The Yom Kippur When I Lost My Faith

The War Undermined Belief in Israeli Leadership — and God

Panic: During the Yom Kippur War, leaders found themselves overwhelmed and surprised.
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Panic: During the Yom Kippur War, leaders found themselves overwhelmed and surprised.

By Yossi Beilin

Published September 16, 2013, issue of September 20, 2013.
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It is a bit strange to write this, but the Six Day War was, for me, an extension of high school. At school we learned about the War of Independence and its many battles. Each Memorial Day, I was the one who read to the students the sad poems about the fallen soldiers. I was a devout boy, more religious than my parents and full of faith in the country. I eagerly joined the army when the time came, and less than a year later I found myself in the Six Day War, participating in the occupation of the Sinai and the Golan Heights. Our small team took three Syrian soldiers captive, and I felt myself part of a proud lineage. Our division went from Syria to Jerusalem and stood in front of the stones of the Western Wall.

I had a deep sense of justice. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser bragged that he would destroy Israel. Israel had no interest in attacking Egypt, but she had to defend herself, and she did this by preemptively attacking. Jordan was asked specifically not to start a war against us, but when King Hussein did not heed our pleas, we conquered the West Bank. We had to protect the population in the north against Syrian aggression, and so we took the Golan Heights from where they had been firing on Israeli settlements.

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan assured us that Israel was now safe and that the conquered territories were our security belts until peace prevailed. The Arab world conceded defeat, and it seemed that we had guaranteed relaxation for generations. Army generals had become idols; songs praised their heroism and ours. We had a feeling of complete power. Only a few weeks earlier we had feared a second Holocaust, and suddenly we had become Goliath: If the Arabs want peace, they should call us. For Israel — it was explained to us — there’s no hurry.

But the quiet did not last. A few months after the war began, Egypt launched a war of attrition against our outposts on the coast of the Suez Canal. Palestinians used terrorism in Israel and against Israeli targets around the world, but that did not change the overall feeling that we could do what we wanted, if we decided to do so, and therefore we thought of these events the way an elephant considers a mosquito. I myself did not support staying in the occupied territories and establishing settlements there, but I accepted the government’s position, which was to wait for the other side’s move.

In 1969, upon completion of my military service (which was extended by six months because of the war and the need to occupy the huge territories), I became a very busy man. I got married. I got a job as a reporter for a daily newspaper. I began to study at the university. Our first son was born. I started teaching at Tel Aviv University. We were busy building our nest, and we didn’t spend much time dealing with questions of policy. I felt that the prime minister, Golda Meir, knew what she was doing, especially when beside her were people like Dayan and Abba Eban and Yigal Allon. I trusted the leadership. I voted for the ruling party. I didn’t participate in demonstrations when Dayan announced that it was better to hold Sharm el Sheikh than to reach a peace agreement with Egypt in which we give up the Sinai Peninsula, or when Meir announced, foolishly, that there was no such thing as a Palestinian people.

I also continued to maintain tradition. I did not drive or write on Saturday. I kept kosher, and visited the synagogue on holidays. I went further than my parents on this matter: My mother, who was a Bible researcher, was completely secular, while my father kept tradition but drove on Saturday (in public transport, of course — he would never dream of driving our own car). It was hard for me to understand this contradiction between keeping kosher and driving on the Sabbath, and from the age of 8 I took observance much more seriously as a result. I did not wear a yarmulke, and apart from my immediate friends, people did not know this part of my identity, but it was not easy for my spouse, particularly in preparation for Passover.

Then the earthquake hit. The siren alarm sounded on Yom Kippur of 1973 at 2 p.m., bursting the security bubble in which we had lived for six years. The belief that we could do everything, that no one would dare to attack us and that even if we were attacked, the territories conquered in 1967 would defend us against Egypt, Syria and Jordan, was crushed. In one moment it became clear that the euphoria that dominated Israel, led by Meir and Dayan, was totally unfounded. Suddenly, only six years after that stunning victory, we were close to stunning defeat.

In 1973 I was responsible for radio networks at the military nerve center. This war, in which I didn’t serve in the field, changed my life. The essence of what that war did to Israel was captured on the radio networks. I saw Dayan; the chief of staff, David Elazar; the generals, all with long and gray faces, and I realized what was happening to us. Suddenly, it was as if there was no “Radio Procedure.” Radio coding, which has always seemed to me to be sacred to the security of the country and her military operations, was thrown out the window. The leaders were under pressure, and they panicked. They cursed and swore, they expressed their fear of impending defeat and announced the loss of their soldiers. Their authority, for me and for the nation, disintegrated in real time. This was the moment I realized that these leaders had lost my trust.

I also realized that when Anwar Sadat said he would like to regain the Sinai through agreement or through war, he meant it, and that Meir was guilty, personally, for our failure to reach an agreement with him. I realized that children’s dormitories in the Israeli settlements established in the Golan Heights after 1967 became an obstacle to the army when it was forced to quickly evacuate settlements on the occupied hill, as the Syrian army conquered it back. I lost the faith I had in our leadership and the feeling I had harbored since childhood that some greater force was guiding us as a country. I decided that our fate, our survival or demise, was entirely in our hands, as individual Israelis. I began pursuing a life in politics. And I abandoned a religious life. It happened naturally, an outgrowth of losing trust in authority, any authority. Forty years ago, I came home after the war another man, the man I’ve been ever since.

Yossi Beilin served as a Cabinet minister and as a deputy minister in four Israeli governments. He was the initiator of the Oslo Agreements, the informal Geneva Initiative and the Taglit-Birthright project.

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