Adding to the solemnity of this year’s Yom Kippur is the fact that it marks 40 years since the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, the most traumatic event in Israeli history.
On the morning of October 6, 1973, Chief of Staff David Elazar met with Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to warn that the Egyptian and Syrian armies were about to attack Israel. It was Yom Kippur, the attack timed for the day when the Jewish state was most vulnerable.
Elazar urged a preemptive air strike. But he was overruled by Meir and Dayan, who were under pressure from U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger not to preempt. The result, in the experiential world of Israelis, was that in the afternoon an eerie, totally unexpected siren sounded for a military call-up. It was the holiest day of the year, but Israel was at war.
Because of the failure to preempt, the war began disastrously. Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal and overran Israeli positions in the Sinai. Syrian forces surged through the Golan Heights and advanced toward the Sea of Galilee. Dayan, on the second day of the war, said Israel’s end was imminent.
Israel, with the help of a massive U.S. airlift, turned the tide and ended up routing both the Egyptian and Syrian armies. But that was not before it had lost almost 2700 soldiers—a stunning total for a country whose population then stood at three million. In the wake of the war came national shock and depression, political upheaval—and a bitter debate to this very day about just whose blunders and misconceptions were responsible for the near-catastrophe.