Jewish History Blog
In the 1970s, for the first time Jews in the Soviet Union were allowed to leave – at first a small trickle and then a strong stream. Until then, it was inconceivable that the last few remaining Jews in the Soviet Union, who cared to identify themselves as Jews, would ever escape the prison of the Communist Utopia.
One has to remember that in the days of Stalin and Khrushchev Soviet Russia was a sealed fortress. People did not leave. One also has to remember that, by that time, the Soviet Union had been under communist rule for half a century. There had been no organized Jewish life. There had not even been a Jewish calendar published. There were no rabbis or Jewish education. Yet, somehow the spark of Judaism, and the spark of being Jewish, remained alive.
The spark of Judaism was preserved by underground groups, such as Chabad, along with the help of outsiders, such as Western Jews, who visited at great personal risk, discomfort and cost. Some came to teach in secret groups. All tried to bring with them prayer books, study books, and needed ritual items to help revitalize Jewish life in the Soviet Union. They were trained what to say to the KGB agents. They also needed to know what to say to the customs inspectors that went through their suitcases with a fine tooth comb.
Although generally a frightening experience, sometimes such encounters had humor, even hilarity, attached thereto. For instance one British “tourist” tried to bring in a chalaf – a very large, sharp knife used by ritual slaughterers to kill animals in accordance with kashrut laws. The customs inspector, looking shocked, asked the “tourist” – “What is this for? This big knife?”
The “tourist,” with the aplomb that only an Englishman can muster in a very ticklish situation, answered by taking out a salami that was also in the suitcase and sweetly replying: “Well, I have to cut my salami with something!” The knife made it through the customs inspector.
Another example: An extremely ingenious traveler took special black ink, used exclusively for safrut – the writing of the script in a sefer torah, tefilin and mezuzot – in a Coke bottle in his hand luggage. Unexpectedly the customs official in Moscow confiscated this bottle as a symbol of Western decadence attempting to contaminate the Soviet Union. At first, the traveler was in a state of great exasperation, but then his mood changed, almost hilarious at the idea of the official guzzling the contents of that bottle.
Through untold numerous acts of selfless devotion, there was a significant revival of Jewish life in the Soviet Union. People began to study Torah and observe the traditions – at the risk of everything. Eventually it was the movement of the Jewish refuseniks and the pressure to allow Soviet Jewry to leave Russia that helped cause the “evil empire” to crumble.
And that Jewish basis which on the surface appears to be purely nationalistic is really an expression of Jewish faith and religious belief, for all Jewish nationalism is rooted in the ideas of Torah and Jewish tradition. The fact that the decades of anti-Jewish and anti-religious repression were not able to snuff that spark is itself a testament to the eternal quality of the Jewish people – not to mention the momentous times in which we live. Few would have imagined a decade earlier that such a thing could have occurred.
A moment immortalized: Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall immediately after its recapture in 1967, almost 2,000 years since the Jews had controlled the area last.
On Monday morning, June 5, 1967, Israel launched a devastating preemptive attack against Egypt — which, in defiance of treaties, marched a huge army into the Sinai Peninsula near the Israeli border and began public pronouncements, many from its president, Gamal Nasser, that it was going to annihilate the Jewish state.
Even as the Egyptian air force was wiped out, and its ground forces were getting slaughtered in the deserts of Sinai, Egyptian radio was broadcasting its glorious victories: They were bombing Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, destroying the enemy with impunity, etc.
Believing the propaganda, King Hussein of Jordan decided to enter the war. He thrust forward in the expectation of taking Jerusalem.
There were a number of pitched battles. However, the Jordanians were soon outflanked and retreated. The Israelis finally surrounded the area of the Old City itself. They attacked on Wednesday morning in a charge through the northeastern gate of the city, the Lion’s Gate.
Chief chaplain of the Israeli army, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, blowing the shofar moments after Jewish soldiers liberated Judaism’s holiest site, the Wailing Wall. Soldiers sang and danced. Others wept openly as they came to the scene.
Miraculously, the Jordanians did not put up much resistance and fled. Surprised at the speed of their own success, the Israelis proceeded down the streets and alleyways of the Old City of Jerusalem until they made their way to the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, the last remnant of the Temple that had last been in Jewish hands almost exactly 1,900 earlier.
This is when that memorable photograph was taken of young Israeli soldiers embracing each other and looking up with awe at the ancient stone wall in the background. The moment was also immortalized when the chief chaplain of the Israeli army, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, blew the shofar. Soldiers sang and danced. Others wept openly as they came to the scene.
The event was broadcast live on Israeli radio to a stunned nation overwhelmed with two millennia of bottled up emotion. Upon hearing the news, Jews the world over were speechless. Strangers embraced each other. It was an open revelation of a Hand in history that sometimes we find hard to see.
One rabbi remembers Golda Meir coming to his area to speak just after the end of the war for a bond drive. At the podium she began to speak about the conquest of Jerusalem, and although she was a very tough woman she broke down and wept. And the entire audience wept with her. People did not only give money, but in one instance a man came up and gave her his gold cufflinks right off of his shirt!
The war ended a week before Shavuos, the Jewish holiday commemorating the revelation at Mount Sinai some 3,300 years earlier. The night before this first Jewish holiday with the Western Wall back in Jewish hands, people from all over Jerusalem started converging on the area at 3:00 in the morning. And it was not the reconstructed plaza that exists now, but a narrow alley. Everyone went – religious and non-religious.
To some it felt like the Messiah had arrived. The sound of the footsteps alone, from the hordes of people marching toward the center of the newly reacquired ancient capital, could literally be heard.
At 4:00, when the sun rose, the Western Wall was packed as never before to experience this first Shavuos after the capture of the Old City. This was emblematic of the great spiritual reawakening that existed, at least for a short period of time. It was certainly one of the most dramatic moments in Jewish history.
Jewish history and Jewish destiny had converged in a brief moment in time.
Menachem Begin protesting against the Reparations from Germany Agreement in March 1952. The sign reads: “Our honor shall not be sold for money. Our blood shall not be atoned by goods. We shall wipe out the disgrace!”
To accept or not to accept? That was the question.
On top of all the new economic and military problems the new State of Israel had to face, it had to deal with one of the most explosive and emotional issues imaginable: Should they accept reparations from Germany?
Dr. Nahum Goldman, and the World Jewish Congress, negotiated the matter and signed a reparations agreement in 1952. Under this agreement, Jews who suffered personally were entitled to reparations, and the state itself received a grant of $750 million to be paid over 12 years. It also received a great deal of industrial goods and infrastructure, including German railroads, trucks, buses, etc.
This issue struck to the emotional core. It ripped the country in half. Even today, after time has taken its toll, it can lead to heated feelings. Back then, the wounds were still raw, the nerve still exposed.
Menachem Begin was thrown out of the Knesset for calling to reject any reparations coming from Germany. He threatened civil war over it. He was quoted in the newspaper as saying:
When they [the Haganah] fired on us with their canons, I gave the order: No [referring to the 1948 incident of the Altalena]. Today I give the order: Yes. This will be a war of life or death….
Go surround the Knesset, as in the days of Rome. When the Romans wanted to set up an idol in the Holy Temple the Jews came from all corners of the country, surrounded the building and said, ‘Over our dead bodies.’ To this Knesset, I say there are things in life that are worse than death….
We will give our lives. We will give our families. We will say good-bye to our children. But we will not accept money from Germany. I know that you [Ben Gurion’s government] have power. You have prisons, camps, an army, police force, detectives, artillery and machine guns. I know you can drag me off to a concentration camp. We will sit together with them. If necessary we will die together with them. But we will not accept reparations from Germany.
Begin was suspended from the Knesset for three months over this speech. (Begin holds the record for the most and longest suspensions in the Israeli Knesset. That is why his election as Prime Minister years later was such a startling event.) Despite his strong words, the matter was brought to a vote and passed in the Knesset 61-50.
By the end of 1965, Israel had received $822 million in German reparations. (As an aside, it was West Germany that paid all the reparations. East Germany, under Soviet control, claimed innocence. It was all the Fascists’ fault, they said.) Without them, it is hard to imagine how the country could have been built. However, it was a terrible thing because it carried the implication that somehow the account had been squared.
Of course, from a human standpoint it was not and could never be compensated for. But even from a monetary point of view, it is estimated that the Jewish people lost between $10-12 billion worth of property as a result of the Holocaust. The $822 million though vital did not even get near that figure. At the same time, it increased the moral dilemma and divided the country bitterly.
The Knesset: Israeli politics are arguably the most raucous in the world. The 1949 presidential elections set the tone.
On February 16, 1949, the election of the first president of the State of Israel took place. There were two candidates: Professor Chaim Weizmann, the candidate of Ben Gurion’s Mapai party, and Professor Yosef Klausner, a strong right-wing nationalist and the candidate of Menachem Begin’s party, the Herut. Klausner had no chance. Everyone knew Weizmann was going to win.
Although this would lead one to believe that the nomination of Weizmann was a mere formality that would not engender any political acrimony (at least outwardly), when his nomination was submitted by a member of the Mapam party, Mr. Parry, he said, “Our faction has decided to support the candidacy of Dr. Chaim Weizmann. In so doing, we demonstrate our appreciation of his personality and his labors over the years on behalf of the Zionist enterprise, as well as his loyal cooperation with the pioneers in the Land of Israel. At the same time, we wish to make it clear that our support for Dr. Weizmann does not indicate at any point support for his past or future political programs. We particularly favor Dr. Weizmann over the candidate of Herut Movement Begin’s party, founded by the Irgun, whose character and ambitions are unfortunately well known.”
After he spoke, the Herut representative spoke: “The Herut Movement cannot support Chaim Weizmann because the President of Israel must be a wise and devoted man who reflects the tradition of those who pave the way for their people. We will cast our vote instead for Yosef Klausner who has told the whole glorious story of our earlier wars of liberation and who has provided the basic text for a whole generation of fighters and rebels. As for what Parry said a moment ago, I have only one comment: we do not deem it necessary to argue with collaborators, and we do not intend to begin now.”
Chaim Weizmann: Paper announcing his election as Israel’s first president. There were cries of “Boo!” “Fascist!” “Mussolini!” “Collaborators!” by the opposition when he was nominated.
This last remark touched off an uproar in the hall. There were cries of “Boo!” “Fascist!” “Mussolini!” “Collaborators!” The candidate for the Communist Party announced that they would vote for neither Weizmann nor Klausner.
This was the flavor of Israel politics from the beginning – even before the first president was elected. And that flavor has not changed. It is arguably the most raucous Parliament in the world.
Yosef Klausner: “[His] character and ambitions are unfortunately well known,” clamored the opposition, at his nomination.
When the PLFP, and offshoot of Arafat’s PLO, hijacked three planes in 1970 it introduced the world to modern terrorism, and it has never been the same since.
The stalemate that followed Israel’s convincing victory in the Six Day War produced a new Arab organization, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Its leader, Yasser Arafat, represented a radicalization of the Arab position. Since the Arab countries no longer believed that they could outright win a war with Israel, the PLO would fight the war with its own tactics in its own way. The Israelis did not, initially at least, take the PLO very seriously.
However, Arafat and his cohorts embarked on a campaign of terror that made sure everyone knew of their existence.
The most highly publicized event took place in September 1970 when armed Arab terrorists simultaneously took over three commercial airliners and brought them to Jordan. They then separated the Israelis and Jews from the non-Jews and kept them hostage in the hot desert for many days. It only ended when King Hussein of Jordan moved against the PLO because he was convinced they were going to dethrone him. Fighting between PLO forces and Jordanians broke out in the streets of Jordan.
The Jordanians finally drove the terrorists out of Jordan, and the PLO called it “Black September.” Nevertheless, the genie of terrorism was let out of the bottle, and no one has been able to put it back in again.
The Israelis retaliated, of course. However, the nature of a war on terror is that no matter how much one retaliates the war is never won. The most one can do is try to contain it and control to the extent one can, to minimize the casualties. After it seems over a new act of terror hits the headlines.
It seemed like every day the newspapers reported on fresh horror stories. Hijackings of planes, as well as buses in Israel, along with attacks on Israelis around the world became almost common occurrences. The prospect of gangsterism, the likes of which the world had imagined was a thing of the past, shattered the illusion that civilization had moved beyond the Middle Ages, with its kidnappings, random terror and cruelty. People in the 20th century somehow believed that the world had improved. Now, faced with the reality of modern terror, people understood that the world had really not advanced very far, if at all.
It is true that there have been and there still are other terrorist groups operating in the world that are non-Muslim. Yet, in today’s world they are to a great extent, students and heirs of the Arab terror networks that have made unrelenting war against Jews and the State of Israel over the past century. It was Arafat and the PLO that brought to the world’s attention the gifts of plane hijackings, suicide bombers and random, indiscriminate terror against innocent civilians.
On September 11, 2001, America and the West were rudely introduced to this type of war — a war not about conquest, territory, trade or national honor (the time-honored usual reasons for war in the past), but a war for the preservation of the values of Western civilization. Until then, Israel had borne the brunt of this struggle against Arab-Islamic fundamentalism and terror.
It is true that there have been and there still are other terrorist groups operating in the world that are non-Muslim. Yet, in today’s world they are to a great extent, students and heirs of the Arab terror networks that have made unrelenting war against Jews and the State of Israel over the past century. It was Arafat and the PLO that brought to the world’s attention the gifts of plane hijackings, suicide bombers and random, indiscriminate terror against innocent civilians.
No amount of currently politically correct whitewashing and moral equivalency hand wringing can change those bald facts of history and life. The world needs to be reeducated to accepting the truth and seeing the real facts.
The world changed when Yasser Arafat became the father of modern terrorism, and today the specter of terrorism is now part and parcel of our lifestyle.
The Davidka, a tremendously noisy mortar – that was extremely inaccurate and of little tactical value. Nevertheless, it helped the Israelis capture Safed during the War of Independence in 1948 when the Arabs mistook it for the atom bomb…
Even as Israel declared its statehood on May 14, 1948, five mechanized Arab armies invaded. The Jews had only 35,000 fighting men, no air force (except for a small training plane out of which the pilot dropped a grenade) and only six tanks. The Egyptian army alone had 40,000 soldiers, 135 tanks, heavy guns and an air force of over 60 planes, including Spitfires and bombers. The Jordanians had the Arab Legion, which trained by the British and led by an Englishman, Sir John Bagot Glubb, along with 48 British officers.
Yet, against all odds, the Jewish fighters won. Many of the pitched battles became epic and smacked of the miraculous.
For example, the Egyptian army launched an attack along the Mediterranean coast against the kibbutz Yad Mordechai on May 19, 1948, as part of an offensive to take Tel Aviv. Two infantry battalions, one armored battalion and one artillery battalion expected to take the kibbutz of 130 residents in three hours. The battle raged for days. The Jewish defenders held off the entire Egyptian army much longer than anyone expected, using homemade weapons that many times did nothing more than make noise. They even used mock soldiers made out of wood, which they moved from trench to trench, in order to give the appearance of greater numbers. Although the Egyptians eventually broke through they were now days behind schedule and their morale was badly shaken.
The Jordanians meanwhile had a very strong grip on the Old City of Jerusalem. Three times the Israelis tried attacking at a point called Latrun, but were unsuccessful. The road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv remained cut. Jerusalem would have succumbed to siege if not for the discovery of an ancient Roman road that turned south of the city and then turned west until it turned north. A great deal of this road was constructed by religious Jews from Meah Shearim in the dead of night to avoid Arab snipers. The final road was bumpy and laden with holes, but it was a road. It enabled trucks to come into Jerusalem and effectively break the siege. The result was a stalemate around Jerusalem.
In the north, the Arabs were encamped at the top of Har Canaan, which overlooks Safed. It was a virtually impregnable position. The Jews could not gain control of the road to Safed or this city itself as long as they were there. Then the Israelis then brought up the Davidka, a tremendously noisy mortar – that was extremely inaccurate and of little tactical value.
One Friday afternoon, the Israelis fired a Davidka several times — and then a miracle happened: it rained. It never rained in May and June there. The Arabs were now sure that the Jews had the atomic bomb. What else could make it rain?
Consequently, they fled their impregnable positions on top of Har Canaan. The Israelis captured Safed and drove the Arabs out of the entire northern area of the Galilee.
These are only a few examples. For the believing Jew, there were nothing short of miracles, direct signs of the Divine Hand in Jewish history.
With the War of Independence still raging, the war for Israel’s survival was just beginning. And, unfortunately, it continues to this day. Nevertheless, the pendulum of history has arguably never swung more widely than from the end of the Holocaust in 1945 to the birth of the Jewish state in 1948. To many people, God’s promise to return the Jews to their homeland was emerging before their eyes in miraculous fashion.
The evacuation of the Israeli settlement Yamit in northeast Sinai in fulfillment of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
After the Six Day War in 1967, Israel found itself in control of the Sinai Peninsula. This was the third time the Israelis had taken over the Sinai Peninsula. In 1948, England and the world forced them to leave it. In 1956, the United Nations forced them to leave it. Now they were there again. The United Nations wanted them to leave but by this time Israel was deaf to their calls to evacuate.
Instead, Israel made a fateful decision not only to keep the Sinai but to colonize it. One reason was the discovery of oil there, especially off the Gulf of Suez. And Israel began building the infrastructure to drill for it: rigs, pipelines, etc. They developed it to such an extent that they became practically self-sufficient in oil from the Sinai alone.
To date, the Sinai-for-peace deal has held for more than three decades. Now, however, it too is threatened… Will the peace hold or will Israel have to go back into the Sinai yet again? Time will tell.
The second reason was that the Sinai provided a tremendous military buffer between Israel and Egypt. They built large air bases and radar defenses in the Sinai. Later, they also built what became known as the Bar Lev Line, a line of fortifications on the eastern side of the Suez Canal. After investing $300 million in the Bar Lev Line, not to mention hundreds of millions more into the air bases, roads and other infrastructure in the Sinai, Israeli decided to build a model city in the Sinai: Yamit, situated at the end of the Gaza Strip. It was intended to show that the Sinai had the potential to support a large Israeli city and seaport.
However, again it was another example of a great commitment of money and human capital based on a policy that was unclear. Yamit would turn out to be a depressing chapter in the history of Israel rather than an inspiring one. In the Camp David agreements of 1978, Israel would return the Sinai in exchange for promises of peace. That would include giving the Egyptians the oil wells they had built and dismantling Yamit.
The abandonment of Yamit also extracted a great human toll. The Jews who had been lured by the government to settle there and develop it did not take kind to the demand that they leave behind their homes and the lives they had built. Scenes that tore at the heart of the country, of Jewish soldiers forcibly removing the Jews of Yamit, who resisted the evacuation, played on the television for all to see. The ordeal left an emotional scar on the nation, but in the end Yamit was given up for the sake of peace.
A similar evacuation took place in 2005 when Israeli soldiers forcibly removed thousands of Jews from their decades-old home in Gush Katif — not far from Yamit. Far far from creating peace, this unilateral withdrawal only gave terror groups like Hamas a foothold in the area from which to attack Israeli citizens.
To date, the Sinai-for-peace deal has held for more than three decades. Now, however, it too is threatened with a new Islamist government in Egypt – especially with the development of Israel reluctantly permitting Egypt to send in tanks and other military paraphernalia to quell terrorist activity in the Sinai. Will the peace hold or will Israel have to go back into the Sinai yet again? Time will tell.
The aftermath of the Yom Kippur War brought about an earthquake in Israeli politics and the Jewish world in general.
Instead, Israel found itself in a terrible situation: isolated diplomatically, weighed down under tremendous economic pressures and fearful of a new wave of anti-Semitism that swept the world. When Yasser Arafat appeared before the United Nations and put his gun on the table, and the whole world stood up and cheered, it was a frightening moment for the Jewish people.
The Israeli government in charge during the Yom Kippur War, including Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, had to resign. They had been heroes – legends. But now that whole generation was discredited by the Yom Kippur War. The mood in the country, even after pulling victory out of the jaws of defeat, was black.
In Golda Meir’s place, Yitzchak Rabin became prime minister. He was supposed to represent the new generation of the Labor Party; the first prime minister now born outside the State of Israel. He was supposed to understand the inner workings of Israeli society. Yet, his tenure was short-lived.
Menachem Begin Begins
Menachem Begin had for 30 years been a political outcast. He had the unenviable record for the most number of ejections from the Israeli parliament. He was not looked upon a buffoon as much as a person to be pitied, as someone who had followed his ideology to its illogical conclusion and would never come to power.
However, Begin was able to put together one of the most unlikely coalitions in the history of the Israeli electorate at that time. In addition to right-wing parties, his ticket attracted a disaffected middle class who saw in the policies of the Labor Party only further economic disaster and, more revolutionary, an entire generation of Sephardic voters, Jews from Arab and Oriental countries who felt that they were being discriminated against by the left-wing government. They felt that their chance to have a meaningful voice in the Israeli society could not come through the Labor Party.
Begin also had a great deal of personal charisma, something which none of the Labor leaders had. They were bureaucrats, not inspiring leaders.
Furthermore, Begin combined in himself a strong sense of Jewish tradition. Though his party, the Herut, was as populated by as many secular and anti-religious Jews as the Labor Party, Begin in his own way was probably the most religiously observant of all Israeli prime ministers. He had made a personal commitment to a religious member of the Knesset that he would not desecrate the Sabbath. He prayed every day and donned tefillin. He was not embarrassed even in the most public places to put a yarmulke (head-covering) on his head and recite a blessing – actions that would have been undreamt of by Rabin or Peres at the time.
For all those reasons, religious Jewry had a warm spot for him and their votes helped swing power to Herut, who pulled off the astonishing surprise victory.
Consequently, in 1977, for the first time since the state was founded in 1948, the Labor Party did not rule the government. It was a stunning upset. Although Labor would win later elections, this turning of events signaled the high water mark of Socialism in Israel. The receding tide of Socialism all over the world was now visible in Israeli politics. Begin’s ascent to power characterized that.
Begin took over a country that was broken economically and depressed psychologically. It needed a great deal of morale building.
In one of his early speeches, Begin remarked that he invites Sadat to come to Jerusalem without preconditions to settle the conflict. The invitation did not make the front page of the New York Times. It was just rhetoric. No one expected anything to come of it.
However, Sadat – who was wily, shrewd and opportunistic – realized this was an opening. After the Yom Kippur War, he understood that he did not really have much more than when he began. He also was looking desperately to break his dependence upon the Soviet Union and join the West.
Therefore, one day Sadat, perhaps also rhetorically, announced that he was ready to fly to Jerusalem and address the Israeli Knesset. Whether or not Begin was serious in his initial offer, he now had no choice but to accept.
In the United States, Jimmy Carter had recently been elected president. There was a lot of shuttle diplomacy, broken promises, accusations, etc. Finally, a basic deal was struck: Israel would return the Sinai in exchange for promises of peace. The peace between Israel and Egypt would be a cold peace, but it would be peace.
The Arabs have a bad habit that anyone who talks peace with the Jews gets killed. That inhibits negotiations. It certainly is enough to frighten an Arab leader from making commitments. The greatest proof of that would be Sadat himself, who would be assassinated by fellow Arabs for his peace efforts.
The Teshuvah Movement
The early 1980s marked the rise of a phenomenon that the early generations thought impossible: the Teshuvah Movement, a return to religion by those originally reared in a completely secular fashion. It was not limited to Israel, but existed very strongly there.
The numbers were not large per se, but significant – especially in light of the fact that the returnees came from all walks of life and often represented secular success stories. For instance, Uri Zohar was one of Israel’s most visible and successful entertainers. He not only became a baal teshuvah, one who returns to his Jewish roots and practices the religion, but grew a long rabbinic beard and took up full time learning in an advanced academy (a kollel for married men) in Bnei Brak, the heart of what secular Israeli’s viewed as old-world religion.
Israelis like to pass off such transformations as the actions of fanatics or those who were incapable of succeeding in the secular world. However, Uri Zohar and others (including senior officers in the army) had not only been successful – indeed, represented the height of success – but were able to articulate their views with intelligence.
Organizations that attracted baalei teshuvah (plural of baal teshuvah) came to the fore. Educational institutions designed specifically to cater to the unique needs of secularly-raised Jews, including schools for young women, developed. An entire network built on the principle of outreach to other Jews sprung as if from thin air.
The success reached such proportions that it brought about a reaction. For instance, when a particularly high-ranking pilot announced he was leaving the air force to take up full time study, Rabin, who was the Minister of Defense, announced that he was forbidding religious lecturers from speaking to the army.
Though numerically the Teshuvah Movement may not have been overwhelming, psychologically it was of enormous import. Israel was created and dominated early by secular, even anti-religious Jews. They had assumed that traditional, observant, Orthodox Judaism was dead. David Ben-Gurion based early concessions to the religious community – such as army exemptions for yeshiva students — on the assumption that it would completely vanish in a generation. Now they realized that the Orthodox were not going to disappear – if anything, secular Zionism was dying out. The situation demanded an entire new set of rules than what they had been brought up to believe in.
The Lebanon War
In 1981, there were calls for new elections. The polls showed that Labor, with Shimon Peres at its head, would win. At the end of the campaign, at a rally, he blundered terribly and made an ethnic slur against the Sephardim. He did not do it with malice or forethought, but it slipped out anyway. In the last week, public sentiment swung to Begin and he won again.
Begin formed a new government, and, under the prodding of Sharon, looked for an excuse to eliminate the PLO once and for all. The PLO gave them that excuse when they shot the Israeli ambassador to London in January 1982. Then from their bases in south Lebanon they rained rockets on Israeli settlements in the Galilee.
Finally, in June 1982, Israel initiated Operation Peace for the Galilee. It was a war that began with high hopes. Militarily, the Israeli army destroyed all the bases of the PLO and other terror groups in Lebanon. They defeated a large segment of the Syrian army and shot down over 80 planes with 0 losses of their own.
But they went too far. They encircled Beirut, where the PLO fled to. It was a lose-lose situation. They could not dislodge the terror group without devastating the general population and city. They also made a tremendous mistake when they sided themselves with the Phalangists, a Christian Arab group hoping to regain power in Lebanon. The Phalange army entered two Arab refugee camps and massacred the men, women and children. The Israelis were blamed — either because they were aware or should have been aware of it beforehand. But they were blamed.
In the end, the PLO agreed to leave Beirut if Israel withdrew. The PLO left, Israel withdrew from around Beirut, but not long after the PLO returned anyway. For all its efforts and early victories, Israel gained nothing. Indeed, they lost whatever diplomatic leverage and world sympathy they may have had.
On top of everything, the war was very costly economically and resulted in runaway inflation, driving the country almost to bankruptcy. As the final blow, after Menachem Begin’s wife passed away, he lost heart and resigned.
A History of the Jews
The Jewish Sages commented that in the End of Days, light and dark will function in unison with each other. There will not be a unified gray, but pockets of light co-existing with pockets of darkness. That explains the situation for Jews in Israel and the world.
On one hand, more Jews are returning to their religious roots and more Jewish young men are studying since the time of the Babylonian Talmud. At the same time, Jewish assimilation and intermarriage have reached epic proportions. In all the peripheral, outlying Jewish communities around the world Jews are disappearing. The odds of Jewish survival look dim there.
However, if someone were to ask of the odds of Jewish survival in the Middle Ages or even as recently as the 1940s it did not look promising. The innate quality of the Jewish people to survive is really the hallmark of Jewish history. That hallmark, believing Jews believe, is nothing less than the hand of Providence. The providential hand is not miracles. God, in His own way, is much less dramatic than we want. This does not make God’s hand less, but allows us to see the greatness of the historic process in the Jewish people.
Paul Johnson, a non-Jew, in his A History of the Jews, wrote:
What are we on earth for? Is history merely a series of events whose sum is zero? Is there no fundamental moral difference between the history of the human race and the history of ants? Or is there a providential plan of which we are however humbly somehow agents?
No people have ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and that humanity has a destiny. At a very early stage in their collective existence they believe they detected a divine scheme for the human race of which their own society was the pilot. They have worked out their role in immense detail. They have clung to it with heroic persistence in the face of savage suffering…. The Jews, therefore, stand at the center of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of purpose.
The euphoria that enveloped the Jewish world after the Six Day War was to a great extent short-lived. The deliverance from the threat of total annihilation and the startling, unexpected and overwhelming victory made 1967 to 1969 years of unlimited optimism.
When the war ended Moshe Dayan remarked that he was waiting at the phone for King Hussein to call, because it was obvious that now a deal could be struck. At last, there would be an end to the Arab-Israeli problem.
However, the Arabs proved extremely tenacious in their hatred – even where it was counter-productive. It is an unrelenting, unending, illogical hatred. The Arab states had a post-war conference, the Khartoum Resolution of September 1, 1967, in which they decided what become known as the “Three No’s”:
- No recognition of Israel
- No peace with Israel
- No negotiations with Israel.
Through this policy the Arabs perpetuated the struggle in such a way that no peaceful settlement could arise. There was no room for negotiation. In effect, Israel was locked into its victory.
And Israel did not know what to do with its victory. In retrospect, the Six Day War has to be seen as a lost opportunity – diplomatically, socially, economically and religiously. None of the dreams came to fruition. That gave it a bittersweet quality.
Israel began to settle the Golan Heights immediately. Syria was its most implacable enemy and the Golan Heights represented the greatest threat. Over all the years the Syrians had constantly shelled Israeli settlements of there. Therefore, Israel was determined that the Golan Heights would never go back to Syria. In order to make certain of that, Israel began to put settlements there. It was turned into a Jewish area. Many, many settlements were built in the ensuing five years after the Six Day War.
The city of Jerusalem was reunited. The Arab population was given full rights as citizens, participating in all the municipal services, elections, etc. All of the areas around the Old City were now built up with Jewish settlements. Even the Jewish Quarter of the Old City was refurbished. Original owners came with their deeds to prove that they owned the apartments and buildings.
There had been 42 synagogues under Jordanian rule; all had been destroyed by the Jordanians. Many of them now underwent renovations. The plaza was created in front of the Western Wall to provide physical access for tens of thousands of Jews to worship there on a regular basis. Jerusalem became a tremendous bustle of activity.
But Israel did not, for instance, settle the West Bank immediately after the Six Day War. Government policy was not to go beyond the Green Line, as it was called. The reason is because the government hoped against hoped that it would one day “receive the phone call” from the Arabs seeking peace. In anticipation of that call they didn’t want the matter complicated by having Jewish settlements.
War of Attrition
Although the Jews hoped for peace, Nasser’s policy of the “Three No’s” insured a perpetual state of war. As King David had said long before, “I am for peace, but they speak of war.”
Nasser decided that he would remind Israel that a state of war existed, and began what would be called the War of Attrition. Most of this war took place across the Suez Canal. Daily, the Egyptians bombarded the Israeli positions on the east side of the canal. Israel responded, usually via air attacks on the west side of the canal. Once, the Israelis went so far as to send a commando team across to the canal the steal an advanced radar station that the Russians had set up for the Egyptians.
Nasser’s goal was to wear the Israelis down. In the end, Nasser admitted that over 10,000 Egyptians had been killed, as much as they lost in the Six Day War. Nevertheless, it made no difference to him because the 10,000 were expendable.
On the Israeli side, however, the cost of a few hundred lives was seen as too high.
Unwilling to accept the ongoing casualties of the War of Attrition, Israel stepped up its air raids – so much so that Egypt’s Russian advisors became victims on a regular basis. This made the situation even more dangerous.
To avoid the complications, the United States attempted to mediate the situation. Their efforts proved successful. This effectively ended the War of Attrition, but it did not solve anything.
A Conspiracy of Events
In September 1970 Nasser died. While his death brought a sigh of relief to the Jewish world it also opened the door for a new leader ready to start a new war. That leader would be a man few had ever heard of, lieutenant named Anwar Sadat.
He came into office with an agenda. He was going to break the stalemate and get back the Sinai by any means. The first thing he did was include the Soviet Union in his plans. There were as many as an astounding 25,000 Russian advisors at one time engaged in this task. The Russians had their own city outside of Cairo. They would prepare the Egyptian army more than ever before.
The Israeli army, on the other hand, was suffering from a severe case of hubris. The Prime Minister at this time was Golda Meir. David Ben-Gurion once said that she was “the only man in my Cabinet….” Nevertheless, she too was human and underestimated the situation.
Combined with this, the world was becoming more and more dependent upon oil from the Middle East. Since oil was so cheap, and basically controlled by British and American companies, everyone felt secure and no one thought twice about rationing. Automobiles were gas guzzlers. Heat was used inefficiently. There was no talk about conservation of energy. The situation was ripe for disaster.
History is a combination of events; it is never one event. Here it was a combination of Nasser’s death, the rise of Arafat and the PLO, Israeli arrogance, the energy situation in the world, etc. All of these things conspired to come to a head at one time. To the believing Jew it is called hashgachah, God’s hand in history. God orchestrates economic, social, military, diplomatic and other circumstances to form cataclysmic events to shape history.
That is what happened in the Yom Kipper War.
Already a year earlier, Sadat had made up his mind to go to war. In his memoirs he wrote that he was fully prepared to lose the war, but he knew that it would shake up the West and force some sort of change in a situation he found untenable. Fortunately for Israel, though he was prepared to lose the war he was not prepared to win it.
This time Egypt’s objectives were limited: the successful crossing of the Suez Canal and grabbing the Sinai Peninsula. Russian planning prepared them to go a third of the way into Sinai, dig in and wait for the inevitable counterattack. This also is hashgachah, because in the Yom Kipper War Israel was saved by inability of the Arabs to pursue the advantage that they had taken.
A month before the war the Israelis had mobilized their entire army, but it turned out to be a false alarm based on faulty intelligence. This only further paralyzed them to reports of any impending Arab attack. When the High Holy Day season of 1973 rolled around they were not prepared to mobilize them again. As a result, the Bar Lev Line, in addition to being undermanned for the holiday season was manned by a high concentration of cooks and reservists.
War on the Holiest Day of the Year
When the war began, it was one of those events that years later people remembered where they were when they first heard the news. The news was sketchy at first, but it was obvious that the Egyptians had crossed the Suez and the Syrians were attacking in force and penetrating the Israeli defenses in the north.
Jews the world over were shaken. How could it be?
On the Golan there were seven Israeli tanks, whereas the Syrians attacked with more than 450 tanks! They penetrated all the way to Tiberius in the first day! There was nothing between their army and Haifa. Yet, they stopped because they were convinced it was a trap.
The Egyptians, meanwhile, had crossed the Suez and breached the Bar Lev Line in strength. They had even solved the problem of the Israeli air force thanks to Russian technology: new, advanced SAM anti-aircraft missiles. Over 125 Israeli planes would be lost on both fronts. The Arabs also employed advanced hand-held rockets for their foot soldiers to counter Israeli tanks.
The beginning of the war was completely disastrous for Israel. On the second day they tried to counterattack in the Sinai, but their tanks were decimated.
Nevertheless, unbelievably the Israelis gradually turned the tide of battle. First, they did so against Syria. The Israelis not only pushed them off of their gains but further back than when they had begun – to within 14 miles of Damascus.
Then the Israelis stabilized the line in the Sinai, primarily because after the Egyptians made their gains they chose not to continue on the offensive. Then Ariel Sharon mounted an incredible historic counterattack to cross the Suez to the Egyptian side. Through the fiercest fighting the Israelis laid a pontoon bridge and got their tank corps across it. Now there was nothing between them and Cairo. Furthermore, they now encircled the main Egyptian army, the Third Army, threatening to totally destroy it.
At this point, Russia intervened by inviting American foreign minister Henry Kissinger to the negotiating table. Russia and the United States forced a disengagement agreement.
In the aftermath, the Israeli government fell. Many of its leaders had to resign, including Golda Meir. Dayan ended his career in disgrace. Beyond the horrific physical losses – over 2,000 dead and many times that wounded — the air went out of the Israeli balloon.
Perhaps worst of all, the war did not solve anything – except Israel’s arrogance and self-confidence.
The unsure effect came to a head in 1977 when, in a revolutionary election, the Labor Party was thrown out of office for the first time in Israel’s history. They had controlled everything for three decades consecutively. Most mind-boggling of all, Menachem Begin, who had been in the political wilderness for 30 years, became the new prime minister. It was a monumental change in direction.
All of that was caused by this tremendous upheaval call the Yom Kippur War. It was the darkest time since the Holocaust for the Jewish people. Nevertheless, simultaneously it only further came to emphasize the miraculous nature of the survival of the Jewish people.
When it came to deciding whether to include mention of God in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, a fierce debate ensued between the Marxists-Atheists and the religious Jews on the authoring committed.
The religious-secular divide in the modern State of Israel is perhaps nowhere more poignantly illustrated than in the wrangling that went on to word its Declaration of Independence.
The group assigned to author it included everyone from extreme communists to the very religiously pious, including Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Levin, head of the Agudath Israel and brother-in-law of the Gerrer Rebbe. How would they produce a document that everyone would agree to? If it stated too much or too little, or stated anything too forcefully, there would be dissenters.
Each side made compromises by watering down the document to the point that it was almost meaningless. There were no Thomas Jefferson’s here. Nevertheless, at least they were coming to agreements – until they reached the question whether or not to mention the name of God.
The religious Jews asked how it was possible to have a declaration of the Jewish state without mentioning the name of God? The communists, socialists and atheists, on the other hand, said they had been fighting for a century to get rid of this medieval oppression and clericalism.
If nothing else, Ben Gurion was a very pragmatic person. He formed a committee of four to negotiate the matter. They came up with an ambiguous phrase: “With faith in the Rock of Israel.” Many atheists wanted to take out “Rock of Israel” completely. Others thought it was acceptable, however, because that “Rock of Israel” could be understood as a reference to Karl Marx. As for the religious writers, they insisted that “Rock of Israel” was insufficient. They wanted it to read: “With faith in the Rock of Israel and its Redeemer.” It didn’t say “God,” but the reference was unambiguous.
Amplifying how deeply divided the two sides were, they could not come up with an agreement even as Ben Gruion planned to declare the state. The proclamation was to be at three o’clock Friday afternoon, a few hours before the British Mandate was to expire (that midnight). Even with this hard deadline, they could not straighten out this passage and get the declaration of independence approved!
Here is how Ben Gurion pulled it off, as he later wrote. The committee finally agreed to add, “And its Redeemer” (a single word in Hebrew: v’goalo) – but it never made it in to the final draft. Ben Gurion claimed the word somehow got lost.
Although this seems like a minute point, this vignette is indicative of a problem that has not been settled to this day. And it may take nothing less than the Messiah to set the record straight. What is the purpose of the Jewish state? How shall it be a “light unto the nations”? What is its soul?
This is an ongoing dilemma. In a positive sense it forces Jews to look at the hard issues and examine the nature of Jewish history and destiny; to think about who they are, what they represent, where they want to go, etc.
The problems of the modern state make the Jewish people more troubled and concerned, but also more creative. Necessity is the mother of invention. Sometimes when there is no choice it forces people to discover surprising reservoirs of creativity they had no idea existed.
That is one way to reframe the disunity and discord that has haunted the Jewish people since the formation of the Jewish state – a disunity and discord which remains unsettling even today.