On that afternoon in October 1973 the sounds of war sirens disturbed our Yom Kippur respite in the student dormitory at the (now long gone) American College in Jerusalem. In the hours that followed, we spent some time huddled in a basement dining hall that passed for a shelter, then took turns at the communal pay phone to assure our parents overseas that Jerusalem was out of range of the “skirmishes” that were taking place in Sinai and the Golan Heights. Just as it was getting dark, a friend with a journalist’s nose and a slight death wish asked me if I would accompany him to the Old City to “check out the scene.” Without preamble, I said “sure,” not thinking for one moment that wandering into a mostly Palestinian domain in the middle of an Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack might be asking for trouble. Yep, those sure were different times.
Unwittingly, I was locked into the infamous “conceptzia,” that drunk misconception of things that empowered Israelis (and a visiting eighteen-year-old American Jew) to assume that the Six Day War euphoria would last forever. After all, back in ’67 the IDF had proven that that we were unbeatable, and the Arabs no longer had it in them to fight us. So like two lords going out to inspect the estate, if only to assure ourselves that the natives weren’t getting restless, we passed through the Jaffa Gate and made tracks through the shuk to the Western Wall.
En route, my aspiring reporter friend approached an Arab spice vendor in the hushed marketplace and asked him what he thought about the war “It’s not a war,” the man said in plain English with a devious little smile. “They’re just making maneuvers; they’re just playing cards.” Ever since, my recollection of that merchant’s wily smile on day one of that war makes me antsy. If my take on the Arabs is on the right track, they have a conceptzia of their own, one that calls for lasting patience and ultimate retribution. Like our conceptzia, change is painfully slow. Unlike ours, their’s works for them.
We came to an elevated lookout point over a vista of the kotel maaravi (Western Wall). The elaborate square surrounding the remains of the Second Temple was mostly deserted, save for a handful of haredim, barely enough to make up a minyan (quorum for prayer), who were feverishly completing the Yom Kippur service. With his flair for interpretive journalism my friend offered a quick reading of the scene: It is never this empty by the kotel, he said, not even on a regular day at this hour, and especially not on Yom Kippur. That could only mean one thing: The IDF had come in and cleared everyone out for security reasons, in case the locals decide to raise some hell. This notion was validated shortly after when patrolling IDF soldiers returned and firmly told the faithful few to finish up and leave. Then, in a surrealistic moment I’ll never forget, I saw a band of haredim swaying in prayer while backing away from the kotel and heard the final sound of the shofar (ram’s horn) blowing to a vast empty yard in the night by that imposing Wall.
My friend and I got the attention of a few of the haredim as they were making their exit and asked them if they had any thoughts on the war. One of them, his face alight with messianic enchantment, offered this memorable response: “The Arabs couldn’t have attacked us at a better time. We were praying!”
A few weeks later, as we buried our dead and called for an investigation of our pre-war mental lapse, our conceptzia of military invincibility started to fall into disfavor (to this day it’s still falling). Notwithstanding, many of the faithful among us staunchly believed that God is on our side and, what’s more, we can turn that advantage into political coin. In the meantime, a new misconception combining haredi, nationalist religious and just plain nationalist forces would encourage the Greater Israel movement and all the political intransigence that goes with it, keeping Israel in a state of war for many years to come.
And speaking of misconceptions that lead this country straight to hell, here’s one that predated the Yom Kippur War and is still maintained by many Israelis: The idea that the Israeli Government and society as a whole should suppress anyone who questions the call to sacrifice our children for the greater good. Who indeed can question the terrible price we must pay, one that the enemy has so cruelly imposed on us? We have no choice, so they say…
In 1970, Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin staged the controversial “Queen of the Bath” political satire which lampooned the practice of human sacrifice and related it to our role as an occupying military force in the wake of the Six Day War. Levin’s play was censured by the National Religious Party and their coalition partners, who called for its banishment and threatened to cut off funds, and was ultimately forced off the stage of the Cameri Theater by an enraged public.
Over the years, familiar themes such as “there is no one to talk to” and “wars of no choice” have revolved around a conceptzia that if we just beat some sense into those Arabs ultimately we’ll have “real peace.” These notions have determined our national policies under successive governments. Hanoch Levin’s grasp of the intolerable state of affairs we were getting ourselves into in the occupied territories and his foretelling of its disastrous consequences was the one concept that never caught on. But consider this: Levin’s “Queen of the Bath” was staged during the War of Attrition, the first of many wars that all ended the same way: We didn’t achieve our war aim, namely, to convince the Arabs that it doesn’t pay to fight us, while they most surely achieved their’s – to make us bleed. The names of the wars have changed: War of Attrition, Yom Kippur War, the First Lebanon War, Second Lebanon War, Intifada 1, Intifada 2, Gaza 1, Gaza 2, Gaza 3, and it still hasn’t sunk in: We have lost every single war since the occupation started. Now that’s a conceptzia.