Professor Avri Ravid Reflects on His Experience as a War Correspondent During the Yom Kippur War
As we prepare for Yom Kippur 5773 the Middle East is going through some radical changes, whose precise meaning for Israel is still unclear. After decades of cold peace, but open borders, Israel is now erecting a 20-foot high barrier on its border with Egypt and talk of a break in relations is in the air. However, if these are rough seas, Yom Kippur of 1973 was a tsunami, that almost drowned Israel on its 25th birthday.
The period of 1967 to 1973 had seen the most radical changes in the self perception of the people of Israel.
As the war of 1967 loomed on the horizon, my parents received a call from their cousin in New York City. He asked them to send the kids, my brother and myself, to the US, so at least we could escape the impending massacre by the Arab armies. We did not go. Instead, my high school friends and I filled bags with sand and prepared the local stadium for mass burials. Then came the lightning victory of 1967.
1967 to 1973 were the short years of a feeling of Israeli invincibility.
Therefore, it was not surprising that on Yom Kippur in 1973, I was driving to the Golan Heights with an Uzi and a tape recorder, in my Fiat 600, a very small, old sub-compact that often broke down on trips over 20 miles. I was an officer in the army and a reporter for the army broadcasting network, Galei Zahal.
Army intelligence had informed us that the Syrians were preparing something, but I expected the trip to be short, with my friends in the Golan brigade taking care of the enemy in a matter of hours.
I must admit that I felt some excitement. Finally, after years of training I could see some action. This wore off quickly. In retrospect, I am also thankful that my mother forced me to break the fast with some Spaghetti before I left. The next time we would have some food would be Tuesday.
On that Yom Kippur afternoon we were all still thinking lightning victory. I do not think I quite grasped the depth of the disaster, because that night, when the Golan command-post was retreating back across the Jordan River, I wrote in my diary: “If we are asked to retreat, this means the action is here. We should stay in the [Golan] Heights.” I had two other reporters with me and I was the only officer. I asked one of them to leave and one to stay with me.
But then, at 4 a.m. on Sunday, we finally had to drive back in the Fiat, literally being chased down the Golan by Syrian tanks. And the car, thank God, did not break down.
Only later Sunday morning, as I was preparing to go back up with the reserves, re-grouping at Lake Kinneret, did the realization sink in—we may be losing this war. And no one wanted to think what that would mean.
The initial expectation of a lightning victory led to many tragedies. People, including my brother, were left behind because of the belief we would return within hours. My brother survived by driving back through enemy lines. Some of my friends were not so lucky.
I was in the line of fire many times, but let me share one incident that occurred on Wednesday, the fifth day of the war. We were hit by a battery of Syrian Katyusha rockets. Dozens of rockets hit our small encampment at the same time. The tank that I had been standing next to, chatting, just a minute before, exploded in flames. Other tanks were hit as well.
I was standing next to the brigade commander, General Moshe Brill, a Holocaust survivor. We all fell immediately to the ground trying to take cover. But the commander remained standing tall, with his black beret, no helmet. Later he said, “I was not defeated by the Germans. I fought in all the wars and I will not hide.”
I thought about that incident a lot. On one hand, it was a bad personal example—this is not what you are supposed to do under attack. It was foolish. Why take unnecessary risks? On the other hand, the general might have had a point. When the attack was over, I took a soldier and all the courage I could muster and we went to search for our wounded comrades. We knew the Syrians had us targeted and another attack could be imminent. But Brill’s example of personal bravery, perhaps bordering on recklessness, was certainly a guiding light.
I view the Yom Kippur War as Israel’s greatest victory. After the first horrible day, the reserves went to war and never looked back until we were within striking distance of Damascus and Cairo. I saw the true meaning of the “people’s army” as lawyers, accountants, plumbers and teachers translated their civilian skills to help win a war. During that October, many years ago, we were hoping that by 2012 we would be in a different, peaceful Middle East and that, as then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin said, the Yom Kippur War would be the last war. I am still hoping, but with the Arab Spring and Iranian nuclear ambitions, it may take more than one generation until nations in the Middle East “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks”.
The author, S. Abraham (Avri) Ravid, is the Sy Syms Professor of Finance at the Sy Syms School of Business. Previous appointments include the University of Chicago, Wharton, Cornell, Yale, NYU, UCLA Rutgers University and Haifa University, Israel. In 1973 he served as lieutenant in the Israeli Defense Forces and as a war correspondent on the Golan front. The opinions expressed above are solely those of the author and should not necessarily be attributed to Yeshiva University.