Yom Kippur War 30 Years Later
Rabbi Michael Graetz
I have been wavering back and forth from the present, the job at hand, and memories from 30 years ago. There is something about round number anniversaries that makes one reflective. In addition all the media in Israel are constantly talking about that war of 30 years ago. Radio, Press, Television have their fill of first hand accounts, new never before released information, and those who were there talking about their account of what happened.
I had put my memories behind me, and my photos and souvenirs in a box in my garden shed. I had not really looked at the published version of my Yom Kippur War Diary for many years. Somehow, I was surprised that I did not have it on my computer, but then I remembered that no one had a computer in those days, and my manuscript was done on an old Royal typewriter, electric I think. So, I scanned it into my computer using the printed version from CJ. (“A Yom Kippur War Diary,” Conservative Judaism, (Summer
1975): 11-25) I took out the pictures from the box, and looked through them all. I matched up pictures with the text of the diary. I was reliving my personal slice of the giant national trauma that all of Israel was reliving these days.
I reread the diary. First, when one looks back after many years, and when things have changed so much, it is shocking to read the feelings and ideas that one had way back then. I could feel the passion and the pain that is reflected in the words. It all came back to me, the horror and the glory as one were clear to me, and I could almost see myself as if from above writing those words in a particular place and time. (I kept the diary as I went along day by day in a little pocket pad that I carried with me.) I found that most of what I wrote rang true to me till this day. Yet, there were a few conclusions that I drew then with which I do not agree now, at least not in such a simple and clear cut way.
I found myself, for example, too “enthusiastic” about martyrdom. I do not today have any tendency to preach Kiddush ha-Shem as a goal for a young person going into the army. I know that one must be prepared to give one’s life in an army, it requires devotion to duty. From my experiences in this war I know that many are called upon to fulfill that devotion. I even believe that this gift of life has religious meaning in terms of Jewish religion and history. But, creating a religious halo of nostalgic transcendence out of it seems to me today to be going too far.
Not only that, but there are so many deaths in war which are avoidable. Too many die because of mistakes of officers, of intelligence, or even of eyesight of a soldier who mistakes one uniform for another. The favorite subject of analysis in the press these days is the “mehdal”, the “failure” of leadership. Even though I saw it, and was exposed to it quite often, none of it is expressed in the diary. Perhaps I just pushed away all of it from my mind at the time, but later on, it became the main theme of my life. My religious quest is for taking responsibility. I think it is heavily influenced by the lack of that quality in so much of what went on in the IDF at the time.
Over the years I also grew to appreciate more the wider scope of death in war, and how it impacted on so many. One of the pictures I saw was my snapshot of the first pontoon bridge that had been put up when Israel crossed the Suez and turned the tide of the war. It was an act of heroism to erect this bridge under fire, and it was a legend already in the field at the time. A cardboard sign had been erected in front of the bridge and it said simply “gesher Jonny”. Jonny, was Aharon Tene, known to his friends as “Jonny”. He was the commanding officer of the engineer corps team that put up the bridge. The story was well known, and his name had entered the mythology of the victory. I had taken care of his body for burial.
I came to Omer to be the rabbi after being demobilized in Jan. 1974. When we bought a house in Omer it turned out that our next door neighbor was the widow and two children of Jonny Tene. So, in a fateful way, I was witness to the suffering and pain of the family of someone I had seen only in death. I watched his two young children grow up, invited them to our house to play with my children. We were not only neighbors, but I felt that we were part of their world after their father had been killed. Their daughter would come to Yizkor on Yom Kippur, as a little girl, and cry profoundly. The lasting impact is great, and that has little reflection in the diary.
One thing I did have there, but now I see it was not emphasized enough, and not spelled out enough. The fact that the major factor that led to Israel’s winning the war was the ultimate commitment, devotion and staunchness of the individual Israeli soldier. I wrote: “A popular song here is based on a poem by Yehuda Amichai, “Pitom kam adam umargish shehu am.” “Suddenly a man wakes up and feels he is a nation.” Each man is the nation and the nation is each man. This feeling hit me over and over at various points in the war, another leitmotif of experiences in the Yom Kippur War.”
The CJ version is edited from my whole diary. So many of the dead that we dealt with came with stories. Their buddies who brought them to our location, or when we were with troops in the field and picked up a casualty, we were told the story of how this person had died. It was like a running eulogy for each soldier, a small aggadah about each one’s life. The edited version came out in a general way like this:
“There are lots of definitions of the Jew. Each one is incomplete by
itself, but altogether they may approach an understanding of “what
is a Jew.” I want to add my little piece of the definition. The Jew is an
aggadah-making animal. What is aggadah? It is more than legend and
philosophy and literature, more than all the sum of the parts put
together. It is the Jew’s spiritual life force, his attempt to wrest mean-
mg and understanding from the facts of his people’s existence. If the
Jewish people is (in Isaiah’s words ) a tree stump, then aggadah is our
flowering, the fruit that we bear, and halakhah-Jewish law-is a noble
attempt to concretize aggadah in rules for living.
Each generation builds on the previous generation’s strata of
aggadah, assimilating them at the same time. Thus ideals of behavior
are built up. A collective ego of experience and the interpretation of
that experience together form norms of behavior. All this process is
aggadah. But aggadah, because it is Jewish, has its basis in a text, in
the holy word of the Lord, and Jews-like it or not-are formed by and
are forming the succeeding continuous aggadah of that word.
And so our concern for the dead, for proper burial, for sanctity
of the dead with such pedantic precision. For us this grim task is the
most holy of deeds. Performing such a seemingly distasteful job with
true religious fervor and devotion comes from the accumulation of
honor due every Jew who dies for kiddush haShem.”
In fact there were many individual stories about young people and some not so young who had lives, dreams and accomplishments that had ended prematurely, like the story of “Jonny” Tene. The bottom line is that the individual soldier won the war, those who died trying, and those who, through some miracle which could not be described pressed the war on to its conclusion.
Indeed, it was the “mehdal”, the failure of Israel’s leadership which was the one thing that stuck in people’s minds. The great Israel sociologist Prof. Charles Liebman, ztz”l, wrote a seminal article called “The myth of defeat; the memory of the Yom Kippur War in Israeli society.” (Middle Eastern Studies 29,3 (1993) 399-418) He explains that usually defeats are turned into myths of victory. People die, and you never want to say they died for nothing, so you begin to fantasize and mythologize that there was a victory. That is the story of Masada, and of Tel Hai. These are defeats that were turned into victories. But, in this case, a victory was turned into a myth of defeat. Liebman explained that the fact that society insisted on calling it a defeat is because it shattered a lot of the dreams and fantasies Israelis had about their own society following the Six Day War, as well as the notion that somehow Jews were safe in Israel.
On the other hand, by blaming the “defeat” on the shortcomings of leadership, people were able to pretend that they could be in control of their future and their security. This was the impetus for the movements that grew out of the war that were intended to return control of its destiny to the nation. The movements dedicated to control of all of the land of Israel, those dedicated to giving up part of the land to have an accord with Palestinians, and even the one which worked to make all Jews Haredi so that a ReligiousState could be created out of the secular one. Actually, no one can understand Israeli society today without studying the aftermath of that war. But, it is also the impetus for many people to return to a complacency by thinking that since we know what caused the “mehdal” certainly our new leadership will avoid it.
One possible reaction did not turn into a major movement. That is one which would claim that each individual taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions can transform Israeli society. The emphasis has been on external factors that if addressed correctly will bring salvation. My religious worldview tends more to stress an emphasis on internal factors, on relationships between people as the path to correcting the faults of arrogance and shortsightedness. It is this path that I have tried to implement both in community building and in education. It is, I believe, the secret behind the communal success of Masorti congregations, such as my own Magen Avraham in Omer, and of the worldview which we teach, through say MercazShiluvEducationalCenter. It is clear to me that my own efforts have also been a result of my experiences in this war. May the purity that we feel at the end of Yom Kippur be translated into life.