Israel's Secret Weapon in 1973: Diaspora Jews

Jewish volunteers helped farm the land and treated the wounded. Some still look back fondly.

Just days after Ed Zifkin dropped out of Michigan State University to take the first flight he could to Israel, to volunteer after a surprise attack that became known as the Yom Kippur War, he was waking at 5 A.M. to head to the fields of a kibbutz near the Gaza border where he would climb on a tractor and plant wheat until the sun went down.

Forty years later, he still remembers the feel of the tractor’s clutch underfoot on those rolling fields marked with ravines. He was at Kibbutz Urim. Most of the men in the community were with their combat units in Sinai or on the Golan Heights. Together with a fellow Jewish American volunteer named Sam Stern, a dairy farmer from Connecticut, he worked up to 15 hours a day, six days a week, planting not only wheat but peas, potatoes, onion and melon in what was normally a large, busy agricultural kibbutz. Their one day off from the fields came Saturdays, when they milked cows.

“It was really the most meaningful period of my life,” said Zifkin, who now works in commercial real estate in Chicago. The entire kibbutz threw a party in Zifkin and Stern’s honor as they prepared to leave after several months volunteering, crediting them with helping keep the kibbutz’s agricultural operations afloat.

Zifkin was one of scores of Diaspora Jewish volunteers who, along with Israelis abroad returning to join their army units, were the only passengers on planes to Israel during and soon after the war that technically lasted less than three weeks, although reservists were called up for several months afterward. Most were dispatched to kibbutzim and various home-front posts. Among them were doctors who treated the wounded, many of them with serious burns from tanks that had caught fire.

Their number was fewer than those who volunteered during the 1967 Six-Day War, in part because there had been a long buildup to that war and it broke out in June, just as young people were finishing up the spring semester of college. But the legacy of that war, which brought a sense of euphoria and the notion that Israel’s wars were in the past, was a significant wave of Diaspora Jews from the West who immigrated to the country. For many of them, the Yom Kippur War was the first they had experienced.

“Earlier feelings of tension and fear had dissolved so when Eli and I made aliyah in April 1969, there was not a fear of war that there had always been prior to the Six-Day War,” said Rena Genn, referring to immigrating with her husband, Eli Solomon, from New York.

“In general there had been a lot of optimism in the country. So when all of a sudden we found ourselves in the midst of a war it was terribly frightening,” said Genn. “This was not part of the deal. We did not think we were coming to this.”

Solomon was called up, together with most of the men from the small moshav where they lived at the time, along the 1967 border with the West Bank, not far from Hebron.

His unit was sent to the Egyptian front. The day after the cease-fire was brokered they were dismantling a strip of land mines. A shot was fired by a sniper. Solomon saw a friend standing near him had been hit in the hip. He rushed over to help, but another shot rang out, and Solomon was dead.

Genn, at home with their two young daughters, turned 27 the week of the shiva.

During the weeks of fighting, David Sarna, who was 24 at the time and had moved to Israel from Boston to work for IBM in Haifa, volunteered to help the war effort. He found himself assigned to the city’s police, enforcing the blackout and looking for suspicious activity.

He and two others would drive around the city’s neighborhoods. An observant Jew, he wore a kippa. One Friday evening he emerged from his car, just as Shabbat set in, as part of a routine patrol with his partners. He was confused when locals saw him and retreated.

“They assumed that I was a rabbi coming to give news that they did not want to hear. They scattered,” he said, his voice choking up at the memory. Today he is a writer and entrepreneur living in Teaneck, New Jersey.

Genn, the director of the Israel office of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, has been following coverage of the 40th anniversary of the war from her home in Karkur, in central Israel, She does not like it, calling it “very negative soul-searching,” fixated on the mistakes the country made, the sense that it was a war Israel lost.

“Israel did not lose the war. It lost 2,700 people, a terrible blow to small country and an enormous trauma to this day. But strategically it did not lose the war,” she said. “The outcome of the war was that the country was saved and it could have been annihilated. In my opinion, this kind of talk undermines the terrible sacrifices that were made.”

Nachum Guttman
Courtesy of Ed Zifkin