Steven Teplitsky

‘I’m not a Jew with trembling knees’

On October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel. The CIA has since admitted that this was a massive intelligence failure.

On October 12, 1973, President Nixon ordered an airlift of supplies and materiel to
Israel to resupply Israeli losses. This would be the largest airlift in American history, Israel claimed victory three weeks after the initial attacks.

When the Soviet Union upped the stakes by threatening to send troops to the region, the Nixon administration took the US defense posture to DEFCON 3 for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Soviets backed down.

The Yom Kippur War was the bloodiest military confrontation between Israel and its
Arab neighbors totaling nearly 53,500 total casualties on all sides involved. This is
compared to 5,500 casualties during the 1967 Six-Day War.

The fate of the Jewish state, Golda Meir admitted, rested in the hands of America, and specifically those of President Richard Nixon, whom no one had ever accused of
nurturing a boundless love for the Jewish people.

The Six-Day War had given Israelis the false sense of living securely behind invincible walls.

In his memoir, Ariel Sharon, the future prime minister of Israel who commanded a tank division in the Yom Kippur War, describes the confusion he witnessed among Israeli soldiers as they retreated in the face of overwhelming Egyptian firepower. “I . . . saw something strange on their faces—not fear but bewilderment,” Sharon writes. “Suddenly something was happening to them that had never happened before. These were soldiers who had been brought up on victories—not easy victories maybe, but nevertheless victories. Now they were in a state of shock. How could it be that these Egyptians were crossing the canal right in our faces? How was it that they were moving forward, and we were defeated?”

The entire nation began debating this question—and has not stopped to this day. How did the vaunted Israeli intelligence agencies fail to see the war coming? Whose fault was it? What should have been done differently? Even the best answers to these questions tend to provide only an incomplete picture of the truth, and they sometimes frame the debate in misleading terms, focusing on the failure to anticipate the surprise attack while missing the larger military and diplomatic context.

At 2:00 pm on Yom Kippur air-raid sirens sounded across Israel. To say that the attackers vastly outnumbered the defenders is an understatement. In the north, five Syrian divisions with 1,400 tanks and 1,000 pieces of artillery attacked the two Israeli brigades stationed on the Golan, who had at their disposal only 177 tanks and 50 artillery pieces. In the south, the numbers were even more lopsided. Five Egyptian infantry divisions with nearly 100,000 soldiers, 1,300 tanks, and 2,000 artillery pieces launched themselves across the Suez Canal against some 450 poorly trained Israeli reservists.

The unlucky defenders in Sinai manned the Bar Lev Line, a chain of sixteen defensive strongholds standing behind a huge sand barrier—strongholds that were too far apart to give each other effective fire support. After crossing the Canal, the Egyptian forces rolled through the wide gaps between them with ease.

The Israeli war plan relied on the air force to slow the advance in time to bring up the reserves. But nothing prepared the Israeli pilots for the surface-to-air missiles that they encountered. In 1967, the pilots had seemed invincible. Just six years later they lost between 10 and 30 percent of their operational aircraft in the first 24 hours of the conflict. The Israeli high command was in a state of shock.

Between 1967 and 1973, Egyptian officers had gone to school on IDF doctrine. Israeli tank commanders, the Egyptians understood, would counterattack at the first opportunity. The Israelis followed that script on October 8, which became the most infamous day in the history of the IDF. As Israel’s Patton tanks stormed forward to meet the invaders, Sagger missiles blasted through their armor with ease. One unit lost 22 of its 25 tanks in five minutes. During the entire war, Israel lost a total of about 1,000 tanks—over 100 on the first day.

After less than three days of combat, the war was consuming planes, tanks, and munitions at an unsustainable rate. When Meir turned to Washington for aid, the Nixon administration agreed to help but, for reasons that are still debated, moved slowly; nearly a week passed before Nixon ordered a massive resupply.

Sadat and his generals hoodwinked Israel by staging a series of elaborate and sophisticated ruses that desensitized the Israelis to the preparations for war. Between 1972 and 1973, for example, the Egyptian army mobilized 22 times—approximately once a month. These exercises lulled the Israelis to sleep.

To explain what went wrong, a word was introduced that has become a permanent element of Israel’s political lexicon: konseptzia, or conception.

The Agranat Commission detailed much in an interim report published on April 1, 1974, which hit Israeli politics like an earthquake. The most immediate consequence of the report was the debate it generated over the failure of Israel’s early-warning system. The inherent drama and intrigue surrounding the intelligence blunders has served to exaggerate the importance of the failure of Israel’s early-warning system. Many Israelis assume that the Yom Kippur War exacted a higher cost than the Six-Day War precisely because they were taken by surprise.

Her “heart was drawn” to the idea of preemption, Golda Meir told the Commission, but her mind counseled against it. “I was afraid,” she said. Her fears centered not on how the Egyptians and Syrians might respond, but on the reaction of the Americans. She understood that a major war would likely require the delivery of emergency supplies from the US military. If the Nixon administration were to conclude that Israel had started the war, the Americans might refuse the equipment, or slow down its transfer. “I can say with almost full confidence that if we launched a preemptive strike the American airlift wouldn’t come through,” the prime minister explained.

By waiting to absorb the Egyptian attack, she added, there could be no “accusation that we started the war.” She went on: “I don’t know if you know this, but the airlift didn’t go so smoothly.” She was probably indicating that, even though the Israelis clearly had not started the war, there were still those in the American system who were unsympathetic, and who could be reliably counted upon to find any excuse not to help.

When the problem of resupply weighed on her mind, she called her ambassador to the US at three in the morning and told him to wake up Kissinger and Nixon to get things flowing. In her memoirs she explained her behavior. “I knew that President Nixon had promised to help us, and I knew from my past experience with him that he would not let us down,” she writes. “Let me, at this point, repeat something that I have said often before (usually to the extreme annoyance of many of my American friends),” she continues. “However history judges Richard Nixon—and it is probable that the verdict will be very harsh—it must also be put on the record forever that he did not break a single one of the promises he
made to us.”

Nixon wanted to ensure that Egypt, not Israel, would be seen as the aggressor. These were most difficult times for Israel, the president said, but it must demonstrate a maximum degree of self-restraint.

Nixon called Kissinger on October 14 to emphasize that the resupply must not only be effective, but massive. “We are going to get blamed just as much for three planes as for 300. . . . Henry, I have no patience with the view that we send in a couple of planes. My point is, . . . if . . . we are going to make a move, it’s going to cost us. . . . I don’t think it’s going to cost us a damn bit more to send in more.” Two hours later Nixon called back for an update. “If I contribute anything to [this] discussion, it is [this]: don’t fool around with three planes. . . . Just go gung- ho.”

And they did. A total of 550 US transport planes flew to Israel over the next few weeks. At its peak, one plane landed every fifteen minutes.

Israel and Joe Biden go back a long time.

Mr. Biden and Menachem Begin once clashed, in a private June 1982 session with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Mr. Biden, 39, lectured the 68-year-old Begin over Israeli settlements, jabbing his finger at the prime minister and banging his fist on the desk. Mr. Biden warned that eroding support for Israel threatened US aid. Israel was at war in Lebanon and far more dependent on American assistance than it is today.

Begin wouldn’t be cowed. “Don’t threaten us with cutting off aid to give up our principles,” he shouted back, according to Time magazine. Former Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon later recalled that Begin went further: “I’m not a Jew with trembling knees,” he reminded Mr. Biden.

In the lore that has since developed, Begin’s response supposedly continued: “I am a proud Jew with 3,700 years of civilized history. Nobody came to our aid when we
were dying in the gas chambers and ovens. Nobody came to our aid when we were
striving to create our country. We paid for it. We fought for it. We died for it. We will stand by our principles. We will defend them. And, when necessary, we will die for them again, with or without your aid.”

About the Author
Graduated from Brandeis University in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies in 1978 before completion of PhD (ABD) in "Relationship of US to Pre 1948 Yishuv". Active in Toronto Jewish community while pursuing business career. Made Aliyah in 2020. Last person to be admitted into Israel before Covid shutdown. Favorite movie quotes are "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" and "You can't handle the truth!" and "Whaddya think, I'm dumb or something?"
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