7 Scenes From the Yom Kippur War Home Front

On the 40th anniversary of the 1973 war, Haaretz’s archives give us a peek into what was happening on the home front, as Israel found out it was at war.

When the Yom Kippur War broke out on the afternoon of October 6, 1973, Israel’s synagogues were still full of people praying on the most sacred day of the year for Jews, and Israeli media was still not broadcasting because of the holy day. The home front quickly mobilized for war, however, as Israel began battling Egypt in the south and Syria in the north. A look at Haaretz’s coverage during the first days of the fighting gives us a peek into how people responded to their quickly changing reality.

Bnei Brak lends a hand

Disrupting the Jewish Day of Atonement is liable to cause offense to practicing Jews, but on the afternoon the war broke out ultra-Orthodox Jews “did not interfere with the sudden call-up” of reservists to the Israeli army. In fact, in the Haredi town of Bnei Brak, Haaretz reported, “yeshiva students helped Israel Defense Forces personnel track down addresses” of reservists. Haaretz described “moving scenes, when worshipers wearing tallitot [prayer shawls] were summoned from the synagogues during prayers. They ran to their houses with the blessing of the other people praying, and changed into their army uniforms.”

‘A question of pikuach nefesh’

Despite hearing the warning sirens, in central Israel people who weren’t called up to the army didn’t leave the synagogues until the final prayer of the day was complete, Haaretz reported. In fact, on that fateful afternoon, worshipers said “a special prayer for the safety of the Israeli army and of the nation in Israel, and the safety of the country.” The next day, the Chief Rabbinate of Tel Aviv and the city’s religious council asked all Tel Aviv synagogues to read Psalms 20, 35 and 130 after morning prayers and evening prayers for the success of the IDF. As the “atmosphere of conscription spread,” the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Yitzhak Yedidia Frenkel, advised observant Jews, “If you were called up, it is a question of pikuach nefesh. Go.” That is, the principle in Jewish law that saving a human life overrides other religious considerations. “We have no one to rely on but ourselves, and we must fight back, even on this holy day,” he said.

Under clouds of war, loyalty and disappointment

Arabs in Israel were quick to “prove their loyalty” to Israel, Haaretz reported. In messages to Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, the committee of Palestinians displaced from the village of Bir’am said, “Our people, our property and our vehicles are at the service of the nation and her safety.” The messages were sent “as war-clouds float in our skies.” The following day, Nazareth’s mayor, Seifel-Din el-Zoubi, called a meeting of local Galilee council heads. It was “only natural” that Arab citizens prove their loyalty to their country, as they had done during the Six Day War, he said. A few days later, a prominent Muslim Galilee figure told Haaretz about his disappointment with Egypt and Syria: “We have nothing more to hope from Arab leaders …. Shame and disgrace cover our faces…. A week ago I wouldn’t have believed that I would change my mind. But now it is clear to me that Arabs in Israel must start to ….. come to terms with the state of Israel.”

Quick, panic! (and then change your mind)

The morning after the war broke out, rumors began to spread in Tel Aviv that food was running out. “A few hundred frightened, even hysterical, men and women, caused panic in food shops in the entire Tel Aviv area,” Haaretz correspondent Elazar Levine reported. By 7 A.M., there were long lines in front of most of the food shops in the area. “Unnecessary panic quickly infected many thousands of housewives in the whole city,” Haaretz said. In five supermarkets, “violent housewives,” broke shop windows, and police had to be called to the scene. The following day, when the panic had died down, some “embarrassed housewives” tried to return the food they had bought “by mistake.”

No time for chocolate milk

Still, given the fact that many food sector workers had been called up to military service, a steady and stable supply of food was cause for concern. On October 7, bakeries in Jerusalem managed to bake four times more bread than usual, and Israeli dairy company Tnuva supplied twice the amount of milk in response to the panic over food. Meanwhile, some 150 volunteers handed out bread and milk to Jerusalemites. To make sure it could keep up with demand, on October 9 ,Tnuva announced it had drawn up a list of priorities. Off the menu for the time being were “luxury products,” including fruit-flavored yogurts, certain kinds of cheeses, and chocolate milk. Milk for drinking was the number one priority, and low-fat cheeses, yogurt, sour cream and butter followed. “The production of yellow cheeses continued without malfunctions,” however, Haaretz reassured its readers.

'This place is interesting at this time of year'

Some unfortunate tourists were vacationing in Israel when the war broke out, and the Tourism Ministry hoped they wouldn’t rush to leave. In a statement on October 7, the ministry said tourists were “not showing a tendency to cut short their stay.” When it came to Jerusalem, it seems, there was no need to worry. That same day, “masses of tourists who didn’t manage to leave the country were wondering round the streets of Jerusalem in the morning, a look of total calm on their faces,” Haaretz’s correspondent Yehudit Winkler reported. “Many of them even said in conversations with Israelis that it is interesting to be in a country at war.” At Tel Aviv’s beachfront hotels, however, there was an “exodus of tourists,” Haaretz said, with El Al opening an office at the Hilton Hotel on the afternoon the war started. In some parts of the country, however, tourists volunteered to help out with the war effort, Haaretz reported.

‘Take us. We came to help’

As soldiers hurried to the fronts in the north and south, civilians rushed to pitch in, too. At Be’er Sheva’s Soroka Medical Center, there were so many unwanted volunteers on the first day of the war that police had to be called in to restore order. At Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, earnest volunteers set up camp outside the building. “Next to the operating theatres and the head nurse’s office there is a crowd. Masses. Masses lie on the grass. Assembled in groups. Watching. These are the volunteers,” Haaretz correspondent Nili Tal reported on October 9. “These young men and women of all ages ask and beg: Take us. We came to help.” Seeing Tal with a pen and notepad, the youths called her to sign them up for work, and were disappointed to find out she was just a journalist. “I’ve sat here since last night,” one girl from Jaffa told her. “I hitchhiked. I have two brothers in the army. I don’t even mind cleaning. The main thing is that I feel like I’m helping….My mom didn’t let me come, but isn’t this more important?”