It started at 2 p.m. As if echoing the thunders that once paralyzed their
forebears at Mount Sinai’s foothills, 436 Israeli troops scattered in 16
outposts along the Suez waterfront were showered out of the blue with 10,000
shells spewed from 2,000 artillery barrels, while 8,000 Egyptian troops emerged
from the water and 240 warplanes descended from the sky.
By day’s end,
with nearly half of the soldiers in those outposts dead, vast Egyptian armies
parked at Sinai, and 1,400 Syrian tanks on the Golan Heights – one fact hovered
above the battlefield’s thick fog: Israel had been stunned.
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
STRATEGICALLY, the war will be counted among military history’s
grand surprises, alongside Pearl Harbor and Operation Barbarossa.
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
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.
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.
The realization that Israel prevailed even in a war
waged, from the Arab viewpoint, under ideal conditions, convinced Arab leaders
to abandon traditional war, and opt for assorted alternatives – from guerrilla
and terror wars to peace deals. While far from reflecting a pro-Zionist
conversion, the Arab abandonment of the traditional military option is a major
strategic gain for Israel, and a direct result of the Yom Kippur
WHEN THE fighting ended, it turned out that one outpost of those
that initially confronted the Egyptian onslaught, the northernmost, endured the
entire war. Having emerged from it intact and returned home bewildered, Capt.
Motti Ashkenazi went to Jerusalem, stood outside prime minister Golda Meir’s
office and demanded that she and her cabinet resign.
Ashkenazi was soon
joined by thousands who felt a deep sense of disillusionment and were now
spontaneously forming Israel’s first effective protest movement. By the time
Golda Meir resigned the following year, it was clear that the repercussions of
the Jewish state’s Pearl Harbor would exceed the narrow realms of warfare, and
include Israel’s politics, society and state of mind.
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
The establishment’s subsequent transition from secular socialists
to traditionalists and capitalists; the disappearance of the European-born
generation that led Israel in its first three decades; and the passage of the
settlement ideal from the kibbutzim’s liberal farmers to the West Bank’s
messianic rabbis, make the Yom Kippur War a watershed in practically all aspects
of Israeli history.
Back in autumn ’73, all protagonists of this
gathering transformation shared a sense of crisis and agony, some because they
felt they were losing their grip on Israeli society, and some because they could
hardly wait to seize it.
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.
when the war ended, Israel was financially strapped.
The knowledge that
it was won thanks to emergency arms shipments from America; the consequent
dependency on American aid; the inflation that began that year and soon spun out
of control; and envy of Arab oil wealth which those days cast a shadow over the
global economy – all generated an economic pessimism that complemented the
overall atmosphere of cynicism and despair.
Forty years on, Israel’s is
among the world’s strongest currencies, its growth rate is among the world’s
highest, its unemployment, inflation and interest rates are among the world’s
lowest, and its innovations are the toast of investors from Tokyo to New York.
On top of that, for more than 15 years, Israel has no longer been accepting US
civilian aid. These accomplishments belong collectively to Israelis of all
persuasions and backgrounds, who meet daily in workplaces where they do together
what a seriously divided society could never create.
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
In fact, the cultural traffic ignited by the war proved to a
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.
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
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
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.
Animating the most solemn
moments in Judaism’s holiest days, the tune has since come to be sung annually
in thousands of synagogues throughout Israel, and has even been performed by
some ultra- Orthodox singers and cantors.
THE YOM KIPPUR WAR, then, had
more effects on Israeli society besides political divisions, and the most
decisive of these was humility. The arrogance and swagger that followed the Six
Day War were initially followed by anger and acrimony, but what for a moment
seemed like despair soon gave way to a sense of appeasement and constructive
soul searching. This humility is particularly evident where it is needed most,
namely in the way Israeli generals speak and think.
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.
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.