A historian is never alone when he writes. Even as he pounds away on the keyboard in the solitude of his room, he is conversing with other historians who have written about his topic. Past historians have covered just about everything. Almost every story has been debated and re-debated, argued and counter-argued. The historian must find his own voice and, most importantly, something new to add to the conversation. Such was my situation in the summer of 2014, when I decided to write a new history of the Six-Day War.
It is no wonder that the first image that came to my mind as I embarked upon this new project was of entering a minefield. Fifty years after it took place, the war of June 1967 is still in the news. Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, its antagonistic relations with the Hamas government in Gaza, and its hold over the Golan Heights are all legacies of the Six-Day War. If Israel’s pre-emptive strike on Arab countries on June 5 was justified—if Israel had good reason to fear imminent annihilation by the threatening Arab armies on its borders—then it would at least be easier to argue that Israel had a right to hold on to what it took by force in the war. However, if this was a war of choice, planned and fought to enlarge the Jewish state’s territory, then Israel’s case to maintain its presence in formerly Arab lands loses its potency.
Rivers of ink have been spilled to argue the matter, and I had to swim them. One thing that struck me immediately was how the landscape had changed over time. As writers have sought to capture the war in words, they have also described the hopes and fears of their era. The first wave of books, published shortly after the war ended, is a case in point. Written by Israeli and Western journalists, most of them reported breathlessly on Israel’s decisive victory over the Arab military coalition that had amassed on Israel’s borders. For Israelis, their triumph was a moment of redemption from the deep fear that had enveloped the country in the weeks preceding the war. For other denizens of the West, the war was a rare example of a positive story at a time when the war in Vietnam was developing into a quagmire. What happened in the Middle East seemed to be a simple tale about the miraculous victory of peace-loving Jews, ominously threatened by hostile Arabs backed by Moscow.
Take, for example, Randolph S. Churchill, the wayward son of the great Winston Churchill, and Winston S. Churchill, the grandson of the famous statesman. The two wrote a quick book about the war, which is still in print. They divided the labor: Randolph remained in London, kept his ear to the ground, and contacted friends in high places to reconstruct the diplomatic side of the story. Winston Junior, 27 at the time, a war correspondent like his famous grandpa, was in Israel during the war. They produced a rather pro-Israel book, despite the fact that Winston the Younger had good reason to be angry at Moshe Dayan, Israel’s defense minister.