I was 15 years old and sitting in our London shul (synagogue) when “That War”, as Israelis call it, broke out. I will never forget how we got to hear about the war. Since it was Yom Kippur no Orthodox Jew was watching TV or listening to the radio. We were deep into our prayers. In the middle of Mincha (the afternoon prayers) the shul doors opened and the non-Jewish caretaker walked in. This was absolutely unprecedented. He never entered the shul while prayers were taking place. A little murmur went round the congregation. The caretaker marched straight to the front, directly to the Rabbi and whispered something in his ear, and then walked out again – all this while the Chazan (cantor) was singing away oblivious to events going on behind him.
The Rabbi left his seat and climbed up to the Bima and banged hard once on the table. The Chazan fizzled to a halt and turned round and the congregation froze. It was obvious something serious had happened because nothing normally disturbs the holy prayers.
The Rabbi simply announced “we have heard very grave news from Israel” and we have to pray with extra Kavana (devotion and intention). That was all. The Chazan took up where he left off, but our concentration was gone as everyone whispered and speculated amongst themselves.
A short while later I was sent by my mother to check on my little brother playing outside in the courtyard, where I met a friend of mine who was with her own little brother. “Did you hear? The Arabs have invaded Israel!” she told me dramatically. I simply refused to believe her. “You must have got it wrong” I argued. “They raided Israel, that makes more sense”. But she was adamant. I didn’t want to believe her but in my heart I knew she was right.
The uneasy feeling didn’t leave me the rest of the day, and by nightfall, as we were walking home, my father said to me “Don’t think this is going to be another Six Day War. It’s a lot more serious this time”.
He was right of course, as was my friend, and by that time the whole world had heard of the Arab invasion of Israel on the Jews’ holiest day. We were transfixed to the news, hoping to get a glimpse on TV of assorted Israeli family members who we knew must have been called up. We couldn’t get hold of anyone by phone because the rest of the family were in their bomb shelters.
Of course my own experience of the war was vicarious, experienced at long-distance both because of the geographical distance and my age. What I can tell you is that the Yom Kippur war marked the birth of my awareness that the world media is biased against Israel – yes, already back in 1973 – and thus the start of my activism for Israel. I couldn’t get over my outrage and frustration at how the UK media quoted without comment or caveat Arab spokesmen who talked about “Israeli aggression” when it was so crashingly obvious that Israel was the victim here.
Nothing has changed in the media since then. If anything it has become worse.
In hindsight it was obvious to everyone, including the politicians, that a war was approaching. Earlier that summer of 1973, on a family trip to Israel, we had visited my mother’s cousin in his kibbutz on the Gaza border. He gave us a tour of the kibbutz and pointed in the general direction of Egypt and said, “There are a lot of troop movements going on there. There’s going to be a war soon, you’ll see”.
Our cousin’s opinion has been corroborated during these last few weeks, as the Israeli authorities have been releasing previously classified material concerning the Yom Kippur War – conversations between generals, politicians, military assessments etc.
Below are a series of links to such reports, in no particular order. I won’t quote from all of them, but they are all worth reading to gain an insight into some devastating political and military miscalculations and yet the IDF’s astonishing military gains, nothing short of a miracle.
A couple of worthwhile opinion pieces too:
Journalist and MK Chagai Segal’s facebook post deserves translating (it has a Bing translation below the post). Here’s an excerpt:
Uri Avnery was presented again today – first in Haaretz and then on IDF radio – as a visionary who foresaw the Yom Kippur war. In my opinion, it was Menachem Begin who did so. As Golda’s government responded three years before the war with absolute restraint to the forward placement of Egyptian missile batteries near the water, something that was in violation of a ceasefire agreement between the two countries, Begin warned in Parliament: “If the Egyptians decided to open fire – and with today’s the reality we have to assume that there is no doubt that the enemy will have the crucial advantage in armor and artillery, and the air force’s welcome initiatives will be very hard to carry out without a significant number of casualties amongst the pilots and planes”. (Knesset protocol 25.8.70).
Avnery continued: “some want to create panic. There is a change? There is no doubt. But each weapon has a counter-weapon. The missile is not a wonder weapon and shooting and hitting everything. There are other kinds of counter-weapons and this is not the place to elaborate on this. Whoever said that the enemy has a decisive advantage, “as the MK Begin said today, who is trying to scare? This is crying Wolf, a Wolf, renewable every other day. …Whoever draws the picture as painted by this MK has moved from politics to demonlogia.” (Knesset Protocol 25.8.70).
[These enlightening quotes of Begin and Avnery were used in my book written jointly by Uri Orbach “And today we use it to wrap fish”, published in 1992] (Translated by Bing)
From the Times of Israel: Resolving Israel’s internal War of Atonement:
For leftwing Israelis, then, the sin of Yom Kippur 1973 was arrogance, an excessive reliance on power. The conclusion was: We must be open to peace and not only rely on power.
For rightwing Israelis, though, the sin of Yom Kippur was complacency, allowing ourselves to believe that the Jewish people no longer faced existential threat. The conclusion was: We must remain alert, never lower our guard.
The maturation of Israeli society didn’t happen, though, through dialogue and deep listening but because events forced us to face reality. The first intifada convinced a majority of Israelis of the need to free ourselves from the occupation; the second intifada convinced that same majority of the need to free ourselves from wishful thinking about peace.
Perhaps the most enduring lesson of the Yom Kippur War, then, is the need to lower our guard against each other and listen to competing insights. As we face a year of acute uncertainty, that lesson is especially vital now.
And from the JPost’s “Middle Israel” column of Amotz Asa-el, one of my favourite political commentators: The Last War:
Forty years on, the war that cost 2,522 Israeli fatalities, traumatized a generation and profoundly impacted the Jewish state’s society, politics, economy and psyche, refuses to go away.
The warriors, now mostly grandfathers, are writing memoirs, holding spontaneous reunions and retrieving diaries, photographs, recordings and even rare footage taken with the era’s bulky 8- mm. Kodaks, in what adds up to a collective quest for closure.
The rest of Israel, surveying where it has since journeyed, has reason to proverbially enter these makeshift group therapies, place a hand on the shoulder of each of the Yom Kippur War’s veterans, look them in their wrinkling faces, and quietly tell them Jeremiah’s consolation to Rachel: “There is a reward for your labor.”
STRATEGICALLY, the war will be counted among military history’s grand surprises, alongside Pearl Harbor and Operation Barbarossa.
Israel was caught off-guard in almost every respect. It underestimated the enemy’s intentions, abilities, weaponry and motivation. The leaders misinterpreted Egyptian president Anwar Sadat as a babbler, the generals did not enlist the reserves, the pilots were humbled by the radar-guided SA missile and the tankists by the shoulder-carried Sagger.
Then again, not only did the IDF ultimately prevail, in 40 years’ hindsight it emerged from the war with long-term strategic gains that dwarf the its immediate setbacks.
Tactically, the war’s tide was turned on both fronts: on the Golan Heights, the vastly outnum-bered Seventh Brigade managed to fend off the Syrian armored thrust, and thus open the IDF’s path to Damascus; and in Sinai, the Egyptian Third Army was encircled and the Suez Canal was crossed as the IDF reached within an hour’s ride from Cairo. Yet what at the time seemed like heroism that merely decided one war, actually went much farther.
First, the recollection of prevailing even under such duress, and of successful improvisations along the entire hierarchy – from foot soldier to general – helped foster a culture of inventiveness from which Israel benefitted in other tests. But far more important, following the Armageddon that included some of history’s largest armored battles, Israel’s enemies never again unleashed on it a conventional army.
Politically, the future was hinted at in the first postwar election, when the newly established Likud won more of the soldiers’ votes than Labor.
In the following election Labor lost power for the first time, and its political hegemony for good.
Gradually, the Yom Kippur War came to be seen as an engine of a great schism.
THE MOST notable realm where Israeli pragmatism and resilience prevailed is the economy.
The same can be said of Israeli culture, which over the past 40 years has seen the previously unthinkable rise of religious authors and filmmakers, symbolized by novelist Haim Sabato, a rabbi and rosh yeshiva who emerged from the war a prize-winning novelist.
In fact, the cultural traffic ignited by the war proved to a two-way street.
The sense of perplexity, enhanced by David Ben-Gurion’s death five weeks after the cease-fire, was expressed by the era’s popular songs, three of which became timeless, and inspire a melancholy that moves Israeli hearts to this day.
One, penned by songwriter Haim Hefer, a veteran of the War of Independence who wrote some of its most popular hits, now had an unnamed soldier promise his little girl – “in the name of the pilots who thrust into angry battle,” and the gunners “who were the pillars of fire along the front,” and “all the fathers who went to battle and never returned” – that 1973’s would be the last war.
A second song, by “Jerusalem of Gold” writer Naomi Shemer, placed “a white sail in the horizon, opposite a heavy black cloud,” and “holiday’s candles shimmering in dusk’s windows,” while asking “What is the sound of war I am hearing, the sound of shofar and drums,” and then praying, “If the announcer stands at the door, place a good word in his mouth, if only all we ask – would be.”
The whisper of prayer that both songs shared was the zeitgeist, so much so that it even arrived in Kibbutz Beit Hashita – whose veterans included diehard Marxists and atheists.
Tucked in the Jezreel Valley north of Mount Gilboa, where the biblical Saul and Jonathan died in battle, this community lost 11 of its sons in the war.
Having lived in their midst at the time of their grief, composer Yair Rosenblum wrote a tune for U’Netane Tokef, the prayer which states that on Rosh Hashana God drafts, and on Yon Kippur he seals, the verdict of every man: “Who will live and who will die, who is in his end and who is not, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by hunger and who by thirst.”
The tune brought together Zionism’s epitomes of the New Jew, the atheist warriors of the kibbutzim, with Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, the prayer’s writer and the ultimate Old Jew, a sage whom legend says was killed without a fight after refusing a demand to convert.
[Ed note: The U’netane Tokef prayer is posted on my previous post on Yom Kippur. I will post the other two songs in a separate post later today).
Forty years on, it is clear that Israeli society was not debilitated by the Yom Kippur War and in fact, soon resumed its development in earnest.
I find Asa-el’s concluding words incredibly moving and so true:
Having left us while the war’s trauma was fresh, one feels like updating Ben-Gurion that since his departure: no Arab army again waged war on Israel; there are two peace agreements; the population has more than doubled and the economy more than quadrupled; there are more Jews here than in any other country; the number of Israeli Jews has just crossed, for the first time, the charged figure of 6 million, Soviet Jewry is here, and the Soviet Union is gone; and Israeli society, while varied and complex, remains intact even when the rest of the region is ablaze with civil wars – and that U’Netane Tokef, as written in medieval Germany and composed in Kibbutz Beit- Hashita, will tomorrow echo from Metulla to Eilat.
Even as we pray for No More War, we have to gird our battle armour for troubled times ahead on those same borders – Egypt and Syria.