The new Jewish year that just entered marks the 40th year since the Yom Kippur War. The coordinated attack from Syria and Egypt that started at 2 PM on the Day of Atonement of 1973 took the fasting nation of Israel by complete surprise.
At that time I was a young soldier serving in a small reconnaissance unit. We were stationed in Sinai and knew the war started by watching the Egyptian Sukhoi fighter planes bombing an artillery post not far away.
As years went by I realized that the war affected me in the same way it affected countless other soldiers. It created deep personal crises resulting from witnessing the near collapse of what we thought then to be our invincible army.
We saw commanders’ incompetency, soldiers fleeing the battlefield and an ineffective air force. We heard over the radio the desperate cries for reinforcement that never came, and we saw our dead and wounded piling up. We later learned that our political leaders lost courage, and that even the legendary Moshe Dayan, then minister of defense, spoke in desperation about the destruction of the Third Temple.
The soldiers emerged from this war different people. For them, the Yom Kippur War was the event that brought about a loss of faith in our own leadership and many other things we were taught to see as unshakable truths. Most significant was the loss of faith in Israel’s commitment to peace and Israel’s commitment to Zionism.
The rising questions over whether or not Israel really desired peace with its neighbors led to the emergence of Peace Now, a secular movement that pressed for, as its name implies, immediate peace at any cost. Today, this organization’s sole purpose is fighting for the Palestinian cause.
On the other end of the spectrum, the growing doubt over whether or not Israel was still committed to Zionism resulted in the birth of Gush Emunim (the Faithful Bloc), a religious movement that dedicated itself to establishing and strengthening Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank and the Gaza.
These two movements continue to anchor the opposing sides in the great schism in Israeli society that resulted from the Yom Kippur War and which shows no signs of healing anytime soon.
Over the past forty years, the discourse in Israel regarding the Yom Kippur War has been dominated by self-criticism to the point of unhealthy masochism. This is largely a discourse of despair that represents secular society’s loss of faith in Israel as a peace-loving nation. More and more, this viewpoint has transformed real and genuine crisis into self-hate manifesting itself in the phenomenon of militant pro-Palestinian Israelis.
However, in this 40th year there begin to be signs of recognition that important as self-criticism may be, it is wrong to ignore the fact that despite the success of the initial surprise attack by Syria and Egypt, the Israeli army was still able to turn a military disaster into a victory that saw Israeli forces push to within 101 kilometers of Cairo and 40 of Damascus.
Not surprisingly, those who emphasize this aspect of the Yom Kippur War are mostly religious. Nevertheless, they do seem to be the heralds of a new trend that sees this remarkable turn of events as a testimony to Israel’s unusual, almost unnatural ability to turn despair into hope.