Yom Kippur War, What is it Good for?

This post was originally given as a Yom Kippur sermon by Rabbi Avi Olitzky at Beth El Synagogue.
When I lived in Jerusalem, one of the many powerful moments I had was laying down in the middle of the street following Kol Nidre services. Sarah and I left shul on the evening of Yom Kippur, walked into the middle of the intersection, and laid down, just staring up at the heavens, the stars twinkling, the moon shining bright.
Sarah looked at me like I was nuts. She may have been right, and I may have been crazy.
Scores of cyclists and roller-bladers would whip by every now and again. This was the only day of the entire year that everything stopped—and not for a moment, but for a real day. Israel was neither humming, nor buzzing. Israel was silent.
Forty years ago, that silence was broken by the piercing shriek of an air-raid siren. Each year since then, tonight, the modern Israeli calendar converges with the religious calendar. This was the day that changed the size, scope and sequence of what it meant to be Israel in the modern world.
Allow me for a moment to take you back to that time…
Six years previously, in 1967, Israel had just proven to the world that:  you don’t mess with Israel. The feeling in the air was that Israel was a force with which to be reckoned.
Yitzhak Rabin z”l was given the honor of naming the war for the Israelis. From the suggestions proposed, he chose the least pretentious – the Six-Day War – evoking the days of creation, the notion that this was but a battle building national unity and identity.
On June 19, 1967, the National Unity Government of Israel even voted unanimously to return the Sinai to Egypt and the Golan Heights to Syria in return for peace agreements.
Pride was strong, even amongst American Jews, but in September of that year, the Khartoum Arab Summit resolved that there would be “no peace, no recognition and no negotiation with Israel.”  This marked a shift in the perception of the conflict by the Arab states away from one centered on the question of Israel’s legitimacy toward one focusing on territories and boundaries.
And seven years later, all of Israel was caught off-guard.
In retrospect, 1973 was Israel’s most impressive victory – a mere few weeks of intense fighting. But if you ask who won, most Israelis today will tell you Egypt. And in fact, yearly there have been victory parades in Cairo.
It is initially curious to me that the Yom Kippur War is viewed as a defeat. Such a war is the nature of the United States’ greatest victories—a surprise attack that is overcome. Israel both drove back and surrounded opposing forces. But 2,600 Israelis died—2,600 Israelis which is essentially the relative equivalent of 250,000 Americans based on population proportions. As a result, many religious became secular and many secular became religious. The country was turned on its head, as was the Arab world.
This terrible war convinced the Arab world that they could not defeat Israel by conventional means. This, of course, led to the many waves of terror attacks that Israel essentially put an end to in 2004, thank God. But now, our biggest threat, more than Iran, more than Syria, more than internal strife, more than inequality and chauvinism and Jewish extremism, is the global delegitimization campaign against Israel—we’ve shifted back to the question of Israel’s legitimacy.
Over the next 25 hours, we come to shul on Yom Kippur and we’re supposed to be penitent and remorseful and we beat our breast and we confess. One would think, then, that this would make up the bulk up of our prayers on this sacred day. Not so:  the Amidah, no doubt, is one of our most sacred and central prayers and over the course of Yom Kippur, the Amidah is recited five times. Each recitation has six introductory prayers; no fewer than three of them refer to Jerusalem or Zion. Today, especially, we turn our spiritual attention eastward.
We look eastward and we realize that the question of Israel’s legitimacy is the fiercest of struggles. Israel cannot use her planes or tanks because she no longer has the global “street cred” to use them. Israel is the perpetual occupier and oppressor and monster of the region, according at least to the Associated Press.
Don’t get me wrong: I want peace for Israel and frankly for the entire Middle East. And I’m eager to see the headlines return to peace talks instead of Sarin Gas. But Israel’s seat at the table isn’t even taken seriously if the world outlook is that she does not have the right to exist.
Still, forty years later, we realize we’re living in somewhat Dickensian times for Israel. In 1967, Israel fought and defeated Soviet-backed Arab armies using French arms. Not so in 1973—it was the United States’ airlift that shifted the war. 1973 saw the consolidation of the strategic US – Israel relationship; and today, we are currently seeing the offspring of this relationship, with the strongest intelligence sharing, medicine sharing, military cooperating, alliance. There is no other relationship or partnership in the world like that between Israel and the United States. But the rest of the world continues to look at Israel with a crooked narrow critical lens.
Let me be clear: we are not compelled to unconditionally love the state of Israel. Rabbi David Wolpe reminded me recently about this notion of love. What we don’t understand is that unconditional love is not the highest form of love—and really parents are the only ones who can feel such love. Conditional love, which is continuously justified, is the highest form of love. Forty years after the Yom Kippur War, that is what we need for Israel. Not “I love despite” but “I love because.”
I love Israel because she has one of the most extensive foreign assistance programs in the world for a nation of its size, striving to provide other countries with the assistance they need to develop and grow.[1]
I love Israel because she sent medicine, water, food and other supplies to Sri Lanka after the tsunami in 2004. She sent humanitarian aid and equipment to New Orleans for victims of Hurricane Katrina. After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she sent a comprehensive hospital team that set the standard for treating victims of a natural disaster in a speedy and humane manner.[2]
I love Israel because Drip irrigation has become popular with fruit and vegetable growers in dry weather areas, from Southern California to the Middle East—and she perfected it.[3]
I love Israel because her doctors, scientists and researchers have produced myriad medical advances changing and saving lives daily.[4]
I love Israel because in this unprecedented era of booming populations, shrinking resources and environmental degradation, she leads the world in such critical fields as solar power generation and seawater desalination.[5]
I love Israel because she has a robust free press with myriad publications representing all views within its society; hundreds of foreign journalists are free to report on every political and diplomatic development.[6]
I love Israel because her Declaration of Independence explicitly guarantees the rights of religious minorities, and Israel’s Knesset has reaffirmed these rights by statute.[7]
I love Israel because unlike any other Middle Eastern nation, women are at the forefront of many aspects of her society. Israel has always had at least one woman on its Supreme Court, and Israel is the only country in the Middle East to elect a woman, Golda Meir Z”L, to the position of prime minister. [8]
I love Israel because she essentially invented text messaging (SMS and Voicemail).[9]
I love Israel because, as my father says, my soul longs to breathe the ancient and modern air of Jerusalem.
My love list goes on and on…however, we have a stumbling block. In a relationship when love precedes criticism, we accept the criticism, sometimes wholeheartedly, 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. But we are the frontlines against the Delegitimization; we are the verbal and written Iron Dome.
Few of you in this room were alive to remember Israel becoming a state. A greater number of you recall the Six Day War, and even greater the Yom Kippur War.
I was but one month old when on October 6, 1981, Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Muslim extremists in Cairo while viewing that military parade commemorating the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. I’ve never known a world without Israel or even a world when Israel was in pure cataclysmic jeopardy. But I was also raised in a relationship with Israel where Love preceded Criticism.
For many today, especially our young adults and our children, this is not the case. And so tonight, we nullify all vows and we clean the slate so that we can make a new vow this year. And that is not to implicitly stand by Israel, but to explicitly stand for Israel.
Yes. This is support our Federation and the JCRC. This is come with me in March to Washington, D.C., for AIPAC Policy Conference. This is take your families to Israel next June with Rabbi Davis. But really, don’t hear this as a normal pitch about Israel. This is actually much further beyond.
This is an explicit charge for you to re-fall in love with Israel—and not merely a childish crush. Do not be so naïve to think that Israel does not need us, that she does not need you. We cannot be so naïve to think that Israel can and will exist on her own without our direct and explicit awareness.
This is precisely why my close friend and colleague Rabbi David Locketz at Bet Shalom is addressing this very same haunting 40th anniversary tonight. We both felt that this is an important page in our history that we needed to share and we collaborated, as we do on so many things, in preparation for today. And sadly, I bet you few others are. Because Israel conversation causes rifts, it gets people angry, it gets people defensive, it gets divisive—especially in the Jewish community.
BUT: If we can all spend one day, stopping the internal, but necessary argument over the future of Israel, and instead look at the past, understanding what happened, how we got here, perhaps we will then understand that Israel is no longer the victim it once was, but she is still incredibly vulnerable. Hubris that has melted into humility.
Years after the Yom Kippur War, the average Israeli today understands that we need both humility and careful self-reliance. Each is a little right and a little left at the same time.
The sin of the Yom Kippur War was a false sense of security and right now we cannot afford the luxury of lowering our guard. Tonight, we have to atone for the failures of not listening to each other’s warnings. We need to transition from pain and trauma to healing and atonement.
And we, here in Minnesota, here in the United States, we need to realize that Israel cannot exist without the American Jewish community, and the American Jewish community cannot exist without Israel. This is not an overstatement.
The first attempt at Jewish sovereignty lasted 100 years and the first temple was destroyed. The second attempt at Jewish sovereignty lasted 80 years with the second temple. We then waited 2,000 years and we are currently in the third period of Jewish Sovereignty. We are only 65 years into this period. The difference between the first, second and today is the partnership of the United States with Israel and the Jewish people. The future of Israel will not be dictated by our enemies. It will be dictated by us. It will be dictated by you.
Now here’s the hard part: the how. I cannot give you personalized marching orders or a specific charge of go and do that won’t come across as infantilizing.
But I can tell you this:  exactly 40 years ago today, thousands of Israelis abandoned the sanctity of the synagogue for the chaos of the battlefield as Egypt and Syria suddenly and deliberately attacked the Jewish state on two fronts.
We once thought that if we didn’t protect Israel, and she wasn’t there for our children, they would never forgive us. Tonight it’s different. They’re indifferent. Our youth don’t know history – and I mean real history, what it means to be a state with great power and great responsibility. If Israel goes by the wayside, our grandchildren will be indifferent and ambivalent.
It is our duty on this holy evening of Yom Kippur to make them care. To renew our cares. To make each other care.
As Yossi Klein Halevi wrote: “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.”  Make Israel a priority in your anxiety, in your interests, in your newsfeed, on your text alerts, at your dinner table.
Because if we don’t, forty years later, all of this history would’ve been in vain, and then we didn’t just lose the Yom Kippur War, we lost the Jewish state and we lost the war for collective Jewish identity. And that’s our bad, not God’s.
I’m an American and I’m a Jew, and…
This is why I’ve come to re-fall in love with Israel.
This is why I engage my friends and foes about Israel and why I stand up for Israel.
This is why I follow Honest Reporting’s news about Israel.
This is why I read books and articles about Israel.
This is why I meet with my elected officials, here, and in Washington, about Israel.
This is why I travel to Israel.
This is why I give money in support of Israel.
This is why I yearn to settle the land of Israel, as an American, in America.
This is why I pray for Israel.
This is why I cry for Israel.
This is why I hurt for Israel.
This is why I hope for Israel.
This is why I long for Israel.
And today, more than anything, I do all of what I do because I’m scared of what tomorrow may bring if we don’t keep doing.
May this be the year when we feel the full weight of Israel’s standing on our shoulders, as we stand on the shoulders of all those who came before us. May each and every one of us fall deeply back in love with Israel this year.