The Six-Day War and 21st Century Religion in the Public Sphere

by David Tollerton

5-10 June 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, a fleeting but crucial conflict in the Middle East which saw Israel militarily defeat its Arab neighbours and the basic contours of the now familiar land-disputes, settlement-building, and violence set in place. This period will see prominence given to the testimonies of witnesses, and renewed (if most likely also melancholy) assessments of the intractable-seeming tensions of the Israel-Palestine conflict. But for scholars of religion the anniversary is also an opportunity to think through the legacy of the war for 21st century patterns of public faith and political activism.

As early as 1999 Rodney Stark was warning that “it seems time to carry the secularization doctrine to the graveyard of failed theories,” and, viewed from the present, the notion that religion’s role is declining in public spheres now seems long defunct when viewed globally. The roots of this change are myriad and could of course be debated at some length. In his much-discussed 2014 book Strange Rebels Christian Caryl argued that 1979 saw the crumbling of socialist ideologies and rise of variously capitalist and religious revisions in the form of the Iranian Revolution, invasion of Afghanistan, elections of Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher, and beginnings of Chinese economic reform. “It was in 1979,” he writes, “that the twin forces of markets and religion, discounted for so long, came back with a vengeance.”

We might concede markets to 1979, but with regard to Abrahamic religion I suggest that 1967 can give 1979 some pretty stiff competition. The short conflict in June 1967, a war itself named with reference to the six days of creation, sparked a range of politically-active religious fervours that shape our public discourses to this day.

Perhaps the simplest example comes with the discrediting of Arab nationalisms that had sought to infuse governance of Muslim-majority societies with reverence for European brands of modernity. The spectacular defeat of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan punctured the confidence of such thinking and sharply invigorated a renewed Islamism. In language that would not seem out of place among biblical responses to defeat by the Babylonians, Hasan Ma’mun of the al-Ahzar Institute in Cairo concluded that “God has punished us that we might go back to him. He has afflicted us that we might return.” The Islamisms that, in the 21st century, have so dramatically entered into Western consciousness were empowered and fuelled by an aftermath of the Six-Day War in which the certainties of secularising political elites appeared woefully misplaced.

A second mode of religious fervour that would also come to have major political influence arose in the United States. Talk of Israel’s ‘miraculous’ victory inspired feverish excitement among Christian fundamentalists, with L. Nelson Bell, the Executive Editor of Christianity Today, reflecting that the Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem “gives a student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible.” Nowhere is the influence of this fervour more apparent than in Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth, a book that proved to be the most successful non-fiction work of 1970s America, and one that profoundly impressed Ronald Reagan. Through a course that variously tracks Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell’s ‘Moral Majority’ movement, and the Left Behind books, the excitement that grew out of the Six-Day War would evolve into a major force in American politics.

With regard to Judaism we can look to the war’s aftermath both regionally yet also further afield. In Israel itself the staunchly secular state envisaged by Theodor Herzl was for a time overwritten by an outpouring of religious feeling at the capture of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In one recently published account, former paratrooper Yitzhak Yifat speaks of the awe of physically encountering the ancient Temple foundations: an “exciting moment” of witnessing “the huge stones after 2,000 years of waiting.” Regardless of how richly this fervour remained in place within wider Israeli society, the period after the war saw religiously conservative settlers building in the West Bank, and an eventually pivotal role for their political backers as successive coalition partners in Israeli governments.

Looking further afield, in his survey of global Jewish responses to the Six-Day War Eli Lederhendler concludes that “[o]ne consistent finding is that, as a result of the war, Jews of various kinds crystallized their ideas about ‘the right to be different’.” In the United States, for example, the 1950s ideal of social acceptance moved into a narrative of public particularity, with the twin pillars of Holocaust memory and loyalty to Israel (the latter married to fear of a new Holocaust) moving toward the centre of Jewish-American identity. Occasionally traditionalists would complain that this altered mode of identity departed too radically from their understandings rabbinic Judaism, but for the most part, as Jonathan Woocher put it, a new form of Jewish-American ‘civil religion’ took hold.

In sum, the Middle Eastern conflict of June 1967 variously sent shockwaves through Islamic, Christian, and Jewish communities across a range of locations. The phenomena laid out here are wide-ranging and generally not brought together into a single frame, and their impacts and trajectories into the 21st century are messy and complex. But the anniversary of the Six-Day War is not merely remembrance of a stubbornly-unhealed regional wound, but an event that set in train some of the reasons why we are now so reticent to speak of religion’s departure from public discourse around the world.

David Tollerton is Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Contemporary Biblical Cultures at the University of Exeter, UK. His research interests include religion and Holocaust memory, modern receptions of the Bible, and concepts of public sacrality and offence. He is currently especially interested in public Holocaust memory in Britain, especially plans for the construction of a new memorial next to the Houses of Parliament in London.

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