We were the first to the Western Wall in 1967. 50 years later, I’m worried.

Uzi Eilam Image
Uzi Eilam
on May 24, 2017

Fifty years ago, in the Six-Day War, I was, with my battalion command team, among the first Israeli soldiers to reach the Western Wall.

I was 34 years old and the Commander of the 71st Battalion, 55th Paratroopers Brigade. I fought in the bitter battle for Jerusalem. We lost 96 members of our brigade and hundreds more were wounded.

After a day and a half of fighting, when we finally reached the Wall, I sent a soldier to Shlomo Goren, the IDF’s Chief Rabbi, to guide him to us so he could see it for himself. He wanted to blow a shofar there but couldn’t. He was too overcome with emotion. I blew it for him.

After the fighting died down, I spoke to my soldiers before releasing the battalion. I told them that it was too early for us that day to comprehend the enormous significance of the event we had participated in. Somewhere, sometime in the future, I added, we would know.

I know firsthand that marking the 50th anniversary means embracing its profound significance for our people and our history. But these days, I find it hard to capture the optimism that once animated my memory of that day.

Why? Because 50 years later, I don’t feel that it is enough to merely talk about what the war means. Its unresolved consequences have become the greatest threat facing Israel today.

When we gave everything in a war for our very existence, did we think that we would spend the following 50 years policing and controlling another people? When we thought we were “unifying” Jerusalem, did we imagine that it would become a divided hotbed of violence and unrest?

I fear that many years from now when we look back on the war, we will see it not as the event that secured Israel’s security for generations to come, but as the moment that set in motion an untenable choice between Israel’s Jewish and democratic character. I worry we will remember it as the moment that planted the seeds of extremism many of our leaders have embraced today.

The fact that we have not yet decided what to do with the land we occupied in the Six-Day War — not armies outside our borders — is, today, our most pressing and existential threat. If we do not make peace with the Palestinians and end the occupation we began 50 years ago, we will cease to live in a country that many of the Zionists, who fought by my side in ’67, would recognize.

And so, I mark this day not just with a mix of somber and joyous reflection, but with a determination to secure the legacy of June 7, 1967.

The only way to do that is to fight back against the fanaticism that has taken root in Israeli society. To reject the “divide and conquer” mentality that our leadership displays toward the Palestinians. To seize the opportunity before us and actively seek peace with our neighbors.

In doing so, we will not just rescue our memory of the war from the forces of extremism, but set Israel on a path for peace and prosperity. Given the threats that the untenable status quo poses to our security and viability, we have no other choice.

If we want our children and grandchildren to remember the war as a victory, we must be honest about the destructive path Israel is currently on. We must choose a better, more peaceful way. Only this will settle the question of the war’s significance and Israel’s future once and for all.

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