I grew up in the heart of Tel-Aviv – the City that Never Stops. Only it does stop: Once a year, Tel-Aviv, like the rest of Israel, shuts down its open markets, the cafes and restaurants, and all the traffic, to stand still before God on the Day of Judgment.
For children, Yom Kippur is the best day of the year. No cars are seen on the roads other than emergency vehicles. All the streets of Tel-Aviv, of the entire country really, are transformed into a giant boardwalk, and the transportation arteries of the city become huge playgrounds.
The Yom Kippur of 1973 was different. The attempts made by my friends and I to play in the middle of the road were rudely interrupted by passing cars, and not the mere few emergency cars, we had come to expect, but civilian cars in numbers and frequency unseen on any previous Yom Kippur.
What has the world come to? said an elderly man dressed in formal clothes, a prayer book in his hand. Driving on Yom Kippur. He shook his head in disgust.
The younger generation, his companion answered. They have no respect.
At the end, my friends and I had to give up our attempts to play in the middle of the street. Disappointed, we trudged back home.
My mother sat on the balcony, watching the street, as was her custom. We had only a few minutes to talk before we heard a loud, wailing voice of a siren.
The sound grew louder and louder, the pitch quite different from that of an emergency vehicle. IIt sounded like a true alarm, announcing an upcoming attack, and instructing us to go to the underground shelter.
The thought of the shelter reminded me of the time we took a tour of the Golan Heights. On the way back home, the bus driver stopped on the side of the road where a big sign said Gadot Outlook. A patchwork quilt of green, brown and yellow squares lay beneath our feet : the fields of the kibbutzim and farms of the Chula Valley. Kibbutz Gadot seemed to be the closest. The guide pointed to the main structures: the dining hall, the children’s home, the member houses. It looked like a village of dollhouses especially created for us to play with. All we needed to do was lean over and extend our hand, and we could push open the door of the dining room, take in a whiff of the aromas coming from the communal kitchen, and join in the meal.
The guide told us that the Syrian soldiers occupying that post up to the Six-Say War viewed the kibbutz as their shooting range. At the aftermath of the Six-Day War, the children who had spent the entire war cooped underground emerged from the shelters to find their homes wiped out.
Those days were over and would never come back, the guide said. The Six-Day War demonstrated Israel’s military prowess, serving as an effective deterrent to any future comprehensive Arab attack. “And if the Arabs would be stupid enough to attack anyways,” he said, “let them. We will finish them off in less than a day.”
I was sad to hear about the kibbutz and the children, but at same time I was also relieved that we had won the war and were strong and powerful, and little children in Gadot could walk safely outside without fear of “the canons on the mountain”. More than that, I was relieved we lived in Tel-Aviv – six hours away from the border, as far removed from Gadot, the Golan Heights, and the threat of canons, as if we resided in another continent. Yet now, in the middle of Yom Kippur, sirens were wailing, just as they had done for Gadot when the canons had been aiming at them.
My mother must have sensed my apprehension. She put a reassuring hand on my shoulder and squeezed me to her. Yet she, too, looked puzzled. And we were not the only ones. Heads appeared in windows, looking outside for answers. Nobody, so it seemed, was rushing to the shelters.
Probably a malfunction of the siren system, said a neighbor from across the street. Or maybe somebody made a mistake and pressed the wrong button.
Pressed a button? On Yom Kippur? What has this country come to? wondered another one.
Over 2600 lives were lost and over 7000 were injured in the Yom Kippur War. In the picture: IDF medical crew evacuating an injured soldier from the battle field. Source: IDF photo archives.
The siren wasn’t a result of a technical failure. At 2.00pm on Yom Kippur, October 6, 1973, Israel was attacked by Egypt and Syria. The traffic my friends and I encountered earlier was the result of the mobilization of the reserves. Some of the men were literally pulled out of synagogue in the middle of service and given orders to report to base as fast as possible.
At the beginning of the war, known as the Yom Kippur War, the very existence of theState of Israel was in danger. Greatly outnumbered, vastly surprised and unprepared, Israel lost ground on both the Syrian and the Egyptian fronts and suffered bitter losses. Eighteen days later, when the war ended, Israel didn’t just push the enemy back to the pre-war borders, but threatened both enemy capitals. In the North, Israeli forces were on the way to Damascus. In the south, the Israeli army was on the Suez-Cairo road, encircling the Egyptian third army.
Yet, despite the military victory, the war went down in Israel’s history as a bitter failure. The military system and the government, still basking in the afterglow of the Six-Day War achievements, either misinterpreted or ignored all warning signals. Their sin of arrogance resulted in about 2200-2700 lives lost and over 7000 injured.