Six perspectives on how the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict changed Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Mormonism
Fifty years ago this week, the Six-Day War dramatically altered geographic borders and political fortunes in the Middle East. For Israelis, the stunning 1967 victory meant an expanded country that suddenly included East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula; for Palestinians, it meant occupation and more displacement; for surrounding Arab countries, it meant crushing military and reputational defeat.
But the Six-Day War didn’t only transform Middle East politics: It also transformed religion—in ways that would reverberate far beyond the region. The war’s outcome impacted the way Islam is expressed in the West Bank and Gaza, and it created new openings for political Islamism in the Arab world. It strengthened a messianic strain in Israeli Judaism, and it changed the focal point of American Judaism. It forced an internal reckoning among evangelical Christians, and even among Mormons, in the United States.
I asked writers with expertise and experience in each of these contexts to discuss how 1967 changed religion, broadly interpreted. Religion is often thought of as a force that drives conflict; I invited them to think instead about how conflict impacts religion. The six writers’ responses, which I’ve edited and included below, touch on everything from fashion to theology, demonstrating the many ways religion inflects people’s lives.
Fifty years ago, the Six-Day War changed the course of Palestinian history. Also 50 years ago, my mother and father got married in Deir Debwan, a West Bank village on the outskirts of Ramallah. My mom was a recent graduate of Mar Yousef, a girls’ school run by nuns. My dad had been living in America since 1959 and had come back home to marry the girl of his dreams. My Muslim parents wed three months before the Six-Day War.
My mother wore a short cocktail dress to her engagement party. In 1967, it wasn’t odd to see women strolling in miniskirts in Palestine. It also wasn’t odd to see my grandmother standing next to her wearing a floor-length, long-sleeved, cross-stitched dress and a long silky veil covering her hair.
Some say that Palestinians have become more religious than they were when they were first occupied. And in the half-century since the Six-Day War, it’s true that Palestinian religiosity has changed in some ways. The sense that shrines like the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem are under siege has, it seems, strengthened some Palestinians’ religious enthusiasm. Ramadan and Christmas have always been a big deal, but as Palestinians fight for their existence, the festivities have gotten even grander. This is a marker of resistance, a signal that Palestinians refuse to disappear.
Israel occupied the Gaza Strip in 1967, handed over governmental control to the Palestinian Authority in 1993, and removed its soldiers and settlers in 2005. This whole process culminated in the Palestinian Authority calling an election in 2006. Hamas won a parliamentary majority, not because Palestinians wanted a theocracy, but because they were fed up with the corruption of the rival Fatah party. In the decade since its win, Hamas has tried to impose Saudi-like laws on its trapped citizens. What “religious” looks like in Gaza has been severely constrained by Hamas. But Hamas has also met with resistance, and its popularity has declined due to the blockade and the repeated bloodshed Gazans have had to endure on its watch.
In some places, Palestinian religion has not changed at all. To this day, in my parents’ village, different women in the same family will cover up differently. You will see one sister with her hair flowing out in the open and the other choosing to wear hijab. You will also see Muslim men with beards down to their belly buttons and others drinking beer (forbidden in Islam) regardless of the length of their beards.
My three sisters and I do not cover our hair. My sisters-in-law have no other choice. They come from a conservative Muslim family that lives in a refugee camp outside Bethlehem. In their home, the men gave up on God long ago and the women must cover up. To be clear, they would not be harmed if they didn’t, just nagged to death by my mother-in-law. I, on the other hand, roam around the refugee camp in tank tops with no fear. I will not deny that there are Palestinian Muslim women who are forced to cover, but the majority I have met choose to do so.
How Palestinians’ religion gets expressed can be shaped by many factors, including who their family is, where they live, and how much money they make; some, including young Palestinians, have suggested a link between the spread of poverty and an intensifying religiosity. Ramallah, a city whose name translates to “City of God,” is basically one big bar. It’s party central for the haves, and the have-nots come to watch. Meanwhile, in cities like Hebron, it’s all about the masjid (mosque). But regardless of their faith and level of religiosity, when it comes to the fight against Israeli occupation, Palestinians stand side by side, hijab or not, halal or not, Santa or not.
The Crisis of Arab Nationalism and the Rise of Islamism
Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute
One of the principal but often underappreciated effects of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war was its role in setting the stage for the rise of political Islam in the Arab world—including the terrorist extremism that now plagues the region and the globe.
The war was a devastating blow to the credibility of Arab nationalism (particularly as defined by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser), which presented itself as secular and progressive. The speed and scope of the Arab debacle in 1967 knocked the legs out from under the profoundly exaggerated claims of Arab nationalism to be leading the region into a new and brighter future.
By the late 1960s, the social and economic failure of these systems, and their repressive nature, were already readily apparent. Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, which all gained independence in the 1940s with relatively robust civil societies and promising economies, were being profoundly mismanaged and intellectually suffocated by these narrow regimes. Underneath dreams of resurgence and glory lay clear patterns of atrophy and decay. But the militarism of Arab nationalism, particularly in Egypt, with its strident anti-Western and anti-Israeli rhetoric, conjured a beguiling mirage that obscured grim realities for large majorities who were cajoled into a collective denial.
The 1967 war called this bluff completely. Most Arabs had been beyond confident in victory, yet the defeat was virtually instantaneous and total. In the aftermath, the political credibility of this version of Arab nationalism was mortally wounded, and its long-term viability was as effectively destroyed as the Egyptian Air Force had been by Israel’s surprise early morning attack on June 5.
As the Lebanese scholar Fawaz Gerges has pointed out, the rise of Islamism as a political force was neither an immediate nor an inevitable consequence of the crisis of Arab nationalism resulting from the 1967 war. Many other factors fed into the rise of an ultraconservative, reactionary, and revolutionary (in the Leninist sense) Islamist movement, its radicalization in the 1970s and 1980s, and its proliferation—including in the form of violent transnational terrorist movements like al-Qaeda and ISIS—since the late 1990s.
Things could have turned out differently. Secular Arab nationalism could have been revived, especially in a strikingly different form. Islamism could have developed differently, or thrived to the point of becoming the ideology of ruling factions in much of the Arab world (now only really the case in Gaza).
So, the connection between the 1967 fiasco and the rise of ultraconservative Islam and political Islamism is both direct, insofar as nothing did more to discredit its primary ideological antagonists (secularism and nationalism), and indirect, insofar as innumerable other factors and contingencies shaped our present realities. But it’s worth noting that these two supposedly polar opposites continue to share an underlying framework of political attitudes that remain hegemonic among Islamists and Arab nationalists alike.
During the 1950s and ’60s, Arab nationalism presented itself as entirely at odds with the socially reactionary, and politically and intellectually retrograde, Islamist movement defined at the time by the Muslim Brotherhood. Though it now seems ironic, during this period it was the Islamists who were perceived as retrograde, reactionary, pro-Western, anti-nationalist and essentially traitorous, while the mostly secular nationalist governments were the revolutionaries confronting power in the name of Arab identity, values, and dignity. In much Arab rhetoric today, these ideas have flipped: State nationalism is now frequently cast as pro-Western and retrograde, while Islamism is often cast as revolutionary and patriotic.
For example, it’s instructive that Qatar is comfortable promoting both Muslim Brotherhood Islamism and what remains of left-wing Arab nationalism simultaneously. This isn’t as incoherent as it might seem. Underlying both discourses are the same sets of enemies, the same sense of grievances, the same empty promises, and many of the same essential touchstones of what was and remains a stultifying, unrealistic, and intellectually crippling Arab political orthodoxy.
When Israel’s Religious Zionists Got Their Big Break
Einat Wilf, writer and former member of the Israeli Knesset
At its core, early Zionism was a secular, even militantly atheist, movement. For the Jewish people to change the course of their history, reclaim their homeland, and establish a modern state in it, they had to rebel against God and Messiah. They had to emerge from two millennia of passivity to become their own messiahs, vehicles of their own redemption.
Many Jews of faith rejected Zionism on account of its rebellion, warning their brethren to keep waiting for God to redeem them in His own good time. But one group attempted to provide a religious context for Zionism. Attracted to the revolutionary nature of the Zionist movement but baffled by the fact that the return of the Jewish people to the Promised Land was carried out by a group of atheists, religious Zionists argued that the godless communists of early Zionism were doing God’s work even if they claimed otherwise, and that the process of redemption had begun.
For many decades, religious Zionism remained a marginal, and quite meek, movement in Zionism—and in Judaism. But 1967 changed that. In six short days, Israel swung from the fear of annihilation to the euphoria of an astounding victory. The tiny country tripled its size to include not just the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula, but the cradles of Jewish civilization, including the Temple Mount, East Jerusalem (the Zion of Zionism, home of holy sites), and the West Bank (the territory of Judea, home of the ancient Judeans).
For those who believed that God works in mysterious ways to bring about the redemption of the Jewish people, 1967 was proof. From that moment on, religious Zionism and the settler movement took off to become a dominant form of Zionism and Israeli Judaism, and a powerful political player in shaping the modern state. In the process, these Jews shed the meekness of their predecessors. They were certain that the power of the State of Israel would now serve to redeem the entire Land of Israel between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Yet, even after decades of growth in political power and confidence, the flourishing of hundreds of thousands of settlers, and the appearance of dominance, religious Zionism failed to erase the fundamental premise of secular Zionism: that at any critical juncture, securing the sovereignty of the Jewish people is more important than securing every square inch of land to which the Jewish people can lay claim.
Most Jews, even when powerful and armed, are keenly cognizant of the one true reality of their condition: They are a minuscule minority. They acknowledge that as much as the Jewish people have an emotional and historical connection to much more land than is included within Israel’s pre-1967 lines, they are a small minority in a hostile region, and have to make do with much less than what they might think is their due.
Since 1967, religious Zionism as a political movement has been pushing the Jewish people to take it all, claiming that this is God’s will and that He will intervene to manage the consequences of such territorial maximalism. But it is still painfully clear to the majority of Jews that, given their size and place in the world, in trying to take it all they are very likely to remain with nothing. Whether one is a believer or not, suicide cannot be God’s wish for His people.
Israeli soldiers celebrate during the 1967 Six-Day War
Israeli soldiers celebrate during the 1967 Six-Day War (Israeli Defense Ministry / Reuters)
How “Israelotry” Became an American Religion
Dov Waxman, professor at Northeastern University, and author, Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel
The Six-Day War was a quasi-religious experience for many Jews, both in Israel and the Diaspora. The speed with which Israel vanquished its enemies, paralleling the biblical story of creation; its conquest of places sacred to the Jewish religion, especially Jerusalem and its holy sites; and the popular Jewish narrative of the war as one of deliverance from the brink of a second holocaust to a miraculous victory—all these evoked a collective euphoria and sense of awe across the Jewish world.