Lessons of the Yom Kippur War
What lessons are still to be learned from a war Israel fought 36 years ago today?
As Haaretz.com reported, Israel marked on Tuesday the 36th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, one of the most costly and traumatic conflicts in the country’s history.
At a state ceremony at Israel’s national cemetery on Mount Herzl, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai (Labor) spoke of the bravery of the Israel Defense Forces soldiers who repelled the assault.
“Whoever fought in the tough battles in the [Suez] Canal and the Golan Heights is well aware that it was not the wisdom of leaders but the heroism of warriors in the battlefields that saved the State of Israel,” he said.
A coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria launched the war in a surprise attack on the Jewish holiday in 1973.
More than 2,600 Israelis were killed in the hostilities, which had far-reaching effects on Israel and the entire Middle East.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin also attended the ceremony, during which a cantor recited the Hebrew prayer of mourning El Malei Rachamim.
Vilnai added: “The Yom Kippur War is going further and further away… [but] the impression the war left on the state and on the army’s preparedness is very deep.”
The military and political lessons are by now fairly straightforward, as this article makes clear:
What did Israel get out of the Yom Kippur War?
Despite the initial successes of the Egyptian and Syrian forces, the war proved once again how effective the Israeli military could be. After the initial set-backs, the war served as a huge morale boost to Israelis. Despite a co-ordinated attack on two fronts, Israel had survived and had pushed back the nations that had initially broken through Israel’s defences.
Though the Americans provided the Israeli military with weaponry, they also provided Israel with something far more important – intelligence. Documents relating to the American spy-plane, the ‘SR-71 Blackbird’, show that the Israelis knew where major concentrations of Arab forces were as they were supplied with this information as a result of a SR-71 flying over the war zone. With such knowledge, the Israelis knew where to deploy their forces for maximum effect. What appeared to be intuitive devastating counter-attacks by the Israelis, were based on very detailed information gained from American intelligence. Basically, the Israelis knew where their enemy was and could co-ordinate an attack accordingly.
The war also served as a salutary lesson to the Arab nations that surrounded Israel in that initial victories had to be built on. The failure of the Egyptian and Syrian forces to defeat Israel pushed Sadat towards adopting a diplomatic approach. It also encouraged some Palestinians to more extreme actions. On the diplomatic front, the Camp David talks took place while the actions of the PLO became more violent.
Why didn’t the Arab nations build on their initial successes?
Clearly, the use of intelligence massively benefited the Israelis. However, as in 1948, the Arab nations did not fight as one unit. Their command structure was not unified and each fighting unit (in the Sinai and the Golan Heights) acted as individual units. With up to nine different nationalities involved on the Arab side, mere co-ordination would have been extremely difficult.
Secondly, the Israelis had to work to one simple equation: if they lost, the state of Israel would cease to exist. Therefore, for Israel it was a fight to the finish – literally “death or glory”. If the various Arab nations lost, they could survive for another day.
Those lessons and lasting effects of the Yom Kippur War are well-reviewed in a brilliant column by Yossi Klein Halevi, called, “War and Atonement,” written in 2003 on the 30th anniversary of the war:
For 30 years, Israel has been obsessed with the political and strategic consequences of the Yom Kippur War, when the nation learned the limits of power and the treachery of self-confidence — and learned, too, how the heroism of ordinary soldiers could compensate for the incompetence of their leaders.
Each of those lessons has had profound consequences for the Israeli soul. But Israel has yet to fully understand the spiritual effects of the war that began on the Day of Atonement.
Historian Michael Oren has called the Yom Kippur War the moment when Effi Eitam started, and Yossi Beilin stopped, putting on tefillin. Eitam, a former secular kibbutznik and now head of the National Religious Party, emerged from the war convinced that only a divine miracle had saved the Jewish state and that ultimately there was no one to depend on but God.
Beilin, by contrast, had abandoned his secular upbringing and, as a teenager, become an observant Jew. Like Eitam, he emerged from the war convinced that all of Israel’s political and military leaders had failed. But Beilin went one step further: He determined that God had failed, too.
Oren’s formulation is a reminder that the political decisions taken after 1973 by Eitam and Beilin and so many other Israelis on the Right and the Left were, in fact, responses to the spiritual shattering that took place in that war.
Tellingly, both Gush Emunim and Peace Now were founded not after the Six Day War but only after Yom Kippur 1973. Though both movements presented themselves as optimistic, they were driven more by the apocalyptic dread of 1973 than by the utopian dreams of 1967.
In the first chaotic days of the Yom Kippur War, Israel glimpsed its own mortality. By reopening the question of Israel’s permanence, Yom Kippur returned Israelis, in some sense, to the anxiety of pre-state Jewish existence.
Israelis had experienced that uncertainty in the weeks before the Six Day War, when trenches were dug in public parks as potential mass graves. But the extraordinary victory of 1967 seemed to still any doubts about Israel’s ability to survive in the Middle East.
Despite the daunting security challenges that confronted Israel after the Six Day War — the globalization of PLO terrorism and the War of Attrition along the Suez Canal — Israelis experienced an unprecedented sense of invulnerability. The Arabs could still threaten the lives of individual Jews, but they couldn’t threaten the life of the Jewish state.
Even as we lost faith in the imminence of peace, which many Israelis naively believed would happen during the summer of 1967, the question of survival that had obsessed the Jews at least since the destruction of the Second Temple had apparently been resolved.
In 1973, I was a student at the Hebrew University overseas program. That Yom Kippur, I was in synagogue when the siren went off at 2 p.m. A man sitting next to me said, smiling: The war will be over by nightfall; the Arabs must have been crazy to start with us again.
That night, Moshe Dayan appeared on TV. It’s a big desert, he said, with his half smile and his eye patch like a wink. But clearly the war hadn’t ended by nightfall. Something had gone wrong. Only afterward did the home front learn how close we’d come to the end of the Zionist story.
THE DISASTROUS failure of the Labor government to correctly read the intelligence warnings and to adequately prepare for war was more than a lapse of leadership. It marked the disgraced end of the generation of the founders. Labor leaders had infused the nation with their optimism and assurance that obstacles existed only to be overcome. Now, that Israeli self-confidence was shattered.
The collapse of Labor’s authority was ultimately a spiritual trauma. Secular Zionism — whose main carrier was Labor — had provided Israelis with an alternative faith, especially after the Holocaust when many Jews had lost confidence in traditional Judaism. Secular Zionism’s happy ending to Jewish history had been the Jews’ emotional defense against the Holocaust, making it bearable again to be a Jew. Now, though, there was no defense against the abyss.
If 1967 represented the Jewish triumph over history, 1973 was the counterrevolution, the unraveling of 1967.
Yom Kippur 1973 undermined the Zionist revolution in one more crucial way: It restored the pathology of Jewish relations with “the world,” as the language of Jewish despair put it.
The current wave of anti-Israel demonization in Europe and elsewhere was prefigured then, in the months after the Yom Kippur War. The Arab oil boycott turned Israel into a pariah; fewer countries had diplomatic relations with the Jewish state than with the PLO, which didn’t even pretend to seek anything but Israel’s destruction. The UN General Assembly gave a standing ovation to Yasser Arafat, who wore a pistol to the session and preached the destruction of a UN member state. In the terrible phrase of the late historian J. L. Talmon, the state of the Jews became the Jew of the states.
Zionism had been the Jews’ final strategy for acceptance, ending their status as a ghost people haunting the nations, as Zionist thinker Leo Pinsker put it. Yet not only had Zionism failed to win Jews acceptance, Zionism itself became the pretext for the latest assault on Jewish legitimacy.
The result was the greatest theological crisis among Jews since the Holocaust.
WHY DID every attempt to create a normal Jewish relationship with the world seem to fail? Why were we cursed? The urgent question that confronted Israeli society after 1973 was how to avert the return of the exilic condition. The settlement movement and the peace movement were both attempts to outwit the imposition of the ghetto on the Zionist dream — the first through divine redemption, the second through utopian peace.
Some Israelis, though, concluded that the proper response wasn’t to try to resist the ghetto but to embrace it.
For the first time in well over a century, the seemingly unstoppable movement of Jews out of Orthodoxy was at least partly reversed. Thousands of secular Israelis did the unthinkable and embraced ultra-Orthodoxy. It was the ultimate repudiation of Zionism, a post-Yom Kippur surprise attack on secular Israel. Uri Zohar, filmmaker and Bohemian symbol, was the best known of the new haredi (ultra-Orthodox) penitents. They included many others drawn from the Ashkenazi elite, kibbutzniks and artists, pilots and commandos.
The term “haredi” — one who fears — is a useful definition for that initial wave of penitence. For the counterrevolution against Zionist normalization was driven by fear — the fear that no matter what Jews did to try to be accepted by the nations, whether assimilating as individuals in pre-Nazi Germany or assimilating collectively via statehood into the community of nations, in the end every attempt would be thwarted. Because it was the Jews’ divine destiny to be outcasts.
The religious penitents were atoning for the sin of Zionist normalization. As Uri Zohar insisted, Zionism, that cleverly disguised assimilationist movement, was itself the sin.
Not since the pre-Holocaust era did Jews become as obsessed with the relationship between sin and punishment as they did in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. The Holocaust, with its excess of punishment, had suspended the traditional discourse on the relationship between Jewish suffering and Jewish misdeeds. The Yom Kippur War, though, restored that relationship — for secular as well as religious Israelis.
Clearly, the War of the Day of Atonement had been a warning. But against what sin? Each segment of Israeli society suggested a different answer.
The various options which post-’73 Israel developed were all strategies of atonement. Peace Now and Gush Emunim were both attempts to atone for the perceived sins of Israeli society in the years between 1967 and 1973. For both secular Left and religious Right, those sins were not merely tactical mistakes but fundamental flaws in the Israeli character.
For the Left, Israel’s post-’67 sin was arrogance. Israel had become intoxicated by power and territories. Hadn’t Dayan said, Better Sharm e-Sheikh without peace than peace without Sharm e-Sheikh? The result, claimed the Left, was that Israel had missed Anwar Sadat’s peace feelers before Yom Kippur 1973. A nation that spurns the pursuit of peace is destined to be pursued by war.
For Gush Emunim, the sin was ingratitude. Israeli society had not been diligent in settling the biblical lands, had ignored a divine opportunity to restore wholeness to the nation. If we didn’t begin settling the land, the rabbis of religious Zionism now argued, God would rescind His gift. A nation that spurns blessing is destined to be pursued by curse.
There was one more Israeli response, which emerged tentatively at first but then with increasing assertiveness. The Israeli sin, some began to suspect, was to believe in ourselves and in our national mythology — in fact, to believe in anything at all. The state was just a state, without metaphysical or even historical meaning. What mattered was survival of the individual, not the collective. “Don’t call me a nation,” sang Shalom Hanoch. Every Israeli for himself.
DISILLUSIONMENT WITH all systems and ideologies is the starting point for both nihilism and spiritual search. Together, those two options help define today’s Israel.
When a person is suddenly confronted with mortality, he tends to react in one of two extreme ways. One is to cling to this world, cherish the threatened body and pursue its pleasures. The second is to seek transcendence, to live for eternity instead of the transient moment.
Israeli society has simultaneously pursued both options. The trance and Ecstasy parties, the mass flight to Goa, the weekend shopping trips to London — all are symptoms of nihilistic despair.
At the same time, Israel has become a world center for every new spiritual movement and alternative therapy. For all its maddening shallowness, New Age is a re-assertion of meaning and faith. In recent years, God has emerged as a major protagonist in Israeli popular music. Groups like Sheva, Esta, Shotei Hanevuah (The Fools of Prophesy) sing of their search for the Divine Presence. The hard rock band Hayehudim (The Jews) evokes the pain of life without faith and expresses envy for those who have it.
If anything, the crisis that began with the Yom Kippur War has only deepened.
The question of Israel’s permanence has become even more urgent in recent years. No Western society lives in greater intimacy with death than Israel; none has a more urgent need to find answers to the questions of meaning.
So, too, the crisis of authority — political, religious, moral — has become acute. As one popular bumper sticker puts it, “There is no one to trust except our Father in Heaven.” The political attempts at atonement have failed. We now know that Peace Now was wrong to assume that the blame for the absence of peace belonged to the lack of Israeli initiative, rather than the Arab world’s refusal to accept our sovereignty over any part of the land. As for Gush Emunim, the Israeli rejection of permanent occupation of another people isn’t a sign of spiritual weakness but vitality.
In fact, Israeli society has begun to repent for the arrogance of our one-dimensional certainties. Speak to partisans of the Left and the Right and many will quietly concede that they failed to recognize the complexity of our dilemma — that we can’t occupy the Palestinians and we can’t make peace with them.
That acknowledgment isn’t just a political but a spiritual awakening, atonement for our failure to heed each other’s warnings, to embrace complexity.
WITH THE collapse of the absolute truths of Left and Right — each partially right, each disastrously wrong — the next Israeli debate over the country’s spiritual identity begins in earnest. Once again, the temptation is to choose between absolutist visions: a know-nothing secularism vs. a know-everything Orthodoxy. The state, of course, has reinforced that simplistic divide, by imprisoning Judaism within the Orthodox establishment.
That politically cozy and spiritually smothering arrangement has left the vast majority of Israelis religiously disenfranchised. (To this day, no word exists in Hebrew for a religious non-Orthodox Jew.) But just as the Left-Right schism faded into history, resolved by the failure of both sides, so too will the sterile secular-Orthodox divide give way to new religious options.
Indeed, the Yom Kippur War, which taught Israelis to stop relying on official structures and trust their own initiative, has opened the way for experimental forms of Israeli Judaism. Those first signs are evident in the new study centers around the country where non-Orthodox Israelis reclaim Jewish texts and traditions without becoming Orthodox. The signs are evident, too, at the mass youth festivals on Rosh Hashana and Pessah and Shavuot, where Jewish rituals are simply accepted as part of the culture, along with Eastern and even Native American rituals.
In that new spiritual movement, “secular‘ and ’religious” are no longer contradictions — they are, in fact, meaningless identities.
Two years ago, I participated in the Shantipi festival, held on the holiday of Shavuot. The high point was a Friday night concert by Sheva, a Galilee-based band that fuses Middle Eastern and reggae and rock music and draws its lyrics from Muslim, Hindu and especially Jewish prayer.
For two hours, Sheva turned Shantipi into a New Age-style synagogue. Thousands of young people sang along with the band’s powerful version of Psalm 121: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from God, creator of heaven and earth.‘ Then the band played a reggae rendition of the first stanza of Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals, and the young people leaped and sang, ’Blessed are You, Adonai, King of the universe, Who sustains the world.”
If you’d asked them whether they were “religious,‘ most would have shrugged and denied it. That’s because Israeli society has forfeited Jewish authenticity to Orthodoxy, whose definition of religiosity denies non-Orthodox Israelis Judaic validation. (Consider that old secular Israeli expression, ’The synagogue I don’t go to is Orthodox.‘) And how could a concert happening on Friday night possibly be ’religious”?
Yet, standing with thousands of young people calling out for God’s protection and mercy at this time was one of the most moving religious moments I’ve experienced as an Israeli.
True, the first signs of indigenous Israeli forms of non-Orthodox Judaism are still immature, and, like all experiments, much can go wrong. But in taking responsibility for our spiritual state, we will atone for our failure to create an authentically Israeli Judaism, at once rooted and open to the world, worthy of the return of a sovereign people to its land.
That is the next phase of Israeli response to Yom Kippur 1973. The signs all around us indicate that it has already begun.