Still Basking in the Yom Kippur War Grief

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The blooming of the sea squill once again tells us autumn is on the way. Autumn reminds us of Yom Kippur, and Yom Kippur reminds us of that war. This year is its 40th anniversary, and the commemoration festival has already begun. There is nothing people here like more than wallowing in past wars and yesterday’s disasters: two years since the attack at Itamar, seven years since the Katyusha attack on the reserve soldiers at the Kfar Giladi cemetery, 16 years since the helicopter disaster. And above all, the 1973 war, the war of which there is never enough and which is never elsewhere.

In the land of memorials – 2,900 official memorials to the war dead, one for every eight (in war-drenched Europe the ratio is one to 10,000) – almost every day is a yahrzeit for a tragedy. As if Memorial Day, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jerusalem Day, Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Day and the fasts of Gedaliah and of Tisha B’Av were not enough. It seems as if there are no ordinary, non-memorial days - though that memory is very selective, one should add.

Do we long for terror attacks? Do we miss wars? Highly unlikely. And yet the fact that there is nothing more sacred here than war makes us suspect that many Israelis carry, together with the pain, the terror and the trauma, also a hidden longing for the battlefield, the scene of the most masculine, formative experience of their lives.

It is this experience, more than any other, that they long to pass on to their sons. Every clod of earth is a souvenir of blood spilled. There is, we must admit, something sick about this. In a country where yesterday’s artists, authors and intellectuals are soon forgotten, the wars of the past are the present as well as the future. Just wait until Yom Kippur. The first signs have already arrived, with all their stories of heroism and loss, the burning tanks, the dead and the survivors; with the disclosure of mound upon mound of secret minutes and testimony which shed no new light on anything.

Of course every war brings painful memories for individuals and for the society. The combatants, the grieving families, the comrades in arms – and with them an entire country – cannot forget. It may also be important to remember battlefield history, whatever its significance, for succeeding generations. But this wallowing in blood goes far beyond that. It reaches its peak with regard to the Yom Kippur War, the war Israelis most love to remember despite the fact that most Israelis who are alive today were not yet born or were not in Israel when it broke out.

It was the most disastrous of wars, the greatest surprise, the only one since 1948 that Israel did not initiate and presumably Israel’s last conventional war. But what do Israelis remember about it? What lesson do they learn from it? None. If the wallowing taught us real lessons, there would be some use to bringing up the memory. But the public discourse here focuses on individual memories, painful and authentic, and the relatively marginal issue of the “surprise.” Was Ashraf Marwan a double agent, to what extent was Eli Zeira to blame, how did Haim Bar-Lev and Ariel Sharon save Israel and was David Elazar judged too harshly? Perhaps MI and the Armored Corps learned their lesson, but the State of Israel certainly did not.

How hackneyed to reiterate the real failure of that preventable war, the Egyptian calls for peace that Israel ignored, as well as the arrogance and braggadocio and especially the blindness which are all, to this day, just as they were. How banal to recall the idolization of generals (who are no longer idolized) and of politicians (who still are). How trite to compare those days with today. And yet, as the Yom Kippur War poets’ festival takes off it would not be going too far to remember that in that war 2,569 Israelis died in vain, and if the leadership had been different they would still be with us (and we would not need to mark the anniversary of that war).

Israeli tanks rushing up to the northern front with the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.Credit: GPO

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