Sometimes numbers tell a story more poignantly than words could: In 1973, the year of the "Yom Kippur" war, the population of Israel numbered a mere three million. 3000 of them – 0.1% of the total population, were killed in that most traumatic of all Israel's wars. Taking into account the fact that almost all of the victims were young men, Israel lost some two percent of its young male generation in the course of two bloody weeks. In today's terms, it is like Israel 2016 losing 17,000 men. Inconceivable, as it was then.
Some more figures: over 50 % of the Israelis living now in Israel have not experienced that war, not even as little children. They were born, or immigrated to an Israel changed forever by those weeks in October 1973. Yet, even if they are oblivious to the impact of the war on them, they are affected by it. Either directly, by family tragedies or stories, or just by being born or coming to a country transformed by that war.
Gideon Avital dubbed those weeks "The war that never ends" in his recent book The Battle of The Memory. Avital knows it first-hand. During the war he served as an intelligence officer in a paratrooper battalion and fought in the battles at the "Chinese Farm" in Sinai, one of the bloodiest and most controversial episodes of that war. "The story of the Yom Kippur war is problematic," he later wrote in his Ph.D. thesis; "no clear-cut victory, no tangible memorial, no true victor to rise above all controversy, with almost no songs to commemorate it and no streets named after it."
All these make a striking contrast to the glorious victory of the Six Day War that gave its name to endless number of locations, streets, sites etc. Israel hardly ever commemorates the 600 soldiers who fell in 1967, and chooses to focus on the victory (even if some choose to see it as a disastrous turning point in the history of the new country); from the 1973 war it remembers mainly the 3000 dead soldiers and the anger directed at the leadership, an anger that refuses to fade away. That’s why over 40 years later Avital is still pondering the question why that war remains an open wound, why unlike other wars it refuses to be safely locked away in the pantheon of Israeli collective memory.
Forty three years later, sociologists still deal with the intricacies of its long-term impact on Israeli society. The conclusions are confusing and disturbing. They describe a society that lost a sense of proportion, incapable of clearly distinguishing between success and failure, immersed in denial on the one hand and obsessively focused on search of shortcomings on the other hand. Above all, a society avoiding real soul searching and assuming responsibility.
Why should it? All those responsible for that disastrous war cleverly managed to shirk blame or even responsibility. The national commission of inquiry appointed by the government after the war had a very limited mandate: no politician was indicted, no one found responsible. This is why the people wanted revenge, craved to punish those who lied to them and misled them. They needed a name attached to the sense of guilt.
”Members of the commission remained faithful to their mandate: making sure that what had passed would not repeat itself, rather than doing what the public expected them to do – namely carrying out political beheadings”, says Prof. Yoav Gelber, a former academic who was the military assistant to that commission.
Small wonder the public remained dissatisfied and resentful. The punishment came just four years later: 1977 elections put an end to what seemed to be an eternal rule of the Labor party, which was the ruling party since the establishment of the state in 1948. Likud, led by Menachem Begin, was not tainted by association with that war; it came to power to stay there, almost uninterrupted, until the present day. Yet even the new regime suffers from the residues of that war: the loss of trust in any establishment, the constant sense of suspicion surrounding politicians. It is not necessarily a bad thing, though experts on Israeli society believe this sentiment has never been really processed and adequately applied.
Those who are old enough to remember 1973, even vaguely, will never forget. Neither the sudden siren in the midst of the unnatural silence of Yom Kippur; nor the voice of then PM Golda Meir, lying on the radio, soon after Israel has been unexpectedly attacked on three fronts, that "we were not taken by surprise," nor the creeping feeling of disaster when news of the inconceivable number of losses knocked on so many doors in Israel.
Since then, the words "Yom Kippur war" or just "Yom Kippur" have become a synonym or nickname attached to every tragedy or disaster that befalls Israel. Even to any failure, not necessarily tragic, strangely enough. The media's failure to predict the outcome of an election will be dubbed the "Yom Kippur of the media." It means nothing and everything. That is what happens when a trauma stricken society does not make a full recovery.
Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of "The Million that Changed the Middle East."