“A silent mass demonstration” is the way that Dr. Gideon Avital-Eppstein describes
the sum total of artistic works − including poetry and prose, films and television programs, commemorative magazine supplements and soldiers’ accounts − that are pitted in the battle for narrative glory in the Yom Kippur War, and which speak of horror as the dominant experience of that war.
Fairly few of these testimonies were actually written in the initial years following the war. Under that rubric one could include A.B. Yehoshua’s “The Lover” (1977), Yehudit Hendel’s “Har Hato’im” (“The Mountain of Losses”; 1991), Benny Barbash’s “Hayekitza Hagdola” (“The Big Awakening”; 1982), the short story “Eighteen Months,” by Yitzhak Ben-Ner, and the children’s book “Milhama Zeh Davar Bocheh” (“War is a Crying Thing”; 1975), by Tirza Atar. “And that is more or less it,” says Avital-Eppstein, author of a new book on the subject.
“The scholastic curriculum for the [Yom Kippur] War was developed only about 14 years ago. Every five or 10 years there are special television broadcasts marking the war, and the daily newspapers issue commemorative supplements, and that is the extent of it,” he explains, adding that only in the past few years has local prose begun to reengage “that war.”
“I think it is happening now, and astonishingly enough, it is starting in literature. The first real example was David Grossman, with his ‘Isha Borchat Mi’bsora’ (“To the End of the Land,” 2008). The book’s three protagonists are all Yom Kippur ‘alumni.’ The actual trauma of fear of losing a son is interwoven into this horror, into the inferno of the military bunkers along the Suez Canal, and Grossman’s own story [he lost a son during the 2006 Second Lebanon War] hovers over all this pain.”
“One of the interesting things about individual and collective trauma,” Avital-Eppstein continues, “is the fact that trauma is always a multi-story construction. There is the trauma of Yom Kippur [the war], and on top of this infrastructure resides the fear of death from the loss of a child, and they correspond with one another. In the aftermath of Grossman’s book, other books came out in which the Yom Kippur War is present. Eshkol Nevo wrote ‘Neuland’ , Sami Michael wrote ‘Ma’of Habarboorim’ [Flight of the Swans; 2011], Keren Peles
published ‘Akudim’ [Bound Up; 2012], and Orly Krauss-Winer’s ‘Kim’at Mushlam’ [Too Good to Be True; 2011] takes place against the background of this war. And it has now begun to break loose from its state of suppression, from being forgotten.”
Notes Avital-Eppstein, “It is a trauma that took a long time to break through, to ferment, to penetrate the crust. Some of the texts directly relate to the war; in some, there is a character for whom the war is part of his or her past.”
In 1998, a year that marked the 25th anniversary of the war, journalist Rino Tzror wrote in a special edition of the Israel Defense Forces monthly magazine Bamahane: “I call it the ‘73 war − the only war that does not end. It is possible that if it has still not ended, that it will go on forever. It has always been mute, frozen, as if a silencer was affixed to every member of that generation.”
It may be, however, that local literature is finally beginning to remove the silencer. “People who were soldiers then are getting close to 60 and are starting to take stock and conduct a thorough self-examination,” says Avital-Eppstein. “Now is the time when a person is permitted to − and must − tell himself the truth. Contributing to this is the fact that some of those who were the self-appointed heroes of the war, the generals, have begun to withdraw to the edges of the stage.”
The Chinese Farm
The route taken by Avital-Eppstein in writing “1973: Hakrav Al Hazikaron” (“The Yom Kippur War: A Battle over the Collective Memory”; Schocken Books), which just came out, is not self-evident. It encompasses the Chinese Farm, as Israel called the strategic point east of the Suez Canal where the author fought as part of the 890th Paratrooper battalion. The route that he was meant to take, however, was entirely different: Avital-Eppstein was a successful attorney who elected to leave the profession at 50. He is now 61 years old.
“The Yom Kippur War had a powerful effect on me. You could say that to a large degree, it has even shaped my life,” he explains. At age 50, he began to study history at the university level, “and that developed into a Ph.D. I wanted to do research on the processes of reconciliation between France and Germany, but 1973 pulled me in, forcefully.” The new book is based on his doctoral thesis.
“It is peculiar that there has not been a more wide-scale confronting of the Yom Kippur War,” he says. “Vietnam was a trauma for the Americans, too, but American culture is full of references to it. There is a pairing that has been forged in the collective Israeli consciousness. The Six-Day War seems to have been paired up with the 1948 War of Independence. What we started then we continued in 1967. The Yom Kippur War is linked to the Holocaust; it is a dramatic subject. When it is described by private individuals, but also by politicians, the point of reference for the Yom Kippur War is either the Holocaust or the biblical era. In other words, people revert to something larger than life and hold tightly to it.
“In my opinion, the most extreme case is the story of Arie Segev, who immigrated to Israel from Morocco through Youth Aliyah. He wrote, ‘Lo Bitzati et Hamesima’ [“I Did Not Carry Out the Mission”], which was subsequently adapted into the play ‘Betzoharei Hayom’ [“Midday”] at the Cameri Theater. Segev describes his harsh experiences in battle and as a POW, in concepts borrowed from the Holocaust − and this a guy from Morocco. He basically absorbed the Holocaust by way of the personal memory of his wife’s parents and through the collective Israeli memory. But not only in this sense does the war correspond with the Holocaust. It is also in the sense of delay, disruption and deferral.”
Israelis didn’t talk about Yom Kippur in the same way that they didn’t talk about the Holocaust?
“World War II ended in 1945, but [the TV show] ‘Holocaust,’ and films ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Life is Beautiful’ were conceived 40 or 50 years later. The process of acceptance and processing of the event takes a long time. We see many cases in which people who fought in Yom Kippur, similar to Holocaust survivors, never spoke about their experiences there. Menachem Ansbacher, who was an officer in the 50th battalion of the Paratroopers Brigade, wrote a book called ‘Resis Memagash Hakesef’ [“Fragment of the Silver Platter”; 2003]. He relates that he did not get together [with his comrades] and did not go to memorial gatherings, and that when he would meet someone who had been with him there, they did not talk about the war.
“There are a lot of examples like this, related to the issues of deferral and silence. It is part of a continuum that begins with the [biblical] Flood, continues with the destruction of the Temple, then the Holocaust and then Yom Kippur, and right now, the crazies in Tehran. ‘In every generation they rise up against us to annihilate us.’ It is part of the definition of Israeli identity.”
In the book, you discuss concepts that are ascribed to this war, even though they existed previous to it: shell shock, trauma, POWs and MIAs.
“A lot of soldiers were POWs in the 1948 war. You can read about shell shock in Yoram Kaniuk’s accounts. It’s clear that the War of Independence was traumatic, so why is it that these three concepts − shell shock, the POW and the MIA − are so strongly associated with Yom Kippur? I think it has something to do with the perceived result of the war, to the fact that we did not win. In 1948, approximately 6,000 people were killed, but due to the incredible accomplishments − independence, establishment of the state, the redemption of the Jewish people − the pain and the price are not counted as much.
“When there is a wide gap between the public’s expectations and the outcome, the trauma boils over. That is why the soldier missing in action became the primary figure in the story of this war. Such is the case in Yehoshua’s ‘The Lover’ or in Orit Shaham-Gover’s book ‘Where Were You on October 6?’ . This is also the case in [Yitzhak] Ben-Ner and in the late story by S. Yizhar ‘Gilui Eliahu’ [“Discovering Elijah”].
“The prophet Elijah is considered to be a patron of the missing. In the Jewish tradition, nine figures went to heaven without dying and Elijah is one of them. The MIA is the ultimate symbol of the Yom Kippur War. At one point there were 3,000 or 4,000 MIAs, some of whom were reported as such because they were lying in hospitals and the family did not know, and some because they’d switched units. It was chaos. In the end, there remained 17 MIAs.”
There are lots of stories from the Yom Kippur War about parents searching for their sons. This reminds you of the Bureau of Missing Relatives, for finding family members who may have survived the Holocaust, which used to be the basis for a regular radio show.
“Yehudit Hendel even employs this expression, of the searching for relatives. When a soldier is an MIA, the bereavement process cannot begin. The status of being missing elevates the phenomenon to mythic dimensions, because the MIA is a sort of unknown soldier. People know who he is but they don’t know what
happened to him. It is really the inverse of the unknown soldier, where there is a body and you do not who whom it belongs to. The MIA is the embodiment of the violation of trust between the state and its citizens. Our culture tells us that war ends either with a returning soldier or a grave. War is a formative event; it is also a test of masculinity. If there is no returning soldier and no grave − then the state did not fulfill its part of the transaction.”
And what about the prisoner of war, who himself commands an honored status in the myths recounted about that war?
“The POW has been betrayed no less than four times. Take, for example, pilots, or soldiers in outposts, or tank soldiers who were taken prisoner. First, they were betrayed because the army was improperly prepared for the fact that Israel lost its air superiority. Next, they were betrayed because the people searching for them were their families, not the army or the state. And then, when they returned from captivity after a few months, they were taken to an interrogation facility. The fourth time came 20 or 30 years later, when the army was unwilling to recognize them as victims of shell shock.”
Counterweight to myths
In the book, Avital-Eppstein demonstrates how literature serves as an counterweight to the great myths. In “The Lover,” A.B. Yehoshua casts doubt on the concept of solidarity and scorns the false impression of a brotherhood of warriors and the myth of the sanctity of life. S. Yizhar trashes the fairy tale of “purity of arms” in “Discovering Elijah,” and in Hendel’s “Mountain of Losses,” Amira, the bereaved mother, chooses to do without the national “embrace,” and is unable to bear or to justify the price of the war.
Some would argue that culture and the media have reinforced the negative narrative of the war. The book quotes Israel Harel, who, 30 years after the war, wrote that the people who hold the keys to shaping consciousness are spinning an amazing military victory into a conscious and psychological debacle. There does not seem to be a consensus on the war’s outcome.
“It is not a simple question; there is an entire repertoire of parameters for determining victory,” he explains. “The Six-Day War ended with 40 coffee-table books about the victory. The Yom Kippur War ended with two ‘white papers’: a list of the fallen soldiers and the Agranat Commission report. So did we win or did we lose?”
“A few factors are involved in the forging of this consciousness. There is the public discourse, and in that era, the press was especially cozy with the government. The process by which the press sobered up was extremely slow. The journalists were intimate interlocutors of the heads of government, and wielded clear influence. It took the public some time to bring down the government.
“The second factor is the culture. I reject the notion that a book like ‘The Lover’ shapes the memory. I think that individual experiences contribute a great deal to the general feeling. Literature has very little influence.”
When all is said and done, the battle over memory is waged not only on the pages of prose, poetry or the celebratory picture books, but also in history books and research studies. One of the most harrowing aspects of this is Avital-Eppstein’s description of the way that the battle for fame does not start once the battles have ceased, but rather begins on the actual battlefield.
“Look at the chutzpah,” says the researcher. “In 1983, 10 years after the fact, the IDF’s history department completed a first volume about the war. The book was shelved, and was only released in 2004 − after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon approved it. I look at the two versions, and have a hard time believing it.”
What was changed?
“Everything pertaining to the functioning of Ariel Sharon. The praise, which he deserved, was enhanced, whereas the problematic aspects relating to his failure to follow orders were nowhere to be found; the tensions between the commanders − all of that was gone.
“Sharon was already a political person during the war, and there were a large number of reporters around him. This was a thorn in the side of the others. In their eyes, they conceived of the war as a venue where everyone could notch up their achievements; it was important who would be the hero of the war, and they were thinking about that while the war was going on.”
You also write about the way that the myth of the Chinese Farm was cultivated.
“[Psychiatrist] Yoram Yuvel wrote a novel entitled ‘Helena Al Hagag’ [“Helena on the Roof”] about Ansar [a prison camp in Lebanon, used by Israel for Palestinians during its occupation of South Lebanon], where the camp commander goes crazy and orders that prisoners be shot. His comrades argue that he should be forgiven, as his son suffered serious wounds at the Chinese Farm [during fighting there in 1973; Israel eventually prevailed, but at a great loss of life]. How did this happen? It starts with the fact that it has a catchy name, and it was also a place where a lot of people who would later go on to become leaders of the army and the state crossed paths. Who wasn’t there? [army top brass including Haim] Bar-Lev, Bren [Avraham Adan], [Amnon] Lipkin-Shahak, Itzik [Yitzhak] Mordechai, [Ehud] Barak, Sharon; it feeds into the Hollywood image. As the years passed, the Chinese Farm became an Altalena of sorts: Everyone was there. The bottom line is that the paratroopers’ battle at the Chinese Farm was a microcosm of the entire war. We set out without any intelligence, without any support. The war became a sort of private war.”
A series of myths were either conceived or shattered in the war, and have been with us ever since. In his book, Avital-Eppstein labels them “bruised myths at a rehab center.” And these are the names of those that were shattered: the solidarity myth, the “we have someone we can rely on” myth, the sanctity of life myth, the “we never abandon a wounded soldier” myth, the “purity of arms” myth and the “everything will be okay” myth.
There is also, of course, the issue of having been caught by surprise. Ever since the Yom Kippur War, Israelis have zero tolerance for surprises. Being taken by surprise is like being taken for a sucker.
There are also the two twins, “the concept” and conspiracy. [In the Israeli lexicon, conceptzia is the term used to describe the national blind spot that developed in the wake of 1967’s Six-Day War, a belief that Israel’s neighbors would never dare to threaten it militarily, which led to a laxity in preparedness.]
“When is a conspiracy born? When there is a dissonance between expectations and reality. After all, it is simply impossible that we were surprised, it cannot be that we aren’t winning, that an enemy can score such gains. Because we live on the myth that we can rely on someone or something and that we are culturally, technologically and morally superior − in fact, superior in all realms. So how did this happen? When you don’t know how to explain, you go to God, because we have sinned, and at times of emergency a miracle is needed, or a conspiracy, because it is very hard for the individual to cope with the truth after he has shunted aside all the myths, ideologies, narratives, interests and fears.
“At the time, there was a veneration of [Defense Minister] Moshe Dayan, and it was absolute. He was considered a superhero, Yosef Trumpeldor and Judah Maccabee rolled into one. Dayan himself was like a sort of divine conspiracy. The man that was impervious to all, who with a single eye sees further than anyone else.
“In the face of this set of parameters, the ‘conceptzia’ was born. It is impossible to get through life without a concept, meaning fundamental perceptions, but the term has become a bad word. What association does Yom Kippur conjure now? When there is a forest fire in the Carmel, they refer to it as the ‘Yom Kippur’ of the firefighters, and when the state prosecutor signs a deal with Moshe Katsav [that Katsav later backs out of], it is referred to as the ‘Yom Kippur’ of the state prosecutor.”
“And what is collective trauma? A collective does not have a soul, does not think, so how can it experience trauma? Collective trauma is a cloud that exists in the collective memory. It is a theoretical, journalistic, literary and social battlefield. It may be that my and thousands of others’ current journey into the guts and the soul of the war is actually intended to make a break from it, without rancor, and to tell ourselves the truth about it. It is hard to look death in the eyes, but it is no less critical to look the truth in the face.”
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