The news in Israel is focusing on two subjects right now: Syria and Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, otherwise known as the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the year when Jews all over the world spend the day in fasting and prayer. This year, though, marked the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, when Syria and Egypt surprised Israel with a terrible military attack. This attack was evil to its core, purposely planned to fall on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, when Jews spent the day in the synagogue, when the television and radio are shut down and, therefore, the usual military reserve call up system using television and radio could not be used.
I was a teenager in Cleveland, Ohio on that Yom Kippur day, in the synagogue the entire day. But I can still remember the non-Jewish maintenance man who stayed in the synagogue on Yom Kippur in case there would be a need for sudden maintenance and who listened to the radio in his small room downstairs. Sometime that morning, he came upstairs and asked one of the men standing in the hallway to call out the rabbi. Alarmed, the man rushed to the rabbi and the rabbi came out to learn that the Arabs had attacked Israel on Yom Kippur. As the rabbi announced the news to us, there was an amazing shiver that ran through the congregation. Ours was a congregation filled with Holocaust survivors, people for whom the idea that the Jewish people might be destroyed was not a myth but a very harsh reality. Our prayers were fervent that year.
Here in Israel, the reality was grim indeed. Runners were dispatched from synagogue to synagogue to sound the alarm and call out the reserve soldiers to their posts. The devout ones were fasting and continued fasting even as they changed into uniform and traveled north or south to meet their units. Many felt that their very fighting, in desperation, knowing that their fate and the fate of the entire country hung in the balance, was the most profound type of prayer ever.
The first weeks of the war were horrific indeed and close to 3,000 soldiers lost their lives in those early days of fighting. The military outposts were woefully understaffed, there was not enough ammunition and some of the tanks did not function properly. Stories have been told of soldiers running from broken down tank to bombed out tank, trying to find one that still worked and that could be used to continue the fighting. The Syrians were practically on the doorstep of some of the Golan Heights communities and the soldiers fighting there knew they were the only thing that stood between those women and children in their homes and the Syrian butchers.
In Israel, the Yom Kippur War remains an open wound. Soon after the war was over, it became clear that the leadership knew that there might be a surprise attack. Intelligence sources had warned that Egypt was mobilizing and that an attack was being planned. They did not know when it would happen, and as with all intelligence, they could not be sure the intelligence was accurate.
There was great debate in the government, led by then Prime Minister Golda Meir, as to whether to order a pre-emptive strike against Egypt. Golda shared her information and concerns with then President Nixon and both Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger insisted that Israel refrain from any kind of strike or from any kind of military buildup that could aggravate the very sensitive situation. Golda and her cabinet debated and decided that US support was too important to lose and they refrained from any unusual activity. An indeed, within days of the start of the war, the US initiated an airlift of vital military equipment and ammunition, to compensate for the vast reserves that had been lost in the first days of the war.
When the Israeli people discovered the debates that went on behind the scenes before the Yom Kippur War, their judgment was decisive. In 1977, Menachem Begin became the first Likud prime minister of Israel and the country voted out the Labor party which had been in government since the creation of the State. The country blamed the political leadership for their failure to look after their citizens and determined that the decision to heed American pressure was a terrible mistake which cost thousands of lives.
From a military point of view, the Yom Kippur War was a stunning victory. Never before had a country been surprised with an attack of such military might, far outnumbering their own military strength, and within a few weeks, managed to turn the tide of the war so decisively. When the war was over, the Israeli Army had crossed the Suez Canal and was just a few kilometers from Cairo in the south and just a few kilometers from Damascus in the north.
But Israelis have consistently viewed this war as the greatest military tragedy Israel has ever suffered. Israel has never cared much for military victory. Instead, we are pre-occupied with the loss of life, and when close to 10% of our population fell in that horrible war, that is what we remembered. Ironically, Egypt has always celebrated that war as a stunning victory, even though it suffered a horrible defeat and it was that war, more than anything else, that convinced Egypt that they could never defeat Israel and might as well sue for peace.
Today, as we face unrest all over the Middle East and a nuclear Iran in the making, Israel faces decisions similar to what it faced 40 years ago. The US today, like then, is urging Israel not to attack Iran, to depend on the US to step in before it is too late. But in 1973, the US sent valuable materiel after it was too late to save the 3,000 young men who lost their lives defending impossible positions in that war. Is that what the US expects Israel to do as it faces Iran? And while Israel has not taken any position with regard to Syria, Israeli officials are watching the US closely as it deals with Syria. And Iran is watching closely as well. And we are all asking the same questions: Will the US step in on time? Will Israel act independently to save its people?