The Twin Wars

How the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War shaped Israel.

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The Six Day War was a watershed event in Israel's history that fundamentally shaped the country's collective psyche. Forty years later, however, the war's impact must be understood in light of an equally cataclysmic experience--the 1973 Yom Kippur War. To this day, Israel's politics, international relations, and self-image are dominated by the legacy of the twin upheavals of this brief period. 

Strategic Impact

The Six Day War's most immediate impact was strategic. By June 10, 1967, Israel had conquered the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. The area controlled by Israel more than tripled--from 8,000 to 26,000 square miles. These conquests boosted Israel's defensive capabilities by shortening its borders, giving it control of commanding mountain ranges, and providing previously lacking strategic depth.

female soldiers six day war

Female Israeli soldiers in the Six Day War

The decisive military victory over three Arab armies brought about a shift in Israel's self-perception. Overnight, small, beleaguered, and fragile Israel had become a regional superpower. Not only had David defeated Goliath, David had become Goliath.

Credit for this startling victory went to the Israel Defense Force. Where in the past soldiers had been largely anonymous figures, they now became folk heroes and larger than life celebrities, embodying the values of Zionism and the legacy of biblical warriors. The Six Day War initiated a new period of faith in the army--almost a cult of military might--the belief that Israel, watched over by her infallible defense force, was undefeatable.

An Unexpected Triumph

The weeks leading up to the Six Day War had been a time of tension. Fearing an Arab invasion, the Israeli authorities prepared hospitals and cemeteries for thousands of anticipated casualties. Jews everywhere steeled themselves for the possibility of defeat, the destruction of the Jewish State, and--just twenty-two years after the Second World War--the potential massacre of Israeli civilians. The unexpected triumph swept world Jewry along on a cathartic surge of pride and solidarity with Israel--accompanied by an unprecedented wave of aliyah from the United States and other western countries.  

As fears of a second holocaust were put to rest, Israelis hoped for a transformation in their relations with the Arab world. While isolated voices on the Left called for an immediate withdrawal from the territories occupied in the war, Israel's official position was that these territories should be used as a bargaining chip in the peace talks which, presumably, were just around the corner.

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.