Forty years have gone by since that moment when men in uniforms entered the synagogue, politely stopped the cantor and the Yom Kippur prayers, prayers of judgment day, and read out recruitment codes (each reserves unit has a code word that signifies an order to report for duty). I know that others will choose different ways to describe the first moments of the war -- they will talk about Syrian artillery fire in the Golan Heights, or the Egyptian assault on the Bar Lev line – but this is how I remember those moments. For most Israelis, the war did not erupt in the Golan Heights or in the Suez Canal. It broke out on their street, at home or at the synagogue. That is also where it hit the hardest.
I was ten years old at the time. I had never seen so many grown men shed tears. Fathers and sons said goodbye, not knowing whether they would ever return. But even the ones that did return did not come back the same as they had been. Something changed that day, and we are still far from fully understanding the significance of that change.
Forty years has never been just a number for us. Forty years is how long the Israelites traveled the desert, and it is also the familiar Israeli refrain "the land was calm for forty years." Yom Kippur is also not just any day on the Hebrew calendar. But that war even changed the meaning of the words Yom Kippur in the Hebrew language. Wars always impact language, and the Yom Kippur war introduced several new terms into the Hebrew lexicon – the Chinese farm, the Bar Lev line, Emek HaBakha (Valley of Tears). All these terms are sour and sooty and they don't easily roll off the tongue. Another term that war gave us is the Agranat commission. Though when said in Hebrew (vaadat Agranat) the words form a cute rhyme, this pair of words may just be the heaviest pairing in the entire Hebrew language.
The Agranat commission was the mother of all investigative commissions. It boasted a grand line-up, its piercing conclusions and the way it was all rejected and covered up symbolizes the enormous gap between how we once perceived ourselves – or wanted to perceive ourselves – and who we actually are.
Yaakov Hasdai -- an IDF officer, a doctor of history and an attorney -- was an investigator on the Agranat commission, and is one of only two remaining members of that commission. The other is Professor Yoav Gelber who served as an adviser to the commission. Hasdai participated both in the war and in the commission that investigated the failures of the war. It is not clear which of the two worried him more.
Visiting his ascetic office in central Jerusalem I am met with a level-headed, analytic man who has been very familiar for a long time with excerpts of Agranat commission testimonies recently released for publication. These testimonies managed to shock the Israeli public for a minute or two, before moving on to the next thing. Hasdai was not a military commander like Avigdor Ben-Gal. We did not meet to discuss the military aspects of the war, though he knows them inside and out. I met Hasdai to hear the thoughts of a wise, old man who knows what he is talking about. His outlook is very much in order, maybe too much. He is very pessimistic, but a devilish grin flashes on his face even when he is talking about the most serious things. During the course of our conversation he repeatedly corrects me when I use the word "trauma" to describe the war. He prefers to talk about the "upheaval."
Q: Can you still see vestiges of that upheaval in the present day?
"Of course. First of all, the Yom Kippur War broke the Israeli public's faith in its leadership. Do you know how revered [then-Defense Minister] Moshe Dayan was? How popular [then-Prime Minister] Golda [Meir] was? And after the war, everyone wanted them to resign. That line, that lack of faith in the leadership, is still with us today. It is a direct result of the war."
"The other thing is the crisis of faith we experienced regarding the integrity of the State of Israel. At the end of the Six Day War there was a clear sense that justice had won. We were right, so we won. From there, the conclusion was that the victory, the very victory itself, was proof of being right. Historians sometimes say that when, say, the Prussians defeated the French, then the Prussian spirit won. It is very flattering to the winners. It is slightly problematic for the losers. That is why the failure of the Yom Kippur War hit the Israeli public like a shockwave. The conclusion was, mainly among the Left, that the defeat meant that we were not right."
Q: Did the very faith in Israel's survivability and sustainability become damaged?
"Lack of faith in being right means lack of faith in the future."
Hasdai mentions Hanoch Levin's controversial play "Queen of a Bathtub" (1970). This radical protest cabaret was conceived in the aftermath of the Six Day War, but the Israel of those days rejected it outright. Queen of a Bathtub was seen as heresy, mainly, and as a mass shattering of taboos. It was seen as a pure abomination in terms of its style, which was filled with crude images and Holocaust jokes. But following the Yom Kippur War, Israel was ready to retroactively embrace the play, including its content and its style. And no, for Hasdai this is not an example of progress. In his view, the war left a mark on nearly every atom of the Israeli experience. It affected the political culture, and the culture in general, and the Israeli consciousness, and even the language that Israelis are now able to use to express themselves, or to listen to others express themselves.
"After the war, society became polarized, because of the crisis of faith in the leadership and the shame of the Israeli society as it searched for answers regarding the reasons for the failure. The only ones who offered answers were the two extreme ends of the political spectrum – Gush Emunim and Peace Now. Both had ready-made answers, but they were still answers. Gush Emunim issued a manifest that had already been prepared before the war. It was kept privately at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva, but now the time was ripe to distribute it to the public. Everyone was asking 'why did we fail?' and Gush Emunim had the answer: Because we didn't settle the land of Israel; because we didn't show the Arabs that they can't use force to break our will. The conclusion was, let's go to the settlements. The Yom Kippur crisis gave rise to the settlement enterprise, much more so than the Six Day War."
"The Peace Now people also came back from the Six Day War with the same tough questions. They, too, had formulated ready-made answers. After the Six Day War, there were two prominent figures who warned of the perils of the occupation: Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Amos Oz. But no one took them seriously until the Yom Kippur War. The big parties, Mapai for example, didn't even think [to engage Leibowitz]. You may recall that elections were to be held just before the Yom Kippur War, and the Labor Party's campaign slogan was "we have never been in better shape".
The fact is that no. I don't recall. Just like many Israelis who were children at the time. I only know the joke about that campaign slogan. After all, we are a generation of Israelis who were raised on parodies. We were served taboos that were already broken. We responded to "Queen of a Bathtub" with a yawn. It is unfathomable to me, however, that this slogan -- "we have never been in better shape" -- was ever said with a straight face. As a campaign slogan, no less.
Q: Wait a second. Didn't the Labor Party offer its own answers? Its own narrative?
"Oh! That brings us to another chapter: what the political echelon did. They provided no answers, and took no responsibility. In their minds, the public was simply wrong. This was not a failure at all, nor was it a defeat. That is why they appointed the Agranat commission – to calm the public down."
Hasdai's doctoral thesis revolves around the history of the Polish Jews and the struggle between the Hasidim and the Misnagdim. He says that delving into the history of the Jews is his great love, and it is where he draws the strength and passion to explore the Jewish present. When you listen to him speak, you get the sense that the idea to study Judaism in exile occurred to him there, during the meetings of the Agranat commission.
"When we were kids we made fun of them – the political leadership of the Labor Party. It was made up of people who came from the Diaspora. They were short. They spoke broken Hebrew. They pulled their pants up too high. I remember myself as a child, saying that when Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon get the reins, Israel will have a glorious leadership. And what did we end up learning? That these people, who came from the Diaspora, had an exceptional cultural code and excellent values. They led this country carefully and in moderation, but always forward."
"The Yom Kippur War was the first war in Israel's history in which native born Israelis had reached senior positions and had a profound effect on the political system. When the war was investigated, the infighting between the generals, which began in the midst of the fighting, emerged. How these people made political calculations, thinking about their voters, in the middle of a war! I read in the testimonies how one senior officer explains to another senior officer why the Suez Canal must be crossed in this way rather than that way. So this generation of Israeli leaders, native-born Israelis, failed in managing the Yom Kippur War, but it also failed in displaying values, both during and after the war."
Q: What is the most unforgettable moment of the commission's work?
"For me, the most unforgettable moment was from the war itself. On the second day of the war, October 7, Dado [then-IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar] arrived at the operations room in Um Hashiba [base] to authorize the plans devised by Arik [Ariel Sharon] and Ben [Avraham Adan] for a counter strike, which was supposed to start the following day and to push the Egyptians back beyond the canal. After the plans were presented to him, and he authorized all of them, he rose to his feet, turned around and faced all the officers sitting there, and said: 'friends, I would like you all to keep in mind that these two divisions are all we have between the canal and Tel Aviv.' That is when I realized that we were not a superpower or an empire. We were a tiny country whose existence was in jeopardy, and that if we failed to procure the resources and ingenuity required to defend ourselves, we would cease to exist."
Q: How different is the situation today?
"Let's put it this way: Israeli society is one that has grown accustomed to crises. In other words, it has developed a high sensitivity threshold. It takes a beating and keeps going. Some might interpret this as a good thing, because it doesn't get all worked up over trouble, and some might take it as a bad thing, because it is losing its danger antibodies."
"The Second Lebanon War [in 2006] was no less of a failure than the Yom Kippur War, though on a much smaller scale. But instead of sparking the enormous protest sentiments that the Yom Kippur War did, there was only a thin wave of protest that rose up and was quickly extinguished. I was very concerned."
"Following the Yom Kippur War, both before and after I was discharged, I felt that the outcome of the war was something much bigger than a limited local defeat. The main manifestation of this was when, after I completed my service in the Agranat commission, I resumed my work in the army and I wrote a report of my own private conclusions. I sent it in a letter to Shimon Peres, who was the defense minister then. I wrote to him that the war revealed several obvious military phenomena that contributed to the failure -- diminished military thinking, diminished quality of command and diminished values among the senior staff. After I analyzed these phenomena, I said: actually, these problems are not unique to the military. These are general social phenomena that are simply reflected in the military. When it comes to good military thinking, it requires imagination and creativity. It is like writing a poem or a book. It was clear within Israeli society in the years prior to the war that there were indications of a cultural decline, despite the euphoria and the self-confidence. This decline was evident first and foremost in the military."
Q: What cultural decline are you talking about?
"You want an example? When I was studying history at university, if I wanted to read articles by Gershom Scholem or stories by S. Y. Agnon, do you know where I found them? In the annual supplement published by (newspapers) Haaretz or Davar, which would come out occasionally at the beginning of the year for the benefit of the reading public in Israel. Toward the beginning of each year, each newspaper would issue a collection of articles that was worthy of their readers. At the beginning of the 1970s, they no longer did that, it was no longer important."
Q: What's wrong with apple cake recipes?
"I don't want to judge the situation today. All I want to do is to serve as a mirror: If you think you are better than others, provide certain parameters."
Many years ago, there were certain circles in which Hasdai's name was whispered as an option for a different kind of Israeli leadership. There were efforts to crown him a leader, but they were unsuccessful. He is part of that Israeli tradition of high quality individuals who could never elicit enough votes to even cross the minimum threshold to be elected. It is because they are too refined, to clean of thought, too principled, and therefore unwilling to play the political game. In most cases, they are also not very driven by a thirst for power, and don't really care about losing elections and happily reverting back to their writing desks, where they are most content. Maybe it is a shame.
I tried to get Hasdai to explain to me why the word "trauma" bothers him so much. When Menachem Begin announced the first Lebanon War, he stated two objectives: to destroy terrorist infrastructure in Lebanon and to free the Israeli people of the Yom Kippur trauma. In other words, in his mind, much like the leaders of the opposing party Mapai, the fact that the people may be right was not even a possibility. They felt that the people were simply traumatized, unjustifiably, and that they needed to be healed. Trauma has involuntary consequences -- psychological responses that occur during a crisis. But it is not something that you can learn from.
Q: With forty years of perspective, do we, as a society, look at the Yom Kippur War as a trauma, or have we learned something from it?
"The Israeli people emerged from that war mentally beaten, and the right thing to have done would have been to analyze the reasons for the failure, draw the conclusions and remedy the problems. It could have turned into a positive process of redemption and improvement of Israeli society. But that didn't happen."