MEMORIES OF A SIX DAY WAR VOLUNTEER
By Barry Kester
On the 20th May 1967 I was at Wembley Stadium cheering on my beloved Spurs as they defeated Chelsea in the F.A. Cup Final. Had anyone told me on that day, that just a couple of weeks later I would be in Israel working on a kibbutz close to the Golan Heights, I would have thought them crazy.
Two days later however, all the euphoria of that victory was dissipated when Egypt committed what was a clear act of war by closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. Tension had been rising during the previous week as Egypt mobilized its troops and then moved into Sinai demanding that the U.N. peacekeepers be removed. The blockade however, ratcheted up the tension considerably higher.
I was twenty-three when the crisis broke. I was articled to a partner in a West End accountancy practice, and was due to take my finals in December of that year. I was also very active in the Federation of Zionist Youth (FZY) and chairman of its Ilford group.
As the crisis heightened, FZY was called in to help with fund raising activities. Every evening we would go from one shul to another helping to collect donations. Sunday mornings we were out knocking on doors collecting more gifts. No house with a mezzuzah on the door was safe from our attentions, nor did I ever leave a house without having received a donation.
There was an incredible atmosphere around at the time, for unlike today, as war became inevitable, the entire country was 100% behind Israel. I had a “Support Israel” bumper sticker on my car and I remember to this day a garage attendant saying to me whilst he filled up my car, that he hoped we would really show those ***** a thing or two; that was how it was at that time.
On Monday morning 5th June war broke out. As soon as I got to the office I asked my principal if I could go to the Zionist Federation offices in Lower Regent Street, to do whatever I could to help. Luckily, my principal was Jewish, so he gladly gave his consent. For those of you who may remember it, Rex House was an always chaotic place, but during that week, the chaos reached new heights.
The first thing I saw on my arrival was that outside, seemingly every Jewish cab driver in London was waiting ready to deliver messages, packages and people free of charge wherever they were needed. Inside was bedlam. Volunteers wanting to go to Israel and take over the jobs of the men and women now serving in the army, filled every bit of space in the building as they waited to be processed.
Fundraising was more urgent than ever and elsewhere blood donor centres were being set up. All the while communiqués were coming in from Tel Aviv with war news. I remember hearing the breaking news that the IDF had destroyed the Egyptian Air Force on the ground in the first few hours of the war. BBC newsreaders initially did not believe it, but gradually it became quite clear that it really was true. Then on the Wednesday came the news that the Old City of Jerusalem had been taken and there was not a dry eye in the whole of Rex House. That was day also that the blockade was broken.
Later that day, together with about fifty fellow FZYniks I joined the ranks of the volunteers. Once again I had to look to my principal’s goodwill and once again he came through for me. The war ended on the Saturday and on the following Tuesday our FZY party was on an El Al plane to Tel Aviv. By the Friday, just ten days after it had been recaptured we were in Jerusalem, praying at the Western Wall. I remember phoning home that evening - no easy thing in those days – and the emotional call I had with my parents.
We were sent to Kibbutz HaGoshrim, a non - religious settlement in the north of Israel, some five miles beyond Kyriat Shemona in that spit of land between Lebanon and the Golan Heights. We were fortunate in that the Kibbutz, as well as being an agricultural settlement also ran a guest house so we had decent accommodation and, joy of joys a swimming pool. Our work routine was soon established. Wake up was at 4:30am. A quick wash, a mug of tea with some stale bread and then on to a tractor to work in the fields, picking fruit or cotton or building new paths around the Kibbutz. At 8:00 it was back on the tractor to return to the dining hall for a proper breakfast followed by another stint of work until 11:30 when we would finish for the day and crash out round the pool.
The work was hard and not without its dangers. The fruit picking mostly involved placing rickety ladders against the acres and acres of apple trees and then reaching into the furthest branches of the tree to collect the fruit. None of us escaped from what became known as “flying ladders” as we tumbled to the ground, though thankfully no-one suffered anything more serious than a few bruises – and hurt pride.
Early one morning a group of us were in the cotton fields when we suddenly heard massive explosions from the nearby Golan Heights. For one horrible moment, we thought fighting had broken out again but it turned out only to be the IDF destroying captured Syrian munitions, but it was a reminder that we were in a war zone.
Afternoons were filled with various leisure activities. Courses in Ivrit were arranged as were soccer matches against volunteers from neighbouring kibbutzim. I am still carrying the scars from one ferocious encounter with South Africans volunteers from Kibbutz Dan just up the road. For the brave, the icy waters of the lake at nearby Horshat Tal was a refreshing alternative to the kibbutz pool.
Another example of the good fortune that befell our group is that amongst us were a few who were employed at Marks and Spencer’s head office in Baker Street and every couple of weeks they would each receive a large box of St. Michael foodstuffs which of course they shared around and provided a welcome break from the rather unimaginative kibbutz diet.
The kibbutz set aside one hut for us to use as our own communal meeting place. Our group included people of all degrees of religious observance but we all agreed it would be nice to have a Friday evening service. On that first Friday night, we gathered in our hut and began the service. Suddenly, I was aware that we were being joined by some of the Kibbutzniks who were peering through the windows or standing by the open door, visibly moved by the sight of Shabbat candles and the sound of Sabbath songs that they probably had neither seen nor heard in years.
Another memory of that time is the music. Within days of it ending, an LP was produced of songs of the Six Day War and it was constantly being played around the kibbutz. One song in particular came to define that period, Naomi Shemer’s Yerushalayim shel Zahav. Morning, noon and night, it seemed you could never go more than five minutes without hearing that haunting refrain. The strange thing is, no matter how many times you heard it, it never seemed too much; even today, if my I-Pod is on shuffle, and that song comes up, I have to stop what I am doing and the memories come flooding back.
Because the war itself was mercifully short, before long the men and women who had been called up began returning home. Whilst there was still plenty for us to do, the government decided that we should see as much of Israel as possible.
We were taken in an army jeep on to the Golan Heights. There we saw captured Syrian tanks and the gun emplacements overlooking HaGoshrim. We saw at once that they could probably have done enormous harm just by hurling rocks down on the kibbutz from that dominant position.
Then we went on a long trip to the south. We stopped at Ein Gedi and bathed in the Dead Sea and then in the morning, before dawn, climbed the snake path to the summit of Masada where we witnessed the most glorious sunrise breaking over the fabled ruins. From there we were taken through Beer Sheva and via the Negev to Eilat which was just a small village at that time. Other trips took us to the Galilee and of course in our free time we all explored Jerusalem and Haifa and Tel Aviv.
Suddenly it was October and it was time to return home after what were the most amazing three months of my life. The nervous tension in the days before the war; the very real concern that Israel could be annihilated; the unbelievable excitement and relief as we learned of the recapture of the Old City and Israel’s subsequent victory. The tremendous camaraderie of like-minded young people working on the kibbutz, delighted at being able to do our bit for the country that we all cared about so deeply.
There is one other memory. On a bus returning to the kibbutz from Haifa where I had been visiting a cousin, I spoke to a young Israeli. I will never forget his words.
“Surely now, after this massive defeat the Arabs will have to accept us. They have to, don’t they?”