Josh Glancy

Without forgetting the Yom Kippur War, it is time to let it go

It is important to remember that Israel’s prosperity and status as a world leader in tech are built on hard-fought wars, but the country’s newfound power comes with responsibilities

November 04, 2021 16:58

In October 1973, at the height of the Yom Kippur war, the US secretary of state Henry Kissinger had some typically uncompromising advice for Israel’s ambassador to Washington. “You have to win,” the master of realpolitik told Simcha Dinitz.

It really was that simple. Israel had to win, which meant their hastily reinforced defensive lines had to hold. Allow the Syrians and Egyptians to break through to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and all bets were off. Would America have risked war with the Soviet Union to bail Israel out? Would prime minister Golda Meir have dared to exercise the “Samson option” and launch a nuclear strike on Damascus, as her defence secretary Moshe Dayan reportedly advocated? The counterfactuals are all horrifying.

And yet as Valley of Tears, the pulsating new series that starts tonight on Channel 4 illustrates, the war was a perilously closely run thing. Valley of Tears — or Emek Habakha — is a grim and compelling journey through the darkest days of Israeli history. Coming as I do from a generation that didn’t live through the existential struggles of Israel’s early decades, it is also a priceless history lesson in why Israel still needs to be strong today, and perhaps why it can also afford to be a little more magnanimous.

What do we really remember from 1973? I recall as a child hearing mythical tales of Ariel Sharon’s exploits in the Sinai and Leonard Cohen flying in to serenade the troops. And as a teenager, meeting a burly politician called Avigdor Kahalani and hearing his memories of the desperate tank battle on the Golan.

But it wasn’t until I watched Valley of Tears that I appreciated just how precarious things were that autumn — the terror and confusion that reigned in a country caught entirely unawares by a two-pronged Syrian and Egyptian invasion on its holiest day. And how just a handful of exhausted tank crews held the line against long columns of Soviet-supplied Syrian T-55s and T-62s, poised to stream into the Hula valley and beyond.

“Block the axis at all costs,” the Israeli tank crews on the Golan Heights are told by their commanders in the show, which is the most expensive Israeli television series ever made. They are bone-tired, hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. But there are no reinforcements and the line must hold. Tank commanders fill their pockets with grenades when they run out of shells. Anguished radio pleas beg the shattered men to hold on for just five more minutes. And then finally, almost inexplicably, the Syrians retreat, just as the threadbare Israeli defences were on the brink of collapse.

In Israel the series was called Sha’at Neilah (Closing Hour), a reference to the final service of Yom Kippur but also to the sense that the country stood on the brink of destruction, its place in the Book of Life fading with each Syrian advance. The show’s release in Israel last year sparked a national reckoning over the way memories of the war have been suppressed.

The Yom Kippur War has never received the same attention as the lauded victories of 1948 or 1967. It’s a moment that many in Israel would prefer to forget, memory-holing the dreadful lapses in intelligence and political oversight that allowed for a surprise attack; shying away from the hundreds of captured soldiers who were interrogated in Hafez al-Assad’s torture rooms before eventually returning home, changed for ever.

We forget so easily. And so quickly. Today, for all its turbulence and ethnic strife, Israel is stable and prosperous. Its tech industry is a world leader, playing host to more than $70 billion companies and attracting global investment. Its rocket-fast Covid vaccination drive was a staggering feat of medical-bureaucratic mobilisation. And new economic ties are being forged across the Gulf and in the Indian subcontinent.

Today, Israel’s borders are secure and its neighbours wary. The country is strong — too strong in many people’s view. It metes out harsh punishments to those who do it harm. Air raids flatten Hamas targets in Gaza. Iranian nuclear scientists are assassinated by remote control (as the JC revealed in February). On the Palestinian issue, security trumps equity every time.

Valley of Tears is a timely reminder of why this hard-won prosperity and hard-fought security is so precious. What happened on that apocalyptic Day of Atonement is a warning to Israel: never underestimate its many enemies.

But just as recalling the mortal peril of the Yom Kippur war is instructive, so is observing the contrast between then and now. Israel’s fate no longer depends on defending a few dusty patches of the Golan. It is no longer the scrappy fledgling state, fighting for its survival. It can afford to compromise just a little. Properly remembering the near-extinction event that was the Yom Kippur War is essential. But so is letting it go.

November 04, 2021 16:58

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