Forty years ago on Yom Kippur I was studying as a first-year rabbinic student in Jerusalem. I will never forget that day as long as I live.
I left my student dorm near the President’s House in Rehavia at 5:45 AM that morning, and walked the quiet streets to the Kotel to pray. When I reached the bottom of the then undeveloped valley between the King David Hotel and Jaffa Gate, three US-made Phantom jets flew in formation going south over the city of Jerusalem.
I was stunned and wondered; ‘On Yom Kippur – the holiest day of the year over the holy city!? Where are they going and why?’
Eight hours later, just before 2 PM, the air raid sirens sounded throughout the country. I turned on a small transistor radio to learn on the BBC that 1300 Syrian tanks had crossed into Israel over the Golan Heights and that the Egyptian army had crossed the Suez Canal and breached the Bar Lev line in a coordinated surprise attack on the Jewish people’s holiest day of the year.
Israeli radio called up all units. Within 24 hours Israeli soldiers were in place and the fighting was intense. The civil reserve took up residence on the ground floor of my dorm in the event that Jerusalem would come under attack.
Classes ceased, and I worked throughout the war in one of Jerusalem’s two large bakeries producing 75,000 loaves of bread nightly. The only workers there were Jews over the age of 55 and foreign students. Young Israelis had been called up and Arabs were frightened to come in.
Each night I walked through blackened streets to a pick-up point, and worked the 8-10 hour shift until 6 AM.
Israeli casualties were high. By the end of the three-week war Israel had suffered 2656 dead and 9000 injured, equivalent to 230,000 Americans.
Despite Israel’s heavy losses and the catastrophe of the war itself, the Yom Kippur War is considered the greatest of all Israeli military victories. In three weeks Israel pierced through Egyptian lines, built a bridge across the Suez Canal, surrounded the Egyptian 3rd Army, and threatened Cairo.
In the north, Israel pushed the Syrian army back into its own territory, and threatened Damascus.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger understood that hope for a future peace would require preserving a measure of Arab pride. Consequently, the United States forced a cease-fire permitting Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to claim victory. Five years later he traveled to Jerusalem eventually resulting in the Camp David Accords.
Historian and Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren spoke to American rabbis just before Rosh Hashanah this year and reflected on the Yom Kippur War’s 40th anniversary. He described four stages in the war against Israel.
The first stage constituted wars waged by Arab armies (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973).
The second stage was a war of terrorism that began soon after 1967. Prosecuted by Arab fedayin guerrillas and Palestinian terrorists, it includes the War of Attrition (1968-1971), the murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics (1972), the murder of children in Maalot (1974), ongoing attacks on the northern town of Kiryat Shemona, two Intifadas, multiple suicide bombings, and rocket attacks from Lebanon and Gaza on Israeli civilian communities.
The third stage was the “internationalization of the conflict” in the United Nations using diplomacy with the intention to delegitimize the State of Israel.
Ambassador Oren says that we are now in the fourth stage, bi-lateral negotiations intended to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a two-state agreement.
So much history has transpired during these past forty years. Israel is a very different place than it was then, as is the Middle East and the world as a whole.
This coming October 6 I will be once again in Jerusalem, and I expect I will ruminate on those three phantom jets flying over Jerusalem on that quiet Yom Kippur morning forty years ago and upon the piercing scream of the sirens that shattered the holiest day of the year and the hearts of Israelis.
I am bringing 23 members of my synagogue community with me to lend our support to the people of the State of Israel, and to meet with Israelis from all political points of view inside the Green Line and living in the West Bank to better understand their thinking and current state-of-mind, and we will meet with Palestinian leaders in Ramallah and Rawabi to learn more about who they are, what has been their experience under occupation, and what are their needs and dreams.
“Sha-alu shalom Yerushalayim – Pray for Jerusalem’s weal!” (Ps. 122:6 – The Book of Psalms, translated by Robert Alter)
G’mar chatimah tovah – May you be sealed in the Book of Life.