The metal brutes clawed and ripped at the rock-strewn path, up a rugged basalt slope to a ridge that terminated in a plateau designated as the tank replenishment depot. Centurions, much the worst for wear, were parked higgledy-piggledy, taking on ammunition and fuel.
From this vantage point prime minister Golda Meir could look over the Kuneitra Valley, dubbed the Vale of Tears, so named because it was the site of the bloodiest battle of the Yom Kippur War when catastrophe thundered down on an overextended and unprepared Israel in a juggernaut of armor more numerous than Hitler's at his peak. On the Golan Heights alone, 1,400 Syrian tanks hurled themselves against Israel's 160. The defenders fought at point-blank range, lurching and roaring in an unequal entanglement of tanks, armored personnel carriers, howitzers, and other paraphernalia that culminated in a contest of wills which left the Israelis staggering and the Syrians routed.
Golda Meir, her face deeply scored with tragic lines, stared out across this Vale of Tears and her eyes reddened. It was Hol Hamoed Succot 1973, and she had come to see for herself the carnage that had been wrought here. She was accompanied by her one-eyed veteran minister of defense, Moshe Dayan, and her ruggedly handsome chief-of General Staff, General David (Dado) Elazar. Faces gray for lack of sleep, the two warriors watched with the eyes of connoisseurs as squads of dusty men, some staggering with fatigue, loaded tanks with shells, refueled their engines, and waved them off, clanking and snarling back to the front.
The distant thud of heavy guns that was pounding the road to Damascus could be distinctly heard as Dado propped a Golan map on a tank hull, and with sweeps of his pen, resurrected the lines of battle for the benefit of this knotted elderly woman whose ignorance of things military was absolute.
Dayan handed her his binoculars the better to view the far-off valley floor strewn with the hideous debris of war: pulverized howitzers, blown-out trucks, banged-up armored personnel carriers, burned-out tanks punched through with bull's eyes, some still smoldering and the dead. The stench of death, cordite, diesel and exhaust, was everywhere.
As she scanned the cadaverous landscape through the binoculars the creases in her face sharpened, and she fumbled for a pack of cigarettes from her black leather handbag. Dado struck her a match and she inhaled deeply, sparking a blaze of photo flashes from the accompanying journalists. They were in my charge, as director of the prime minister's foreign press bureau.
THE WHOLE inspection tour was a last-minute affair. It was made on Golda's insistence. She wanted to see this frightful valley, overriding Dayan's objections; he rightly feared for her safety. So a small, foreign media press pool was hastily mustered she wanted the world to know the odds Israel was up against and she was helicoptered in with the intention of rapidly helicoptering her out.
Given the improvised and sensitive nature of the trip it was agreed there would be no press conference, but one journalist, with bushy eyebrows, a baggy suit, and a perfectly pitched BBC voice, pugnaciously called out, "Share with us, if you will, prime minister, what's going through your mind as you look out upon this battlefield?"
Golda stared back at him, her features livid, and with a dismissive wave of the hand as though brushing away a fly from her plain gray suit, turned to Dayan and Dado, and said, "Come, I want to talk to the boys at the succa. I want to hear what they have to say."
She moved off in the direction of an armored personnel carrier which, incongruously, was canopied by a succa thatched with eucalyptus branches in imitation of the fragile hutments the Israelites lived in during their wanderings in the desert to freedom and the Promised Land. And as she walked toward this mobile field succa, pigheaded photographers walked backwards, shooting her every stride.
Inside, about 15 soldiers were chanting a prayer, their backs toward Golda and her companions. Each was draped in a prayer shawl, and each clutched a lulav and etrog, and gently shook them forward to the East, then right to the South, over their right shoulder to the West, then left to the North, and then up, and then down, in replication of the ancient Temple's Succot ceremony, symbolizing that God is everywhere. Only when they had completed their ritual did they notice who was silently gazing at them.
"Hag sameah!" called Golda, and the soldiers returned the festive greeting with wide-eyed astonishment. They were reservists, plucked from their synagogues on Yom Kippur to frantically reinforce the desperately stretched olive-green line that was holding back the Syrians along the crest of the Golan Heights in a frenzied effort to stop them from capturing the highway to Haifa below. Now, themselves battle-hardened, they had been pulled out of the line to have their tanks hastily refueled, rearmed and serviced, enabling them to briefly pray and recite the blessings over the Four Species.
Straightening her skirt in an instinctive gesture of modesty as though the circumstances required it, and with the concerned countenance of a grandmother, Golda asked the men about their families, and learned by-the-by she was talking to lawyers, bakers, teachers, felafel vendors, accountants, shopkeepers and corporate executives. Other soldiers were drawn into the circle, and the prime minister asked them many questions. Then she wrapped the session up with, "Now is there anyone who would like to ask me something?"
One tank crew member he seemed in his mid-twenties raised his hand. He was caked with black dust from head to toe, and his only contrasting feature were the whites of his eyes. "I have a question," he said in a voice husky with exhaustion. "My father was killed in the 1948 war, and we won. My uncle was killed in the 1956 war, and we won. My brother lost an arm in the 1967 war, and we won. Last week I lost my best friend over there" he was pointing to the Vale of Tears "and we're winning. But is all our sacrifice worthwhile, Golda? What's the use of our military power if we can't win the peace?" An edgy murmur passed through the unshaven, weary, and unkempt group.
THE PRIME minister returned the young soldier a long and sad look, and there was a strange reserve in her eyes, a remote stare, as though she was looking way inside herself. I believe she was. For on that Succot day, this indefatigable and implacable old woman embodied the very doctrine of Jewish power; she above all was the fervent agent of the view that it was infinitely preferable to deal with power's confounding implications than to be powerless again.
So, she answered in a deeply compassionate tone, saying, "I weep for your loss, just as I grieve for all our dead. I lie awake at night thinking of them. And I must tell you in all honesty, were our sacrifices for ourselves alone, then perhaps you are right; I'm not at all sure they would be worthwhile. But if they are for the survival of the whole Jewish people, then I believe with all my heart that any sacrifice is worthwhile."
A faintly bemused smile now slowly tipped the corners of her mouth, and though her face was gnarled with age, a girl looked out of her eyes as she went on to tell the following tale: "In 1948, in this season of the year, I arrived in Moscow as Israel's first ambassador to the Soviet Union. The State of Israel was brand new. Stalinism was at its height. Jews as Jews had no rights. They had been cut off from their fellow Jews for 30 years, since the Communist Revolution of 1917. Stalin had proclaimed war against Judaism. He declared Zionism a crime. Hebrew was banned. Torah study was banned. One was sent to the gulag or to Siberia for far less.
"The first Shabbat after I had presented my credentials my embassy staff joined me for services at the Moscow Great Synagogue. It was practically empty. But the news of our arrival in Moscow spread quickly, so that when we went a second time, for the festivals, the street in front of the synagogue was jam packed. Close to 50,000 people were waiting for us old people and teenagers, babies carried in parents' arms, even men in officer uniforms of the Red Army. Despite all the risks, all the official threats to stay away from us, these Jews had come to celebrate the Jewish state's establishment and to demonstrate their kinship with us.
"Inside the synagogue the demonstration was the same. Without speeches or parades, these Jews were showing their love for Israel and the Jewish people, and I was their symbol. I was caught up in a torrent of love so strong it literally took my breath away. People surged around me, stretching out their hands, and crying, 'Shulam aleichem Goldele, ('Welcome Golda'), 'Goldele, leben zols du.' ('Golda, a long life to you').' 'Gutt yomtov Goldele.' ('Happy Festival, Golda'). And all I could say over and over again was, 'A dank eich vos ihr seit gebliben Yidden.' ('Thank you for having remained Jews.'). And some cried back to me, 'Vir danken Medinas Yisroel.' ('We thank the State of Israel.').
And that was when I knew for sure that our sacrifices are not in vain."
The writer, a veteran diplomat, served on the staff of five prime ministers, including Golda Meir.