Eretz
by Sandy Cohen

 

 

 

May 25, 2008

I want to tell you about this date I had.

A date with history.

 

It was on this date in 1967, forty-one years ago, when I was a twenty-eight year-old Ph.D. student at Sheffield (England) University, that I felt a stirring and irresistible compulsion to drop everything and go to Israel.  I set out that very afternoon, motivated by my realization that Israel was about to be destroyed.

I had seen this telecast from America on BBC TV:
"We had hoped yesterday that tension in the Israel-Syria-UAR triangle was dropping after an ostentatious Egyptian show of putting its forces around Cairo on alert. Last night, however, we and the Israelis learned that the Egyptians have moved forces into the Sinai. Now they have moved forces in front of the UN Emergency Force on the Israel-UAR border and all but ordered it to withdraw." - Memorandum From the President's Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson.

For the previous few weeks I had followed reports from the Middle East that the United Nations Secretary General, U Thant, had agreed to demands from President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser that UN Emergency Forces be immediately removed from the border between Egypt and Israel.

Then the student union’s radio broadcast on its public address system reported this:
“As of today, there no longer exists an international emergency force to protect Israel….The sole method we shall apply against Israel is a total war which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence”. - Cairo Radio’s Voice of the Arabs broadcast 5/18/1967.

Followed by this:
“…UNEF was established with the full concurrence of the United Nations…any decision to withdraw the force should be taken in the United Nations after full consultation with all the countries involved – it should not be taken as the result of some unilateral decision.” - George Brown (British Foreign Secretary), speaking at United Nations Association annual dinner in London.

By the next day, May 19, Egypt had amassed an estimated forty thousand troops, and 500 tanks in the Sinai. Israel ordered an immediate large-scale mobilization of reservists. Other Arab nations were supporting Egypt.

“Our forces are now entirely ready not only to repulse any aggression, but to initiate the act ourselves, and to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland of Palestine. The Syrian army, with its finger on the trigger, is united. I believe that the time has come to begin a battle of annihilation.”- Syria’s Defense Minister Hafez Assad (later to be Syria’s President).

I took the express train to London, with my most of possessions stuffed into a large duffel bag.   As I watched the dispirited English Midlands pass the coach window, I thought what a shame it would be if Israel were to be overrun.   When I got to London, I phoned the Israeli Embassy and asked what I could do to help.   They gave the address of a student volunteer organization in Knightsbridge.   I went there, signed the forms they gave me, and paid for an airline ticket to Tel Aviv.   The flight was leaving that night.   I made my way to the airport.   It was rainy and cold, and I was glad that I was wearing my woolen sport coat, heavy trousers, and warm socks in my sturdy field brogues.   There was a large group of student volunteers and I soon was chatting with four of five kids who, like me, were sure that war was inevitable.

The day’s Manchester Guardian newspaper that circulated among us headlined:
"Taking over Sharm el Sheikh meant confrontation with Israel (and) also meant that we were ready to enter a general war with Israel. The battle will be a general one and our basic objective will be to destroy Israel” - Gamal Abdel Nasser speech to the General Council of the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions.

At midnight the plane, which was a special flight for students, was ready to board, and I got on and sat with a pretty Jewess from Sussex University.   Just as she was telling me about her studies in psychology which was my own field, my name came across the airplane’s speakers.   I was told that I would have to get off the plane because it was overbooked, and I was the last one to be added.   I said goodbye to my new friends and got off the plane.   A stewardess told me that my bag would eventually be delivered in Tel Aviv, and I was to be put on a commercial flight.

She didn’t tell me that I was also being bumped up to first class.   My new flight was non-stop to Tel Aviv, unlike the student flight that was to make thirteen stops, including Bremen, Milan, Istambul and Famagusta, Cypress.   My new flight was already boarding, so I just went straight from the overcrowded propeller-driven plane to the larger and cleaner Pan Am jet.

I introduced myself to the distinguished-looking older man next to me.   He told me that this flight originated in New York, where he boarded.   As I looked around the cabin, I saw that the popular singer Eddie Fisher and his wife Debbie Reynolds were two isles ahead of me.   I started to talk with my neighbor.   His name happened to be Cohen, also, so he treated me as if I were a nephew, and we talked about the critical situation in Israel.

He was Doctor Howard Cohen, he said by way of introduction.   “Since I am an avionics engineer in Houston, I thought I could be useful, so I am on my way to work with the Israeli Air Force.  I know that very soon, Israeli planes will strike the air forces of Egypt and Syria and maybe Jordan, before they (the Arabs) can get a plane off the ground.”

We arrived in Tel Aviv around 3 in the morning and I discovered that the student flight that contained my bag was not due until 10.   I decided to leave the airport and go into the city.   This was a mistake, because even at that hour, the outside temperature was in the 80s, and I was way out of place in my woolens.   I had to pass through security, and when the agent saw my name, he reached under his desk for a special passport stamp that identified me as a Cohane, which meant that I had certain privileges, that included his being very polite, and passing me through without being searched, as most other passengers were required to endure.   My seat mate, Dr. Cohen, was also passed through, and we shared a cab into the city.   It was dawn, and I walked to a café for something to eat. As I left the café, not knowing where in particular I was going, a man wearing tifillin came to me and asked if I was a Cohane.   When I told him, he begged me to accompany him for the Shacharit morning service.   “We have a hard time getting a minion now that everybody is going back to the army.”   I went with him to a stone synagogue and met with seven old men, who were very grateful to me for being there, both as a Cohen so that they could hold their service, and volunteer to help Israel.   One of the men was a taxi driver and offered to take me back to the airport, with a stop along the way for breakfast.

Back at the airport I learned that the student flight was delayed and wouldn’t be there for several more hours.   I decided to wait at the airport, since it was air conditioned.   I got a New York Herald Tribune, which had this item on page one:
“The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear - to wipe Israel off the map” - President Aref of Iraq.

The students that I had befriended finally arrived and were surprised to see me awaiting them.   I saw that my new friend from Sussex University was now close to a different fellow.   I got my bag, and someone from the student organization that sponsored the flight told me where to go to get an assignment for a kibbutz.  A bunch of us who wanted to go there shared a cab back to town.   “Which part of the country do you want to go to,” I was asked.   I didn’t have a preference, except that it not be with a lot of other Americans.   “Do you speak Spanish,” I was asked.   I had spent two quarters of my junior year in Mexico City, so I said that I did, and was given the name of Divr, a Spanish-speaking kibbutz in the Negev Desert.   I took a slip of paper, written in Hebrew, that I was to show to someone at the bus station, and that would put me on the right bus.

The Tel Aviv bus station was the worst sight I had ever experienced.   It was filthy.   The pavement was littered with trash, sticky stains, and flies in dense swarms.   Everywhere I looked I saw such disgusting scenes:   people in tatters crouching on the ground, fanning the flies away, and begging.   I had expected it would be like the Akron Jewish Center, but I had to realize that we were in another continent.

The bus finally boarded.   It became packed with dirty and noisy people from all over the region.   People of every color and race, style of dress, smell of the foods they ate.   It hit me like a bomb.   I was sweltering in my woolens, my duffel bag was very heavy, and I was exhausted from being in transit for 24 hours.   I fell asleep in my seat.

The bus driver shook me awake some time later.   The bus was almost empty, and he pointed to a dirt path.   I got out with my bag and the bus loudly went on its way.   I was not alone, however.   Two young women had also got off the bus.   They were from Panama and spoke some English.   They were not very friendly, and when I showed them the hand-written note of my destination, shook their heads and said nothing.   It was broiling hot, I took off my sports coat and tie, rolled up my sleeves, and sat on my bag, wondering what next.

A burro, led by a young Arab boy with a stick came past.   He looked at us with some amusement.   After a while, a truck came by and stopped.   I showed the driver my note and he indicated that he would give us a ride.   I helped the two women by lifting their bags into the bed of the stake-truck, and then threw mine in too.   The girls got in front with the driver, and I had to climb up to the bed of the open back.   The driver started and I was jostled forcibly as the truck bounced down the dirt path.   I soon discovered that the last occupants of this truck were a flock of loose-bowelled goats.   My nice pleated trousers were covered with straw and goat shit.

The truck stopped suddenly, and the bags and I went flying forward into a bale of hay.   We were in front of a barbed wire fence gate, about eight feet high standing alone in the desert.   The girls got out of the truck, and helped me jump down.   The truck bolted down the road in a cloud of dust, leaving the three of us with our possessions, bewildered at the locked gate.   The faded sign on the gate was no help, since it was in Hebrew, which none of us could read.   Well, I knew some Hebrew letters, but that was no help.   The girls organized their boxes and cases, and I sat on my bag until an old DeSoto sedan came down the same dirt path.   It stopped and the driver looked at my note, told us that we had arrived at Kibbutz Divr, and that he would take us in.   He unlocked the gate and we rode with him into the compound, about a mile, on an even smaller and bumpier dirt track.   The compound comprised a main building with several huts connected by dusty footpaths.   The driver took us to the kitchen and gave us water and opened a tray of leftovers, which we all set to eagerly.  Speaking in Spanish, he told us that everybody was resting at this time of day, and we could rest in the dining area.   We did and not long after, a very kindly man arrived to welcome us, and assign our quarters.   I was given a hut to share with an English fellow and a guy from Prague. Once I had made my bunk, and changed into Levis and a tee shirt, and stowed my bag, Dennis, the English student offered to show me around.   He was sixteen (although he looked much older) and spoke with the confident and educated accent of an Oxford scholar.   He pointed to the hills on the Eastern horizon.   “That is Jordan over there. Do you see that tank on the ridge?   The Jordanians’ have signed a mutual defense treaty with Egypt that joins their armies with Syria and commanded by an Egyptian general.”  I asked how far away that tank was, and he replied that it was less than three kilometers, well within range.

The next day, which started at sunrise, I was assigned to pick peaches.   After a cup of fragrant cold coffee, I followed others onto a flat trailer towed by a tractor (like a hay ride) to a large orchard where I was instructed how to pick from the top of the trees.   I learned to handle a 20 foot three-legged step ladder, which involved swinging the mobile center pole into the branches, and climbing up as the ladder settled into the tree.   The ladder often did not settle, and I also learned how to jump off before it fell to the ground.   I wore a basket slung over my shoulder and back, so even as I fell out of the tree, the fruit would be protected.   Other volunteers picked from the ground, or from shorter ladders.

At around 8 am the tractor picked us up and took us back to the compound for breakfast.   That first morning I sat next to a fellow around my age, older than most of the other volunteers, who introduced himself as Carlos, a journalist from Madrid.   At dinner Carlos and I sat next to Caroline, a Danish girl who spoke English and Spanish.   The three of us were soon joined by Alicia, a girl from Cuba whom Carlos seemed very fond of.   The four of us sat together at most meals and other gatherings.

After dinner, the kibbutzniks retired to their cottages with their children.   This was family-time, after the parents and kids had finished their dinners.  They relaxed and enjoyed pleasant time together before the kids returned to their school dorms for the night.   Carlos and I walked around the grounds and found a bench to relax upon and get better acquainted.   It was a fine, warm, still evening, and I felt glad I had made this journey.

Making new friends was an unexpected benefit of my impulsive move from the gloomy chill of northern England.   I had been in Sheffield for nine months and had not made any satisfying friendships; although I was in the daily company of the other graduate students and others in my department.   As we sat there enjoying the quiet, Carlos pulled out a paper from his pocket and showed it to me. It was a telegram from his editor in Madrid. He translated from Spanish.

“It says that Syria and Jordan are combining their 325,000 troops on the northern and eastern borders, and Egypt now has 200,000 solders on the Sinai border.   There are 30 Tu-16 Russian bombers and 400 other Russian fighters in the Egyptian Air Force.   I am to consider returning to Madrid, unless I want to go to the Spanish Embassy in Jerusalem.”

Carlos then said that he wanted to go to Jerusalem as soon as possible, and I could come with him if I wanted.   I agreed.   The next day, Friday, May 28, after our work in the fields and dinner, we hitched a ride with someone driving to Bar Sheba.   From there we caught a bus to Jerusalem.   As the bus, which was crowded and smelly, made its way, Carlos told me that he had recently finished writing his dissertation on the Spanish Civil War.   Because of his stimulating descriptions, I became very interested.   I had only heard of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, made of American volunteers, including Earnest Hemmingway.   Carlos thought that we volunteers now in Israel were like those fighters, and I felt validated that I was becoming involved in a worthy cause.

Carlos also told me that in order to create the illusion that war was not near, General Moshe Dayan had thousands of soldiers released for the weekend.   Their appearance back at their homes and on beaches and in cafés were meant to confirm that tensions were relaxing.   Carlos knew one reporter who gave up his vigil and left Israel in search of more pressing stories.

When we arrived, Carlos called a number and soon we were picked up by Aviva, the very beautiful Israeli wife of Miguel Moratinos, the Spanish Ambassador.   At their home they fed us and welcomed us as guests.   The next day Carlos and Miguel went to the Embassy, while Aviva took me to her office as assistant director of prisons.   I wanted to go because as an undergraduate, I had minored in criminology, and had visited jails, lockups, prisons and penitentiaries throughout America.   Aviva and I had much to talk about, and I must confess that I was falling for her.   (On the way back, I confided to Carlos that Aviva was the most desirable woman I had ever seen.)

That evening we strolled around the city, which was bright and lively, with music issuing from open windows, and crowds of people chatting gaily on the sidewalks and in cafes.   You would never suspect that anything was worrisome.   We approached the old section of the city, which was dark and dingy.   We saw no one in the narrow passages, and we turned away.   “That is the Arab quarter, it is better that we not go there tonight.   You know, twenty-four hundred years ago, Ezekiel prophesied that the recapture of Jerusalem would take place in 1967.   It would be a miracle if the city were unified this year, and Jews could get to the Wailing Wall after thousands of years,” Miguel said.

He continued, “I learned that Israel called upon Jordan numerous times to refrain from hostilities.   Hussein, however, was caught on the horns of a galling dilemma:   allow Jordan to be dragged into war and face the brunt of the Israeli response, or remain neutral and risk full-scale insurrection among his own people.   If Jordan does not join the war a civil war will erupt in Jordan.  And, last week, when he returned from London, Abba Eban told me that British radio and television were full of sympathy for Israel, but had a distinctly funereal air."

The Sunday papers were full of very troubling news.
"The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel ... to face the challenge, while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation. This act will astound the world.  Today they will know that the Arabs are arrayed for battle, the critical hour has arrived.  We have reached the stage of serious action and not of mere declarations." - Gamal Abdel Nasser speech.

By the time we got back to the Kibbutz it was dark, and the taxi we took from the Bar Sheba bus station was driven by a soldier with an Uzi machine gun on the front seat.   As we approached the kibbutz, we saw that the Jordanian hills to the east were ablaze.   It was a beautiful but terrifying sight.   The driver reassured us that this was nothing to worry about.   The farmers burn their fields as a way of pruning them.   But he suspected that the fields were also being cleared for a tank assault

June 1, 1967, GERMANY TO SEND GAS MASKS, Bonn:   The German Cabinet decided unanimously tonight to agree to Israel’s request for 20,000 gas masks for use in case of an Arab attack.  A spokesman said it was “a humanitarian measure”, not a delivery of war material to the Middle East

Monday after dinner, we volunteers congregated in the dining room to meet with Ari Zwie, the Hungarian-born secretary (the acting head of the kibbutz.) “We are now in a dangerous situation. The Bedouin chief who lives near us has warned me that we will be attacked by Jordan in a few days. I want you to know what may be, and say that if you stay, our kibbutznik-solders can go to war because you will do their work here.   However, it is dangerous to stay, and you should know that you can leave tomorrow if you want.   That will be OK, too.”

The next day the children were digging trenches from the school buildings to the dining room, and filling sand bags.   We volunteers were covering the windows with plywood and tape, and piling the sand bags around the entrances.   A guard hut was constructed out of old doors, and located at the entrance gate.   We heard jets overhead, and were not very comforted to learn that they were Syrian pilots in Mig 15s.

War broke out on June 5th when Israel responded to the Egyptian military build-up by launching a surprise attack on Egypt’s air force, destroying most of it on the ground within a matter of hours.   I remembered Doctor Cohen, my fellow Pan Am passenger, who had confided to me that Israel would strike first at the air forces of Egypt.

That same morning, Israel sent a message to Jordan’s leader King Hussein via the US State Department, the UN and the British Foreign Office, saying that, despite the outbreak of war, it would not attack the West Bank if Jordan maintained quiet on that front.   Carlos had spoken with Miguel who passed on the intelligence that Jordan and Israel had a secret deal that neither would strike the other.   Even though we could see several Jordanian tanks on the blackened hills to the east, they never fired a shot.

However, later in the day Jordan ignored Israel’s appeal to avoid conflict.

King Hussein also received false information from Egypt denying Egyptian losses and claiming a massive and successful Egyptian attack against Israel.   Emboldened by this information, Jordan launched immediate multiple attacks on Israel:   civilian suburbs of Tel-Aviv were shelled by artillery; Israel’s largest military airfield, Ramat David, was shelled; Jordanian warplanes attacked the central Israeli towns of Netanya and Kfar Sava; thousands of mortar shells rained down on West Jerusalem hitting civilian locations indiscriminately, including the Hadassah Hospital and the Mount Zion Church; Israel’s parliament building (the Knesset) and the Prime Minister’s office, each in Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem, were targeted; 20 Israelis died in these attacks; 1,000 were wounded. 900 buildings in West Jerusalem were damaged.

Our radios issued bulletins that the Egyptian's had bombed the Tel Aviv into ruin, and we all feared that Israel was already defeated.

“Jerusalem is totally engulfed in war…” reported the British Consul-General that morning.

All this happened before Israel reacted militarily against Jordan, or moved at all into the West Bank.

We on the kibbutz could hear distant explosions and at night we could see glows of fires to the north.   A truck load of Israeli solders came to the kibbutz and stationed themselves around the fences, but all they actually did was smoke aromatic Israeli cigarettes and tell each other dirty jokes in Hebrew.   Meantime, we went to the fields every day and worked as if nothing was wrong.   But in the dining room, the radio was on all the time.

On the 12th of June, the war was over and we heard Abba Eban, Israel's Foreign Minister, address UN Security Council in New York:
"I have just come from Jerusalem to tell the Security Council that Israel, by its independent effort and sacrifice, has passed from serious danger to successful resistance.   Two days ago Israel's condition caused much concern across the humane and friendly world. Israel had reached a somber hour.   Let me try to evoke the point at which our fortunes stood.   An army, greater than any force ever assembled in history in Sinai, had massed against Israel's southern frontier.   Egypt had dismissed the United Nations forces which symbolized the international interest in the maintenance of peace in our region.   Nasser had provocatively brought five infantry divisions and two armored divisions up to our very gates; 80,000 men and 900 tanks were poised to move."

That weekend Carlos and I went back to Jerusalem.   After dinner, Aviva and Miguel walked with us to the newly liberated Arab Quarter, which was crowded with both Palestinians and Israelis.   You would never have known that three days before, Jerusalem had been bombed by the Jordanian Air Force.   There was a very festive atmosphere as tourists strolled among the stalls and bought souvenirs.

We went to the Wailing Wall, one of the holiest sites in Judaism.   It was adjacent to an Arab slum with derelict shacks and faded structures which the Israeli Army was in the process of bulldozing and clearing.   While I and hundreds of people watched, the Wall was being cleared into an open and clean plaza.   All the while, a group of orthodox rabbis stood praying there, next to the Wall.   After a while, I was invited, as a Cohane, to approach and touch the Wall, and told that I could write a note to God and stuff it into the cracks between the large stones.   As I did this, I felt an electric shudder that was the most religious experience of my life.   Much later, I told my father about this, and he said that he felt it at that same moment, too.

Back on the kibbutz, Caroline and I became a romantic couple, as did Alicia and Carlos.   We often went for walks together and spent evenings after dinner talking about our lives.   Eventually, Carlos left the kibbutz and returned to Madrid.   Caroline and I went to Tel Aviv to see him off.   At the air port, Caroline greeted a solder who had been stationed on our kibbutz.   He said that the next day he was going in a convoy to the newly captured Golan Heights of Syria, and that we could go with them.   We were eager to go, and at sunrise, we were at the appointed rendezvous.   We rode in one of the army troop trucks with the Israeli solders.   It was particularly interesting to see that on the left side of the road were busy farm fields, lush, green with crops, while on the right side of the road, Jordanian and Syrian landscapes were dusty and barren.

As our convoy of four armored trucks and two jeeps climbed the road to the heights, we saw burned out military trucks and a few tanks. The view from the Golan Heights was also very impressive.   From that elevation, you could easily see the Mediterranean Sea, and the port city Haifa.   There were abandon emplacements with guns that could hit targets anywhere in northern Israel.   The convoy stopped in a village, which had been a garrison for Syrian troops, and had been hit by the Israeli Air Force.   The village had been abandoned, looted and burned.   I got permission to wander around taking pictures.   Caroline stayed with the trucks.

I looked into buildings, picking up scorched documents of Arabic script, some with official-looking stamps.   I photographed the buildings that had been shelled, with collapsed roofs and holes in the adobe walls.   I climbed to the top floor of one building and stepped onto the porch which let me view the entire village.   As I gazed about me, I heard a cry and looked to see a group of Arab boys wrestling with another boy.   As I watched, they threw him into the stone-walled village well.   He screamed as he fell.

I was so shocked that I dropped the box of bullets that I had found earlier.   It crashed noisily as it hit the ground, and the boys at the well immediately turned to see me.   They shouted at me and I felt desperate panic as I raced down the littered stairs.   When I got to the bottom, they were waiting and roughly grabbed me.   “I am American!” I protested, but they laughed and dragged me to the well.   I was shouting HELP! as I struggled to free myself.   They beat me with my camera, and then, they threw me head-first down the well.   I hit a board that was floating at the bottom of the well.

Caroline told me later what had happened.   She and the solders heard my cries and came running to the well.   They shot one of the Arab boys, but he was only wounded and got away.   The solders lowered a rope into the well and Caroline’s friend climbed down.   He helped the first boy, who was conscious, climb out, and then lifted me out.   I was carried to the truck and given first aid.   They took us to the military hospital in Tel Aviv where I was treated for concussion and given a cast for a broken shoulder.   The cast went from my chest to my back, and my left arm was held in front of me by a support stalk.  I was in that cast for the next six weeks.   Caroline had found my camera and returned it to me in the hospital.   I was particularly grateful since the camera, a Nikon F, belonged to The University of Michigan, for whom I was a field photographer.

continues ...

 

copyright © Sandy Cohen, Little Deer Isle, Maine, 2008