This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre, which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.
—Cairo’s radio station “Voice of Thunder” in the tense weeks preceding the Six Day War.
Jewish history does not exist in the past. It is in the here and now. When yeshiva students study Torah—Written and Oral—the present tense is always used. Abraham leaves his father’s home. Moses receives the Torah on Sinai. Rabbi Akiba says. Thus, Jewish festivals are not celebrated just to remember, but to experience Judaism’s eternal covenant with HaShem.
And so it is with the wars that Jews have fought from time immemorial. Whether the enemy is Amalek, Philistine, Babylonian, Seleucid, Roman, Nazi, or today’s IslamoNazis, Judaism/Israel is locked in an eternal existential battle with genocidal enemies.
Best selling author Steven Pressfield (“The Gates of Fire”) was a 23 year old secular American Jew in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve during the June 1967 Six Day War. The lighting Israeli victory made a huge impression on the young man. And now, more than 40 years later, this wonderful novelist—I’ve read every one of his books—who made his career writing about Greeks, Macedonians, and the British during World War II, has turned his enormous talents to his own people in the land of Israel with this brilliant volume, The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War.
Pressfield spent years interviewing veterans of that war, specifically members of three legendary outfits—Mirage Squadron 119 of the Israeli Air Force, the 7th Armored Brigade’s Recon Company (first to the Suez Canal), and Paratroop Battalion 71 (first to the holy Western Wall).
Using the first person narrative, the soldiers tells their astonishing stories. With great sensitivity and skill, Pressfield allows each soldier to tell his story, and at the same time to reveal complex personalities. Too often, old soldier’s narratives default to a hazy romantic saga. But Pressfield and his articulate subjects go deeper. The fear, the chaos, the unspeakable and bloody horror of battle is invoked with such veracity that frequently I had to put down the book and catch my breath.
Pressfield uses a formal structure that owes a great deal to the movies. He cuts from character to character, each narrating his tiny portion of the battle. After a while, the reader comes to recognize each of the soldiers. Their feelings slowly unwind until we feel like we know these men and women, and we are astonished at how casual their bravery manifests itself over and over again. The shifting perspectives allow us to view the Six Day War with Hitchcockian suspense. True, we know how the war ends, but how did it happen? Who lives, and who dies? Pressfield, a master of narration, weaves together the individual stories into a compelling narrative that feels like an epic movie.
Backstories unwind slowly and with great precision. Pressfield is a master of the set-up and pay-off.
The first Israeli soldier to reach the Western Wall was Sergeant Dov Gruner.
This Dov Gruner was not the first to bear that name. The original Dov Gruner, after whom ours was named, had been a fighter for the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the underground paramilitary organization that fought the British during the Mandate days, before Israel achieved statehood.
English soldiers captured this first Dov Gruner and put him on trial for participating in an assault on the police station at Ramat Gan. He was sentenced to death by hanging. At the final hour he was offered a reprieve, if he would admit his guilt.
Dov Gruner would not.
He refused to defend himself, standing on the principle that to do so would be to acknowledge the legitimacy of the British court.
Dov Gruner was hanged at Acre prison on April 16, 1947. As it chanced, his brother’s wife had recently given birth to a son, whom they had named Dov.
This boy grew up to be our Dov.
Moshe Stempel was asked once by a journalist, “Why did you pick Dov Gruner to be first to the Wall?”
“I did not pick him,” Stempel replied. “History did.”
—Yoram Zamosh, commander of “A” Company, Paratroop Battalion 71
Clearly in love with the soldiers, their chutzpah and audacity in combat, Pressfield also recognizes and gives considerable space to unspeakable tragedy. He quotes Bat Sheva Hofert.
I lost both my brothers in the Six day War, and thirty-six years later I lost both my sons. All four are buried in the Kfar Sava military cemetery. In the Jewish tradition, when one visits a grave she sets a small stone as a token of remembrance. But how many stones can one heart carry?
I often think, How happy we would be if they were all still alive. All I know is that it’s not in our hands, certainly not in mine. All that remains is the grief and the pain, but still you keep going.
I refuse to give in.
In my library, I have dozens of books about The Six Day War. They all view this crucial conflict as history. The Lion’s Gate understands that Jewish history is in the here and now. And its power builds to climax after climax as a tiny Jewish army fights against seemingly impossible odds.
This is a monumental volume, an indispensable guide to the Jewish struggle for self-determination in our ancient homeland, and a sublime portrait of the Jewish warrior’s soul.