If Israel had a Churchill he would have said of the IDF’s Brigade 55, “Never did so many owe so much to so few.” These “few” (some 2,500 soldiers) liberated Jerusalem and the Old City in 1967. These same men crossed the Suez Canal in 1973, cutting off the Egyptian Third Army in the counter-attack that saved Israel in the Yom Kippur War. Then they led Israel into the great internal wars of recent decades: Some of the soldiers founded Peace Now, others, the settlers’ group, Gush Emunim.
Twins wrestling in the womb, arguing as only brothers can, but brothers — loving each other and loyal — still having their reunions and now having their story told in Yossi Klein Halevi’s brilliant new book, “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation” (HarperCollins), which follows these men into the private sector, into business and the arts, into the 21st century. It would make a terrific movie, or even a new book in the Bible — the necessary “scroll” to illuminate the soul and spirit of Israel: In it, one sees the hand of God; the calloused hands and once-calloused dreams of kibbutzniks and Israeli city kids; legends of death, love and defiance of the improbable. The paratroopers knew this was biblical from the beginning, with one of them, Hanan Porat, saying in June 1967, “We are writing the next chapter of the Bible.”
As the prayer goes, “Bayamim ha’haim, b’zman hazeh,” in those days, in these times. On the 40th anniversary of the three-week Yom Kippur War (in the secular calendar, Oct. 6-25), it still seems as fresh as the morning paper. Israel’s Ma’aleh film school has made “Prisoner” its free online film (www.maale.co.il) of the month; it’s a documentary by Isca Gur about her father, a Yom Kippur soldier who remains mentally broken, traumatized, decades after being captured by the Egyptians. And last week in Egypt, the morning papers reported that tens of thousands cheered deposed President Morsi when he said of the anniversary, “Today is a day of victory. This has been a happy day [since 1973] … Egypt retrieved not only our land but our dignity and pride.”
Were the Egyptians just anti-Zionist or was this “day of infamy” about a hatred more ancient? Porat told Halevi, “A war on Yom Kippur isn’t just a war against the Jewish people but against God Himself.” For soldier Yoel Bin-Nun, too, the war had spiritual meaning. What was God — and our enemies — trying to tell us with a war on Yom Kippur? The soldiers had just spent the better part of their day wondering “who by fire,” who being the state, not just the people. Bin-Nun, writes Halevi, saw “the Jewish people attacked on its holiest day, devoted to purification and atonement,” how could it not feel like the war of Gog and Magog in the End of Days? The gates were closing, said the Yom Kippur prayer, perhaps for Israel. Who didn’t think the shofar sounded like an air-raid siren?
On the morning of that Yom Kippur, Israeli leaders were fairly certain that Egypt and Syria were set to attack, but Israeli leaders, writes Halevi, “decided to absorb the first blow,” a gesture to whomever cared, “to prevent Israel from being marked the aggressor.”
By 2 p.m., writes Halevi, paratrooper Arik Achmon felt the ground shake, the sound of combat jets taking off from a nearby base. In the evening, remembers Yom Kippur War veteran Yori Yanover, “Israel was under a blanket of darkness. Car lights were painted over in blue or black. It felt more eerie and scary at home than at the front.” Yanover, a journalist, e-mails now from Israel, “We went to the Sinai, riding in a VW van impounded from its civilian owner under the war laws.”
Tens of thousands of Egyptians crossed the canal into Sinai where some 500 Israeli soldiers were stunned; 300 Israeli tanks met 1,300 Egyptian tanks; after the first day, less than 100 Israeli tanks were operative. Syrian troops poured into the Golan Heights, heading for the Galilee. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan wondered aloud if “the Third Temple” was about to fall. In desperation, Israel readied its nuclear silos, if Armageddon were to arrive before Sukkot, with its sense of the temporary, and winter closing in.
Yisrael Harel, at 34 one of the older soldiers at the time, told Halevi that he remembered thinking, “Imagine if the Arabs had launched a surprise attack against us from the June 1967 borders; they would have cut the country in half within minutes and we’d be fighting in the streets of Tel Aviv. … Now, surely even the most fanatical leftist would realize the danger of withdrawing from the territories.”
Gen. Ariel Sharon planned a counter-attack that some called crazy, with Israel crossing the Suez Canal, attacking from behind, splitting two Egyptian armies and cutting off their supplies: A job for Brigade 55.
Achmon told Halevi that as he worked out the logistics, he looked at his fellow soldiers, feeling a gratitude he didn’t know how to express. “There is nowhere else I would rather be but among these men. Civilians, but you’ll find no more dependable soldiers in any professional army. Men on whom you can depend not to panic under fire … who will risk their lives to evacuate you if you were wounded… The privilege of being one of them makes everything worthwhile.”
There were few paved roads in Sinai and a traffic jam developed. “There was a certain nobility to the traffic jam, strange as that sounds, in that no one was trying to return to Israel,” says Halevi. “Everyone was trying to go in one direction only — to the front. That was the spirit of the IDF. Men were saying, ‘My guys are at the front. I have to be with them.’”
Nearly two weeks into the war, the night of Simchat Torah, soldiers davened but were too drained to dance. Writes Halevi, “How to dance in proximity to slaughter?” One paratrooper, Menachem, called out, “Chevra, it’s Simchat Torah! Why are you sitting around like golems?” The weary men, ignoring their tired feet, formed a circle, their boots sinking in the sand. Menachem sang a fast-paced tune, “Behold, I am sending you Eliyahu HaNavi,” herald of the Messiah. These soldiers were fighting for past, present and future. Porat, writes Halevi, “closed his eyes and tried to recall the majesty of Simchat Torah [back home],” the strong young men, stomping their feet, dancing in circles, “repeating the same lyrics until they lost all sense of time…”
Porat’s friend, Abu Heimovitch from Kfar Etzion, who had missed his son’s bris at the beginning of war, crossed the canal in the first wave and was on patrol ever since. As Simchat Torah ended, Egyptian commandos attacked, putting a bullet in the new father’s forehead.
On Oct. 21, the IDF was 40 miles from Cairo; the Egyptian Third Army was cut off and surrounded.
Avital Geva of Brigade 55 heard the cease-fire announced on the radio. His soldiers were in houses on one side of a wide street. Egyptian soldiers were on the other side. The soldiers emerged slowly from both sides into the street and somehow started smiling and shaking hands.
When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem five years later, Geva remembered the strange beauty and possibility of that cease-fire, and Peace Now was born.
Meanwhile, says Halevi, “The Labor government had kept settlements to a minimum before ‘73. The younger generation of religious Zionists took the post-war moment to challenge Labor, badly weakened after the war. Gush Emunim [the religious settlement movement] was founded by Hanan Porat, basically in his hospital room while recovering from his wounds. Hanan resolved to save the spirit of ’67, which he saw threatened by the despair of ’73. Hanan thought the defeatism had to be countered with an optimistic message that he interpreted to be the settlements,” with their spirit of pioneering and integration with the biblical terrain.
Israelis are still debating if the war was a defeat (as Sadat declared it to be, and the State Department encouraged him to think so), the result of Israeli arrogance, poor preparations and diplomatic ineptitude, or was it the dazzling, inspirational come-from-behind victory that’s still studied at West Point? The war left no lessons so much as unresolved contradictions. Halevi quoted Ambassador Michael Oren’s observation that the Yom Kippur War led Yossi Beilin, now a political dove, to stop wearing tefillin and former army commander Effie Eitam to start, referring to two of the many Israelis whose beliefs were upended in the quake.
Forty years later,” says Halevi, “we’re beginning to heal. The emergence of a strong Israeli center, embracing lessons from both left and right, is an expression of that healing.
“I love all of them,” says Halevi of the soldiers he profiled. “I love their extraordinary dedication, their self-sacrifice…”
God must have loved them, too.