to defeat three Arab armies – ludicrous! To add insult to injury, the beaten armies were armed and trained by the Soviets.
Punishment Is in Order
My enraged motherland promptly severed diplomatic, economic, and cultural ties with Israel. For 24 years, the Finnish embassy in Tel Aviv and the Netherlands embassy in Moscow represented the interests of the warring countries (the relationship was restored two months before the said motherland’s collapse).
Anti-Semitic hysteria saturated the waves galvanizing the ready, able and willing grassroots. It labeled every Jew a Zionist and a Freemason, to boot. Meaning unclear, either term translated to traitor. Already restricted job and educational opportunities dried to a trickle. Beginning in the kindergarten, children beat up classmates suspected of being Jewish. Some people would not even stoop to nodding to their Jewish colleagues and neighbors. The heartfelt “This is not your motherland, go to your Israel” accompanied bus rides and lines for food.
Beware Unintended Consequences
So, nothing good awaited us after Israel won, either. But something changed. Soviet Jews were not trapped any longer, they decided that they wouldn’t be, they saw themselves differently. Proud Jews was not an oxymoron any longer. It didn’t matter that they could not always show their pride.
The nascent human rights and emigration movement was strengthening and widening. The West stood ready to support it. While arrests, exile, and locking-up of dissidents in psychiatric wards continued, it was too late to reverse history: the Six-Day War exposed the colossus’ clay legs to the world.
Within a few years, ordinary families like mine applied for permission to reunite with their (non-existing) relatives in Israel – a face-saving reason for emigration invented by the Soviet Union. To do so, they needed an invitation. Undiplomatically, the Netherlands embassy forwarded lists of names requesting invitations to Israel.
When my husband and I came to open our exit visas on April 9, 1976, we delivered twenty-seven pages with names and addresses. Whether the break of diplomatic ties by the Soviet Union punished Israel is anyone’s guess. But that decision ultimately cost my motherland thousands of people who might not have otherwise found a way to get an invitation quickly enough to use it.
A terrifying space with no future, that country was dying but we didn’t know it then. It simply was too scary not to emigrate.