It was the eve of Sukkot in 1973 (Tashlad) but, without needing to be announced, the holiday was clearly just an extension of Yom Kippur. That day, we understood that we were not standing on the brink of a flash victory. The prisoners were not just from the other side. We were waking up from the nightmare to an even more nightmarish reality. What we thought could never happened actually happened -- to us. And down there, in our "dungeon," was the picture of a nightmare both clean and comprehensive. Some colonel was prancing through the rooms wishing people a "Happy Sukkot" and it sounded like a stupid joke.
The sky collapsed above me, just as it fell in on all of us, five days earlier at two o'clock in the afternoon. I had been in synagogue all day. When musaf prayers ended and the sun signalled the time, I went home and met my wife and my one-year-old son. Then the siren rang. I am trying to reconstruct what was going through our minds at that moment on the fourth floor, in a building with no elevator.
It felt like a drill, but what kind of crazy man would schedule a drill on Yom Kippur? The neighbors' doors opened and we all started heading down to the small entrance of our home. We didn't have a bomb shelter. On the way, one of Gil's socks fell off his little foot. We did not notice, but he did, and with his tiny finger he ordered us to go back and pick up the sock. That moment remains in my memory.
Afterward, the reserve soldiers started coming. I went upstairs to my home, put on my uniform, went to Netanya to gather up the reserves squad I was in charge of, and then went back to my unit. On the way, the first news reports were already being broadcast through the transistor radios. The Egyptians had clearly launched an offensive against our forces stationed at the Suez Canal. It was also totally clear that, within a short while, the issue would be dealt with by the forces of good.
When the Six Day War started, I arrived almost directly from the gym. I was a sent with the 8th Armored Brigade, and I found myself stationed at the outposts in Sinai and the Golan Heights. I saw quite a few casualties on our side and countless dead Egyptians and Syrians -- the victory was equally astonishing and exciting, just like in the books: In spite of all the difficulties, we will always succeed.
The situation during the Yom Kippur War was different. I was a family man, an employee at Dvar, a PhD student at Tel Aviv University and a teachers assistant in the political science department. Moshe Dayan was my hero, Yisrael Galili seemed brilliant, Yigal Alon was a prince, Arik Sharon was the ultimate Israeli and Golda Meir seemed like a prime minister who knew what she was talking about.
I was very busy building my nest and I was a part of the collective blindness that prevailed between 1967 and 1973. Together with Dayan, I was waiting for a telephone call from Jordanian King Hussein. I though everything was okay and that, in the end, the Arabs would come and ask us to agree to a territorial compromise, and that we would agree -- because of the demographic problem -- without ever having to grovel at their feet.
The nightmare that materialized
But everything changed when I found myself in the Holy of Holies. When I saw the gray face of IDF Chief of Staff Dado mirrored in Dayan's visage, the despair in the generals' eyes who had arrived for the urgent meeting, and especially what was going through government and military wires -- some of which has become public since -- I was struck with disbelief.
The shock factor was not simply due to the fact that in one second all communication was severed. And it was not just because I heard several despondent voices ready for surrender. Rather, my disbelief emanated mainly from hearing our generals' conversations.
It was enough to hear the arguments between Shmuel (Gorodish) Gonen and Sharon to fully understand how badly the situation had deteriorated. Suddenly everyone was behaving as if all ranks had been removed, as if there was no tomorrow, and if there was, well no one would have to go through it together. Subordinates cursed their commanders and refused orders. All of the brazen self-confidence in ourselves that had been fortified over the past six years of blindness broke down into one great hysteria -- the nightmare that materialized, a situation with no one to hang on to, where no one would say "everything will be alright" as usual. Someone to trust. I couldn't cut myself off from the wires even after my shifts ended. There, the awful truth was laid bare minute by minute.
During such meetings, we saw how pathetic it was that we believed the settlements in Sinai could defend the heart of Israel. I recognized how insane it was to believe that schools in the Golan Heights could protect schools in the Galilee. We quickly retreated from the Golan Heights. The Syrian army reached Kibbutz Gadot in the Hula Valley and the IDF's withdrawal was actually delayed because our soldiers were defending the civilians and their children living in those settlements. The settlements became an impediment to security. Though the government was so proud of the "safety belt" the settlements comprised, it had failed to update its security assessment. It thought that right thing during the War of Independence was still the right thing during the 1970s.
During the Six Day War, our conduct failed to take in the bigger picture. From the transistor radio reports we learned about an occupation here or an occupation there. But when we galloped down to the center of the Sinai Peninsula we had no clue what was going on in Gaza. When we traveled north to the Golan Heights we had no idea how many soldiers had lost their lives during the war. But in the Holy of Holies six years later, the whole picture was becoming clear -- the vulnerability. Somehow, what happened in our totally secure headquarters was more frightening than any of the corpses I had encountered for the first time in my life during the Six Day War.
Just like after an earthquake
I remained in reserve duty for about six months, but I was able to return to routine between shifts, ever horrified by student absences in my classes. Some of them had been killed, the majority of them were wounded. For the newspaper I interviewed, among others, the families of missing persons -- parents who did not know whether their children were still alive, parents desperately searching, scrutinizing IDF photos, hoping to see their children in the blurry images from Israeli POW camps. I was afraid to speak with several of my acquaintances because I had no idea what happened to their children during the war. We were living as if we had just survived an earthquake.
My life changed that October in 1973. Though I was infuriated by our rather smug leadership, I was angrier with myself, that I had been a part of the herd. I was angry that I had devoted so much time to religious worship and so I weaned myself off that completely. I was angry that I had trusted the very people who spoke with total confidence about security, policy, the economy and society.
I promised myself that I would never again accept their words as absolute truth. I would always check, I would endeavor to be present so I could promote what I believed in. But this I say to my followers: The fact that I believe with all my heart in something does not mean that what I think is right. When you choose your leadership, do not switch to autopilot.