How Do We Understand the Yom Kippur War?- ‘Golda’

Yosi ben Hanan has one of those life stories you cannot help but think was made for the movies.

A war hero in 1967; featured on the cover of LIFE Magazine holding an AK-47 with the caption “Israeli Soldier Cools Off in the Suez Canal;” a wedding attended by most of Israel’s military elite; a honeymoon in Nepal, interrupted by the Yom Kippur War; a sudden return home within a few days; a brutal defense of the Golan Heights against the Syrian Army, itself only Israeli territory for seven years at that time; wounded thrice in action, each time refusing to be evacuated; rescued behind enemy lines (after being wounded a fourth time) by Sayeret Matkal special forces member Yonatan Netanyahu, older brother of current Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu; Medal of Courage recipient, later named an Aluf, or general, in the Israeli army. 

There are uncountable stories of heroism from this now fifty year old horror, but the gist of the Yom Kippur War is this: Israel and its neighbors got tired of fighting. After losing far more troops than expected (three to four times the casualties in the Six-Day War of 1967) and seeing that they could not maintain their military edge over the Russian-backed Egyptians and Syrians forever, the Israeli people began to look for peace. The Arabs, vindicated from their embarrassing loss six years prior, were similarly looking for a better situation in the region. Another six years passed, and Egypt and Israel signed an official peace treaty with the help of the United States in the Camp David Accords of 1979.

This is not the story of Israeli director Guy Nattiv’s new film “Golda.” Instead, Helen Mirren has a small scale panic attack for 100 minutes playing Prime Minister Golda Meir while chain-smoking as many cigarettes. Mirren’s character arc can be summed up as such: she is terrified of Israel being destroyed when caught off guard by an Arab surprise attack at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War, at one point telling her assistant to prevent the Arabs from taking her alive by any means necessary, including assisted suicide. She experiences extreme guilt whenever hearing about the death of an Israeli soldier, with one of the film’s main plot points being how her secretary loses a son due to a military blunder Mirren makes. Eventually, she convinces US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to assist the Israeli military with a massive resupply effort, and wins the war. 

Mirren’s fear and bloody conscience over the deaths of several thousand Israeli soldiers is rammed down your throat at every possible moment, as when she solemnly watches coffins draped in an Israeli flag being loaded onto a cargo plane for burial at Har Herzl, the Israeli Military Cemetery in Jerusalem. It seems as though the wars between Israel and its neighbors stopped because the leaders, like Golda, got tired of it, not the people. 

And where are those people in “Golda” anyway? The war is viewed on 70s analog computer screens and in zoomed-out, artificially darkened computer-generated imagery with accompanying sound bites of battle. The entire film takes place within the halls of power; the only view of direct loss in the war is seen in the reactions of that same secretary and Mirren, something of a distant observer. 

If you were to take “Golda” as a history lesson, you would walk away with a “great person” view: that the entirety of history is dictated solely by the influential and powerful, rather than by the people, heroes like Yosi ben Hanah, and their leaders in turn. 

So how do we understand the Yom Kippur War, fifty years past? In her 2021 book “Israel,” author Noah Tishby routinely refers to the war as a “close call,” (Tishby 298) something which “left the Israeli people reeling in shock and anger for a long time” (Tishby 130) yet resulted in a world-changing peace agreement only a few years later. “Only a month after the signing of the [Egyptian-Israeli] agreement, 75 percent of the [Israeli] public believed it,” she writes. “Things can happen in a hurry when the right leaders appear –” an interesting way to refer to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who started the Yom Kippur War originally, but still. 

It’s a tragedy with an immensely positive outcome, the result of the people of both nations and the leaders they supported, even as Sadat was assassinated by Egyptian Islamic Jihad members in 1981. Home to guilty leaders like Golda, legendary heroes like Hanan, enemies turned allies like Sadat, and thousands upon thousands dead with a peace treaty as a bow on top, the war’s legacy remains conflicted and confusing fifty years later. A shallow film only reinforces that.

About the Author
Josh Lancman is an incoming fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and incoming member of Cornell University's class of 2029. He has been published in the GOA Flame (for which he was also the Editor-in-Chief), GOA Nuts & Raisins Literary Magazine, Youth Civics Initiative, YouthComm Magazine, and is self-published on Letterboxd. He is from West Orange, New Jersey.
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