How the Six-Day War Transformed Religion

Fifty years ago this week, the Six-Day War dramatically altered geographic borders and political fortunes in the Middle East. For Israelis, the stunning 1967 victory meant an expanded country that suddenly included East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula; for Palestinians, it meant occupation and more displacement; for surrounding Arab countries, it meant crushing military and reputational defeat.

But the Six-Day War didn’t only transform Middle East politics: It also transformed religion—in ways that would reverberate far beyond the region. The war’s outcome impacted the way Islam is expressed in the West Bank and Gaza, and it created new openings for political Islamism in the Arab world. It strengthened a messianic strain in Israeli Judaism, and it changed the focal point of American Judaism. It forced an internal reckoning among evangelical Christians, and even among Mormons, in the United States.

I asked writers with expertise and experience in each of these contexts to discuss how 1967 changed religion, broadly interpreted. Religion is often thought of as a force that drives conflict; I invited them to think instead about how conflict impacts religion. The six writers’ responses, which I’ve edited and included below, touch on everything from fashion to theology, demonstrating the many ways religion inflects people’s lives.

The Palestine of Miniskirts and Tank Tops

Maysoon Zayid, Palestinian-American comedian, writer, and disability advocate

Fifty years ago, the Six-Day War changed the course of Palestinian history. Also 50 years ago, my mother and father got married in Deir Debwan, a West Bank village on the outskirts of Ramallah. My mom was a recent graduate of Mar Yousef, a girls’ school run by nuns. My dad had been living in America since 1959 and had come back home to marry the girl of his dreams. My Muslim parents wed three months before the Six-Day War.

My mother wore a short cocktail dress to her engagement party. In 1967, it wasn’t odd to see women strolling in miniskirts in Palestine. It also wasn’t odd to see my grandmother standing next to her wearing a floor-length, long-sleeved, cross-stitched dress and a long silky veil covering her hair.

Some say that Palestinians have become more religious than they were when they were first occupied. And in the half-century since the Six-Day War, it’s true that Palestinian religiosity has changed in some ways. The sense that shrines like the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem are under siege has, it seems, strengthened some Palestinians’ religious enthusiasm. Ramadan and Christmas have always been a big deal, but as Palestinians fight for their existence, the festivities have gotten even grander. This is a marker of resistance, a signal that Palestinians refuse to disappear.

Israel occupied the Gaza Strip in 1967, handed over governmental control to the Palestinian Authority in 1993, and removed its soldiers and settlers in 2005. This whole process culminated in the Palestinian Authority calling an election in 2006. Hamas won a parliamentary majority, not because Palestinians wanted a theocracy, but because they were fed up with the corruption of the rival Fatah party. In the decade since its win, Hamas has tried to impose Saudi-like laws on its trapped citizens. What “religious” looks like in Gaza has been severely constrained by Hamas. But Hamas has also met with resistance, and its popularity has declined due to the blockade and the repeated bloodshed Gazans have had to endure on its watch.

In some places, Palestinian religion has not changed at all. To this day, in my parents’ village, different women in the same family will cover up differently. You will see one sister with her hair flowing out in the open and the other choosing to wear hijab. You will also see Muslim men with beards down to their belly buttons and others drinking beer (forbidden in Islam) regardless of the length of their beards.

My three sisters and I do not cover our hair. My sisters-in-law have no other choice. They come from a conservative Muslim family that lives in a refugee camp outside Bethlehem. In their home, the men gave up on God long ago and the women must cover up. To be clear, they would not be harmed if they didn’t, just nagged to death by my mother-in-law. I, on the other hand, roam around the refugee camp in tank tops with no fear. I will not deny that there are Palestinian Muslim women who are forced to cover, but the majority I have met choose to do so.

How Palestinians’ religion gets expressed can be shaped by many factors, including who their family is, where they live, and how much money they make; some, including young Palestinians, have suggested a link between the spread of poverty and an intensifying religiosity. Ramallah, a city whose name translates to “City of God,” is basically one big bar. It’s party central for the haves, and the have-nots come to watch. Meanwhile, in cities like Hebron, it’s all about the masjid (mosque). But regardless of their faith and level of religiosity, when it comes to the fight against Israeli occupation, Palestinians stand side by side, hijab or not, halal or not, Santa or not.

The Crisis of Arab Nationalism and the Rise of Islamism

Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute

One of the principal but often underappreciated effects of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war was its role in setting the stage for the rise of political Islam in the Arab world—including the terrorist extremism that now plagues the region and the globe.

The war was a devastating blow to the credibility of Arab nationalism (particularly as defined by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser), which presented itself as secular and progressive. The speed and scope of the Arab debacle in 1967 knocked the legs out from under the profoundly exaggerated claims of Arab nationalism to be leading the region into a new and brighter future.

By the late 1960s, the social and economic failure of these systems, and their repressive nature, were already readily apparent. Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, which all gained independence in the 1940s with relatively robust civil societies and promising economies, were being profoundly mismanaged and intellectually suffocated by these narrow regimes. Underneath dreams of resurgence and glory lay clear patterns of atrophy and decay. But the militarism of Arab nationalism, particularly in Egypt, with its strident anti-Western and anti-Israeli rhetoric, conjured a beguiling mirage that obscured grim realities for large majorities who were cajoled into a collective denial.

The 1967 war called this bluff completely. Most Arabs had been beyond confident in victory, yet the defeat was virtually instantaneous and total. In the aftermath, the political credibility of this version of Arab nationalism was mortally wounded, and its long-term viability was as effectively destroyed as the Egyptian Air Force had been by Israel’s surprise early morning attack on June 5.

As the Lebanese scholar Fawaz Gerges has pointed out, the rise of Islamism as a political force was neither an immediate nor an inevitable consequence of the crisis of Arab nationalism resulting from the 1967 war. Many other factors fed into the rise of an ultraconservative, reactionary, and revolutionary (in the Leninist sense) Islamist movement, its radicalization in the 1970s and 1980s, and its proliferation—including in the form of violent transnational terrorist movements like al-Qaeda and ISIS—since the late 1990s.

Things could have turned out differently. Secular Arab nationalism could have been revived, especially in a strikingly different form. Islamism could have developed differently, or thrived to the point of becoming the ideology of ruling factions in much of the Arab world (now only really the case in Gaza).

So, the connection between the 1967 fiasco and the rise of ultraconservative Islam and political Islamism is both direct, insofar as nothing did more to discredit its primary ideological antagonists (secularism and nationalism), and indirect, insofar as innumerable other factors and contingencies shaped our present realities. But it’s worth noting that these two supposedly polar opposites continue to share an underlying framework of political attitudes that remain hegemonic among Islamists and Arab nationalists alike.

During the 1950s and ’60s, Arab nationalism presented itself as entirely at odds with the socially reactionary, and politically and intellectually retrograde, Islamist movement defined at the time by the Muslim Brotherhood. Though it now seems ironic, during this period it was the Islamists who were perceived as retrograde, reactionary, pro-Western, anti-nationalist and essentially traitorous, while the mostly secular nationalist governments were the revolutionaries confronting power in the name of Arab identity, values, and dignity. In much Arab rhetoric today, these ideas have flipped: State nationalism is now frequently cast as pro-Western and retrograde, while Islamism is often cast as revolutionary and patriotic.

For example, it’s instructive that Qatar is comfortable promoting both Muslim Brotherhood Islamism and what remains of left-wing Arab nationalism simultaneously. This isn’t as incoherent as it might seem. Underlying both discourses are the same sets of enemies, the same sense of grievances, the same empty promises, and many of the same essential touchstones of what was and remains a stultifying, unrealistic, and intellectually crippling Arab political orthodoxy.

When Israel’s Religious Zionists Got Their Big Break

Einat Wilf, writer and former member of the Israeli Knesset

At its core, early Zionism was a secular, even militantly atheist, movement. For the Jewish people to change the course of their history, reclaim their homeland, and establish a modern state in it, they had to rebel against God and Messiah. They had to emerge from two millennia of passivity to become their own messiahs, vehicles of their own redemption.

Many Jews of faith rejected Zionism on account of its rebellion, warning their brethren to keep waiting for God to redeem them in His own good time. But one group attempted to provide a religious context for Zionism. Attracted to the revolutionary nature of the Zionist movement but baffled by the fact that the return of the Jewish people to the Promised Land was carried out by a group of atheists, religious Zionists argued that the godless communists of early Zionism were doing God’s work even if they claimed otherwise, and that the process of redemption had begun.

For many decades, religious Zionism remained a marginal, and quite meek, movement in Zionism—and in Judaism. But 1967 changed that. In six short days, Israel swung from the fear of annihilation to the euphoria of an astounding victory. The tiny country tripled its size to include not just the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula, but the cradles of Jewish civilization, including the Temple Mount, East Jerusalem (the Zion of Zionism, home of holy sites), and the West Bank (the territory of Judea, home of the ancient Judeans).

For those who believed that God works in mysterious ways to bring about the redemption of the Jewish people, 1967 was proof. From that moment on, religious Zionism and the settler movement took off to become a dominant form of Zionism and Israeli Judaism, and a powerful political player in shaping the modern state. In the process, these Jews shed the meekness of their predecessors. They were certain that the power of the State of Israel would now serve to redeem the entire Land of Israel between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Yet, even after decades of growth in political power and confidence, the flourishing of hundreds of thousands of settlers, and the appearance of dominance, religious Zionism failed to erase the fundamental premise of secular Zionism: that at any critical juncture, securing the sovereignty of the Jewish people is more important than securing every square inch of land to which the Jewish people can lay claim.

Most Jews, even when powerful and armed, are keenly cognizant of the one true reality of their condition: They are a minuscule minority. They acknowledge that as much as the Jewish people have an emotional and historical connection to much more land than is included within Israel’s pre-1967 lines, they are a small minority in a hostile region, and have to make do with much less than what they might think is their due.

Since 1967, religious Zionism as a political movement has been pushing the Jewish people to take it all, claiming that this is God’s will and that He will intervene to manage the consequences of such territorial maximalism. But it is still painfully clear to the majority of Jews that, given their size and place in the world, in trying to take it all they are very likely to remain with nothing. Whether one is a believer or not, suicide cannot be God’s wish for His people.

How “Israelotry” Became an American Religion

Dov Waxman, professor at Northeastern University, and author, Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel

The Six-Day War was a quasi-religious experience for many Jews, both in Israel and the Diaspora. The speed with which Israel vanquished its enemies, paralleling the biblical story of creation; its conquest of places sacred to the Jewish religion, especially Jerusalem and its holy sites; and the popular Jewish narrative of the war as one of deliverance from the brink of a second holocaust to a miraculous victory—all these evoked a collective euphoria and sense of awe across the Jewish world.

In Israel, this ushered in a religious revival among Jews who had previously been staunchly secular, and galvanized a messianic religious Zionism that has gradually come to challenge, if not displace, secular Zionism as the most powerful ideological force in the Jewish state today. But while the 1967 war revitalized and transformed Israeli Judaism, it had the opposite effect on American Judaism. Unlike their Israeli counterparts who turned toward Judaism in the decades following the 1967 war, American Jews have, for the most part, turned away.

To be sure, increasing secularism and assimilation into the American melting pot was already well underway among American Jews long before 1967. Afterwards, however, this process was accelerated by the rise of pro-Israelism in the American Jewish community. As ardent support for Israel came to dominate American Jewish public life and politics, growing numbers of American Jews effectively worshipped Israel and abandoned Judaism.

“Israelotry,” as the scholar Daniel J. Elazar put it, became the new civil religion of American Jewry. Like any religion, it had its own rituals, commandments, myths, and dogmas, and it often insisted on blind obedience, or at least passive acquiescence—“Israel, right or wrong!” American Jewish critics of Israel, who dissented from this new orthodoxy, were frequently branded as heretics, and risked excommunication from the community.

The replacement of Judaism with pro-Israelism in the beliefs and practices of many American Jews has been a huge boon to Israel. The Jewish state has been the beneficiary of an outpouring of American Jewish financial and political support (but not nearly as much immigration), which has contributed to Israel’s economic, social, and military accomplishments over the years.

But for the American Jewish community itself, the mass adoption of pro-Israelism as a surrogate form of religion has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it has enabled many American Jews who might otherwise have assimilated into oblivion to maintain a Jewish identity and remain part of the Jewish community, and it has provided them with a common cause and rallying cry in a period of religious and social fragmentation.

On the other hand, it has led to the relative neglect of American Judaism, as support for Israel has consumed much of the Jewish community’s attention and resources. It has also sowed deepening divisions among American Jews over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, and led some American Jews, especially younger ones, to dissociate themselves from the Jewish community, and even from Judaism itself, in silent protest.

Evangelical Zeal for 1967 Wasn’t Really About Jews

Gary Burge, former professor at Wheaton College and current faculty at Calvin Theological Seminary

Following the Six-Day War of 1967, many evangelicals were ecstatic. For 50 years, they had interpreted the tragedies of the 20th century as markers of human decline and divine judgment. Preachers pointed to World War I, the catastrophic flu epidemic that followed, economic collapse in the 1930s, and World War II. Millions had died, and a new threat—communism—was the long arm of Satan’s reach into the 1950s and 1960s. Then there was the upending of moral sensibilities in the 1960s: drugs, sex, and yes, “that music.” These were Signs of the End.

Tent meetings and revivals swept these churches mid-century and they found a comforting eschatological solution to public despair: Jesus was coming.

And then there were the Jews. Prophetic preachers like Dwight Moody announced that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land was the signal that biblical prophecy was being fulfilled. This was an old idea, but it had gained new potency in the itinerant Irish preacher John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and in the prophecy-based tradition that followed.

When Israel was born in 1948, these “prophecy-evangelicals” celebrated joyously. This was the fulfillment of God’s promise and a sure sign that Earth’s final generation was near. But in 1967, something really miraculous happened: Israel took over the biblical Promised Land and Jerusalem returned to Jewish control after 2,000 years. Preachers told stories of angels defending Israeli troops and guiding Israeli artillery. A six-day war was a miracle in itself, the brevity being proof of God’s work in the Middle East.

Within three years, Hal Lindsey became the great interpreter of this event, proclaiming in his book The Late Great Planet Earth that the Six-Day War was the final key to God’s plan to consummate history. By 1990, 28 million copies had been sold.

Oddly enough, the evangelical zeal for 1967 (and 1948) had little to do with compensating Jewish suffering or Jewish history. It was pure eschatology. Jews were pieces in a larger puzzle that culminated with Jesus’s Second Coming.

This prophecy-interpretation of 1967 also divided evangelicals. Many were simply incredulous and saw these theological views as unsupportable. Academics (like myself) delivered fulsome critiques, but they barely affected preachers, whose message of fear and hope drew large crowds. For some evangelicals, sympathies that had led them to support Israel’s nationhood in 1948 now evaporated: They feared that Israel had created injustices that tarnished the gleam of victory, because 1967 was the beginning of the occupation for millions of Palestinians.

Today, evangelicals still debate the meaning of 1967; some debate the meaning of Israel itself. Was 1967 a prophetic event? Was 1967 mere conquest and occupation? After 50 years, Lindsey’s book seems quaint, and zeal for prophecy fulfillment has diminished considerably. For younger generations of evangelicals today, ethics is surpassing end-time eschatology as the litmus test of abiding in God’s will.

Should Mormons Take Sides? With Whom?

Amber Taylor, doctoral candidate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University

Mormons have long been fond of Jews. Ever since 1840, when the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith sent one of his foremost apostles to Jerusalem to dedicate that land for the return of the Jewish people, Mormons eagerly watched the growth of Zionism from their own Utah Zion. In 1948, many Mormon leaders hailed the creation of the Jewish state as nothing less than miraculous fulfillment of prophecy, both ancient and modern. Little was said about the meaning of that event for the land’s non-Jewish inhabitants.

But even as Mormon leadership contemplated the miracle of the State of Israel, the Church worked more quietly throughout the 1950s and 60s to support the Arab Development Society, an organization that helped Palestinian villages. In 1949, the Society instituted a ranch near Jericho to which Arab boys orphaned in 1948 could go to study agriculture. In 1958, the Mormons contributed to the building of a dairy on the ranch, purchasing cows, a bull, and modern dairy equipment for the project. Unfortunately, due to the Six-Day War, the ranch and the dairy closed in 1967.

Before 1967, these two notes sounded simultaneously—Mormon enthusiasm for the State of Israel, and Mormon concern for Palestinian refugees—but the enthusiasm for Israel sounded louder. After 1967, that began to change, at least among Mormon leaders, as many felt compelled to promote a more neutral view of the conflict.

In 1979, Mormon apostle Howard W. Hunter chided church membership for its “personal prejudices,” insisting that “both the Jews and the Arabs are children of our Father. They are both children of promise, and as a church we do not take sides.” Some years later, two prominent Jerusalemite Mormons offered further commentary: “To the extent that we look with sympathy and understanding at both sides, we can be an influence to help bring about a just and lasting peace.”

In the early 1960s, the Mormon-affiliated Brigham Young University had begun discussing a possible semester abroad program in Israel, with a mandate that “half of the program be in Arab territory and half in Israel.” Its opening was disrupted by the 1967 war and the program did not get off the ground until the following year. When it did, its policy for neutrality in the region remained fixed.

My own interest in Israel began through this program. In the summer of 2000, I attended a semester abroad program at the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies (locally known as the “Mormon University”), an outgrowth of the earlier travel study program. I was taught, in equal measure, by both Jewish and Palestinian instructors. I interacted with the local population as much as I could, both Jewish and Palestinian, and I came away sympathetic to both.

Soon after I returned home from the program, the Second Intifada erupted. I was devastated that people for whom I felt enormous empathy were now attacking each other. Most of my Mormon friends could not understand how I felt so torn. To them, the aggressor was clear, and our Mormon sympathies, historically and in this instance, obviously lay with the Jewish Israelis. Like these friends, most modern Mormons still embrace the notion of Jews as God’s Chosen People.

And yet, Mormonism’s official stance of neutrality after 1967 reflects the worldview that compelled its first prophet to send an apostle to Jerusalem: the conviction that Mormons’ presence there will positively influence history and bless the lives of all God’s children.