Reflections on the 40th Anniversary of the YK War

Rabbi Locketz
This post was originally given as a Yom Kippur sermon by Rabbi David Locketz at Bet Shalom Congregation.
There are certain historical events, that when they occur, they contribute to an entire generations’ identity. If nothing else they create a moment in history that most people share and remember. Rabbi Cohen mentioned last night in his sermon that he remembers where he was when he heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I had a dream” speech. For my generation, most of us remember exactly where we were, and what we were doing when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in flight in 1986. My class was sitting in our school library assembled to watch the historic launch with Christy McAliffe aboard.
40 years ago today on the Hebrew Calendar, on the 10th of Tishrei, saw the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War instigated against Israel by Syria and Egypt. This was an event that certainly defined an era for Jews everywhere. Do you remember where you were when you heard that the war had broken out? I know exactly where I was. I was in utero. 40 years ago today, I was 55 days from being born. And the Jewish world that I was born into was a different world because of that war. Confidence was lost. The world was turned upside down again and Israel was forced to look at things in a different way.
Our Jewish Homeland has been in an almost constant state of war since before its inception in 1948. Its existence was never certain and the Jewish world lived in fear that at any time our brothers and sisters in the Middle East could be pushed into the sea. But in 1967, things changed. In that year, Israel entered into what would become known as the Six Day War…named by Yitzchak Rabin to imply a sense of Creation (According to Rabbi Avi Olitzky). After a heightened period of tension between Israel and her neighbors, on June 5, 1967, Israel made preemptive strikes against Syria, Jordan and Egypt. In an outcome greater than anyone could have suspected…Israel gained control over the Sinai Peninsula, The West Bank of the Jordan River, and half of Syria’s Golan Heights, reunifying Jerusalem and more than doubling the territory under its control.
The result was euphoria. In less than 25 years…in a single generation…the Jews of the world had gone from the ashes of the Holocaust…a people without a home and little ability to protect itself…to a people with a country which seemingly possessed military might equal to the greatest armies on the planet. The tables had turned. Israel, after more than two thousand years had once again come to embody the dignity of King David’s era and the might of the Maccabees. Jews were not to be pushed around…because now many Jews felt confident they could push back. One of the early rallying cries around the establishment of the Jewish State was that the Jewish People around the world would now have someone to come to their rescue. A holocaust could never again happen under Israel’s watch. The six day war emboldened Jews in Israel and around the world.
But this feeling may have led Israel to exhibit what in historical retrospect seems like hubris. When one gets over-confident, they think nothing can happen to them. Defenses get softened. It may be that Israel’s over confidence led to what happened 40 years ago today. Israel let her guard down.
In August 1973, after the more liberal Labor Party had strongly held the government for many years, the conservative parties joined together and created the Likkud Party. Likkud began to agitate on domestic issues which was an area that the Labor Party had failed to improve…Israelis were feeling that life could be better in Israel…more affluent and comfortable…and Likkud began to win over public opinion because of this…They pledged to lower taxes and increase subsidies to citizens in order to stimulate the economy. And this was where Golda Meir, and her government, were putting their focus in late 1973 when Syria and Egypt were planning for vindication from their humiliating losses in the Six Day War. They wanted their land back…and probably even more…they wanted to regain their images after losing so horribly to the Jews.
In retrospect, the signs were obvious. Israel’s leaders knew that that these Arab nations were preparing for, “Operation Full Moon” a name taken from a war waged by the followers of Mohammed more than 1000 years before, but Israel’s intelligence didn’t think it was going to happen so soon. Ultimately, Israel’s leaders ignored 11 warnings from reliable sources, including from King Hussein of Jordan. After being approached by Egypt and Syria to join them in attacks on Israel, Hussein secretly flew to Tel Aviv to personally warn Golda Meir about the impending attack. Golda and her advisors didn’t take the threat seriously because they believed the activity that they saw along the Egyptian controlled side of the Suez Canal was simply an exercise.
But not even the Egyptian and Syrian soldiers knew they were going to war. It was kept such a secret that they weren’t told until two hours before the battle began. This all occurred in a very complicated environment because it also threatened to embroil the world superpowers. Egypt was backed by Russia and Israel’s only military supporter at the time was the United States. Henry Kissinger instructed Golda Meir not to order a preemptive strike…that the United States would handle things diplomatically. And the US did get the Soviet Union to agree to keep Egypt from attacking. But Egypt ignored instructions from Russia so the war began with Egyptian engineers assembling pontoon bridges across the Suez Canal and overcoming the very small force of only a few hundred Israelis stationed on the other side. Israel simply wasn’t ready. They were caught by surprise.
The office of the High Command ultimately was able to make a partial call up of reserves…because everyone was either at home or in synagogue for Kol Nidre. But many reserves, who were called up, didn’t even have weapons available to them. Egypt and Syria were able to make some early successes and that built up their confidence…while destroying Israel’s.
In the wake of the 19 day war, Israel sat humbled even though huge advancements were made. When the cease fire was called, Israeli tanks and troops were only 25 miles from Damascus on the northern front and 63 miles from Cairo in the south…and still advancing. Israel won the war, but it brought to light the chinks in her armor. Perhaps the unabashed confidence that had been wrought from the Six Day War was not representative of the true reality.
Yom Kippur demands that we bare our souls and do a true cheshbon Hanesfesh – an accounting of ourselves. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer that we read during this Yom Kippur morning service reminds us that, “The Great Shofar is sounded and the still, small voice is heard; the angels declare in awe: This is the Day of Judgment! For even the hosts of Heaven are judged, as all who dwell on earth stand arrayed before You.”
And we are our own best honest judges. We know when we need to do better…to redirect our energies…to be humble when we stand before God and all humanity. If we have displayed hubris, we can change. The prayerbook reminds us that the fault lies primarily with ourselves, even if we think others are to blame. Until the very last day the Gates of Repentance remain open if only we allow ourselves to turn…to return to the path that we were intended to travel.
Perhaps it is ironic that this happened to Israel on Yom Kippur. I am only suggesting that this was a fascinating coincidence…not some sort of Divine message even though the rabbis of the Talmud probably would have declared a more theological connection…yet sometimes a cheshbon Hanefesh is borne from experience. Sometimes something happens that wakes you up and forces you to see things from a different perspective. This is in no way to minimize the more than 2500 casualties lost in Israel or the many thousands in any of the other countries. But I like to think that we can in some small way find a silver lining in the grey storm clouds.
For certain, there were fairly immediate consequences in Israel for the war which caught Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and the others in leadership by surprise. The false confidence that existed before the war was gone. Jews experienced this loss worldwide. Golda Meir lost the government and politics veered to the right as the newly formed Likkud rose to power.
But if there is a silver lining, it was that this set-back lead to Israel’s recognition, and Egypt’s too, that war was not going to be the answer going forward. Israel was not going anywhere and Egypt was vying to be the superpower of the Middle East. It made sense for both countries to make peace. Israel…experiencing growing pains…but also expressing humility…ultimately entered into the historic peace with Egypt that began with the Camp David Accords in 1978 as a result of this new reality…the real reality…that Israel could no longer maintain its position through might alone. Things had to change. It was David Ben Gurion who once said, “To maintain the status quo will not do…We need to anticipate the character of the times…and clear the path for circumstantial change.” He was also known to have said to one general after capturing territory in the Six-Day War, “Well done, now give it back to them.”
And Israel ultimately did give back the Sinai in exchange for peace with Egypt. It isn’t the perfect peace…it has been a cold peace which certainly has been tested, but even now in these turbulent times in the Middle East, the peace continues. And Egypt, with all the turmoil in its own country, is helping to address the real problems on Israel’s southern border. By some reports, Egypt has entirely closed off the smuggling tunnels into the Gaza Strip and has been working quietly to reduce Hamas’ grip in the region.
They say that Israel reinvents herself every 10 years. By this logic, the Yom Kippur War was four Israels ago. Israel has had to find that balance between humility and the perceived hubris that can come from self-preservation. It is a balance between the Maccabeen security needs of a country in a rough neighborhood and the great Jewish tradition of innovating and dreaming of the impossible…of the day that peace will exist here on earth as in the heavens above…a balance between a modern state which holds the well-being and justice of its citizens up high, and doing what is necessary to preserve its place in the world…balance between building walls and separating herself off from the Palestinians and doing the painstaking work of achieving peace with them.
Securing borders, fighting terrorism and containing hostile and dangerous elements is ugly work. But it shouldn’t eclipse the other amazing things that Israel achieves. The last 40 years have seen incredible growth. Israel has gone from a fledgling socialist experiment to a power in the world. But that doesn’t mean we have to love Israel unconditionally. The era of loving Israel without criticism being just short of a commandment from God on Mt. Sinai is over. We can criticize. But we should love too. Israel holds a sacred place in our Jewish psyche…in our Jewish souls.
Across town, my friend Rabbi Olitzky at Beth El is also sharing his reflections on the anniversary of this war. We collaborated, as we do on so many things, in preparation for today. In addressing one’s relationship to Israel, he wrote, “In a relationship when love precedes criticism, we accept the criticism and still find room for love. But when criticism precedes love, sometimes we cannot even find room to accept the love. And so our children may never come to love Israel. And our peers – even many of you – may not find regular space for Israel in your hearts.”
We can criticize a great deal about Israel. And we should. Just last week during Rosh Hashanah I pointed out a major criticism…that non-Orthodox Judaism is not given fair treatment and access. But there is also much to admire and we need to teach that to our children so they develop a real love for our spiritual homeland.
Israel continues to use its abilities to bring protection to those in precarious situations. Even when she has been vulnerable herself, she still has offered help to those in need elsewhere. For the Jews of the world, Israel provides safety and haven…Israel came to the rescue of those who were on the hijacked
Air-France plane flown to Entebbe in 1976 and has continued to reach out to help others ever since. Just a few weeks ago, the aliyah and absorption of most of the Ethiopian Jewish population was completed because Ethiopia is no longer a safe place for Jews to live. Israel has come to the aid of people after natural disaster in so many places…in Haiti…in Turkey…even here in the United States after Hurricane Sandy last year. The Jewish State has one of the most sophisticated humanitarian programs in the world. This is what it means to be a light unto the Nations.
You have heard that Israel has more start-ups per capita than any country outside of the United States. One of those start-ups wants to see her entire fleet of cars replaced with electric ones in just a decade. They have hit some bumps in the road and it may take longer than they hoped, but revolutions in the way we live take time. This is a movement and it will eventually succeed. And Israel will have innovated all of us that much closer to a world that relies less on petroleum.
And that is just one example. The pillcam was invented there…a tiny video camera that you swallow for medical procedures. Israeli Scientists are creating great hope for people with cancer as they continue to do some of the most important medical research on the planet. Israel throughout its existence, despite all it faces, has shared this value of helping others and making the world a better place. By sharing its experience, technologies and knowhow, she has improved the lives of millions of people worldwide.”
I grew up in a Jewish world that claimed unabashed love for Israel. We were taught to be enthusiastic without question and to be a Zionist no matter what. Things are not like that today. We support Israel but we also understand that she has much growing to do…like any young country…we only need to read about the founding generations our own United States to see that it takes many years of trial and error to reach the right balance between humility and hubris. A balance between love and criticism.
Israel is an incredible place. It is so hard to put into words. And It is also a strange element in our tradition…connection to Israel is central to our stories, our faith, our customs and rituals…but most American Jews will never have the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to experience it on their own.
But yet there are so many things you can do to make that connection. You can support Israel through your donations to the Jewish Federation of Minneapolis or to ARZA our Reform Movement’s Israel advocacy organization. You can join AIPAC, and if you are so inclined, go to Washington in March for AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference to lobby on behalf of the American/Israel relationship.
You can keep yourself informed about what is going on there. There are so many English sources of news that are not CNN or MSNBC or FOX where the information is often distorted. We have access to Israeli newspapers and news broadcasts online. And there are so many good blogs to read. Rabbi Cohen and I regularly post articles in HaEtone for your benefit. Join the Jewish Community Relations Council’s forum on Facebook called, “Minnesotan’s for Israel” and get great information each day.
Participate in local cultural events through Federation’s Israel Center to get more connected.
Bet Shalom has an Israel Awareness committee and they are planning four programs this year where you will have the chance to hear a presentation about a topic concerning Israel and then have a discussion about it. The first one will be held on Wednesday evening, October 2 in our Jerusalem Room. And it goes without saying that visiting Israel is the experience of a lifetime. The only way to truly know Israel’s wonder is to go there. And if you are so inclined, I’d love to have you join me on the Bet shalom trip over winter-break in just a couple of months.
If you ask, most Israelis will tell you that Egypt won the Yom Kippur War. Whether or not this is historically true really doesn’t matter. What matters is the lesson that was learned. In the words of author Yosi Klein Halevy: “The lesson for the Jewish people on the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War is humility. And perhaps the most enduring lesson of the Yom Kippur War, then, is the need to lower our guard against each other and listen to competing insights. As we face a year of acute uncertainty, that lesson is especially vital now.”
It is vital now because Israel still faces tough times. I don’t need to remind you of the threats that surround her. But perhaps, as we mark this 40th anniversary, a peaceful existence may yet be in sight. And humility, with an appropriate sense of self preservation, is what will bring it.

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom, aleynu v’al kol Yisrael, v’Imru Amen.