On that day 50 years ago, I was in the parking lot of my synagogue in Keene, N.H., taking a break from Yom Kippur services. Someone had the car radio on and tuned to the news. I heard that Israel had been the victim of a surprise attack on our holiest day.
Like millions of others, my heart sank.
The news sounded ominous. I worried first for our relatives who lived on a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley, not far from the Syrian border. As the news dispatches came in, it only got worse. The existential threat to the Jewish state was coming from both north and south.
At the time, I was working at the Jewish Community Council of Boston, my first job out of graduate school. Among my assignments were Israel and Middle East issues, which I followed as closely as possible in those pre-internet days. As the news continued to arrive, the question was how this could be happening when, following the miraculous victory over Israel’s Arab neighbors only six years before, the Jewish state had seemed invincible.
Back at my desk after Yom Kippur, I was invited to be a member of a war task force, which met each morning in the conference room at the headquarters of the Jewish Federation in Boston. The group was a mix of community leaders, organization professionals, academics and students.
At the conclusion of the war, we were joined by Benjamin Netanyahu, Uzi Landau (later, a longtime Knesset member and cabinet minister) and Yossi Riemer (who became an executive in the Israeli food industry). They had returned from serving in the war to work on graduate degrees at MIT. They formed a pop-up think tank, producing background papers and issue analyses that were delivered—before breakfast—to the front doors of the news media and opinion-makers in the Boston area.
In the midst of the war, I would return to spend weekends with my parents in New Hampshire. Sometime during Sukkot, we returned from synagogue, and I went to get the mail. Among the letters was a familiar green and white aerogram from our cousin Chaya at Kibbutz Beit Zera. I had a feeling the news would not be good. It wasn’t. Her 22-year-old son Boaz had been killed on the third day of the war in an armored personnel carrier on the Golan Heights. It was a terrible blow to the family and symbolic of the dread we all felt in the first weeks of the fighting.
Meanwhile, the task force in Boston worked tirelessly until December on the hasbara (communications strategy) front. The daily breakfast meetings produced detailed discussions about the impact of the war on the ground, as well as the international diplomacy then underway in Washington, Jerusalem, Cairo, Amman and Damascus. The lessons learned about “getting the word out” early and often would serve us well in the years and decades to come.
Ultimately Israel’s fortunes brightened with the American airlift of arms to the IDF. Then Ariel Sharon’s forces crossed the Suez Canal on Oct. 16, 1973, and encircled the Egyptian Third Army. By Oct. 25, the war was mostly over. The human cost in dead and wounded over those fateful weeks was tremendous, but the victory was Israel’s.
Still, the trauma of the war stayed with us for years. Yehoram Gaon’s achingly moving song, “Ani Mavtiach Lach,” with its line “I promise you, this will be the last war,” still reverberates in my ears. It was written during the war and sung to soldiers in the field. The recent release of the motion picture “Golda” on the 50th anniversary of the war reminds us, in a compelling way, of the stressful weeks when modern Israel’s future hung in the balance.
Only four years after the Yom Kippur War ended, Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat was greeted at Lod Airport by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his entire cabinet. Only after Sadat addressed the Knesset in Jerusalem did the cloud of October 1973 begin to lift. We thought better days might indeed be possible.
The peace treaty with Egypt signed on the White House lawn in 1978, the subsequent treaty with Jordan and the agreements with the Abraham Accords countries have pointed the way towards what we hope will become a region of peace and stability. This was a goal we never thought was achievable in those dark days of October 1973. The 50 years since have not been without war and terror. Still, the effort to achieve peace between Israel and its neighbors has met with not insignificant success. Is Israel-Saudi normalization next?
A half-century has passed quickly since the Yom Kippur War, but the painful memories linger. May we soon see the realization of “Ani Mavtiach Lach”—“This will be the last war.”