Yom Kippur 1973: On a Fortieth Anniversary

Today, October 6, 2013, is the fortieth anniversary of the first attack by Egyptian troops across the Suez Canal, beginning a month-long battle known as the Yom Kippur War. The initial military action took place on the morning of the Day of Atonement, when Israel personnel stationed along the Canal (which had been established as armistice line between Israel and Egypt following the 1967 Six-Day War) were not on high alert. Many positions were overrun and Israel incurred its largest number of casualties since the 1948-49 War of Independence. In a coordinated action, Syria began attacking positions along the Golan Heights. The third nation to lose land in the ’67 conflict, Jordan, chose to stay out of the battle.
Before the war was called to a halt, Israeli troops had Egypt’s Third Army (their elite fighting force spearheading the drive into the Sinai Peninsula) fully surrounded and liable to be obliterated. Israeli tanks had also stunted any Syrian drive and were on the road toward Damascus.

The Yom Kippur War has been touchstone ever since. Egypt’s initial success became the basis of a mythologized sense of restored Arab glory and dignity in response to its spectacular defeat six years earlier. Its ending, however, served as a realistic assessment on the part of the Egyptian leadership (Anwar Sadat was the President) that military confrontation with Israel could only lead to further disaster, and that diplomatic means had to be pursued.
Hence, Israeli and Egyptians negotiators began to meet face-to-face shortly after the war, first leading to a partial restoration of Egyptian control in the Sinai, and then, with Sadat’s dramatic visit to Jerusalem, a full-scale diplomatic treaty and mutual recognition. Through Sadat’s assassination in 1981 (at the eighth anniversary celebration of the War), Mubarak’s overthrow in 2011, and the army-led coup earlier this year, the treaty has held.

The impact on Israel was also decidedly mixed. Israelis were stunned by the generally unexpected attack. It has been a matter of controversy to this day just what Israeli intelligence knew and did not know in anticipation. Given that over three thousand soldiers were killed, almost every family was touched by a loss, either directly or as a neighbor. The political establishment was shaken. A socialist-labor coalition that had ruled the nation from its founding was weakened. By 1977, Labor’s control was broken.

At the end of the month, Israel’s military superiority had been reinforced, but it did not make a difference. Since the Yom Kippur War, every Israeli government has been politically weakened by engaging in military action, and have fallen in the next election. [Lebanon, 1982; 1st intifada, 1988; 2nd intifada, 2000; Lebanon (again), 2006; Gaza, 2009.] Even in winning, there has always been a loss.

I remember hearing a newsradio report of the initial attack as I woke up on that Yom Kippur morning. I was serving as a student assistant Rabbi in a large congregation on Long Island. The Senior Rabbi was strapped with the challenge of maintaining a sense of solemnity and serenity in the day’s services even as the news – incomplete, spotty and not always accurate – was being filtered through the congregation. An air of unreality hung over the synagogue that day.

It was not until days later were we aware of the initial success of the Egyptian troops. Yet, as the war unfolded, most of us never feared for the fate of the Jewish State; a very different attitude than we generally had in the months and weeks leading up to the Six-Day War.

To this day, the Yom Kippur War brings up conflicted feelings. It was a victory that was a loss. It has been treated as proof-positive by both sides in the internal Israel debate of the rightness of their position. The right point to the significance of a land-buffer in dealing with hostile neighbors, thus reinforcing their conviction that territorial compromise is dangerous. The left argue that the War showed conclusively that acquisition of extra territory was immaterial to Israel’s well-being, and that only measures to reduce and eliminate hostility will ultimately succeed.

Yom Kippur 1973. It was and remains a bittersweet and ambiguous legacy.

Rabbi Paul Golomb

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