The Yom Kippur War: A National Catastrophe

S1
E10
25mins
Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on pinterest
Share on whatsapp

After the victory of the Six-Day War in 1967, it seemed like Israel was invincible. Less than a decade later, the country was taken by surprise by the outbreak of war on Yom Kippur 1973. Noam Weissman explores why — despite warnings — Israel’s leadership seemed so unprepared, why America urged Israel not to attack first and why this national catastrophe ultimately led to a strengthening of relationships with both the U.S. and Egypt.

Subscribe to this podcast

Episode Transcript

Camelot. This is the court and castle of the legendary King Arthur. It marked the highest of the highest, when everything was perfect. It was almost utopia. But, here’s the thing: Camelot is a fantasy. It is a myth. It is not real. 

In life, the second we think we’re in Camelot, at EXACTLY that moment, we need to pump the brakes.  

Following Israel’s breathtaking and stunning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel had its Camelot moment. Only a few years after this major war, at the peak of Israel’s success, is where Israel almost lost it all.

Let’s get into it. It’s 1973 in a Jerusalem synagogue. A young man wearing a prayer shawl – a tallit – rises from his seat when his name is called. He wasn’t being called to the Torah or to participate in the Yom Kippur service on that October afternoon. His name was being called by a soldier to immediately leave the synagogue and prepare to go to war as Israel was under attack. The young man’s father seated next to him embraced him, hugged him, kissed him, and refused to let go with tears streaming down his face. The rabbi approached and said gently to the weeping father, “his place is not here today.” The father released his son and the rabbi placed his hand on the young man’s head to bless him.

This story was not an uncommon occurrence during the first hours of the infamous Yom Kippur war between Egypt, Syria and Israel.

Listen, every war is tragic but for the Israelis, the Yom Kippur War of October 1973 is – by a wide margin – the most traumatic.  Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the year for Jews. From sundown Yom Kippur eve, until nightfall the next day, Jews around the world pray in synagogue, repent, and refrain from eating and drinking. In Israel, the roads are empty. The stores are closed. The airport is shuttered. Between 60-70% of Israeli Jews fast. That’s a lot of people. Basically, the country comes to a complete and utter standstill. It is the single most vulnerable day of the year. That was the scene in Israel in the fall of 1973 when the war broke out, with sirens blaring across the country, catching the citizens of Israel off guard and unprepared. Let’s be clear. In many ways, the Yom Kippur War was a national catastrophe with massive casualties. 

The war left the young and traumatized nation asking many questions in the aftermath. Was this the first war that Israel had lost? The very new country had miraculously won major wars in its short history already – so hearing that Israel may have lost a war was extremely shocking. And another major question I’ve been thinking about is, what should Golda Meir’s legacy be, the prime minister during the time of the war. Should she be considered a hero or a failure.

To tackle these questions and understand what really transpired during the Yom Kippur War, let’s go back in time to set the stage. Prior to 1973, Egypt and Israel had already fought four wars in a span of about 20 years: the 1948 Arab-Israeli War also known as Israel’s War of Independence, the 1956 Suez Crisis/Sinai War, the 1967 Six-Day War and the lesser known War of Attrition during 1969 and 70 (lowkey, such an underrated couple of years). During the Six-Day War, Israel famously struck first when they saw the Egyptians and Syrians getting ready to rumble, basically ending the war before it began and conquering East Jerusalem, the Gaza strip, the West Bank, the Sinai peninsula and the Golan Heights, tripling the size of the Jewish state in less than a week.

Following that defeat, eight Arab heads of state convened at a summit in Sudan where they passed the Khartoum Resolution, known for its infamous three “NO’s”: 

No peace with Israel. No recognition of Israel. No negotiations with Israel. 

Say what you will about historiography and diversity of perspectives, but this was the first time in history that I’m aware of where the clear victor of the war was asking to negotiate and the losers refused.

Over the next few years, everything seemed to change.

In the aftermath of the Six-Day War and leading up to the Yom Kippur War, Israelis had absorbed a new mindset, a mindset later referred to as the conceptzia or in English, the conception. I’ve seen many describe Israeli society as one that had bravado and even a sense of invincibility. Israeli citizens, the military and the government were absolutely convinced that Arab countries wouldn’t DARE start another war against Israel, that the devastation and humiliation from the Six-Day War was still too fresh. But maybe this conceptzia blinded them. Abraham Rabinovitch, author of the best book on the Yom Kippur War I’ve ever read, it’s just so comprehensive, summarized it like this: “Israel had fallen victim to its own victory in 1967.” 

Both Egyptian President Sadat and Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad felt their countries had lost their honor and dignity with the defeat of 1967. But, Egypt and Syria had different goals. Syria’s President Al-Assad’s goal was to destroy Israel. Real classy. Egypt felt differently. According to Jehan Sadat, Anwar’s wife, “Anwar needed one more war in order to win and enter into negotiations from a position of equality.” The Egyptians, the most powerful Arab country in the world, had been humiliated by tiny Israel multiple times. Honor was at stake.

Meanwhile, in Israel, top Israeli brass basked in its overconfidence and Sadat played mind games to give Israel an extra false sense of security. Simultaneously, Egypt and Syria prepared to attack. Not only did Israel have signs that war was on the horizon, but they had actual direct warnings. Ten days before the start of the war, Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister at the time was tipped off by King Hussein of Jordan that Syria and Egypt were planning a war, but her senior commanders poo-pooed it. More than that, the Israeli intelligence had a spy nicknamed the “Angel” (whose real name was Ashraf Marwan) who was a close confidant of Sadat himself and the actual son in law of former Egyptian President Nasser (great movie on netflix called the Angel by the way check it out)  – BUT this  information about an attack inexplicably did not make it to Golda. Just a few days before the war, the Israeli military got the sense that the Egyptian army deployed in the Sinai was not just doing good ol’ fashioned military drills – but  by the time Israelis took the warnings seriously it was too late. The fantasy of the conceptzia would come crashing down quicker than anyone could imagine.

Ok so they had warning signs.

And they kind of started to figure it all out in the days before. So many people ask why didn’t they preemptively strike like they did in 1967? It worked well for them then. Well, leading up to the war, Golda Meir, under the advice of her generals and advisors, declined to mobilize troops due to both military advice, fear of bringing the economy to a halt and of course, ruining “the conceptzia.” Then, finally, on Friday, October 5th, 1973, the day before the war began, it became clear that Egypt would strike and the question then became whether Israel should preemptively attack like it did in 67 or not. The army chief, Daniel Elazar suggested a pre-emptive strike, while the iconic military hero, Moshe Dayan responded no:

”I believe we can complete the call-up tomorrow. It’s not like in 1967. The war will begin in the Suez and Golan Heights. It is important that they don’t say we started it. Calling all the reserves to duty before one shot has been fired – they’ll immediately say we are the aggressors.”

Meir sided with Dayan, agreeing that a preemptive attack was very tempting, but unnecessary. 

These thoughts were of course also influenced by intensive pressure from American President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who had demanded that Israel not pre-empt. This is no small point.  Later, Meir would confess that her intuition told her trouble lay ahead and she seemed to always trust her intuition, but not here…. She still chose to lay back and wait.

Once the war began, it became clear to all that Israel was tremendously outnumbered.

They faced major losses in the opening days of the war. In fact, half of Israel’s casualties came in only the first three days of the war. Sari Nusseibeh, a Palestinian public intellectual, describes the Palestinian atmosphere as one of exuberance that Sadat’s army breached what many thought was Israel’s impenetrable Bar-Lev line which separated Egypt from Israel. The typically cool, calm, and confident Moshe Dayan was about to go on air on the radio in front of millions and declare, “there is a possibility we may lose the Third Temple.” Golda, however, jumped in and did not let that happen. 

The Egyptians blasted through Israel’s Bar-Lev Line within a few hours even though previously it was thought that it could hold for days facing a direct assault. According to Abraham Rabinovitch, The Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal and the Israelis were reeling. The start of the war was especially grim as the Egyptians overwhelmed the Israelis, outgunning them 40 to 1 in ammunition, backed up with 6 to 1 in manpower.  They rolled out 2,000 tanks to Israel’s 268. In the north, 40,000 Syrian troops and 1,500 tanks stormed the Golan Heights, facing off against a mere 177 Israeli tanks. With hundreds of soldiers dying per day, the fear of losing the war and the country became real for Israelis and their government. 

Fast forward to 2020

We all kinda know the end of the story, that Israel would figure this thing out. But, how? It just seemed to be getting worse. Iraq wanted to get in on the fun and sent 14,000 soldiers. Lebanon joined the party too. I mean, who would not want to get in on the spoils now. But as reserve soldiers were mobilized around the country, Israel began to push back. Dayan and the Israeli soldiers proved that they were still pretty darn tough – they were starting to push back into Damascus. Dayan reminded everyone that “The Syrians must learn that the road from Damascus to Israel is also the road from Israel to Damascus”. Nearly a week into the war, President Nixon agreed to send a massive shipment of arms and supplies to Israel. This would be known as “Operation Nickel Grass”  With new supplies now flowing in, Israeli tanks pushed back against Egypt on the sands of Sinai.  By late afternoon that same day, Israel had routed the Egyptians.  By the next night, Israel crossed the Suez Canal and soon encircled Egypt’s vaunted Third Army.  The Israelis then set their sights on the Egyptian capital of Cairo, roughly 60 miles away. 

The Arab countries were super upset with the Americans for blatantly supporting Israel so they imposed an oil embargo on the Americans and really any country that supported Israel. But two weeks into the war, Israel’s confidence was reinstated and their reversal of fortune was pretty much complete. Israeli forces had recaptured Mount Hermon in the north, and pushed on until they were only 25 miles from Damascus, the Syrian capital. The same day, the United Nations called for an immediate cease-fire. 

So, who won the war?

Rabinovitch answers that Egypt did. And he also says Israel did. 

Yep. As he explains it,  the beginning of the war was catastrophic for Israel but by the end Israel made an unbelievable comeback. Both Egypt and Israel have claimed victory. 

From a numbers perspective, it was clearly Israel who got the dub. In dogfights, the Israeli Air Force shot down 432 planes to Israel’s 102. The loss of men was tragically high. Arab casualties numbered 8,258 dead and almost 20,000 wounded, though some Israeli estimates of Arab casualties claim that the real losses were twice that. Israel lost 2,656 soldiers, with more than 7,000 wounded. Israel’s figure was dramatically lower than the Arab losses, but it was more than three times the amount that Israel had lost in the Six-Day War of 1967.

Back to Rabinovitch. He says that as a military feat, the IDF’s performance in the Yom Kippur War dwarfed that of the Six-Day war. The victory came from what he calls “the deepest layers of the nation’s being” and the will to survive.  Ultimately, Israeli soldiers showed their strength and did not flee or surrender. They were within miles of Cairo and Damascus, and were it not for Superpower interference could have continued their march. However, the Yom Kippur war shattered part of Israel’s soul with the loss of invincibility, the massive loss of soldiers and many lingering questions.

On the other side of the border, Egypt felt that they had won…by not losing the war. Rabinovitch explains that “politically, Egypt’s victory was stunning.”  Egypt no longer felt the humiliation from ‘67 and began the process of getting the Sinai back, which would happen within a few years. In terms of morale, Egypt was clearly the winner.  Sari Nusseibeh’s take is that the Arabs showed that the Israelis were mortals after all. “We won by not losing.”

After the end of the war, Israel’s loss of confidence in its leaders was palpable.

Morale in Israel was down. Motti Ashkenazi, an IDF commander who fought against the Egyptians during the war, held up a sign in front of Golda Meir’s residence that said: “Grandma, your defense minister is a failure and 3,000 of your grandchildren are dead.” Soon after, he had tens of thousands of supporters protesting alongside him. Within a month of the end of the war a national commission of inquiry, called the Agranat Commission was set up to investigate the failings of the IDF leading up to the war. The biggest question facing the commission and the country was “whose fault was it?” Who was to blame for the death of 2,656 of the country’s finest young men?

Surprisingly, the Agranat Commission did not find flaws in the conduct of Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and also commended Prime Minister Golda Meir’s decision making surrounding the war. The report which was published in April of 1974, held the army brass accountable for the numerous failures, but mostly avoided placing blame on the government. Chief of Staff Daniel Elazar, General Eli Zeira and Chief of the Southern command Shmuel Gonen lost their roles and were shamed. 

Many believed that the politicians were getting an undeserved pass. Golda Meir soon announced her resignation on April 11th 1974, only nine days after the release of the report. Her reputation as a tough and hard-nosed lioness had been somewhat tarnished or at least tainted within Israel. Golda is an icon in Israel and throughout the world – and for me, personally, Golda is still a hero – even during the Yom Kippur War she showed resolve, decisiveness and determination that many of her military brass had difficulty showing. 

Although the Agranat Commission ended up frustrating thousands of Israelis who were fed up with their leadership, if we take a step back, Israel, in only its 25th year of existence, flexed its democratic muscles by holding their military and public leadership accountable.

Let’s sum this up.

Although it may be hard to believe, the Yom Kippur War was actually the last time Israel fought a war against a sovereign nation’s standing army. The rest of Israel’s direct wars, of which unfortunately there have been a few, have all been fought against the Palestinians or various terror groups. The 1982 Lebanon War was fought against the PLO, the Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah, the various wars in Gaza against Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In effect, the Yom Kippur War was in some ways the transition from the Arab-Israeli conflict to more of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I don’t believe it is too strong to say, the Yom Kippur War demoralized Israeli society. Many Israeli assumptions concerning land, peace, and war were completely shattered. Although Israelis had reason to be confident in their soldiers once again, they had less confidence in their leadership; and their hope for the possibility of peace in the region had been almost entirely eradicated. The hope of a “last war” ended with the Yom Kippur War. As famous Israeli archaeologist and soldier Yigal Yadin noted after the conflict, “This [was] the first war in which fathers and sons have been in action together. We never thought that would happen. We—the fathers—fought in order that our sons would not have to go to war.” 

The realization that the IDF was not invincible and the coming to terms with massive loss was a pain that was difficult to swallow for Israelis, but an important one for a country and nation who was coming into its own. A more positive realization that Israel made during and after the Yom Kippur War was the importance of its friendship with America. On a more sour note, Golda Meir was disturbed that after years of building bridges and relationships with African countries, none of them came to Israel’s defense. France more or less supported the Arab countries and the British even trained Egyptian helicopter pilots. It became abundantly clear during the Yom Kippur war that America stood alone as Israel’s number 1 ally.

Abraham Rabinovitch said it best: The Yom Kippur War marked a major turning point in the Israel-Arab confrontation, a terrible war with a perfect ending.” Why? 

By restoring pride to the Egyptians, Sadat had the street cred to eventually begin diplomatic relations with Israel, becoming the first Arab leader to visit the Jewish state in November of 1977. 

Following the 1978 Camp David Accords, it wasn’t long before President Anwar Sadat, Prime Minister Menachem Begin and American President Jimmy Carter were standing on the White House Lawn, shaking hands, smiling for the cameras and signing the treaty for Israeli-Egyptian peace which still holds to this day.

5 Fast Facts

  1. Egypt’s objective in the Yom Kippur War was to regain its honour after its humiliating defeat in the Six-Day War
  2. At the beginning of the war, Israel’s very existence was in question but by the end, Israeli tanks were within kilometers of Cairo and Damascus
  3. The American-Israeli relationship was cemented in stone as America was the only country to come through for Israel with arms shipments during the war
  4. The war led to the eventual negotiations and peace treaty between Israel and Egypt
  5. Even though Golda Meir wasn’t officially blamed for the failures of the Yom Kippur War, she ultimately resigned as a result of it

Those are the facts, but here is one enduring lesson as I see it. When I close my eyes every Yom Kippur, I imagine young men leaving the synagogue, putting down their prayer books and picking up a gun. I imagine the vulnerability of the only Jewish state. I imagine, what if Israel lost this war. I imagine a world in which there is no Jewish state, and then I pause and remember that the line between life and death, failure and success, victory and defeat is much finer than we might think. Life can be frail. Life can feel vulnerable. Let’s appreciate what we have and let’s be grateful. 

Enjoy this podcast with friends by hosting a podcast listening party.

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on whatsapp
Share on email