Forty years after the Six-Day War, memories of my time as a volunteer in the Israeli army that fateful summer are flooding back.
Within hours of rolling into the abandoned United Nations military base in El Arish, Sinai, in June of 1967, we dubbed ourselves “The Desert Devils,” painting the words in English and in Spanish on a whitewashed barracks wall. The designation was a mixture of bravado and wishful thinking, at least for my part. We young Jews came to Israel from all over in the euphoric days immediately following the Six-Day War, all fired by pride, hope, and idealism. We spent our first few weeks picking fruit on various kibbutzim, or in Jerusalem clearing debris and ammunition. Then some of us managed to join the first group of volunteers attached to the Israeli Army — and were thrilled at the opportunity. I came to Israel just after my spring semester at Duke and, although I had a solid, Jewish education and was a budding campus radical, nothing in my life prepared me for what happened in the desert. More than anything, what that summer’s sun burned in my psyche is the universality of the Jewish people. Although I had a solid, Jewish education and was a budding campus radical, nothing in my life prepared me for what happened in the desert.
To be sure, it wasn’t combat, much to the chagrin of those of us bursting with testosterone and romantic naiveté, but it was about as close as we were going to get. We were civilians who never took an oath to the Israeli Army; our uniforms had no insignias or marks of rank. We were unarmed, although our Israeli officers indulged some of us with basic weapons training, and let a few others keep personal side arms. And yet, our months as volunteers on the Mediterranean marked us forever. Dozens stayed on in Israel, some permanently. I did not, and I still wonder how that decision has shaped the remainder of my life as a Diaspora Jew. Within a year or so of my return to the U.S., I closed the book on the experience, rarely allowing myself to think about it — until now — the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War. As I’ve considered it now, memories both exhilarating and painful have flooded back.
Our job in Sinai, just on the other side of Gaza, was relatively simple. After a two-day crash course, volunteers went into the desert and drove, pushed or dragged in Egyptian military vehicles, many of them nearly new. IDF mine specialists accompanied volunteers as they worked near known or suspected minefields. Outside El Arish, on a long-abandoned rail system, we loaded the vehicles onto flatcars and sent them to Israel.
My most moving experience on leave was in Jerusalem, when I went to the Western Wall for Tisha B’Av — by tradition the date when both ancient Jewish temples were destroyed. Walking alone in the Old City, I joined thousands of people streaming through the narrow, winding streets to the holy site. In the plaza, then undivided, hundreds of circles of people sat on the ground, reading the Book of Lamentations by candle light, as is the custom on an occasion of mourning, and fitting for this somber commemoration. Yet this night the feelings in the plaza were decidedly mixed. Here we were, back in control of the Temple Mount for the first time in 1900 years. What was the appropriate mood? Sad? Jubilant? I felt like I was floating in history, untethered but unquestionably hovering above holy ground, like a figure in a Chagall painting.
By late August of 1967, my money was running low and the date of my return charter from London to the U.S. was approaching. I had to make a decision: stay with my new friends and comrades, or return to my old student life in North Carolina. I chose to return to the States, a decision I still ponder to this day.