by R. Gil Student
With the recent fiftieth anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, it is worth examining an urban legend that has arisen about it. A number of inspirational essays about Jewish faith have made a surprising factual claim to demonstrate a miracle in our time. Because this is something easily falsifiable, I attempted to verify the claim. Here is what I found:
In an essay on the fiftieth anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, R. Benjamin Blech writes:
Military analysts are still stunned when they study what actually happened. Generals at West Point have been quoted as saying that Israel’s victory can simply not be understood from the perspective of strategy in historic warfare. One officer, who understandably chose not to be quoted by name, simply said, “There is no way we can teach the reason behind Israel’s success because Israel was clearly aided primarily by God – and we are not permitted to teach God at West Point.”
Similarly, R. Efrem Goldberg writes:
This sweeping military victory against all odds continues to defy explanation and leaves experts confounded. R’ Berel Wein tells the story of a cadet at West Point who asked why the Six-Day War was not part of the curriculum. The high-ranking teacher silenced the questioner and demanded he speak to him following the class. The soldier approached the general and again wondered why Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War wasn’t studied. The teacher explained that the Six-Day War is not studied because at West Point they study strategy and tactics, not miracles.
Rav Berel Wein recounts a stirring story illustrating this point. A West Point general once remarked that though the United States Military Academy studies wars fought throughout the world, it does not study the Six Day War because West Point is interested in strategy and tactics, not miracles.
This story seems to have come from R. Berel Wein, although I’m not sure whether he started it–he may have heard it from someone else. On its own, it is a harmless inspirational story that most people would happily repeat without confirming. I don’t think less of any of the above rabbis for repeating it.
However, it seems like something that can be checked easily so I reached out to the head of the Department of History at West Point Military Academy. Col. Ty Seidule kindly confirmed that they do, in fact, teach the Six Day War. He checked and found that it is included in the curriculum as far back as a 1977 textbook and is still taught today. He explained that in the 1967 war, the Israelis did almost everything right while the Arabs, particularly the Egyptians, did almost everything wrong. Col. Seidule designed and edited the current digital text used at West Point, The West Point History of Warfare, which includes a lesson on the 1967 and 1973 wars, written by Prof. George Gawrych of Baylor University.
While the above story seems factually wrong, its theological premise can be rescued. The assumption is that the Six Day War was a supernatural miracle that cannot be explained in strategic terms. However, that is only one kind of miracle. In another kind of miracle, God acts within nature to achieve His will. For example, the Hasmoneans rebelled against the Syrian-Greeks and miraculously won–a small group against a mighty army. This was a natural war that we celebrate on Chanukah as a miracle.
Similarly, the very fact that Israel did almost everything right and the Arabs almost everything wrong is itself miraculous. God delivered Israel from its enemies through conventional battle. That seems like a story right out of the Bible, except with Patton tanks. It is a miracle within nature that can be studied for strategy and tactics, and still celebrated as an amazing divine intervention.
The final chapter of Rav Menachem Kasher’s Religous Zionist theological treatise, Ha-Tekufah Ha-Gedolah (ch. 20), includes quotes and stories about miracles that occurred in the Six Day War. All of them can be understood within the context of nature–faulty Arab weaponry, training and tactics, and superb Israeli strategy and execution.
Let’s take this one step further and consider what the theological implications would be if the Six Day War was an open, supernatural miracle. That would mean that God provided indisputable proof to HIs existence and ability. Anyone who denied this–any atheist or agnostic–would be classified as a willful denier, an apostate and a heretic. Currently, most Jewish theologians agree that there can be no heretic without clear, open miracles. If the Six Day War was a supernatural event inexplicable by natural tools then the status of heretic would return. Atheists and agnostics today would be willful deniers of God’s existence. That is a serious step that–to my knowledge–no theologian is ready to take.
Therefore, I thank the educators at West Point for reminding us that God works within nature and that a miracle does not–and today should not–contradict the laws of nature.