Like so many thousands of others, Joseph Weiss was barely 18 years old when the Six Day War broke out on June 5, 1967, just a year after he began his military service in Israel. Born in the northern town of Afula to kibbutnzniks, he came to Canada in 1970, after his mother, a Holocaust survivor, feared for her two other sons and left the country. Today, Weiss is the owner of a Toronto-area small business that sells industrial, woodworking and cutting tools that are made in Israel. He has five children and six grandchildren.
The 68-year-old reminisced with The CJN recently about his memories of Israel’s miraculous victory, 50 years on.
When the war broke out, were soldiers fearful or hopeful?
Well, there were three weeks (before the war) of what we called a waiting period. Nobody, not the politicians or the army, knew what was going on. We knew we were threatened. We knew we were being choked economically by the Egyptians, (who closed) the Strait of Hormuz. We knew we were being pushed and threatened and we were ready to respond. We were just waiting for three weeks, until the war actually started. Israel had to act because there was no chance of waiting. The situation was actually getting worse. We were very fearful. We knew we were fighting on four different fronts, four different armies.
Where were you stationed?
I was stationed just south of the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, at the southern point of the lake, very close to the junction of the Israeli, Jordanian and Syrian borders, which makes it the south part of the Golan Heights. We were anticipating the war there. We were part of the artillery unit. When the war actually started, we were ordered to shell the Syrian frontline, the bunkers atop the Golan Heights.
‘It was total euphoria… we knew that something big was happening. We knew this would change the map of the Middle East’
I wasn’t part of the infantry that actually went up the Golan Heights. We were a couple miles back, shelling their frontline – as we called it, softening the ground to get ready for the infantry and paratroopers who went in there. (The shelling) went on for a good couple of days. There was an exchange of shelling. We were shelled back, of course. But by that time, we were pretty sure that (the other side) had no air forces. That was the first step of the war: bombarding their air force bases and runways. So we knew we had complete superiority in the air and that made us know that it was actually a matter of time, because if you don’t control the sky, you have no chance. We knew it was going to be a tough fight, but a lot easier without (enemy) air forces. Within three hours, Israel took complete superiority over four armies’ air forces.
At what point did you and others realize that the war was turning in Israel’s favour?
It was halfway through the war. Obviously, there were no cellphones. We were briefed by our commanders that things went well throughout the Egyptian front in the south. The Jordanians got into the war. We knew they were fighting to take over Jerusalem. So I would say that two or three days into the war, we realized it was a matter of time. That’s when the fear started to go away, because we realized we were doing quite well.
I’m guessing that boosted morale?
It was much better. We did see some casualties. At the end of the war, once the ground forces left, we were there to clear out some bunkers. Yeah, we saw a lot of human beings you don’t want to see. But it was part of finishing the war. Israel could not afford a lengthy war. We knew it had to be quick.
What are your thoughts 50 years later?
It was an eye opener. I was a young kid, 18, facing that kind of magnitude of an all-out war. I wasn’t ready for it. It came to us as a total surprise. But when you are in the army, you have to anticipate anything. It seems nowhere (near) 50 years (ago). It seems to me it just happened yesterday. It’s an exciting time to celebrate.
What is your most vivid memory of the war?
The most vivid memory of the war was the briefing at noon of the first day that we destroyed all the Arab air force on the ground. The other one was seeing Jordan Valley and the Kinneret below, from the top of the mountains of the Golan Heights at the end of the war.
When you and others in your unit learned that Jerusalem had been reunited, what was your reaction?
It was total euphoria. Knowing the history of Israel and Jewish history, we knew that something big was happening. We knew this would change … the map of the Middle East. It was a historic event. I was very humbled. I knew that it was something that would go down in history books.
At the beginning of the war, we were all afraid. Less than a year into my army service, I wasn’t in any high command. I was just a guy from the lower ranks. We were all scared. One thing that kept us going was the feeling that we knew we could not lose the war. Our motto was “never again.” We knew that if we don’t win this war, our parents and siblings would not survive. We had to do all we could. That’s what motivated us.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.