I spent most of my winter break in Israel on a 10 day tour of the country provided free of charge through the Birthright foundation that aims to send young Jewish Americans to Israel to learn about the country and religious history. I thought it would be like one of those condo seminars you sit through in Vegas becuase of the lure of a free steak dinner, where I’d be bombarded with political & religious propaganda hooked on the allure of a free trip to Israel. But it wasn’t like that. Sure, they wanted all of us to leave loving Israel, Israelis and feel a personal connection to the Jewish state- and to a degree- it worked. I never really understood what the big deal about Israel was besides that for some stroke of bad luck, there always seems to be large influential groups of people who disliked Jews. I never understood that before the concentration camps and mass graves of the Holocaust, Hitler had given the Jews in Germany a chance to leave, and if only they had a place to go, perhaps history would have looked a little different, but instead, the majority of the world from Australia to the Americas, shut their doors to the Jews with one Australian diplomat actually quoted as saying “Australia currently does not have any social problems and does not wish to import the Jewish social problem at this time.” Of course that statement is outrageous for many reasons including calling Jews in general, a social problem, but also ignoring that the ethnic cleansing of Aborigines is a pretty big social problem.
Anyways, in debating how I wanted to talk about Israel, I thought I’d share my favorite story our amazing guide Yoni told us as we sat atop a military bunker on Mount Bental, a dormant volcano, in the Golan Heights about 1 mile from the Syrian Border, 40 miles from Damascus. It’s one of those cool heoroic battle stories that every country has…. so if you don’t agree with my politics, I think you can agree with the spirit of the story -and assume there are parts that were probably wildly exagerated by Yoni but this is the story I heard as I overlooked this beautiful landscape….
(view from Mt. Bental, the rugged lines two thirds up on the right of the photo mark part of the Israel-Syria border)
Israel conquered the Golan Heights from Syria in the “Six Days War” in 1967 and defeated attacks on multiple fronts- from Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Israel also acquired East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula (which it later gave back to Egypt) in this war. Simplified by our guide Yoni, “Israel got cocky in the spotlight of the success of the 6 Days War and the world ignored developing a solution to the Middle East problems which motivated Egypt and Syria to launch the Yom Kippur war in 1973.
The plan was for Syria and Egypt to simply conduct visible trainings often enough that Israel got used to seeing training exercises so that the day, Yom Kippur 1973, that the trainings became an invasion, everyone was surprised. The Syrian Army approaching Mt. Bental and neighboring posts far outnumbered the Israeli forces by nearly 5 to 1. The 188th Israeli tank Brigade was virtually destroyed in the early part of the fighting.The fighting in this region was given priority, if the Golan Heights fell, it was only a short distance before the Syrian army would reach the population centers of Israel and it would be possible for the entire country to fall.
As Yoni tells the story, “one soldier, Zvika Greengold, who was recently discharged from military service volunteered to return to his tank Brigade in the Golan after learning of the fighting that broke out. By the time he got to camp, there remained only 4 able-bodied soldiers. They took over a tank and prepared for battle. They drove up and down the pipeline roads and began shooting [these are trade roads along the nearby mountains with tank outposts along them with good aim of the valley in which the Syrians approached]. And would back out and move to a new position and shoot and they used the communication systems to trick the Syrians into thinking lots of tanks were left.”
“The Syrians,” Yoni explained, “had an entire division of like 14,000 people listening to this one guy driving all night shooting from different positions and the Syrians thought a huge brigade was manning the pipeline and they decided they’d rather change course than force through the resistance they were facing. And if you don’t know, it takes forever to move a military division. The Syrians packed up their mobile hospitals, camps, mess halls and everything and it took them about 30 hours to move the division just 10 miles south giving the Israeli forces enough time to gather and regroup and ultimately hold back the Syrian invasion and resulted in the Camp David Accords that ended the conflict and kept the Golan as part of Israel.”
“But,” Yoni told us, “what essentially held this whole country together in that first pivotal night of the Yom Kippur War where a contrary result may have meant the end of the Israeli state, was the human spirit.”