Category Archives: anti-war

The trauma of October 1973

This is another autobiographical blog, an excerpt from Chapter 2 of a planned book about how my life has intersected with Israel-Palestine, the making and unmaking of a Zionist.

On October 6th 1973 I was in Heaton Park Synagogue for Yom Kippur attempting to complete the fast in my last year before my bar mitzvah, after which I would obliged to fast. I was seated with other youth in an area unused for most of the year, behind the bima (prayer platform) and flanked by the main doors, but needed during the well-attended services of the High Holidays. Other boys drifted in and out, but I was in my pious phase, taking repentance seriously and not joining the custom of hopping from one synagogue to another to see friends, treating the day as a seriously under-catered social event.

Sometime in the afternoon news began to trickle into the synagogue about the Egyptian and Syrian attack on Israel, which began at 2 pm local time. As we were not a very religious community, some of the congregation had perhaps turned on radios (in violation of the strictures of holy day) to find out how Manchester City were doing (it was a 1- 1 draw with Southampton). Even aged twelve, I knew this was a surprise attack, as there had been no escalation of tensions reported in the news. Common wisdom is that in 1967 Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora experienced the dread of annihilation for the first time since the Holocaust as tension mounted before Israel’s pre-emptive strike. Whatever the reality of the intentions and capacities of the neighbouring – or surrounding – Arab states, there was a palpable fear that Israel could be overwhelmed and destroyed less than two decades after its birth in war. Six and a half years earlier, I had picked up on that tension in 1967, so, perhaps for that reason, I was deeply fearful. This was not a distant fear, an anxiety that a country somewhere else could be defeated, but an immediate terror we would all be wiped out together. I summoned up the courage to walk across the synagogue to Rev Olsberg’s seat at the front, to ask him what he knew, whether the rumours were true. It was not the secular reassurance of my father I sought, but a higher cosmic authority. Rev Olsberg was as kind as ever, confirming he had also heard the reports and would be making an announcement in a break in the service. I prayed hard for the rest of the day, as if my repentance could somehow save Israel and bring God’s salvation.

The Yom Kippur services came to an end as night fell and we all hurried home to eat, turn on radios and televisions and learn the news, which was not good. But nor was it so bad that I remained gripped by terror. Instead of worrying that Israel was being overrun, concern shifted to former Habonim members my older sister knew who had settled on Mevo Hama, a kibbutz on the southern edge of the Golan Heights. If I remember correctly, they were evacuated in the confusion at the start of the war as Syrian troops advanced into the Golan. Mention of them was enough to shut up a classmate who made some off-colour remark to me about Israel not doing so well now, was it? Our youth leaders at Habonim gathered us together quickly and we spent an evening collecting money door to door for medical aid, though I am not sure which fund it did go to. Some of them also volunteered to go to Israel to work on kibbutzim, taking the place of mobilised reservists. A few days into the war, the news got better for Israel as its forces counter-attacked, and by the end of the fighting on October 25th Israeli forces had crossed onto the western side of the Suez Canal and encircled Egyptian forces who crossed onto the eastern side, in the Israeli occupied Sinai Peninsula. They had also blocked the Syrian advance into the Golan and captured a belt of Syrian territory that took them within striking distance of Damascus.  Yes, Israeli military dominance and confidence had been severely challenged by the initial surprise attack, but Israel was safe.

My understanding of the war was shaped by reporting in The Guardian and British television news – for a few weeks, at my older sister’s instigation, we watched both BBC and commercial ITV news, which we normally ignored.  More impressive for me than those media, though, was an Israeli propaganda film that was produced quickly and screened at Mamlock House, the local headquarters of the Zionist movement. The song that became the Israeli anthem of the war, Lu yehi (Let it Be) and which we had already learned in Habonim featured in it. The documentary ended on an optimistic note by picturing Israeli and Egyptian officers negotiating at Kilometer 101. I treated my classmates to a verbal version of it during an English class in which we read out some work. There was no divine intervention in this essay, but there were echoes of David and Goliath, with Israel as the small country surrounded by enemies attacked on its most holy day, with even school children mobilised in the war effort by painting car headlights blue. I was the perfect propagandist for Israel.

The Yom Kippur War – which is the only name I knew it by at the time, grew in significance for me in its aftermath. Our youth leaders came back with stories to tell, including stories about the torture and killing of Israeli prisoners of war by the Syrians, but also a more touching one about waving to a Jordanian farmer working on the other side of the border.[1] Soon after the war, my father went on a work trip to Israel and came back with what seemed like a whole suitcase full of gifts, including a record album titled “Songs Of The Yom Kippur War” in English but “The Last War” in Hebrew, after the song of that title performed by Yehoram Ga’on. I listened to it repeatedly, especially Chava Alberstein’s haunting rendition of Lu Yehi, while earnestly endorsing the sentiment of the Hebrew title song that this will be the last war – if only the Arabs would stop attacking us. Although it was only a few years before I began to acquire a more critical understanding of the war, at the time I would have been shocked if told what I know now; that the war could have been avoided if Israeli leaders had been more willing to heed President’s Sadat’s overtures of peace and territorial compromise; that the surprise attack was a major failure of Israeli political judgment and military intelligence, not for lack of information but for lack willingness to believe that Egypt and Syria would dare attack (as established by Israel’s Agranat Commission of inquiry, which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Golda Meir’s government in 1974); and that the Arab states aimed to recover territory captured by Israel in 1967, not to wipe out the country. In effect, Egypt achieved its war aims, opening the space for US Secretary of State Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy and leading first to the 1975 disengagement agreement with Israel which returned some of the Sinai, and then less directly – including the rise of the Peace Now movement – to the 1978 Camp David Accords, which returned the rest of the peninsula to Egypt. For all the pain and loss it caused, it was a war in which diplomacy was waged violently and militarily.

And yet something still remains. My adult, critical understanding cannot undo the horror I felt when I listened to voice recordings of Israeli soldiers in positions on the edge of the Suez Canal as they were being overrun by Egyptian forces. The terror of impending individual annihilation is compounded doubly. First, by a fear that in killing the individuals, the collectivity will also be extinguished and second, by a dread that this surely must not be happening, that now we are strong and able to defend ourselves, so if we are attacked, we will vanquish our foes. It is the same dread I felt watching the scene in the film Saving Private Ryan in which the Jewish character, Stanley Mellish, is killed in hand-to-hand combat by an SS soldier, who makes calming sounds to his victim as he pushes the knife into his chest. This too should not be happening, my body screams, the Normandy invasion is underway, the Nazis are being defeated, Mellish should be victorious. But there it is on the screen, a little Holocaust, the death of a single Jew that for the unbearable moment of the scene symbolizes the death of us all. So, the trauma of 1973 lingers, attaching itself to other traumas which cannot be dispelled by critical historical awareness, only by confronting the trauma.


  1. The stories of Syrian atrocities were true. See Wikipedia, “Atrocities Against Israeli Prisoners,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yom_Kippur_War#Atrocities_against_Israeli_prisoners. Accessed 21/1/2021.

David and Goliath, Part Two

David and Goliath by Titian, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (between 1542 and 1544)

From my perspective now, and while remaining thoughtful of and compassionate towards my eleven year-old self, with his sweet smile inherited from his mother and his curly ginger hair brushed as straight as it would go, I would want to push myself further in my analogy of the 1948 war to David and Goliath which I drew in my 1972 essay. It is not that I could expect of my younger self to know what I know now, that the victory in 1948 was not miraculous or righteous. The paramilitary forces of the Yishuv – the pre-state institutions of the Zionist community in Palestine – did relatively well in the civil war against poorly equipped and organized Palestinian and Arab forces from November 1947, when the United Nations voted to partition the British Mandate of Palestine, until May 1948. This was particularly so in the last few months, when the nascent state captured the main Arab and mixed cities on the coastal plane, Jaffa and Haifa, clearing those and other areas of Palestinian residents. There was a tougher spell, lasting twenty eight days, after British rule officially ended in May 1948 and Arab states advanced, but they were not dramatically better armed, numerous or coordinated compared to the newly-formed Israeli Defence Force, which was able to halt their advance. But they could not prevent the fall of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem – surely the most appropriate site for divine intervention. After the first truce, from 11th June to 8th July 1948, Israeli forces counter-attacked, now reinforced by Czech weapons and more recruits. They were mostly successfully except on the Syrian front, in a ten-day campaign followed by another violated truce. In subsequent Israeli campaigns against Egyptian forces in the south and the Arab Liberation Army in the north more territory was seized, and more Palestinians were expelled or fled, creating about 700,000 refugees as well as internally displaced people. The new State of Israel secured control over 78% of Mandatory Palestine, 22% more than it had been allocated in the UN Partition Plan, in a series of armistice agreements with the Arab states.

I could not know all of that then because Israeli New Historians had not yet written their rather more sober accounts of the war, based on released Israeli and British archives, in the late nineteen eighties. I followed the debate about the New Historians during my decade living in Israel, mostly based in the academic culture of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where their work was discussed in the cafetaria and in newspaper columns as much as in academic seminars. I also could not know then what I know now because I was a child, still living in a magical universe of divine intervention that made more sense to me than the results of careful archival work. In my world, the narrative of oppression and heroic redemption rang truer than one of successful institution and state-building.

What I could possibly expect of my eleven year-old self was to pay more attention to the story of David and Goliath. Somewhere in my early Jewish education I learned what is written in the First Book of Samuel 8, though whether or not we read it I cannot recall. The elders of Israel asked the prophet Samuel to appoint a king over them, “to judge us like all other nations. … and go out before us, and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:6, 20). God commands Samuel to “hearken to the voice of the people,” not because they are right, but because “they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them. They have forsaken me, and served other gods” (1 Samuel 8:7-8). God also tells Samuel to remind the people of what a king will expect from them, taxation, military conscription, and servitude, but they do not care. Another prize I was awarded by the Emmanuel Raffles cheder in December 1972, some months after I wrote the Israel essay, a four-volume history of the Jewish people,  Our People,can serve as a likely approximation to whatever I was told, because the first two volumes basically paraphrase Biblical history.[1]

The message I recall is that although Saul was selected by God through Samuel to be king, his anointment as king speaks to a deeper failing of faith among the Israelites who should not have wished to be like the other nations. Moreover, Saul was not a great example as a king. I have to look back at volume two of Our People to recall the details of Saul’s shortcomings, but one detail that was close to the surface of my memory is that Saul did not follow through on God’s instruction through Samuel to annihilate the Amalekites. He spared their King Agag and allowed their best cattle to be taken as spoils after defeating them in battle.  For this sin, Saul lost Samuel’s support and divine right to be king, which passed to David, still a shepherd boy. Subsequently, David comes into the royal circle as a lyre player and armor bearer for the melancholic Saul, prior to the story of Goliath.

In addition to knowing more of the back story to David and Goliath, as an eleven year-old I could have paid more attention to the details of the story. The Israelites under Saul and the Philistines were once again at war, but rather than engaging in full battle, the tall, mighty Goliath issued a challenge to individual combat with an Israelite champion to decide which side would vanquish the other. David, still caring for his father’s sheep, arrived at the scene to take provisions to his older brothers. David expressed surprise that no Israelite from among “the armies of the living God” (I Samuel 17:26) has the courage to accept Goliath’s challenge, word of which reaches Saul. Let us leave aside the oddity that Saul does not appear to know who David is when he is brought before him. Let us focus instead on the detail that David does not go out armed only with his slingshot and five stones against the well-armed Goliath for lack of equipment, but rather because when he tries on Saul’s armor and weapons he cannot walk with them. As David tells Goliath, whereas Goliath comes with his weapons, David comes in the name of God, to demonstrate divine might. David is the hero because, unlike Saul, who has not fulfilled the earlier expectation of the elders of Israel to go in front of their armies to fight their battles, he has faith in God. David is thus fit to become king, unlike Saul becomes increasingly jealous of David, even trying to kill him and forcing him to flee. Another element of David’s story which stuck in my mind is that, though he was a great king who built a united kingdom for all the Israelites, he had too much blood on his hands to become the builder of the new temple in Jerusalem.  

As an eleven year-old boy, I might then have been able to see that the story of David and Goliath is more complicated than that of a brave little underdog vanquishing its well-armed and larger enemy. I might have been able, with some prompting, to see that the story is as much about Saul’s unsuitability to be king as it is about David’s faithful, God-fearing bravery.[2] But it would have been too much of a jump for me to consider that the story can be read as an ongoing current of Judaic critique of the sort of power embodied by the modern sovereign nation state, which is what came about in the war of 1948 and is taken to be a fulfilment of the Zionist movement. The Israelites of Saul’s time demonstrated a lack of faith by wanting a king, so they could be like all other nations. State-focused Zionism – which eclipsed cultural Zionism and Zionism willing to have a Jewish homeland in Palestine within a bi-national state – demanded that the Jews to be like all other nations. It regards the power of a state as that which protects Jews from antisemitism both physically and by normalizing Jewish collective life as modern nationhood. Max Weber claims that the state is the “only human Gemeinschaft (community) which lays claim to the monopoly on the legitimated use of physical force. However, this monopoly is limited to a certain geographical area, and in fact this limitation to a particular area is one of the things that defines a state.”[3] The emphasis of the modern state is on secular might wielded in demarcated territory. That is Goliath’s power, not the power of religious faith or of a divinity intervening in human affairs. Yes, the Biblical narrative does proceed to legitimate David’s militaristic nation-building (though it is anachronistic to see a modern nation state in his kingdom). But the united kingdom does not last for long. Division (at first between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah) rather than unity characterizes most of Israelite life in its-post Exodus homeland. I would like to think that even at my early age, with a teacher asking the right questions, I might have been able to see that David’s faithfulness, his rejection of Saul’s armor, indicates an alternative line of Jewish legitimacy to Zionism and militaristic state-building, casting doubt that the latter is the divine destiny I took it to be.


[1] Jacob Isaacs, Our People: History of the Jews, Volume II (Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, Inc.: Brooklyn, NY, 1957), pp. 58-60. Unlike The Golden Thread and A Guide to Jewish Knowledge these volumes do not establish continuity from Biblical times to the modern day and the State of Israel, ending their account around 1000 C.E, after the writing of the Talmud and the end of the era of the Gaonim, when the Talmudic seminaries in Babylon closed. I am not sure I read all of this history at the time, but it does offer a model of rich, viable Diaspora Jewish life that is missing in accounts of Jewish history with a Zionist teleology that takes the Jewish State to be the pinnacle of history.

[2] Interestingly, Azmi Bisharah picks up on Saul’s jealousy of David’s military success as an angle for analysis when using the story as an analogy to analyse the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Azmi Bishara (2008) David, Goliath and Saul: repercussions on Israel of the 2006 war, Contemporary Arab Affairs, 1:2, 211-236, DOI: 10.1080/17550910801951755.

[3] Max Weber in Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, translated and edited by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters (Palgrave Books: London, 2015), p. 136.