Zionist Dialogue

When a Touch on the Shoulder Sent You to War

By Herbert Belkin

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It was 1973 and the President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, was angry; more than angry, he was furious. In just six days in the war of 1967, the Israelis were able to effectively wipe out the Egyptian air force and land troops. The Six Day War was a glorious victory for Israel and General Moshe Dayan, but it was a severe blow to Egyptian pride. Now Anwar Sadat vowed to change that.

In the years before 1973, Sadat rethought his war strategy and secured the latest in military weaponry from Egypt’s longtime enabler, Russia. During the summer of 1973, Sadat initiated yet another war plan and started a series of outwardly innocuous military maneuvers in the Sinai Desert. Israeli intelligence was very much aware of  Egypt’s new belligerence and reported it to Israel’s Prime Minister, Golda Meir.

Golda was an accomplished administrator, politician and diplomat but had little military experience. For guidance on military affairs she relied heavily on Israeli intelligence. The intelligence service kept Golda informed about the increased Egyptian military activity, but assured her that it was not quite time to mobilize Israel’s civilian army.

On October 5, 1973, Golda learned that Russian families were leaving Egypt. Alarmed by news that often signaled the outbreak of war, Golda once again questioned her intelligence staff and once again they reassured her that it was still not time to mobilize the army.

The next day, October 6, was Yom Kippur and most Israelis were attending services. Sadat was aware of this major Jewish holiday and took advantage of it by launching an attack in the Sinai Desert simultaneously with Syria’s attack on the Golan Heights.

Belatedly, Israel issued the order to mobilize her armed forces to fight off the advancing Arab armies. To mobilize quickly, uniformed soldiers were sent to synagogues crowded for Yom Kippur services. There the soldiers walked down the aisle to reservists deep in prayer. Silently, the soldier would tap the congregant on the shoulder, whisper a few words and, again silently, both would get up and leave the synagogue.

The relatives watching the departing soldiers experienced a sharp anguish along with their prayers of repentance. They had gone through this call to arms of their sons and daughters before, and were acutely aware that the impending loss of their loved ones also signaled a struggle for national survival. The fear and uncertainty of an Arab attack cast a dark shadow on this holiest of days.

For the first three days of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Arab forces overran the unprepared Israeli forces. Slowly and after heavy losses, the Israelis coordinated their defense first, then their offense. Ten days into the war, the now fully mobilized Israelis regained all of the territory lost at the beginning of the war and were advancing toward Syria’s capital of Damascus and Egypt’s capital of Cairo.

Aware of Israel’s ability to capture the two Arab capitals, the United Nations, the United States and Russia applied heavy pressure on Israel to end the war. Reluctantly, Israel complied and the war ended on Sept. 22. Israel was shaken by the close call, but relieved that once again the Jewish state had survived another Arab attack.

In 1977, Anwar Sadat realized the futility of armed conflict and flew to Israel on an historic peace mission. On meeting the now retired Golda Meir, he greeted her with, “Madame, for many, many years I have wanted to met you.” Golda, in her inimitable manner, replied, “Mr. President, so have I waited a long time to meet you. Why didn’t you come earlier?”

The 1973 war was over, but peace has yet to arrive in the Middle East.


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