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The Lessons of Yom Kippur

Synagogue-goers across America this past Monday found themselves, for the half-hour or so of their rabbi’s sermon, plunged headlong into the emotional thicket of the Middle East conflict and the existential dangers facing Israel and Israelis today. In an unusual, nationally coordinated campaign mounted at the behest of Israel’s Tourism Ministry, hundreds of pulpit rabbis agreed to drop their usual Yom Kippur explorations of sin and mortality and to focus their sermons instead on Israel’s need for support from the Jewish Diaspora at this trying time.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many if not most of the participating rabbis went the next step and sermonized on the lessons of the Yom Kippur War, which broke out exactly 30 years earlier, on October 6, 1973. It was an inevitable connection for sermon-writers to make. The 1973 war broke out in the middle of the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, catching Israelis utterly by surprise and wreaking terrible losses before Israel’s military was able to regain the upper hand. The war’s parallels to the current situation are striking. Then, as now, it seemed to many both in Israel and abroad that the very existence of the Jewish state hung in the balance.

The nationwide teach-in offered American Jews a momentary opportunity to share in the searing debate that has been raging nonstop among Israelis in recent months over the lessons of that long-ago war and its meaning for today. Israel’s news media have been filled since mid-August with an endless barrage of coverage forcing Israelis to relive the terrible weeks of October 1973. Previously unreleased tapes have shown the confusion and fear reigning among Israel’s top generals in the face of Egyptian and Syrian advances in the war’s early days. Scholars have analyzed the lasting impact on Israeli society of the loss of 2,600 young men, robbing the nation of a generation. Ordinary soldiers have come forward to retell their personal stories of bravery or terror: Israeli units firing on each other, comrades dying in one another’s arms, prisoners of war coping with the shame of letting themselves be taken alive.

And over and over, pundits and politicians have railed against what is known in Hebrew as ha-konseptzia — the “conception,” or political-military consensus, then reigning among Israel’s leaders. In October 1973, so goes today’s consensus, Israelis believed that their lightning military victory of June 1967 had shown them to be all but invincible. Secure in their expanded borders, they supposed that an attack by neighboring states was unthinkable. As a result, Israelis were convinced there was no need for a diplomatic outreach aimed at compromise with their neighbors, since time was on their side. The resulting complacency led them to the brink of disaster.

The lesson for today, most commentators agree, is obvious: Israel is once again in the grip of a flawed konseptzia that leaves it vulnerable to disaster. Unfortunately, there is no agreement on what to do about it, anymore than there was before the current Yom Kippur War revival began. As before, some Israelis think it would be disastrous for Israel to give up territory, while others think it would be disastrous not to. If there is a consensus, it is that Israel must not make any concessions until there is a genuine change of heart on the Palestinian side — something that most Israelis believe is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

The Yom Kippur War shook Israelis out of their static thinking, but at a terrible cost. Its most important result was the unprecedented launching of direct negotiations between Israel and its neighbors. The negotiations began at a command post at Kilometer 101 on the trans-Sinai highway, and focused on an Israeli-Egyptian military disengagement. They moved in December to a conference room in Geneva, where all the parties to the hostilities gathered for an international conference on Middle East peace, the first ever. The conference quickly broke up into a series of bilateral talks, both direct and indirect, that have gone on more or less continually ever since, eventually coming to be known as “the peace process.” The process produced, in short order, two disengagement agreements with Egypt, which led directly to a bilateral peace treaty in 1979. It also produced a disengagement agreement with Syria in 1974 that was honored by both sides, making the Israeli-Syrian border the quietest in the region, for nearly 30 years. Until this week.

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