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Yom Kippur War: 40 years later

A week before Yom Kippur 1973, I moved from Hazerim air force base to Jerusalem to study history at Hebrew University. Yet it was life, not university, which actually taught me a history lesson.

Early in the morning of Yom Kippur, I woke up amid the half-opened boxes to the screaming buzz of a low-flying jet fighter. Aircraft flying on Yom Kippur? I knew immediately what it meant: The air force was sending a signal to all aircrews scattered across the country to return to their bases immediately. I kissed my wife and my 9-month-old daughter goodbye, promising to return that evening. When I did return, a month later, 2,700 Israeli soldiers were dead and Israel was never the same again.

It is difficult to explain today how complacent and arrogant we were in the years preceding the Yom Kippur War. With the smashing victory of the Six-Day War and the charismatic general Moshe Dayan promising us infallibility, we were blind to the alarm signals. In 1971, we dismissed a settlement with Egypt brokered by then-Secretary of State William Rogers, and we ridiculed the threats of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat that if Israel didn’t return Sinai through negotiations, it would be returned by force.

It is just as difficult today to describe our feelings at that time, when everything around us seemed to be falling apart. Everything we believed was solid suddenly seemed to be shaky; bad news followed more bad news; and Dayan, the war hero, crumbled and started mumbling doomsday prophecies of “the fall of the Third Temple.”

Then the true faces of the Israelis started to emerge. On the way down to Sinai, we had to fly a brigade of paratroopers — old reserve soldiers, long retired, who had liberated Jerusalem in 1967 and who had suddenly shown up, uninvited. Some came straight from their synagogues. “The aircraft is full,” I yelled at them, trying to close the door. They begged me with tears in their eyes to let them join their comrades. I did.

The fact that in just a few days we kicked the invading Syrians from the Golan Heights and then went on to threaten Damascus, and that the war was ended on kilometer 103 — from Cairo, mind you, not from Tel Aviv — is a tribute to the real heroes of the war: the field commanders and the soldiers, who, with their sacrifices, made up for the blindness of their political leaders and achieved an awesome victory.

Yet have we learned anything from that experience? I’m not sure. Indeed, my generation, the people who were bruised in that war, developed a healthy suspicion regarding the people at the top who pretend to know everything. Younger people, however, whose world has not been shattered yet, like ours was in 1973, tend to think we are omnipotent. I hope history won’t call upon us again to repent with the bravery of our fighting men for the shortsightedness of our leaders.

This commentary first appeared in the Jewish Journal. Uri Dromi is executive director of the Jerusalem Press Club.