Israel must get past Yom Kippur war trauma
(From the Israeli daily Haaretz)
By Mark Lavie
I was sitting in the living room of our little apartment in southern Jerusalem on October 6, 1973. It was the Day of Atonement, marked by a twenty-five-hour fast. It was 2 p.m., and I was resting between morning and afternoon prayers.
The air raid siren shattering the silence was so shocking that it seemed unreal. On Yom Kippur in Israel, Jews don’t even drive their cars. It’s the only day of the year that Israel Radio is silent—all its channels, including English News, where I worked, are off the air.
I heard cars racing down the main street not far away. Despite the Orthodox Jewish rules I observe, I turned on a radio and tuned in the BBC. I heard that Egypt and Syria were in the process of invading Israel—a surprise attack on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
I knew what I had to do. At the age of twenty-six, I’d already been a radio journalist for nearly a decade. I grabbed my briefcase full of recording equipment and headed for the front door.
In the hall, I turned around and looked at my wife. We had been married just six months. I looked at her, and I had the awful feeling that I might never see her again. It was war. Israel might be overrun. This might be the end.
Then I spun around and ran down the three flights of stairs, threw my bag into my little car and raced downtown to the radio station. Of our small staff, I was the first to arrive.
Half our staff was drafted into the army. Two of our veteran reporters raced to the two fronts. That left the boss, two reporters and two announcers, including me. And suddenly, instead of three broadcasts a day, we had eighteen!
So there I was, less than two years in the country, broadcasting devastating news of the Yom Kippur war to Israel and the whole world, then driving home through a blacked-out Jerusalem for a bit of sleep, aware of the real possibility of covering my own funeral.
Israel’s air force did not control the skies. Russian-made antiaircraft missiles brought down waves of Israeli warplanes trying to recreate their lightning destruction of Arab planes in the 1967 war. Then Egyptian soldiers with Russian-made antitank rockets knocked out dozens of Israeli tanks in the Sinai desert.
As news of the death toll among the soldiers spread across the country, the optimistic mood faded into a pall of national mourning. Hospitals were filled with casualties from the fronts. I talked to some of the wounded soldiers, many about my age, and one after another, they said they didn’t know what hit them. The surprise was total—an intelligence and leadership failure of extreme magnitude.
The experience brought most of me into the real picture of Israel’s place in the Mideast. Most of me—that’s to say the pressure, the worry, the enormity of it all took its toll as I broadcast the grim stories of the war. Starting at my university playing weight, I lost more than twenty-five pounds in a month. My nerves and the rest of me were so out of whack that I needed hormone treatments after the war to put the weight back on. And since then, I’ve always kept at least five extra pounds on me. I know it’s irrational, but it’s a sign of what an experience like that can do to your head.
The actual result of the Yom Kippur War was totally different from the traumatic beginning, but that would not emerge until 1977. It turned out that the ability to claim victory over Israel in a war was the ego boost Egypt needed to move toward peace. In November 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat landed at Israel’s international airport and started the process toward a peace treaty with Israel.
I was a newscast anchor for Israel Radio’s English service at the time. You could expect that I would have been on the air nonstop, describing the unbelievable, fantastic, dreamlike events.
But no. When Sadat landed, I was in the middle of an army training exercise in the desert as a reservist in a tank unit. As soon as Sadat landed, the army canceled all furloughs and banned everyone from leaving their bases.
It’s not as though I was exactly a vital cog in the Israeli military machine. I was a “transport
clerk.” If you know what that is, that makes one of us. But there I was, trapped in a tent in the desert with nothing to do, while my colleagues covered the most important, and by far the most positive, event since I had arrived on the scene five years earlier.
Even peace with Egypt three years later was not enough to counter the Yom Kippur trauma, and that’s understandable. When you face the real prospect of your weapons and ammunition running out, of your soldiers dying in the thousands, of being driven into the sea—it would be superhuman not to carry that trauma with you forever.
Some Israeli politicians still tap into that, amplifying the fears, painting Israel as a tiny, forlorn little island of sanity in a crazy, radical, enemy-infested Middle East.
That was mostly true when the Yom Kippur war erupted in 1973. We were a nation of 3.3 million people in an inefficient society where you could wait three years to get a phone line installed in your apartment, where almost all men served a month or more on active duty in the army reserves. Yet many believed that with all that, Israel was invincible because of its lightning victory in the 1967 war. The Yom Kippur war punctured that illusion.
Fifty years later, it’s all different. Israel, a nation of nearly 10 million, is not invincible, but it is not in danger of extermination, as it was in 1973. Israel has answers to all its threats. The answers are not perfect, and any war would mean casualties, even thousands of casualties, but Israel will not be destroyed.
There is no longer any need for Israelis to waste votes on who will be tougher on the Palestinians, or who will be tougher on Iran. The differences between the various views are incremental at most. Israel has three levels of missile defenses, second-strike capabilities to deter attackers like Iran, cyber defenses that have superpowers like the US asking for our help. Unlike in 1973, when Israel was overconfident and vulnerable, today it’s strong.
So it’s time to reconfigure Israeli politics to concentrate on domestic issues, and leave the security to the military. And there’s a ray of hope.
Israel has elected an extremist government that is intent on lavishing funds on ultra-Orthodox Jews, most of whom don’t serve in the military or work; cracking down on Palestinians while taking over more and more of the West Bank, and changing the form of Israel’s government by eviscerating the judiciary. That has triggered months of protests of unprecedented size, far larger even than the protests that followed the tragedy of the Yom Kippur war.
Even given its dangers of violence and internal conflict, this could reflect a shift in the Israeli electorate away from the Yom Kippur War-related voting about exaggerated fears of foreign enemies, and toward domestic issues instead.
Though the Yom Kippur war was a lesson learned too well, now there’s an opportunity to relegate that trauma to its proper place in history.
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Correspondent MARK LAVIE has been covering Israel and the Mideast since 1972. He has reported for outlets including NPR, CBC, NBC, AP and The Media Line. His second book, “Why Are We Still Afraid?” recaps his career with real-time examination of major issues.