From the Archives (September 28, 1967; Volume 32 Issue 1) — Students Relate Impressions Of Israeli War; YU Mitnadvim Recount Personal Experiences
Editor’s Note: In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War and the unification of Jerusalem, The Commentator has decided to print a previously published interview from that time with YU students about their experiences in Israel during the war.
This article is based on an interview with five of the many Yeshiva College students who were in Israel before, during, and after the recent war. They are Earl Lefkovitz ’68, who spent the year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; Chuck Abramchik ’68, who worked at Kibbutz Yavneh for a year; and Milton Sonneberg ’68, Howard Bodner ’68, and Morris Berger ’67, who went to Israel during the crisis as mitnadvim. A full documentation of Yeshiva’s participation in the crisis will follow in a later issue.
During the spring the number of Arab incursions into Israel increased markedly. Did you notice any increase in the tensions among the people?
Lefkovitz: I sensed something when he (Nasser) blocked the straits because then there was no way out of it. That’s when you really saw concern; sixty or seventy people would be gathered around a radio at the University to hear news broadcasts.
Abramchik: We were on a tiyul in Galilee when the crisis began and didn’t hear about it until we returned the next day (May 24). When we got back, there was a letter waiting for our truck driver—he and his truck were drafted. Almost every day people were taken away.
The kibbutz didn’t start making preparations right away, digging trenches or things like that, but the feeling was that something was bound to happen—it was going to be big.
Did you feel that war was inevitable?
Lefkovitz: No, I wasn’t sure until I heard the shots.
Abramchik: I didn’t sense war, just that something was going to happen.
When did you arrive in Israel?
Sonneberg: We arrived May 31 and were met by people from the Merkaz Kibbutz Hadati. They took us through the entry formalities. We felt pretty good having people meet us. The CBS cameramen followed us all the way even though we tried to escape.
After a small delay (three hours) we were taken to S’dei Eliyahu in Galilee. As we left Lydda there were several roadblocks; we said “mitnadvim michutz la’aretz” and were just waved through. We asked them whether they thought something was going to happen. They said that by the end of the week something would happen. It turned out that by the end of the week it was all over.
Berger: My group arrived on June 1. Those who wanted to go to religious kibbutzim were told to step aside. We were taken to Masuot Yitzchak, a moshav shitufi about ten kilometers from Ashkelon.
Howie, you had an entirely different experience, didn’t you?
Bodner: Yes, I got there in the middle of the war. We landed at Paris about 9:00 Monday morning (10:00 in Israel). When we asked when we would leave, we were told that war had broken out in Israel. We waited and waited. Then at 5:30 we left. The tourists and some mitnadvim got off in Paris. We filled up with armaments and reservists.
They (the airline) didn’t know what was happening in Lydda, but we went ahead anyway. About an hour later we were told that we would land in Greece. This really scared everyone. We remained in Greece for a whole day until about nine Tuesday night. Then they told us that we would go to Lydda no matter what—unless we were shot down.
It was very quiet on board. About 30 minutes out of Lydda we were told that we would land, and we broke out in the singing of the Hatikvah. Finally, we landed amidst a blackout—no radio contact, plane shutters closed. Later we found out that four Mirages had accompanied us; they were the best protection in Israel.
Sonneberg: I’ve got news for you—at that point a Piper Cub was as good protection as a Mirage.
Bodner: They took us to Herzliah for the night. Next morning we woke to an air raid which turned out to be the last one in Israel. They took me to Yavneh, but they had no more room. Eventually, I wound up at S’dei Eliyahu.
What type of work did you do?
Bodner and Sonneberg: We dug ditches and trenches, communication and defense trenches. Between the end of the war and the grape harvest we did odd jobs. Then we worked on the grape harvest.
Berger: We started Friday morning. They took most of us out to the cotton fields to weed cotton. A few of us remained digging ditches, and I worked in the miyun—sorting fruit. We harvested milonim—a sort of honey dew—for a month. It was the height of the season. They gave us the worst jobs.
Sonneberg: We seem to have reached a consensus on that.
Berger: Oh, everyone.
Abramchik: I’ll explain that. The gesture on the part of the mitnadvim was very nice, but let’s face it, they were not skilled laborers. They did most of the digging and they didn’t have any tractors; all except one had been drafted into the army. They were disappointed with the work. They felt that they were given low, menial work, but there is no such thing on a kibbutz. Besides, they had to be given things that could be done without any instruction. They did the same thing day after day. They came with the attitude that they were going to save Israel; but they didn’t feel they were saving Israel with the work they were doing.
Bodner: On our kibbutz it was not that way at all. We really didn’t care what work we were given. The only time we felt a little annoyed was when the people who were giving us the work sometimes stood by and, merely, supervised us. That really wasn’t the way it should have been done. As a rule I did get dirty—hard work — but as a rule it didn’t bother me. I was doing something that was part of the daily kibbutz routine. If I had to clean a chicken coop, it had to be cleaned. It didn’t matter who did it; I knew it would be cleaned.
How far from the border were you?
Sonneberg: On the morning of June 5, we had been working for three hours when they announced that war had broken out. About 10:30 a Jordanian tank column moved up to the border which was two kilometers away. They began firing at army emplacements in our fields. We stopped digging trenches because it was too interesting. We sat in the edges of the trenches watching.
Berger: I was about seven miles from Gaza. We could see the fighting; it was like fireworks.
We were also 1½ kilometers from a major Israeli air base where they had a large number of Mirage jets—the Israelis call them Miragim. We saw them practicing from the day we arrived. We saw them the first day flying at tree top level towards Egypt. We couldn’t imagine why they were doing it until about 10:00 when we heard that the war had broken out. It was quite frightening; we realized that something was going to happen if it hadn’t happened already.
Lefkovitz: Monday morning I heard that fighting had broken out in Gaza. I thought it was a small skirmish and went into town to buy some things. I heard snatches of Dayan’s speech on the radio and it seemed like he was preparing the people for total war. Three or four minutes after I left the store to go home shots started coming from the Jordanian sector.
I ran all the way back, but I should have gone into the first shelter. In the shelter we heard the BBC announce the first victories in Sinai (before Kol Israel did) and went around telling everyone. From then on it was just gaining momentum. Every hour we heard something better. WE expected them to keep on going and going and going.
Abramchik: We were about 15 kilometers from the Gaza Strip. We were out in the fields about 10:00 when we heard our first alert. Out in the fields there were no ditches so we just hit the ground. WE had a major air base near us. Planes were constantly taking off. We were scared of course. I, personally — I’ll speak for myself—was very frightened because I didn’t know what would happen.
Were you ever fearful that these were enemy planes?
Abramchik: Yes, as the day rolled on, we thought “How many planes did Israel have?” Let’s face it there’s a limit. But you could see the Magen David and the blue and white. You could never know for sure.
Did you feel any fear?
Berger: I did not fear for myself. I was in this atmosphere. I was too busy being happy—whatever happens, thank God I’ll be here first hand to witness it and feel it. There was no room for fear. Maybe if I really understood what the situation was, I should have been, but I wasn’t.
Lefkovitz: The first couple of hours, yes, because I was living right next to a mortar position, and I hadn’t known about it beforehand. I heard these tremendous explosions; I thought they were Jordanian shells. When I learned to distinguish between when they were hitting us and when we were hitting them, which took a couple of hours, the fear seemed to vanish.
What was the atmosphere when you arrived?
Berger: It was terribly tense there—horrible. They were warm to us, I think we sort of relieved their pressures and anxiety, even if for only a relatively short space of time. I didn’t expect Kennedy Airport, but everyone was so tense. On the runway jets were lined up ready to take off. Everyone felt that it was only a matter of time until the war broke out.
What was your reaction to the capture of Jerusalem?
Sonneberg: I didn’t really realize what Jerusalem was until I visited it. I guess I was happy. My real reaction came when I saw it; that’s when the strong reaction came. I wasn’t very impressed by the Western Wall itself. Jerusalem has a tangible atmosphere; you feel at home there—more than in New York.
Bodner: Jerusalem has all of the atmosphere of Israel. It’s a melting pot of the whole country.
Abramchik: That evening we felt something inside; it was really unbelievable. We hadn’t had Jerusalem for 2,000 years; we had only visitation rights. Now it was ours. It is just a plain wall, but I didn’t look at it as merely a wall. It was a part of the Temple.
Lefkovitz: When we were touring before Pesach, we had seen everything. We said for Shavuot we’ll have to go over to the Old City. We just said this in jest.
Sonneberg: You guys put the Ayin Harah on them.
Why did you go?
Bodner: Something compelled me to go. It wasn’t that I felt that I was going to save Israel. This was an opportunity to do something right for the things I believed in. It was time to show that I believed in all the values that I’d been taught. Israel symbolized them.
Berger: I never was an ardent Zionist; Israel was nice for the Israelis. I never felt involved. I saw an impending holocaust; I wanted to do something. I suppose I was always very attached to Israel.
Do you hope to live in Israel?
Sonneberg: Yes, I was thinking strongly of it before. I was only more convinced than ever.
Abramchik: I definitely want to return. As soon as I finish school, I hope to make it back as quickly as I possibly can.
Berger: As everyone says, “One day I hope I will be back,” and I hope it will be soon.
Permanently or otherwise?
Berger: Permanently. I made up my mind then. I have a moral obligation. I see how necessary aliyah is for the long term survival of Israel.