“I. T.,” I called my best friend in college. I.T. and I had quite a reputation for activism, having (among other projects) saved the JTS library after it suffered a devastating fire in 1966. But that’s a story for another time.
The Six Day War broke out June 5, 1967. Throughout May, roughly a month before the war, everyone knew the war was coming. UN Secretary General U Thant pulled the UN troops out of the Sinai Peninsula, leaving Israel exposed; Nasser bragged about driving the Jews into the Mediterranean Sea; the tension was so thick it could be cut with a knife.
I was a junior at Yeshiva College in Manhattan; I.T., a sophomore. The word was out that when the war came, Israel’s farmer soldiers would leave their farms and the crops would rot for lack of manpower. The Arabs could kill the Israeli economy if they tied up Israel in a war, even if the Arabs ultimately lost.
So went the scenario. It was extremely plausible. No one — not a single eminence in Israel’s military or political echelon — predicted a six-day victory, let alone a victory at all.
And so, I.T. and I had the idea of sending volunteers to Israel’s kibbutzim. Don’t ask me how we passed our courses that semester, for this is what we did:
First, we convinced the phone company (without permission from the university) to wire our dorm rooms with multiple lines. Then we went to work. This was the agenda:
To convince as many students as possible to volunteer for the summer on Israeli kibbutzim. The heavy cloud of impending war meant that we had to convince not only the students, but often their parents and the Israeli authorities. We also had to put in place a system for a quick acquisition of passports.
And quick reservations on the increasingly rare seats open on the few planes still flying into Israel.
Not to mention, money to pay for it all.
We asked no permission from the Jewish Agency, which, officially, was responsible for sending volunteers to Israel. We just acted.
As word got out, money started pouring in. Rabbis raised money in their synagogues; people came in off the street; students pulled from their pockets or parents. People would literally hand us envelopes of cash, at first once or twice a day, then many times daily. We had credibility, for we actually succeeded in getting students to Israel. First a few, then a trickle, and finally a flood.
It was complicated.
The lines for passports were long. We did not accept that. Upon pressing the American authorities, we discovered that, by law, a citizen has a right to a passport within 24 hours (at least that was the law then). We pressed our rights to the fullest.
At first, “we” was I.T. and I. Quickly, the cadre of activists grew. By the time June 4 rolled around, we had several groups of student activists: experts in passport procedures; lobbyists at the Jewish Agency, who needed to approve the volunteer applications; and lobbyists at the airlines, who were very choosy to whom they issued seats.
Our money spoke. For every student who was willing to volunteer, we had the money for the airline ticket and the passport.
At a certain point, the Jewish Agency turned over the keys to its offices. We now had as much space as we wanted to do our work, but the hub remained at our college dorm rooms. Morning, noon and night, they were abuzz with activity.
Each potential volunteer was a challenge. This one wanted to go, but his parents didn’t agree; this one’s parents agreed, but there was no current, valid passport; this one didn’t want to miss classes, and needed to be convinced that saving Israel was more important than grades for one term.
I don’t remember how many tens of thousands of dollars went through our hands; I don’t remember how many Yeshiva students actually volunteered. I do remember that we had several students on the last flight out of New York before the war.
In some ways, it was a typical ‘60s effort: Think for the moment; everything for the cause; nothing for daily responsibilities — and give the authorities fits (the authorities at YU, the Jewish Agency, the State Dept.). In other ways it was not typical: no drugs or promiscuity, just an idealistic, positive effort. Rather than rail against the establishment, we bent it to our will. The bottom line was that Israel trumped all.
In a moment, we were shut down.
The war came.
Our office was suddenly irrelevant.
The Yeshiva shuls filled with students and with rabbis saying Psalms, as fervently as I’ve ever heard.
We bit our nails.
There was a news blackout for the first day or two of the war.
It was clear.
Israel had won — and won in a lightning flash.
There were no farmer-soldiers pulled from the kibbutzim for an extended time.
All the student volunteers we sent would now have a memorable experience, basking in the afterglow of the miraculous Israeli victory. They would not be slaving away on the kibbutzim.
They loved it.
Whatever the level of Israel-consciousness at Yeshiva before the war — and obviously, it must have been high; otherwise all those students would not have volunteered — it was ten times higher when all the volunteers came back to Yeshiva the next fall. Israel was on everyone’s mind; everyone wanted to go there.
Not to study — there were no Israel study programs then. But they sprouted fast. At first, the only place to go was The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Then the yeshiva programs started.
It was a crest, a wave.
For a few frantic weeks in 1967, I.T. and I rode the wave for all it was worth.
This is reprinted from the IJN, May 13, 2005.