When darkness falls this evening, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) – the holiest day of the Jewish calendar – will begin. It is believed that the strength of one’s prayers and repentance on Yom Kippur will determine who is written in the “Book of Life” and who in the “Book of Death”, as well as “who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried … who will be degraded and who will be exalted.” The intense spirit of of Yom Kippur is captured within its liturgy; Jacqueline du Pre’s heartrending rendition of the “Kol Nidre” can be heard on YouTube, which also features atmospheric footage of synagogue choirs rehearsing.
In 1973, as the people of Israel commenced this day of prayer and fasting, the Arab world launched a surprise attack from both the north and the south. Egypt and Syria led the assault, with additional force from Iraq, Jordan, Algeria, Libya, Morocco, the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Tunisia, Lebanon, Sudan, Cuba and North Korea. Estimates vary, but in total up to a million troops stood against Israel, who could muster just 400,000 in response. After more than two weeks of fighting Israel finally emerged victorious; but it had teetered on the very brink of destruction. Loss of life was heavy, and a quarter of its fighter planes and tanks had been destroyed. This was a watershed in Israeli history, after which everything changed.
In many ways, the Yom Kippur War represented the end of an age of innocence. Israel’s self-image of indomitability, based on the audacious victory of the Six Day War in 1967, had been shattered. The top brass, which had previously enjoyed almost god-like status, were vilified; the prime minister, Golda Meir, was hounded from office. Eventually, the fallout resulted in the collapse of the Left and the ascendency of the Right for the first time in the history of Zionism. In some ways, it set the tone for everything that was to follow.
A B Yehoshua, the pre-eminent Israeli novelist, describes Israeli bewilderment in the aftermath of the war in his 1977 novel The Lover. “Again and again,” he writes, “I read the confused accounts of what happened, trying to get to the bottom of the chaos that ruled then … To this day there is before us a list of so many missing, so many mysteries. And next of kin still gathering last remnants – scraps of clothing, bits of charred documents, twisted pens, bullet-ridden wallets, melted wedding rings.”
This month, however, some of these mysteries have been explained. Important documents detailing the inquiry carried out by the Agranat Commission in the aftermath of the war have been declassified and released, giving the Israeli public unprecedented access to more “confused accounts of what happened” from the inside. Continue reading on the Telegraph website